Overview, schmoverview. What is an overview anyway? And why do I need one?

An overview is the most important section of your book proposal, in fact it may be the most important thing you'll ever write. Skeptical? Try this thought experiment. Let's say you’re an unpublished writer. You don’t know how to get your foot in the door, so you go ahead and write a few letters asking editors at various publishing houses if Philip K. Dick they’d like to see your book. Meanwhile you’ve got no book to show them, you just want to find out how they’ll react to the new kid on the block. Guess what? They all tell you the same thing: “Sorry, but we don’t accept unagented submissions.” So you write to a few literary agents asking if they’d like to see your book, and guess what? Almost the same reaction, only this time the chorus says “Sorry we don’t look at completed manuscripts, just book proposals.” The point is that the way to get your foot in the door of the publishing world isn't to write a book, it’s to write a book proposal.

But you knew that already, didn’t you?

The introductory paragraphs of your book proposal are called an overview because they give the big picture and put your book in context. If a literary agent doesn’t read past the overview, if she isn’t hooked right from the get-go, if her toes don’t start tingling at your first few words — well, I don’t have to spell it out for you, do I? You get the point. Your overview is your entrée. It’s your calling card, your one real chance for success. It gets you in the door so you can make your sales pitch — to your literary agent, then to an editor, and then to the sales force of a publisher. In other words an overview is the beginning, and the most important section, of your book proposal.

So what exactly does an overview say?

A typical overview has three parts:

  • The introduction.
  • The book hook.
  • The book description in a nutshell.

The introduction is usually one paragraph (or a few paragraphs if you’re long-winded) and it's like the lead of a newspaper story. Say something intriguing that leads into your book’s subject. The best way to learn to write an introduction is to read newspaper and magazine features. They invariably begin with some attention-getting introductory paragraphs. But make sure your intro is short; if you keep it to one paragraph, all the better. Yukio Mishima (pictured above) wrote wonderful punchy introductions.

Let’s say you’re writing a book about Princess Diana. An introductory paragraph for your book proposal might read: “Who was the most famous woman in the world in 1997? Of course the answer is Princess Diana. And yet there aren't any books about her sense of fashion. This is a real pity because millions of girls and women, and even some men, would love to read about this subject.”

Your book hook is a one-sentence summary of your book. It must contain the title and it must summarize the book concisely. Another thing it usually contains is the phrase “the first book to... [fill in the blank]” because unique books stand a much better chance of selling. A book hook for our hypothetical Princess Di book might read: “DIANA’S FASHIONS is the first book to analyze the wardrobe of the late Princess Diana, explaining what she wore and why.”

Then you go on, in one or more paragraphs, to describe the book. The best way to do this is to outline the book’s major sections. For example: “The book will be divided into two parts. Part One will describe her entire wardrobe. This part of the book will include twelve color photographs. Part Two will analyze why her clothes were so fashionable.”

The book description should close with an indication of the length of the book and your expected completion date: “The book will be 55,000 words and contain a bibliography, photographs, and an index. The manuscript will be completed six months after receipt of the advance.”

By following this outline, you can write a book overview in a matter of hours or days. All it really takes is some thought, a little research and, most importantly, passion for your subject. Then you’re ready to move on to the next section of the book proposal — the marketing section.