Thursday, October 16, 2014

5 Misperceptions about Writing a Proposal

David Van Diestis the owner of Van Diest Literary Agency. He believes that the best books are yet to be published.

His path to becoming a literary agent was both surprising and inevitable. David describes himself as a late bloomer, languishing in the lower echelons of his literary courses through school, and not becoming much of a reader until he was nearly thirty. But publishing is in David’s blood, it seems: his father, John Van Diest was the original publisher at Multnomah Press and is now associate publisher of Tyndale; both sisters worked in publishing; Don Jacobson, his brother-in-law, was publisher/owner of Multnomah Publishers for nearly 20 years; David’s wife, Sarah, has been a literary agent for a number of authors; and even his wife’s brother, Jeff Gerke, is an author and publisher.

Since starting in publishing in 1988 David has worked directly with many leading Christian publishers, ministries, and bestselling authors Max Lucado, Karen Kingsbury, and Chuck Swindoll. He’s worn a variety of hats in the past 20+ years, including marketing director, vice president of sales and literary agent. While in marketing at Multnomah, David wrote the marketing plan for a little book called The Prayer of Jabez, which surprised everyone by selling over 10 million copies.

Today, David continues in the publishing industry because of his passion to help everyone understand the un-surpassing greatness of God’s love expressed through His Son Jesus’ free gift of grace, and to help Christians mature in Him through continued growth.

Note from Edie: Hey everyone, I'm super excited to have David as a contributor on my blog. He's not only knowledgeable about the industry and the craft of writing, he's also my agent! So make him feel welcome.

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5 Misperceptions about Writing a Proposal

For nearly all authors, writing a proposal is worse than
any other task imaginable.
For most authors, writing a proposal is a necessary but unappealing task.

Please forgive me, I may have understated this, so let me start again.

For nearly every author, writing a proposal is worse than any other task imaginable. Most would rather take out the trash, clean the bathrooms, wash the dog, mow the lawn, scratch your eyeballs… and the list goes on. In fact, when faced with the idea of writing a proposal many will do all these things first in an effort to avoid the monumental task.

I get it! Authors are creative by nature and their canvas is the communicating something beautiful through the written word. Contrarily, writing a proposal seems to fall into the non-creative side.

So, if you are stuck in the process of writing your proposal, it may be because your perceptions are off. After recognizing these misperceptions you will be able to jump in with joy and renewed vigor at the thought of writing your proposal. Ha! (This statement is dripping with sarcasm.)

Nonetheless, identifying these will help in the process of writing your proposal but it will still take hard work, research, and attention to detail. But it’s vital. Sorry!

Writing a proposal isn't a creative activity.
Misperception #1: Writing a proposal isn’t a creative activity. Granted there are portions of the proposal that don’t scratch the “creativity bone” but most sections should be approached with a creative flair. Most publishers receive hundreds of proposals a month and you need to make yours stand out from the rest. Just like when writing your book, use creativity in writing to make the message of the proposal come alive. (This is a great opportunity to show your creativity so please don’t miss the opportunity.) Remember that nearly every section of your proposal should show that there is a felt need and a market for your book… even your author bio and book summary/overview, because publishers don’t just want to know what the book is about, they want to know who will resonate with the message and why. They also want to know more than just stuff you’ve done but why you’re the best person to write this book. So, be creative in your approach to it all.

Misperception #2: Writing a proposal is all about telling the publisher/agent what your book is about. While this isn’t all wrong either, it is a misperception that should be addressed. You certainly need to communicate what your book is about, but this isn’t a book report. This essentially is a “business plan” for your book. They need to know there is a definable felt need, there’s an audience for that felt need, you have thought through how to reach that audience, and that the book will address and satisfy that felt need. Nearly every portion of your proposal needs to be written with this in mind… especially the overview/summary and chapter descriptions portion of your proposal. If you walk away with nothing else from this blog, please remember this! The publisher/agent needs to know the author understands the business side of publishing.

The target audience for a book is NOT all Christians.
Misperception #3: My target audience includes all Christians. If I had a nickel for every time I heard this…. Honesty, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard an author tell me that the target audience for the book is “Christian between the ages of 20 and 75” (or some similarly ridiculously huge market segment.) This (and the misperception #4) tells the publisher/agent that the author doesn’t understand the business of publishing (Remember, a proposal is a business plan for your book.) A publisher of a major Christian publisher wrote this to me recently, “Actually, no, not everyone should [read your book.] Having everyone as a target audience means there’s no audience to a publisher.” A “target audience” is really the “80/20 principle” for your book’s sales. When all the sales of your book are tallied, 80% of them will be sold to a 20% market demographic. In other words, your “target audience” is that definable 20% of the potential buyers that will make up 80% of the sales. The reason the publisher needs to know this is because they have a limited marketing budget. They need to spend their precious marketing dollars for your book in areas where it will have the biggest return.

