Publishers require prospective authors to submit either a proposal (a longer document providing additional editorial and marketing information about your book) or a query letter (a one-page letter of introduction inviting the publisher to ask for more details about your project).
Most publishers have guidelines for how they want your material to arrive, regardless of whether you’re sending a query letter or a full proposal. Always find out the guidelines and follow them to the letter. Ignore them at your own risk.
Take one of these three easy routes to getting a publisher’s guidelines:
Visit the publisher’s website. (This is probably the best option of the three because you’re guaranteed to get up-to-date information quickly.)
Write a letter to the publisher requesting its submission guidelines (and include a self-addressed stamped envelope).
Consult a written or online guide to children’s book publishers.
After you know how your chosen publisher wants your materials submitted, you’re ready to pull together your query letter and/or proposal.
A proposal is generally appropriate only for longer nonfiction books. You would never do a proposal for a board book, for example — unless for some strange reason that’s how the publisher you’re targeting wants board books submitted.
A nonfiction book proposal most often contains some form of the following, although many publishers (and agents) have specific guidelines for submitting nonfiction proposals. If you are submitting a requested proposal for fiction (also unusual), you may use the same elements:
Contents: A guide to the contents of your proposal, not your actual manuscript. This part, like a table of contents, should just list all the other parts of your proposal — such as marketing plan, target audience, author biography, and so on — as well as the page on which each part begins.
Summary: Write the sexiest, most engaging, intriguing teaser about the book without giving away the ending, much like the copy on a hardcover book jacket or the back cover of a trade paperback. Aim for no more than two pages of summary material.
Author bio: This is the part about you, often written in the third person, that indicates why you are the best possible person to write this book. What are your special qualifications? What else have you published, and were any of these publications critical or commercial successes? Don’t be afraid about bragging here — but don’t do it in more than one page.
Audience: Who is your target audience? (And no, “children of all ages” is not a target audience.) And why will the audience you are targeting buy, keep, download, talk about, and share your book with others? You should describe your audience as specifically as possible — in one page.
Competition: What other books out there like yours have been successful? How is yours different and unique in comparison? Be sure to identify the exact title, author, publisher, and year of release for all competitive titles you list. This part can be up to two pages long.
Marketing plan (if any): How does your standing in the universe or in your profession or in your social life afford you — and thus your publisher — any advantages when it comes to advertising, promoting, or marketing your book? Famous friends? How can your publishers legally use those relationships? Be specific and realistic, don’t overpromise and underdeliver upon closer scrutiny, and keep this section of your proposal to one page.
Manuscript specifications: This is where you note the nitty-gritty details of your proposed book: Word count or amount of pages based on a specific existing format. Number of illustrations, photographs, images, charts, and so on, will you have? Will you take care of obtaining them in the proper form and getting legal permission to use them? (The answer is usually yes and yes.)
Anything special about the format you are proposing that makes it out of the ordinary (for example, if you are writing a nonfiction book about how to build miniature Victorian dollhouses and you want to include the materials to make a miniature rag doll; or if most books like this come with color photos and you want to use graphics imitating comics for the majority of the images) — make sure to mention that. Finally, is the manuscript complete?
Outline: Tell the publisher what she can expect to find in the guts of your book, starting with the table of contents and adding a paragraph about each specific chapter’s contents. Imagine a screenshot of how the entire book is organized.
You don’t have to marry this outline — often content and plans change — but your outline must be as thorough as you intend your book to be. It should contain section and chapter headings; beneath each heading, give one to three paragraphs explaining what the chapter contains and how the content moves the book forward.
Sample chapter(s): Three complete sample chapters is the norm here. You don’t have to include the first three chapters, but three great chapters well representative of your style, approach, voice, and ability to deliver what your proposal proposes.
Not counting the introduction and sample chapters, a proposal typically runs 10 to 15 pages. It should be unbound, double-spaced throughout, and have 1-inch margins all around.