Opening paragraphs of book proposals that sold

I see lots of book proposals. Somebody told a bunch of these writers to start with “Overview.” Those proposals leave me nodding off. They’re a lot less likely to sell, too.

Your proposal should grab the editor by the throat from the first word. Your proposal should shout, “This person is an awesome writer!” with no questions asked.

Crucially, your proposal should start by talking to the reader, not the editor. When an actor goes to an audition, does he start by saying,”Hey, director, let me tell you how great I am and why you should hire me?” No! He starts by showing what he’ll show the audience, showing off his acting chops. You must do the same. Your proposal is an audition.

The easiest way to do this is with a story. But it’s not the only way. Any way that sucks the reader (editor) in can be effective.

My general principle is: the first paragraph of the proposal should serve equally well as the first paragraph of the book. That means it has to be great.

Proposal openers that sold

Here are a set of opening paragraphs of proposals that got picked up by publishers, with my comments. Every one of these books got at least a $50,000 advance; most sold for more than twice that.

Kevin Peters sat alone in his car in the rain, watching the front of an Office Depot store. He was wearing a baseball cap and a well-worn pair of jeans.

Over the course of the last half hour, he’d watched one customer after another emerge from the store. None of them carried a shopping bag. As they left empty-handed, they walked right past an Office Depot employee who leaned against a wall under an awning that sheltered the door, smoking a cigarette out of the rain.

This is from the proposal for Outside In, a business strategy book on customer experience by Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine. You immediately want to know what is going to happen — and why a book on customer experience starts with a guy sitting in his car spying on an office supply store. (The story pays off, too.) This story sold the book.

Ron looked worried.

Ron was a 50-ish, powerful-looking man with graying hair and, until today, a confident manner that always reflected his control of the situation. In his role as head of public relations for one of the largest consumer companies in the world, I’d seen him deal with tough business reporters, nasty competitors, product recalls, and more than one cranky company CEO, all with grace and confidence.

We were meeting Ron for breakfast before an all-day meeting. Ron was worried because he was dealing with a force he didn’t understand, and one that was growing all the time. Bloggers. Discussion groups. YouTube. Consumers he’d never met rating his company’s products in public forums he had no experience with, and no way to influence.

That is the opening for the proposal for my book Groundswell, written with Charlene Li. I wrote those words an hour after the meeting happened. In the actual book, Rick Clancy, who was Sony’s head of global PR, allowed us to use his name.

You don’t have to start with a story. Here’s the start of a book on productivity by a guy who has trained hundreds of McKinsey consultants:

It’s time we start to enjoy our work.

In America, the most advanced economy in the world, 80 percent of the working population say that they suffer from stress, and 50 percent say they really need help managing their stress. The cost of work-related illness and stress rose from $200 billion in 1999 to nearly $300 billion in 2015.

So what’s going on? To feel good, be productive, and feel optimistic about personal and professional life, we humans have evolved a huge need for control and predictability in our personal and professional lives. We want to feel that we understand what is happening around us, that we can influence what happens, and that we have a reliable insight into what is happening tomorrow and in the future. And we want to know we are not wasting our time and brain power on worthless corporate tasks that have very little to do with the organization’s success.

That is a promise to make things better, using the principles in the book. You want to read more. The acquisitions editor agreed. Notice again that this is authoritative and factual, but written to the reader, not to the editor.

I had a similar problem selling a book on writing. Here’s the start of my proposal for Writing Without Bullshit.

The tide of bullshit is rising.

Your email inbox is full of irrelevant, poorly written crap. Your boss talks in jargon and clichés. The Web sites you read are impenetrable and incomprehensible.

Bullshit is a burden on all of us, keeping us from getting useful work done.

Technology has made it breathtakingly easy for anybody to create content and distribute it to thousands of people. Unfortunately, nobody told those creators what it takes to create good content, so we’re stuck wading through a deluge of crap.

You know this is a problem. I’m here to tell you that it’s also an opportunity.

Really, how could they not pick up a book that starts, “The tide of bullshit is rising”?

How to do this

This stuff is easy to read and admire. It’s not that easy to imagine writing it.

Here’s are two ways to go about it. Both are better than what will happen if you start with “Overview.”

If your book has case studies or is a memoir, it has stories in it. Find the story that showcases the ideas in the book in the most compelling way. And write it. Just dive right in. Imagine that you were sitting on the couch with a glass of wine with a friend, and tell the story as you would tell it to your friend.

If your book is not a case-study book, you still have an opening. Think about your thesis, boiled down. And get to the point, as quickly as possible. That is what “It’s time we start to enjoy our work” and “The tide of bullshit is rising” do.

Of course, your proposal has to do more than suck editors in — that’s a start, but it’s not sufficient in itself. You’ll need to prove your idea stands out and that you can sell the book. If you want to know more about proposals, that’s here. And if you want to look at a full book proposal that actually sold, that’s here.

You can do this. You’re not boring. So make sure your book proposal’s opener isn’t, either.

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