How to Write a Book Proposal: Part II: Who Is This Book For?

Apologies to all of you who have been waiting with bated breath for this post as I know it’s taken me a while to write it. You can exhale now! Phew. I’ll pause for a moment to let your brain adjust to the new intake of oxygen. That’s better.

Now, onward. In my last post I told you how to write—or, really, how not to write—a comps section for your book proposal. I hope it was useful. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments section and I’ll address them as best I can.

I started this How to Write a Book Proposal series by tackling the comps section because it really is so easy to screw it up—and bad ones are frighteningly common. In this post, I want to cover another tricky element of the book proposal—the Target Audience section, otherwise known as the Who Is This Book For section.

Like the comps section, the Who Is This Book For section is easy to grasp conceptually. It’s a relatively short section (usually no more than a page long) of any proposal in which the author is charged with describing the target audience for his or her book. It is a good, ahem, complement to the comps section because it, too, helps the editor understand the market for the book and helps us understand your vision for it. It’s obviously impossible to know how many copies will sell before the book goes on sale, but if you can make a case that the potential audience is large, the more likely it is that a publisher will be willing to shell out big bucks for the book. At the same time, if the potential audience is relatively small, the advance may not be as high or the publisher might determine that they could not sell enough copies of the book to make it worth their while to publish it. (If you don’t know what an advance is, I encourage you to do some research into the book acquisition and auction process before you continue. The goal of this series is not to teach you how to write a proposal from scratch but to address some of the common mistakes authors make; You should have a good knowledge of the entire process for any of what I’m about to share to be useful.)

Like the comps section, the Who Is This Book For section helps “position” your book. “Positioning” is short-hand for describing your book in a way that helps put it into a context within the larger market. An easy way to do this is to compare your book to others as a reference point. For example, when Knopf published Cheryl Strayed’s (excellent) memoir Wild, they (and others) repeatedly described it as “Eat, Pray, Love but on the Pacific Crest Trail.” This was great because people immediately understood that it was a memoir about a women who undergoes a personal transformation while traveling (like Eat, Pray, Love) but also made it sound different (unlike Eat, Pray, Love, which took place in three different countries, Wild took place on the West Coast). Any time you compare your book to something else, place it in a category, or describe your target reader, you are positioning your book.

Which brings us to the topic at hand: Who is your book for? The biggest mistake authors make—and the reason I thought it important to address this issue—is when they answer this question with “Everyone!” No. Stop it. How many books over the course of human history have been read by everyone? Zero.

Saying this is no different from listing only bestsellers in your comps section except it’s worse because it suggests you’re not only delusional but have no clue who your audience is. “But true artists don’t create for others!” you say. “They create for themselves, for the sake of their art.” Okay, you sound pretentious now, but I take your point. However, I’m not saying you should write in order to please a particular audience or compromise your book in order to make it more commercial. All I’m saying is that you need to understand who will want to buy your book and why. When you do this well, you signal to the publisher that you’ve given this book a lot of thought, that you’ve done your homework, read the work of similar authors, and are able to talk about your book in a way that will pique the interest of potential readers.

I imagine the reason most authors like to say theirs is a book for everyone is not, actually, because they believe it is but because they’re afraid of underselling themselves. You worry that by saying “mine is a book for mothers who like to knit” you’re really saying “no one except mothers who like to knit will be interested in this book.” But that’s not what you’re saying; you’re saying “I know that there are people out there who would like my book and I know who they are and where to find them.” You’re not selling yourself short; you’re being realistic and, in the process, helping your would-be publisher understand how to position your book. We like that.

Publishers often like to say that a book for everyone is a book for no one. Yes, there are books out there that have been read and loved by millions of people, but even these books have natural limits on their audience. And even those books started off with a specific audience and grew from there. One tremendously successful book of the past few years is Just Kids by Patti Smith. Patti Smith was a famous musician long before she wrote a book, so she had a built-in audience of people who were automatically interested in what she had to say. However, many people—I’d be willing to bet most people—who bought, read, and loved that book were not huge fans of Patti Smith’s music. I am one of those people. I read the book because other people read it and loved it and the story (her memoir of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe and their lives in New York City in the 70s before they became famous) sounded interesting. I can’t speak to how that book was positioned or published since I didn’t work on it, but I’d be willing to bet the publisher started by targeting people who liked Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, books on 70s-era New York, and music from that era. It was only after the book gained popularity within that core fan base that it was able to spread to a more general audience.  

