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How to Choose Sample Chapters for a Book Proposal

Your Book Proposal Coach

This is an updated version of my earlier post on how to choose your book proposal sample chapters. I’ve updated it to share some excellent new questions that came in from a book proposal client today.

How Many Sample Chapters?

If you’re interested in being published by a traditional publisher, you probably know you need a book proposal to interest literary agents and publishers in your book. That includes enclosing 1-2 sample chapters. How do you choose and how many?

Many agents are happy with one chapter to start but they often request the second (or more) before you actually sign the deal. You may want to give them two to start with. On the other hand, if you’re in a hurry, one will usually suffice–you can always e-mail the agent and ask their preference.

But how to choose which chapter or chapters to include in your book proposal? Click To Tweet

A case can be made for sending your first chapter–after all, it makes the case for your book and should entice readers to buy it, devour it in one sitting and put your wisdom and tips into action in their lives. At the same time, if your first chapter sounds too similar to your book proposal, pass on it and go with a later chapter that provides more depth.

You want everything agents and publishers read in your proposal to sound fresh (a good reason to ensure differences in your query letter and the opening of your proposal as well). You also want to be sure that if you submit a chapter than can stand on its own. If your chapter includes medical jargon that is addressed in an earlier chapter, you’ll–at the very least–need to include a note that tells us what information readers will already have.

Questions to Ask Yourself in Choosing Sample Chapter(s) for Your Book Proposal Click To Tweet

Given the above caveats, I’d use these questions for deciding on your book proposal sample chapters for a how-to or self-help book:

  • Which chapters offer the most ground-breaking information?
  • Which chapters have particularly compelling anecdotes, examples, statistics or stories?
  • How about the best written chapter(s)? (if you’ve already written the book)
  • What chapter(s) will be easiest to write? (if you haven’t written any yet)
  • Which chapters answer my audience’s most pressing and common questions and help them the most?

Choosing Sample Chapters for a Memoir

If you’re writing a memoir, find the chapters that are most compelling, dramatic or suspenseful. What makes your memoir different? Any quirkiness or unique hooks? Definitely include chapters that capitalize on this. Note: with a memoir, you’ll need 50 pages as a sample and many agents/editors will want to see the whole book after that–so make sure you are ready.

how to write a book proposal
The 5th edition of How to Write a Book Proposal by Jody Rein and Michael Larsen

In How to Write a Book Proposal (4th edition), Michael Larsen answers the question of which chapter(s) with “send one that best blends freshness and  excitement.”  He also suggests asking yourself, “how you want editors to feel about your writing and your book when they finish reading your chapter: Use the chapter that will most effectively make them feel that way.”

I also advise authors to use sample chapters that explore the range of the book. If there’s a how to portion of the book that follows a specific structure which follows another section of the book that is more about the problem the book will solve, you may want to showcase both aspects, rather than have the book appear more repetitive with two how-to chapters.

Does the Book Proposal Sample Chapter Need to be Completely Polished? Click To Tweet

Today, a client asked:

“Are they called sample chapters because they are not necessarily perfect at this stage but well beyond the draft stage?
I’m not talking about typos of misspelled words, of course that would not be in a sample chapter.
But are they called samples chapters because the agent might want to make changes before going forward to a publisher?
Or are they to be perfectly written, organized, and compete?
The reason I’m asking is I have been aiming for perfection which is why it’s taking so long.
But now I’m wondering if I’m making this a grand piano and maybe it doesn’t need to be, at least not right now.”

I’m so glad he asked. Now, this author is an excellent writer and a perfectionist. However, here’s a case where perfectionism is a good thing!

Here’s what I told him:

“The book proposal sample chapters should be super polished – your best writing.  They are called “sample chapters” because they are representative of the book. Strive for perfectly written, organized, and complete, but yes, your agent or acquisitions editor (publisher) may want to change some things. Everyone likes to have input and they may have some good ideas we didn’t think of.”

Of course, one can overdo perfectionism. Send your sample chapter to an editor, get feedback, incorporate it, and when your editor says it’s ready, go for it!

Looking for more tips for writing a successful book proposal? This article details step-by-step how to write a book proposal as well as links to articles on writing various book proposal sections.

Lisa Tener

Lisa Tener is an award-winning book writing coach who assists writers in all aspects of the writing process—from writing a book proposal and getting published to finding one’s creative voice. Her clients have appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Early Show, The Montel Williams Show, CNN, Fox News, New Morning and much more. They blog on sites like The Huffington Post, Psychology Today and WebMD.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Michael Larsen says

    Many thanks for the kind words about the proposal book in your excellent post! Although one chapter is usually enough for a proposal it does depend on the writer’s track record and the nature of the book. Memoirists, for example, will need more, and in fact, should finish their books, before writing the proposal. The book gives thirteen reasons why the best way to write the proposal is to write at least the first draft of the manuscript first. Your readers are welcome to email me with questions. Congratulations on continuing to provide inspiration and valuable advice. Now is the best time ever to be a writer, but now more than ever, writers need all the help they can get.

