How to write the Book Proposal to Publisher, part one

The Writer's Desk

The Writer’s Desk

“Your book proposal is a comprehensive marketing tool that sells your product concept — your book — to the publisher,” says The Canadian Writer’s Guide, 13th edition [Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2003]. The guide goes on to explain the many requirements of a non-fiction book proposal. This is something the writer will need to research for yourself — every publisher has different requirements and you will need to check the website carefully before submitting to him.

So, the first step is to research which publisher seems to be right for your book, and best. Always remember that other publishers may publish your book, too, even if it does not fit into what they list as their “requirements.” But I didn’t know that when I wrote this. What you do not know as a first time writer looking for publication might make a huge difference to you.

Book publishers tell you the risk is all theirs. That is not true. The risk is yours, too, if you choose the wrong publisher!

When I wrote my first non-fiction book proposal, I understood it needed an argument. However, I did not understand that the argument used for a book proposal would be an entirely different argument than that contained in  the book. So, mistakes were made, but in the end it did not matter. I wasn’t ready to be published, and any publisher I submitted to in the early years was wise enough to know that!

Eventually, though, my book was ready to be presented to a publisher — I was ready, too. I nailed my book proposal!

Book proposals are quite along and a lot of work, so this will be posted in two posts. Here is the beginning part of my proposal — the most important part, perhaps!

Working Title: A Fish out of Water: Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s journey through British Columbia’s History

A working title is a working title: the publisher chooses the title of your book from the vast wealth of experience he has in the publishing industry. Looking at this now, I feel that my book should have been titled — Pathfinder: A.C. Anderson’s Journey through British Columbia’s History. The publisher felt, however, that making it B.C.’s history limited its sale, so they made “the West.” However, I learned from a bookseller that the vagueness of the title meant the book might be a Manitoba book as far as he was concerned. I had to explain that it was a West of the Rocky Mountains book.

Another thing I learned from this same bookseller: Don’t begin the title of your book with the word “The.” He’s right. Think about it: how many thousands of books begin with the word ‘The?” That was his argument anyway, and it might have been true for his database, but I have since found out that a “The” at the beginning of a title makes no difference on the important databases. Still, talk to a bookseller — it is amazing what you can learn by talking to the people who sell your books.

Here’s The Argument for the Publisher which, you will learn the hard way, differs markedly from the “argument” contained in the book:

Fifteen years before the 1858 Fraser River gold rush, a Hudson’s Bay Company clerk threaded his way through mountain passes and down rapid-filled rivers in search of a route through the mountains that separated the HBC fort at Kamloops, from Fort Langley on the Pacific coast. Half a century earlier, Alexander Mackenzie and Simon Fraser had separately explored the Fraser and its tributaries in search of a safe canoe route to the Pacific, and both had failed. More than fifty years after Mackenzie’s exploration, and almost forty years after Fraser’s downriver expedition, Alexander Caulfield Anderson succeeded in finding four routes to the lower Fraser, all of which bypassed the canyons and rapids that had foiled the earlier North West Company explorers.

In the end, only one of Anderson’s four trails served as the HBC’s brigade trail to Fort Hope (from Kamloops) for the next fifteen years. However, in the years that followed, all four of Anderson’s trails carried thousands of gold miners around the same rapid-filled canyons into the upper Fraser River gold fields.

This is the story of the fur trader whose four cross-country expeditions helped to carve modern-day British Columbia from the wilderness that surrounded Fort Langley, Kamloops, and Fort St. James. Because Anderson was so interested in the early NWC explorers whose trails he followed, his story touches on Alexander Mackenzie’s venture west to Rascal’s Village, and Simon Fraser’s chaotic descent of the river later named for him. It continues through the turbulent years as the Hudson’s Bay Company men are forced to abandon old brigade trails and open new ones. It covers Anderson’s years in the new Oregon Territory when the disappointments of the business encouraged him to retire. And it describes the 1858 gold rush and James Douglas’s creation of of the colony of Vancouver’s Island, a political action that changed the HBC’s old domain beyond recognition. The story also tells of the arrival of the Royal Engineers, who built roads through the canyons the fur traders had been unable to negotiate in safety– roads that carried British-born settlers into the wilds the fur traders had occupied for the previous fifty years.

The next requirement for a book proposal is the Synopsis of the Book’s content. Here is mine:

The manuscript prologue introduces Anderson to the reader when, as a seventy-year-old he stands in front of a group of Heiltsuk (Bella Coola) Natives and listens while they tell him their version of Alexander Mackenzie’s exploration of the sound they lived on. Chapter 1 recalls his childhood in India and England, and introduces the reader to the future fur trader and his famous/infamous family. The next chapter describes his first years at Lachine (Montreal) and at Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, WA), when he met many of the men whose trails he later followed around the fur traders’ New Caledonia (Central British Columbia).

Chapter 3 takes Anderson by ship to the fur trade forts north of Vancouver Island and into modern-day Alaska, where he faces intimidating Native chiefs and burly Russian fur traders. In Chapter 4, Anderson travels into New Caledonia with Peter Skene Ogden’s brigade, and on the upper Fraser River endures the onset of an early winter that traps his party hundreds of miles from the safety of any fur trade fort. As leader of the leather party, twenty-one year old Anderson led the men, women, and children across the Rocky Mountains to Edmonton House through freezing temperatures and deep snow.

Chapter 5 covers Anderson’s years at Fraser’s Lake, New Caledonia, including his marriage and the birth of his first children. From Fraser’s Lake, he was transferred to the Oregon Territory’s first Fort Nisqually (Tacoma, WA), where he welcomed the ships of the United States Exploring Expedition to the fort. Anderson is Charles Wilkes’ “red-coat” described in Nathaniel Philbrick’s Sea of Glory, America’s Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 (New York: Viking Press, 2003).