Misperception #4: There’s no other book like mine on the market. Once again, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard an author tell me that there are no other books out there like theirs. In very few instances this is true, but even in those rare cases, that’s not the question a publisher is trying to answer. What they are trying to find out is when a consumer is faced with a book purchase decision, what will make yours stand out from the others available in a particular genre. Hopefully, this illustration will help in your understanding; when a bookstore receives the first shipment of your book, they have to put it somewhere in the store (even eBooks), so it will be placed on the shelf based upon the particular category the publisher has given it. When it’s amongst other books on that shelf, what will make it stand out from the rest? Is the title provocative? Does the book offer something that the others don’t? Are the author and message trustworthy? Most consumers will not be able to recognize the uniqueness of your book unless it’s somehow communicated on the cover. And publishers want to know “what is ‘the thing’ that separates it from the others?” What makes your book unique? How will the consumer know the uniqueness? In your proposal this is usually communicated in the “summary/overview” section along with the “comparative analysis” section.

Success isn't getting published, it's following God's lead.
Misperception #5: If I follow all the right advice and do all the right things, I will be published. I’m sorry to say this. but some of the best and most creative writers will never be published by a traditional Christian publisher. Don’t make that your goal. God’s plan may be for you to get your work out through other avenues and to a limited audience. Please remember success isn’t getting a contract from one of the big boys. Success is following God’s lead in your writing, doing all you can to make it the best it can be, and leaving the results in God’s hands. It was never meant to be anywhere else.

As you go here’s a quote from Mark Batterson, “Too many authors worry about whether or not their book will get published. That isn't the question. The question is this: ARE YOU CALLED TO WRITE? That's the only question you need to answer. And if the answer is YES, then you need to write the book as an act of obedience.”



  1. Thank you for this article - your straightforward advice is helpful. I'm still editing my book, so haven't gotten to the point of sending out proposals. Point five is important. God keeps encouraging me to keep writing by contacts I have over editing my manuscript.

    One of my beta readers is a priest and he's come up to me on four separate occasions to tell me that what I've written has helped him to counsel some of the women he's in touch with. Said that my book gave him the right words and questions to ask.

    I'm not sure which publisher will pick up my book - Christians may be put off because I detail the abuse I received and (as per my pastor's wife's suggestion) I also detail many facts of the new age and witchcraft groups I belonged to years ago, She said those facts give her the ability to speak with others in the new age, again knowing right things to ask and say.

    Secular publishers probably won't like the ending of my book because Jesus is the one who brought about complete healing and restoration in my life. Not sure it will get published, but am glad that it is already helping others.

    Oh, and some of the pagans from my past are reading it - they know I'm a Christian, but they're fascinated with how they're being portrayed in my book. Twelve years ago my pastor predicted I would be ministering to them. So, with his permission I've contacted one of the pagan priests who was instrumental in saving my life when I was suicidal. His wife was dying, so I sent him a note of comfort and told him I'm praying for him. I also and said to him, "Thanks for saving my life. I'm sure God used your group to preserve me until I could come to Him. I'm a Christian now, but appreciate the love you gave me when I needed it so much." He wrote back that I'm a better Christian than most. Is eager to read subsequent chapters. Hoping he continues to the end. I love how God is using this book.

    Thank you for the encouragement you gave in this post. I hope your readers realize that, even unpublished, a book has the opportunity to reach others.

    1. Heather, what an AMAZING story! Your point is so important - our call is to be obedient to write the book. God will take care of the distribution. This doesn't mean we abdicate good writing or learning and engaging with the industry (as you already know and do) but it means we can stop stressing about what we can't control. Thanks so much for sharing, Blessings, E

  2. I so much appreciate the wisdom you've shared in this post--it renews my energy in writing the proposal I'm currently working on. It's not fun! But yes, necessary. Thank you for encouraging me along the way.

    1. Emily, thanks so much for dropping by! Blessings, E

  3. Writing a proposal overwhelmed me when I wrote my first book, so I just self-published instead. Hindsight, I wish I would have at least tried. I appreciate your comments as you simplified the process for me. It really doesn't matter whether I was published by another company or self-published. Rather, it is important for us who are called, to write! Thanks for getting us back to the basics.

    I like your words, "Success is following God’s lead in your writing, doing all you can to make it the best it can be, and leaving the results in God’s hands. It was never meant to be anywhere else."