Here are the proposals that sold our four non-fiction books, plus two short essays I hope you’ll find handy: what a book proposal should contain, and how to get an agent. Notice that titles often change between the proposal and the finished book. Doesn’t matter.
Lest you think that my book-writing career has been naught but cakes and ale, here is a proposal for a non-fiction book I really wanted to write but that even my agent, Sarah Chalfant of the Wylie Agency, couldn’t sell: Grenada Proposal. I was covering the military for The New Yorker at the time, and this story — in addition to being military — fit all the criteria for a exactly the kind of story I wanted to tell: the events happened recently enough that the characters are alive and available to interview, yet far enough in the past (1983) that none of them still has a dog in the fight and has had some time to reflect on his or her role in them. I even had a commitment from Oliver North, who was on President Reagan’s National Security Council at the time of the Grenada War to be interviewed and help me find others. (The first time I called him to make sure I had his address correct so I could paper-mail him an interview request North volubly kept me on the phone for ninety minutes telling about the days in the White House leading up to the Grenada war. I hung up the phone absolutely certain I had my next book — which would be my best — in the bag. When Sarah told me that no publisher wanted the book, I at first thought she was joking. I wrote and rewrote this proposal until one of Sarah’s colleagues put a bullet into the back of its neck by saying on the phone, “The market has spoken,”*
These are hardly the be-all and end-all. But the techniques described in these essays worked for me:
*Christ almighty: I just reread this proposal for the Grenada-war book and it got me all fired up to try again. I pass myself off on this website and elsewhere as Mr. Book Proposal, yet I am blind to what made this one fail to sell. Perhaps it really is a stinker and I’m simply too close to it. But if you can tell me why this proposal flopped, I’d be grateful.