  2. William Paisley says

    Hello Lisa, love your blogs, so informative. I am in the middle of writing my Book Proposal, using Larsen’s book and in it he suggest putting the name of a prominent publicist in the Promotion section… Do you have one that you could recommend that is well known?

    • Lisa Tener says

      I’d say it means they’re considering your book. And perhaps they will be discussing it at an editorial board meeting. You might ask for clarification from your agent or contact if you can.

  3. Judy Stone-Goldman says

    Hi Lisa, I’ve been working with Larsen’s book and the BYBTL materials. A few questions about the proposal.

    1. If I’m referring to the readers, I try to use the plural to avoid having to deal with the pronoun “he” or “she,” but sometimes having a singular would work better. Do you advice using the pronoun likely associated with the majority of readers (in my case, females), varying the pronoun, using “he or she” (usually awkward), or simply avoiding the singular?

    2. I’m looking at publishers with professional markets. Each publisher gives a list of requirements for their proposal. The requirements are, for the most part, typical of a standard proposal, but I can’t tell if the proposal should really be just like a regular book proposal or somehow more compact. For example, one publisher wants an overview that includes Purpose, Rationale, and Scope – do I include “Objections”? (part of what should be in a regular Overview?) For the author info, this publisher wants a resume. I also wrote what amounts to two pages (double spaced) about why I’m such a good person to write this book. It’s not redundant with the resume, but I’m wondering if it’s more than what they want.

    Do you have any thoughts about submitting to a professional market publisher?

    3. Last question. For my professional market publishers, each publisher seems to market to a segment of what could be my overall market. If I include a broader market than what they typically deal with, am I going to look like a “mismatch” to them? I might end up having to do some of the publicity, but it seems that’s the case for publishing in general now.

    Thank you for whatever responses you have.

    Judy Stone-Goldman

    • Lisa Tener says

      Great questions, Judy.
      1. Generally, I would use the plural “readers” and “they” and “their.” If there’s some reason not to, you can say he or she, but I would tend to avoid the singular. You want the acquisitions editors to be picturing many readers, not just one, as they read your proposal.
      2. They probably do expect something a little shorter than a trade market proposal, but do whatever you need to do your book justice. I don’t think you need “objections.” I’ve never put that in a proposal. But if one publisher asks for it, give it to them. Two pages may be more than what they want for about the author, but if it’s a good case and not redundant, I think it’s fine to use it. If you get the sense a particular publisher is looking for less, feel free to trim that section down.
      3. Say that their market is the primary market, but address that the market can also be broader and that you plan to also address that market–that way it will be viewed as a match, but you also establish a case for a larger market, but put their mind to rest that you”ll be promoting to the broader market, not them. You’re right about the publicity part- that’s up to you for the most part. They probably will not do that much.

      • Judy Stone-Goldman says

        Thanks, Lisa. Very helpful.

        Interestingly, I found one publisher who tells authors to alternate chapters with the singular pronoun: “he” for chap. 1, “she” for chap. 2, then back to “he,” etc. I don’t care for that at all! Will stick with plurals.

        Judy

      • Usman says

        Flexibility always pays. When I steratd writing one book I figured it’d be the only one. Then suddenly I had six other books and needed to fit them into and around each other! Oy vey.It’s exciting when you finally figure out a title for anything we had the darnedest time figuring out a few book names in our series. Come to think of it, we’re still sort of waffling over the last few names.

  4. Julia McCutchen says

    Great post Lisa. It answers a question that many writers have about the submission process and I like the fact that it guides people to make informed choices for themselves.

    This also beautifully complements all of the excellent tips and advice you gave in our interview yesterday on “How to Write a Highly Successful Book Proposal”.

    It was lovely speaking with you and I’ll look forward to the next opportunity for us to work together again.

    Julia

    PS If anyone would like to hear the interview, the audio is freely available for the next 3 months (from March 2014) to all FREE & FULL Members of the International Association of Conscious & Creative Writers.

    • Lisa Tener says

      Thank you Julia! And I highly recommend joining the IACCW. The free basic membership level gives access to the monthly interviews. i am so looking forward to your interview next month on writing and lucid dreaming and I LOVE lucid dreaming!

      • Julia McCutchen says

        Thank you Lisa! Yes, I’m also really looking forward to next month’s interview and love opening the way for writers to explore new conscious & creative possibilities like this 🙂

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