Authors often forget the importance of the table of contents when they construct a nonfiction book proposal. Some authors treat it as an afterthought, but it is actually an important part of the proposal package.
A complete proposal actually has two tables of contents, and each serves a different and important purpose:
- One for the proposal itself
- One for the actual book
Let’s begin with the TOC for the proposal itself.
I was an acquisitions editor for a traditional publisher for several years. I read literally hundreds of nonfiction book proposals, many from the “slush” pile (unsolicited manuscripts) and many from agents who represented both new and established writers.
And like most publishing professionals, I read proposals in a certain order—but not necessarily in the order the author presented the material.
Imagine you’re an editor at a traditional publishing house. You’ve finally carved out a few minutes in your day to read one of the dozens of proposals you’ve archived in your in-box, so you start reading the agents’ pitch letters that introduce each one.
Hmmm, you say to yourself, this one sounds like something that might be just what we’re looking for at XYZ Books, so you open the attachment and read the Overview that explains the book and tells a bit about the author.
Good, good . . . yes . . . YES! Now you’re jazzed, because so far, this proposal is showing real promise. You want to know more about the author before you go any farther because your editorial director is adamant that authors under consideration at XYZ Books have strong platforms. (Hint: most traditional publishers feel this way.)
You scroll to the next page to find the location of the author bio, and—wait! Here’s the About the Book . . . the Target Market info . . . where the heck is the Author Bio?
You might think the table of contents for the proposal seems obvious, but many authors forget to include one, and as a former acquiring editor I can tell you that it’s frustrating to scroll through 50 or so pages looking for something specific when a there is no TOC to help me find what I’m looking for.
Don’t frustrate those poor editors right off the bat! Frustration can easily lead to a “no.” Help them say “yes” to your proposal by including:
- a table of contents for the proposal immediately after the Overview
- clear titles that describe what each section includes
- consecutive page numbers throughout the entire proposal—do not begin each new section with Page 1
- accurate page numbers. If you change a few words in your proposal as you revise it, you can inadvertently change page numbers for everything that follows, so check and double check your page numbers.
Remember that your book proposal is, in essence, a business plan for your book. You sell your idea, you sell your execution of that idea, and you sell yourself. A book proposal outlines what your book is about and provides facts and figures that give an agent or editor the necessary ammunition to convince the publisher that your book will make money, so make it easy for an agent or editor to find the information he or she needs to do just that.
The second TOC in your proposal outlines the tentative book content. Although you may not have written the entire manuscript yet, your proposal includes a summary of each chapter’s contents (see Step 6: Chapter Summaries), and each chapter should be titled in a way that both suggests what the chapterudes and piques the reader’s curiosity. As Michael Larsen writes in How to Write a Book Proposal, “Make your titles read like headlines that compel people to read the copy that follows. If you’re writing a humorous book, make your titles funny.”
Be sure to also include relevant back matter, such as an appendix of related information you plan to include, a glossary of terms, or a reference section that will list related books or organizations for the readers’ convenience.
But also remember that this is a list of chapters, not a final version of the book’s table of contents, so don’t add page numbers or list all the front and back matter—just include the relevant parts that give agents and editors an idea of the structure of your book.
Need help with other parts of your proposal? Be sure to check out the other parts of this series:
- Author Bio
- Target Audience
- Marketing and Publicity Plan
- Competitive Titles
- Chapter Summaries
- Sample Chapters
And feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like help constructing a proposal or just need a professional opinion about the strength of your proposal and sample chapters. I’m here to help!
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Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, ghostwriter, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help, and on fiction ranging from romance to paranormal. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be. Learn more here.
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