Chapter 6 returns Anderson to Peter Skene Ogden’s New Caledonia and discusses Fort Alexandria’s history and the first  journey over the “new” brigade trail north of Kamloops via Green and Loon Lakes. The trail’s exact route is now buried in the bush, but two historical-geographers are locating and geo-mapping this trail 150 years after it was last traversed by the New Caledonia brigades.

This chapter also speaks of the agricultural business of Fort Alexandria and describes the first mill built in New Caledonia under the auspices of Anderson and his French Canadian employees. Chapter 7 tells of landslides, and the salmon runs that were so important to the fur traders of the time. It gives further information on Pere John Nobili’s venture into New Caledonia, described in Marie Elliott’s Fort St. James and New Caledonia: Where British Columbia Began (Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2009).

Chapters 8 and 9 describe Anderson’s four expeditions in search of a new brigade trail between Kamloops and Fort Langley to replace the threatened Columbia River route to Fort Vancouver. Anderson wrote that “The background is the most rugged and dreary-looking tract I ever met with; nor had I any previous conception that so mountainous a region could exist so near the banks of a large stream like Fraser’s River.” Chapter 10 describes his discovery of the trail up the Fraser Canyon as far as “Anderson’s River” (Boston Bar, B.C.), and over the hills to the Nicola Valley. On this occasion Anderson noted, “It is difficult to realize a conception of the ruggedness of the extraordinary region without actual observation. One is surprised rather at finding an practicable passage, than disappointed in the reverse.”

The Anderson’s River route was the trail that the fur traders attempted to use as a brigade trail in 1848, and it was one of the trails that carried the gold miners into the gold fields fifteen years later. Today the bed of the old trail is traveled by hikers who begin their journey at Alexandra Lodge, at the east end of Alexandra Bridge (Spuzzum, B.C.), and cross Lake Mountain to follow the brigade trails over the hills to Nicola Valley by the same route the fur traders used.

Chapter 11 tells of Anderson’s time at Fort Colvile, near modern-day Colville, WA, and addressed the creation of the brigade trail over the Coquihalla that more or less followed the route of Anderson’s 1846 exploration. In years past, brigade trail historians Harley Hatfield, R.C. Cole, and J.C. Goodfellow, hiked over the Coquihalla trail and wrote about their adventures in fourteen or more articles published in The Beaver, British Columbia Historical Quarterly, and Okanagan Historical Society Journals. The Coquihalla trail has been re-discovered by members of the Hope Mountain Centre (; in summer 2010 this trail will again be open to hiking from Hope to Tulameen, B.C. [Do not despair: Link to their website at bottom of page]

The hardships of the fur trade took their toll on the men who worked in it, and Chapter 12 tells the story of Anderson’s last years in the fur trade and his retirement to Cathlamet, on the Columbia River west of Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, WA). The old Oregon Territory was going through many changes at this time, and because of this chapter and the Fort Nisqually chapter, this book will have a market in Portland, Oregon, and in Washington State.

Chapter 13 reveals how Anderson was tempted north to Fort Victoria, where all his fur trade friends now resided. It was 1858, and the town was flooded with gold miners who clamored to find a route into the gold-rich interior. James Douglas put Anderson in charge of building a foot trail through the chain of lakes and rivers he had followed to Fort Langley in 1846, and this road led thousands of miners into the goldfields of the upper Fraser River.

But Anderson’s fur trade past betrayed him, and Chapter 13 also tells the story of the court case that effectively ended his new career at Fort Victoria. The following chapter covers the years he struggled to make a living, until Dr. Israel Wood Powell, the Dominion of Canada’s Superintendent of Indian Affairs in British Columbia, offered him the position of Dominion Indian Reserve Commissioner. Anderson was one of three commissioners, and Chapters 14 and 15 tell of the difficulties that Anderson had with one of those Commissioners, English immigrant Gilbert Malcolm Sproat.

Chapter 15 also addresses the important work that Anderson did as Dominion Fisheries Inspector. Rod Palmer, in his article “Alexander Caulfield Anderson: an Ideal First Inspector of Fisheries,” (British Columbia Historical News, vol. 36, Spring 2003), states that Anderson played a significant role in promoting the fish stocks of British Columbia.

The epilogue of the book finishes with Anderson’s death by supposed bronchial infection and rounds out the story by explaining his importance to British Columbia. Derek Pethick said it best when he wrote: “Anderson is not a well-known figure to the general public. This is surely unjust, for his discovery of a practical all-British artery for the fur trade was to have a profound effect on the history of not only British Columbia but also of Canada itself.” Without Anderson’s explorations, Pethick argued in his book Men of British Columbia (Saanichton, B.C.: Hancock House, 1975), British Columbia could hardly have come into being and would never have become a part of the Dominion of Canada.

This is already a lot of writing, and there is more to come. The new author needs to inform the publisher of everything that is relevant to the publishing of your book, clearly and concisely. Believe me, the publisher will do no research on this subject — you must inform him!

The next sections of a typical Book Proposal are: Marketing and Competition. You must explain who else is out there writing about the things that you write about. What book is direct competition to your book? What books support or complement your book? As this, too, is a large section, I have put this in another post, which you will now find here:

I promised you the link to Hope Mountain’s website mentioned above:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014. All rights reserved.


2 thoughts on “How to write the Book Proposal to Publisher, part one

  1. Julie H. Ferguson

    Book proposals are ONLY required for nonfiction books and have mandatory components. There’s lots out there to help first-time writers — start with Google and then zero in on what the publishers on your A-list want.
    The proposal is probably the most important document you will ever write and your query letter flows from it.