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In my last column for Photo.net, Creating Photo Books, I explained some of the aspects that go into marketing and creating a photography book. In that column, I noted that pretty early in the process of selling a photography book to a trade publisher you need a book proposal, because a “book proposal is the sales collateral with which you can approach book agents and publishers.”
In other words, a book proposal is a marketing tool. Thinking more broadly, you might also consider a book proposal as a kind of blueprint, or business plan, for your book—and from this viewpoint it is worth creating a book proposal even if publishers are not involved and you are planning to release a book using one of the publication on demand (POD) services.
In any case, unless you are already world famous and a household name, a book proposal is a necessity if you want to approach an agent or a conventional book publisher. The proposal shows that you are serious, that you understand the book industry, and that you are approaching your project in a grounded, business-like way. Hopefully, it also provides a dynamic sales proposition—and makes an acquisitions editor at a publisher feel that they really want to acquire your title.
This article explains the nuts and bolts of creating a photography book proposal. While any book proposal should cover the business aspect of your project, a photography book proposal needs to add a visual element. After all, photography is essentially applied visual design. From this perspective, any photo book proposal worth its salt should provide some eye candy—and, more importantly, give a visual sense of what your book will be like.
In this article, I’ll provide some pointers—and examples of proposals that have successfully sold projects—to give you a better idea of what I mean. There’s no thrill like getting that advance author copy of your published photo book—and if it means having to take the time to master the skills involved in creating a book proposal, it is a small price to pay!
Getting Help with Your Book Proposal
Unless you are already world famous, you need a book proposal before you can hope to sell an agent or a publisher on your project. But writing a book proposal can be intimidating—particularly if you are more photographer than writer. It’s also the case that a book proposal is intended as a sales tools—in some sense it is a fairly formal piece of marketing collateral—and even people who are good writers on subjects that are passionate about are not always enthusiastic about writing for the purpose of selling.
In other words, creating a book proposal can be quite intimidating. But don’t worry! After reading this article you should understand the basic points. If you have a solid idea, experience to back it up, and quality photographs then writing a book proposal should be feasible—and it should also be possible to create a proposal that exhibits integrity, even if it is essentially a marketing document.
Nobody can do everything well. It’s a great deal to ask of one individual that they be able to write, photograph, and design an attractive book proposal. If you don’t think you are up to all three aspects, by all means collaborate with a writer or designer. Perhaps these professionals will also work with you on the ultimate book project, but that of course depends on what the publisher thinks is best. You can also simply work with a professional writer and/or a professional graphic designer on a work-for-hire basis to get your proposal out the door.
If you are still unclear about how to go about creating a photo book proposal after reading this article, there are many good resources explaining what should go into a book proposal. Search the Internet using a term like “writing book proposals”. But beware: some of the sites that come back from this search will try to steer you towards vanity publishers or some other commercial scheme.
You should also know that many publishers have guidelines about what they’d like to see in a book proposal. If you ask nicely, if a publisher has guidelines for proposals they’ll be happy to send them to you (if these are not already posted online).
Elements of a Book Proposal
The elements of a traditional non-fiction book proposal are by now pretty, well, traditional. This shouldn’t be surprising as publishing tends to be a fairly tradition-bound industry, and people have been writing book proposals for quite a while. Later on in this article I’m going to suggest moving beyond the conventional and traditional non-fiction book proposal in the context of photography books—but it is a truism that one should understand the conventional way to do something before attempting to move beyond it.
Traditional or not, you should bear in mind that a book proposal is a sales tool. As such, to be effective it needs to be dynamic, and to convince the target audience—agents and publishers—that your book needs to be published. In addition, there should be enough collateral information so that an editor thinking of acquiring your book can take the project to an editorial meeting for approval, with a minimum of additional homework on the editor’s part required.
Let’s look at some of the elements that should be included in the proposal. These include:
Completion and Delivery
To start with, your name and contact information along with the working title for your book should be easy to find. In the case of a photography book proposal, it often works very well to place the information in the context of a mock-up of the way the actual book title page might look.
Next, your project should be summarized in a paragraph or so. This material should explain what the book is about, who will buy the book, and why there is a compelling need for it. Each of these topics will be expanded in its own section of the proposal, but this initial introduction should provide an overview synopsis of where you are going with it.
For example, here’s the introductory paragraph to the proposal for a series of photography books that eventually became my successful Creative series published by Wiley:
Digital photography is a new medium, combining the craft of traditional photography with software skills. Effective digital photography training needs to begin with vision and inspiration since motivation is key to learning. General principles need to be explained in a way that they can readily be grasped. These principles need to be translated pragmatically: what are the implications for the way a camera is set and used? Then, once the camera has been used to create a digital file, how is the file processed and what do you do with the results?
I propose a series of books that reflects the different creative aspects of digital photography:
Inspiration, vision, and motivation
Applicable photographic principles
Theory into practice: how to set and use the camera
Post-processing: what do you do once you’ve taken the photo?
While this scaffolding will underlie each book, readers don’t have to be concerned with it. The context is stunning image creation, which is inherently seductive, and allows learning without pain. The goal is to help each learner become a more proficient and better photographer.
A couple of comments are in order here. Within this summary you can certainly see the bones of the series of books that eventually came into existence. However, the proposal (and project) went through a number of iterations of content, form, and title before it finally found a home at Wiley. Each successive iteration of the proposal was stronger than the previous one. This process of proposal revision until it is sold is not at all unusual.
Note also that the paragraph I quoted above comes from an overall series proposal; each individual title in the series also needed a proposal, at least until things were off the ground.
As a further step—though not strictly required in a formal and traditional book proposal—I think it is a good idea to boil the project overview down into an elevator pitch: one to three sentences that summarize your project, and place it in an attractive light. You could use this elevator pitch in a cover letter accompanying your proposal, or in an email to agents who request initial contact by email only.
Harold Davis is a photographer and author. His photographs have been widely published, exhibited, and collected. Many of his fine art photography posters are well known. Harold’s images have won a Silver Award in the International Aperture Awards 2008 competition, and inclusion in the 2009 North American Nature Photography Association Expressions Showcase.
Harold is the author of The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing (Focal), Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Practical Artistry: Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers (O’Reilly Digital Media) and other books. Harold gives frequent digital photography workshops, many under the auspices of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association. More »