Guide to a Self-Publisher’s Book Proposal

Book Proposal

According to one survey, 81% of people believe they have a book in them.  Unfortunately, most people don’t.  They might have a story in them, but a book is another thing, entirely. A book is written for an audience. In the past, publishers have asked the questions that ensured whether or not a book would likely sell. Writers answer these questions in the form of a book proposal. With the ability to self-publish, no one is asking these questions.

Today, most writers:

  • Don’t know what sells
  • Overestimate the demand for their book idea in an already saturated market
  • Overestimate their ability as a writer
  • Don’t realize how much time it takes to write, edit, format, publish, and market their book
  • Are often too satisfied with a low-quality book

How can you know whether or not your idea for a book is worth pursuing?

Start where traditionally published writers do, with a book proposal.

When someone is attempting to traditionally publish, they don’t invest the time and energy into writing a book until they know someone wants to publish it for them. So they write a book proposal to answer two questions a publisher will ask:

  • Why should I publish this book?
  • Why are you the person to write it?

As a writer attempting to self-publish, you need to answer these same questions. You do this in your book proposal. This guide is meant as a starting point for self-published writers to assess the viability of their book in much the same way that a publisher does. And it only makes sense to do this. After all, you are the publisher!

If you are trying to traditionally publish, you will want to be more precise and professional in its layout.

Start with an introduction.

  • What is your book about?

This should hook your audience enough that they will see there’s a compelling reason to consider your book.

  • What is its genre/category?

A great way to determine this is to go to your local library. Find a book that is very similar to what you want to write and see how it is categorized. You might need to tweak it to find the best fit, but this is a good starting point. can be used in a similar manner. Unfortunately, many self-published authors miscategorize their books so make sure you aren’t following someone down the wrong path.

If you happen to be writing a novel, the best resource I know of is the Story Grid by Shawn Coyne. He does an excellent job of explaining genre and how to decide which genre your book falls under. It’s much more complex than it sounds, but he gives step by step guidance to help you sort it out.

Include an estimated length as well as the number of photos and/or illustrations. Pages with images are often more expensive and will need to be figured into the publishing cost.

What about the competition?

Like the three bears, it’s important that you have some competition, but that the market isn’t overly saturated. What about that book that no one has thought of yet? You know… the really original idea.

“There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone, depending on which stats you believe. Many of those – perhaps as many as half or even more – are self-published. On average, they sell less than 250 copies each.”

With that many books being published each year, if no one has thought to write about something, then no one is thinking about reading it, either. So some competition is good. But, you also need to stand out from the crowd. The perfect example of this is the cancer book market. I can speak to this since I am a part of this over-saturated market.

Before writing my book, “Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone who has Cancer,” I spoke with David Henry Sterry of The Book Doctors. He explained that traditional publishers are very leery of publishing books about cancer because everyone who has ever been diagnosed with cancer has decided to write a memoir about it and they just haven’t sold well. He was also quick to point out that there is still a market for books in this category…

But you need to stand out from the crowd

I chose to do this by focusing more on the practical advice people need when facing cancer, rather than our story. My goal was to stand out from the more sterile “about cancer” books written by professionals, by making my books very readable from the voice of experience, while focusing on the reader.

Find comparable books. It’s helpful to know what books have the same style and feeling as the book you are writing. You can use this information in your book description on its sales page, as well. “If you like “Such and Such,” you’re going to love…” Also, know what is missing from each of those books, and how your book fills the void.

Book Proposal

Who is your book’s audience?

Narrow down who your audience is, as much as possible. It is common for writers to write their book in a generalized manner in an attempt to please everyone. Unfortunately, when you do this, you connect with no one. Drilling down to a specific audience in your book proposal results in your readers feeling like the book was written just for them. And in a sense, it was! How is your book going to benefit this audience?

Is it part of a series?

Will there be sequels? This is a huge factor in marketability. As I talked to David Henry Sterry about a mystery series I was starting, I said I planned on writing 3 books. It took place in a small town and you can only have so many murders in a small town before people start checking the water. Sterry laughed and said, “No way. Think about Murder She Wrote. There’s a murder every week in Cabot Cove.”  That’s how an expert marketer thinks. Possibilities!

Who are you?