You see this a lot with genre-specific fiction like fantasy or YA—they become popular with a certain audience and then spill over into the general public. Maybe your book has the potential to reach a wide audience—and that’s great. But when writing your proposal, you need to think in terms of your target audience—the people who are most likely to enjoy your book—and let the publisher extrapolate from there.

As I’ve already said, the biggest mistake authors make is when they believe their book is for everyone. This becomes evident in the Who Is This Book For section when it is vague and unspecific and describes too many—sometimes polar opposite—target audiences. Sure, there is always potential for crossover and overlap, but books require an investment of time and money and there are millions of other books out there competing for a reader’s attention at any given time. You cannot count on a casual or accidental interest in order to sell your book.

To illustrate, let’s pretend we’re writing a proposal for a book about harmful ingredients in popular American foods. The author (that would be us) is a journalist who has conducted original interviews with current and former employees of some of the biggest food companies in America. We have found that many of these companies knowingly put harmful ingredients in their products in order to make their foods more addictive. They can get away with this because of powerful lobbyists who have campaigned for relaxed regulations in their sector.

This is news-breaking stuff that affects pretty much every American alive. Therefore, you might be tempted to say that your book is for “Americans ages 18-80 who consume commercially produced foods.”

Of course many Americans will be interested to know what goes into the foods they love, but not all of them will care. And even those who do care—those who may hear about your book as part of a news segment, for instance—might not care enough to shell out money to buy and read an entire book on the subject. Who are the people who will make that investment of time and money? Well, for starters, they are the people who have previously shelled out money for books about food and food production. They’re also people who are conscious about the food they buy—those who buy organic or locally produced food. Another potential target audience would be parents as people generally care more about the health of their children than they do their own. Maybe there’s some particular information in our book about additives in baby food. Yikes! With that in mind, here’s a better Who Is This Book For section for a book like this:

Readers of Michael Pollan and Michael Moss: The popularity of books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss shows that there is a large potential readership for books on American food production and an increasing interest in learning about commercially produced food [Note: you might say this is repetitive from the comps section, but, remember, you want to be careful about listing very popular books in the comps section. The Omnivore’s Dilemma was a runaway bestseller and therefore you might not want to list it as a comp, but you can list it here because its popularity indicates a potentially large audience for your book.]

Organic food advocates: Approximately 10 million people shop at Whole Foods and other organic grocery stores in America every month, and according to a recent Cornell University study, 10% of Americans say they try to buy organic when possible. In addition, 2 million Americans belong to a CSA (community-supported agriculture), up from 500,000 just a decade ago. The rise in this sort of conscious and sustainable food consumption indicates that Americans are increasingly aware of the benefit of eating whole, organic food as opposed to processed foods.

Parents: Many of the foods I discuss in my book are marketed directly to children in an effort to get them hooked on processed foods at an early age. No doubt parents who read this book will think twice before letting their kids consume these products once they read my book. I could see the book being popular with readers of parenting blogs.

A few things to note: first, the numbers in the second bullet are completely made up. I added them because the more specific you can be about the size of the potential audience, the better because it shows you’ve done your research. For the record, no publisher will think “Oh! 10 million people shop at Whole Foods and therefore we can expect to sell 10 million copies of the book!” The numbers are simply useful for context. You don’t want to laden your proposal with facts and figures, but a few carefully chosen data points can serve you well.

Perhaps I could have communicated all of the above in far fewer words than I’ve used here. But I wanted to take time on this subject because you’d really be surprised at how many people fail to describe their target audience. In sum: be specific and realize you can’t be all things to all people. If you know what your book is, and if your book is truly original and worth publishing, this should be an easy task. The right publisher will believe in your book and see its potential clearly. Trust in that and you’ll be fine.

Good luck!

How to Write a Book Proposal: Part I: Comps

This is the first in a series of posts I intend to write over the coming weeks about how to write a book proposal. Given that I have worked for a major publishing house for the past seven years and that my job entails reading and vetting dozens of them on a weekly basis, I feel qualified to write this post, and, if you're an aspiring author, I hope you find it useful. If you're not an aspiring author, maybe you'll find it interesting. 

