Alia Hanna Habib of The Gernert Company Recommends...

The following recommendation is adapted from Alia Hanna Habib’s Take It From Me, forthcoming in 2025 from Pantheon.

Most first-time book proposal writers fall short by falling flat. That flatness is usually the result of focusing solely on the expository requirements of a proposal, producing a document that just isn’t interesting to read. I call this method “Death by PowerPoint,” and I blame Google.

If you search sample book proposals on the internet, you’ll find a lot of formulaic advice along with dry sample proposals with even drier “marketing” or “platform” sections, often involving bullet points and statistics. Despite what the internet tells you, this is not the most successful approach to getting the attention of an agent, and eventually, an editor.  A book proposal is a selling device, but it’s not an advertising campaign for homeowners insurance. Always keep in mind that the thing you are trying to sell is a piece of writing, and thus the proposal can—and should—be as interesting and engaging as the book itself.

This might seem counterintuitive. Since submitting a proposal feels a bit like sending in a CV, you may feel a need to be as codified as possible. That approach feels safe and perhaps appropriate—you are, in a sense, “applying” for the job of being a writer. But a proposal is a job application in the same way an audition is. You’re showing you're qualified for the job through a distilled version of it, and giving a taste of the finished product—the book—in the process.

Thus, I often advise writers to avoid opening their proposals with a description or synopsis of the book, which is the format you usually see when you Google “book proposal.” Instead, open with a mini-scene or excerpt from the proposed book. Don’t be afraid to pick your very best one. Then launch into your elevator pitch, and liberate yourself from the PowerPoint approach to proposal writing.

Not sure what kind of scene to pick? To get in the right headspace, I tell my writers to imagine pushing off the wall of a pool to swim a lap. The scene is that wall: Choose material that will give you momentum to power the rest of your proposal, that demonstrates your strengths as a writer, and that sets up your book’s thematic concerns. As for the oft-voiced fear of giving too much away, keep in mind the reason you tasked yourself with writing a book proposal in the first place: You want to sell a book, and to do so, you need to interest buyers. If there is ever a time to hide your light under a bushel, the proposal is not it. Go ahead and shine.

Alia Hanna Habib, literary agent, The Gernert Company