In your book proposal, consider what makes you the ideal person to write this book. You are selling yourself as much as your book. What is your platform? This is the place from which you will market your book and yourself.  It includes your website, your social media accounts, and your mailing list. All of these connect you to your audience in a more personal way. Publishers demand a well-established platform. You will need them to get your book in front of your audience. Consider all the ways you can publicise your book and include those ideas here so that when you are marketing, you already have the beginning of a plan.

Are you consulting an expert if your subject is a specialized one?

For my book, Facing Cancer as a Parent, I consulted a child-life specialist who specializes in children who have a parent with cancer. As a parent of children whose dad has cancer, I have a level of expertise that was earned the hard way, through experience. But, when you are dealing with something as important as the well-being of children, you want to ensure the information you are publishing is technically correct, as well. Consulting an expert adds to your book’s credibility.

An Outline

I know there are die-hard “pantsers” out there, writers who fly by the seat of their pants and see where their muse takes them. The truth is until you are established as an author, a publisher wants to know where you’re going with your book. What’s going to be in it? Even though this book proposal is for your benefit as a self-published writer, you will want to plan out your book in outline form.

Start by listing your chapters and then under each chapter heading, list the subheadings, or what you will detail in each chapter. This will help you to get the flow of your book planned.

Sample Chapter

Even as a self-published writer, including a sample chapter in your book proposal, will help you to set the tone and get the formatting straight. We will talk more about formatting in a future post.

What are YOUR thoughts?

I’d love to hear in the comment section, below. I appreciate my readers as well as the writing community. To show that appreciation, I use Comment Luv. Just leave a comment below and your latest post will get a link next to it. Thank you!

About Heather Erickson

I am an author, writer, and speaker and homeschooling mom of 3. Since doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan with stage IV lung cancer in 2012, I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.

My books The Memory Maker’s Journal and Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, are available at

I also blog about living with cancer at Facing Cancer with Grace.


Joseph Epstein, New York Times, September 28, 2002, “Think You Have a Book in You? Think Again”

Forbes, Jan. 8, 2013. Nick Welsh, Contributor. “Thinking of Self-Publishing Your Book in 2013? Here’s What You Need to Know.”


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8 comments on “Guide to a Self-Publisher’s Book Proposal

I’m confused about something. You said most writers “underestimate the demand for their book idea in an already saturated market”. But wouldn’t that be a good thing? If your book has more demand than you expect, you’d sell more of them than you expect. Why is this a bad thing?

Hi Liz. I apologize for my error. Thank you for pointing it out so I could correct it. I should have written, OVERestimate. Have a wonderful week!

And that’s why I want an agent *grin*. Good luck with your mystery series (it’s what I write too).

Hi AJ. I hope you get a great agent! Your cozies are sure to be a huge success. The concept is unique -at least here in the US. One of my favorite mystery shows is Doctor Blake Mysteries. It’s not a cozy it is an Australian mystery. Have a great weekend!

Hi Heather. Oh, thank goodness for this post! As you know, I’ve published six books the traditional publisher way. Even after the first one, which was very successful, I answered all of your questions for every subsequent book.
Because I was working with the same publisher for all books, we shortcut the process a bit, disregarding the sample chapter requirement and going straight to me completing what they called an NPIR – New Product Investment Review. That multi-page form had all of the questions you asked plus a few more.
Other questions revolved around financials, which may or may not be important to self-publishing. So in my books, for example, I love to use cartoons and they’re often from the big names – Larson, Schultz etc. I needed to say how many cartoons, or poems, or any other feature that needed to be paid for.
Page count is another thing that matters in traditional publishing, with a requirement to print in 16 page multiples because of how many printing presses work. This is another reason for the importance of the outlining you talked about, Heather.
I won’t go on. I really just wanted to thank you for making the case for thoughtful consideration of all factors before deciding to write. Certainly in the nonfiction market, these are key and are ignored at the writer’s peril.

Thank you, Karen. I feared I was too harsh as I wrote this, but I hoped a little tough love would spare many a fruitless endeavor. So many people have a stake in the self-publishing industry that they paint a far rosier picture than it truly is. I bought into this early on. Thankfully, I got my expectations readjusted fairly quickly. Traditional publishing adds a whole new aspect to the job. So many things that people don’t think about… 🙂

When I decided to self publish, I approached writing the back of the book as if I was going to query. It was the same concept. You wanted to hook someone so they’d buy it.

Hi Patricia. You are so right! This same approach can be taken when writing the blurb for the sales page.

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