A quick disclaimer: the How to Write a Book Proposal series will not consist of step-by-step instructions on how to write a book proposal from start to finish. If you Google "how to write a book proposal," you will find dozens of websites with info on how to do just that. If you're looking for deeper information, check out one of the many books on the subject. 

Rather than giving you the soup-to-nuts skinny on writing a great proposal, I'm writing this series to talk about some of the things I, personally, pay attention to when reading a new submission. You know how some employers say that they throw out resumes with spelling errors on them because it indicates the job applicant lacks attention to detail? I don't do that (because we all make mistakes), but I do judge you harshly if your proposal does, or fails to do, certain things. I also laugh about you to my colleagues, but you will never know this because when I reject something (most often via your agent), I send a polite note saying I'm passing because "I don't feel this is a good fit for my list" or "I felt the subject was too narrow to attract a wide audience." These are, generally, my true reasons for passing on something, but they certainly don't let on that I spent a good 15 minutes reading portions of your proposal out loud to my assistant in order to entertain us both during a mid-afternoon energy slump.

Okay, to be fair, if your idea is fantastic or I love your writing style or you have a huge built-in audience who will trip over themselves to be first in line to buy your book, I would never pass on your project simply because the proposal did something that irked me. But, if you want to be safe, you will read what follows, take it to heart, and remember it when you get to writing. Okay, here we go.

In our first installment, we'll be discussing...


Otherwise known as "Competition/Comparisons." In this section, you list books that are similar to your own. Generally, an author will list 4-5 similar books and include the publication information (title, author, year published, publisher, ISBN) and a paragraph explaining what that book is about and why it is a good comparison to yours. This is a section you should always include in your book proposal, for two very important reasons:

  1. It makes the editor's job easier
  2. If you do it correctly, it shows the editor you know your audience, understand the market, and have done your homework

First, let me explain #1. A good comps section makes my job easier because part of any editor's job is convincing her publisher (and, if she is able to acquire the book, her publicity, subrights and sales departments) that there are people out there who like to read books like this. If the editor can say, with a straight face, that this new book is similar to other successful books that have been published, it is easier to convince those around her that they should pay attention. I know every author likes to think that their book is different that it's special that there's no book quite like this one. If that's true, which it rarely is, it generally means no one wants to read it. If they did, someone would have written it already. There is a book on the market called The Idiot's Guide to Submarines. There is also a book called Crafting with Cat Hair, which I can't, for the life of me, determine is serious or ironic. So stop it. There is definitely a book like yours out there. 

Remember, publishers are businesses. Yes, they are often run by English majors who got into the business because they loved books (that is a stereotype, but it is often true), but we also have to feed ourselves. There is no real way to know if a book will sell or not sell, but one indicator that a book has a chance of selling is the fact that books like it have sold in the past. Do yourself and me a favor: include a good comps section.

Now, #2. What does it mean to do a comp section correctly? It means a few things.

  • It includes books that are actually similar to yours
  • It doesn't only include books that were major, category-busting bestsellers

The first item should be obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people cannot seem to do this basic thing. If you're writing a memoir about your mother's depression, you should not comp it to Angela's Ashes. Yes, they are both memoirs, but that is not the point. 

If, however, you're writing a book about growing up poor in still may not comp it to Angela's Ashes.

"Wait! But WHY?" you ask. "Because," I say, "Angela's Ashes was a publishing phenomenon that transformed high school teacher Frank McCourt into a literary sensation." Comping your book to it is not useful because of the second bullet above. 

As I mentioned earlier, part of the editor's job is to convince her publisher to let her acquire the book. One of the ways she does this is by positioning it within the marketplace to show that there is a potential audience out there for this very book. The second step in this process is figuring out how much to pay for the book. If you're writing a book proposal, you're likely familiar with the concept of an advance. For those who aren't, look it up, but for the sake of context, an advance is a sum of money a publisher pays an author in exchange for the rights to publish his or her book. An advance is determined by a number of things--most dramatically the number of other publishers interested in publishing the book who compete for the rights by offering higher advances than their competitors. But before a publisher offers an advance, they have to figure out how much they think the book is worth, which brings us back to comps.

Like I said, it's impossible to know exactly how much any book is worth before it is published. I have no idea how much Scribner paid for the rights to publish Angela's Ashes, but I'm sure it was a lot less than the book was actually worth considering how well it sold. On the other hand, there are countless books that receive high advances--sometimes millions of dollars--and don't end up being worth that much at all. It's a crapshoot.

The reason you should not comp your book to a huge bestseller is because it's like saying to the publisher "I think this book is like Angela's Ashes, which means I expect it to perform as well as Angela's Ashes, which means I expect a lot of money for it." This may not be your intention, but it communicates that you are either delusional or simply don't read that many books and therefore can't think of another comp except for the one that everyone already knows. 

It is much better to list 4-5 comps that have sold reasonably well and are genuinely similar to your book than to list a bunch of huge bestsellers. We go back to the first two reasons why a comp list is useful: it helps the editor and it shows you know your market.

If I have a book I want to buy and can point to a handful of books that have sold reasonably well--say between 30,000-50,000 copies--I am in good shape. That is a nice number of copies for a book to sell, so I can tell my publisher there are similar books that have sold well but they have not sold so well that they aren't useful in helping me determine how much I should spend on the advance. This number will allow me to justify spending a fair amount of money on the book, but not so much that my publisher will, say, "No way!"

So, what does a good comp section look like? I used to work on business books and got a lot of comp sections that listed books like The Tipping Point, Freakonomics, Predictably Irrational, and Good to Great as comps. This was stupid for a number of reasons. For one, these books are nothing like one another except for the fact that they are often lumped together in the business section. It's like saying your novel is like The Kite Runner and The Client because they are both fiction. NO!

Also, all of these are huge bestsellers that defied the publisher's expectations in every imaginable way, so, for all the reasons I already mentioned, they are useless. 

Okay, so what should that misguided business author have done? Let's say Mr. Business Author is writing a book on running a small business. He should only include comps that are about that very thing. Some good comps he might mention are Small Giants by Bo Burlingham or The Pumpkin Plan by Mike Michalowicz or Built to Sell by John Warrillow. [Full disclosure: all of those books are published by my old employer, and I worked with each of these authors at some point in my time there. I'm only calling these to attention because I know them well. There are dozens of other great books on entrepreneurship out there.] 

Mr. Business would also likely include The E-Myth by Michael Gerber, which is pretty much the go-to book on starting your own business, no matter what kind of business it is. It is a business classic and a huge bestseller, so it's not really useful for my purposes, but I wouldn't be annoyed if Mr. Business listed it because it is not so far removed from his book and shows that he (or at least his agent) understands the genre. An author is allowed to list one (maybe two) bestsellers if they are truly complementary and if he or she also lists others. Use your judgment. 

If you're writing that memoir of growing up poor in Ireland, and really can't stop yourself from mentioning Angela's Ashes, though, I still wouldn't recommend listing it in the comps section. Idea-driven non-fiction is very different from fiction or literary/narrative non-fiction, which is, generally, as much about the quality of the writing as it is about the subject. Comparing yourself to Frank McCourt is a bold move, and you will likely come off as cocky. The only acceptable place to mention this comparison is in, perhaps, the overview where you can say, "My goal is to pick up where Frank McCourt left off with Angela's Ashes. McCourt described life in Ireland in the 1930s, but in Dirty in Dublin,* I describe growing up on the outskirts of the Irish capital in the punk-fueled haze of the 1980s."

I would read that book.

I think this about covers everything I have to say about comps, except for this: read them. Before you set out to write a book, familiarize yourself with the other books out there. This will not only ensure  you have a good comps section, it will make your book better because you will know what a successful book looks like. Also, an author--especially a non-fiction one--is expected to be an expert on his or her chosen subject. A good comps section will illustrate that you actually know your audience and feel like you can write something they'd be interested in reading.

Next up, Part II: Who Is this Book For?


*Feel free to use the title Dirty in Dublin for your Irish memoir. You're welcome.

5 Books that Will Improve Your Life (courtesy of me and Penguin)

Penguin (my beloved company) recently asked me to contribute to the “Staff Picks” feature on the company blog. This is a monthly series that (if you haven’t guessed based on the title) asks various Penguin employees to select their favorite reads within a specific category. There’s “Mystery and Suspense,” “Classics,” “Paranormal,” and “Young Readers,” among others.

I was asked to recommend some Health and Self-Improvement titles, which is great because, not only do I edit a fair amount of self-help books, but I also love them with a deep, fiery passion. Also, they’re kind of hot right now. Have you noticed that, instead of writing tell-alls these days, celebrities often opt for self-help guides disguised (thinly) as memoirs? See: I’m Not that Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham, Yes, Please by Amy Poehler, Dream More by Dolly Parton, etc. 

Of course, this being a company blog, I limited my selections to Penguin books, which was not hard to do because we are a giant company and we publish a lot of great self-help books. We're the home of Eckhart Tolle, Ken Robinson, Kelly McGonigal, and a whole bunch of others, but I had to stop somewhere, so I hope these will suffice for now. Below are the five I chose. Enjoy!


168 Hours: You Have More Time than You Think by Laura Vanderkam

I edited this book when I was still new to my career and had no clue how to manage my time. In fact, I had succumbed to the notion that time managed me. Laura changed all of that. This is not a book about how to make a to-do list or filter your inbox. Laura argues that, while we all say we “don’t have enough time,” we have exactly the same amount of hours—168 in a week—as anyone else. So how do some people manage to work full time, raise a family, run marathons and take up pottery while the rest of us feel like we’re constantly playing catch up? According to Laura, the first step to making the most of our hours is to look at exactly how we spend them. When we do, we realize that we waste a lot of time doing things that don’t improve our lives and are then empowered to focus on what really matters. If you don’t want to read a 270+ page book because, well, you’re pressed for time, I suggest Laura’s especial What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast.


How to Be Richer, Smarter and Better Looking than Your Parents by Zac Bissonnette

This is another book I worked on, so perhaps I’m a little biased, but I truly believe every twenty-something should read it. It’s a guide for young people—those who are financially independent for the first time—on how to create financial habits that will set them on the path to lifelong prosperity. This is not a book about how to make a million dollars overnight, nor is it full of complicated investment advice. Zac argues that if you commit to good money habits—saving for retirement, paying off debt—while you’re young, you’ll set yourself on the path to lifelong prosperity. He also unpacks what wealth really means—that the people who have the biggest homes and fanciest cars are often up to their eyeballs in debt—and that real wealth is about security and not having to worry about money because you’ve been smart about it your whole life. But Zac isn’t preachy. He fills the book with references to pop culture and uses Teresa Giudice and Lenny Dykstra, among others, as cautionary tales. After editing this book, I immediately upped my contribution to my 401(k).


#GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amoruso

As soon as you look at Sophia, you want to be her. She’s gorgeous, poised, and hella cool. And then you learn that she built her $100-million-dollar online clothing retailer, Nasty Gal, from scratch without a college education all before the age of 30, and your head explodes. She is, in short, an inspiration, but a sassy one. #GIRLBOSS is about being awesome and not apologizing for it. It’s about finding success on your own terms, even if you’re unconventional, awkward, or have stumbled along the way (Sophia, for example, spent a good chunk of her early adulthood dumpster diving and shoplifting to get by). The book became an instant classic when it was published earlier this year, and it’s no wonder. Sophia is Jackie O meets Jack Welch. What’s not to love?

I Don’t Care About Your Band: What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux Sensitive Hipsters, and Other Guys I’ve Dated by Julie Klausner

On its face, this is a book of dating stories, but it’s so much more than that. I wish I’d had this book when I was 22 and first moved to NYC because I could have saved myself some of the drama—and trauma—that defined my dating life for the better part of a decade. Reading Klausner’s hilarious and horrifying tales of the man-children she’s encountered in her quest for true—or just functional—love is like listening to your bawdy best friend counsel and commiserate with you on what you should and should not tolerate from men (or women, or anyone, really). Read it with a bottle of wine.


Julia Child: A Life by Laura Shapiro

Not a self-help book per se, but everyone can take a lesson from Julia Child. She was not only wildly successful but extraordinarily kind, level-headed, and full of joie de vivre. Plus, she and her husband, Paul, were deeply in love. This book made me smile, literally. I was so delighted while reading it that I couldn’t help myself. If more people lived like Julia, we’d be happier, healthier, and definitely better fed.

Originally published at