Estimated reading time: 16 minutes
The art of writing the non-fiction book proposal, explained in detail.
Many aspiring nonfiction writers begin by writing an entire book.
That’s a logical approach, but major publishers don’t usually want to see an entire nonfiction book. They almost always insist that you present your book idea in the form of a book proposal.
In this article, I’ll describe the nonfiction book proposal. But if you prefer to watch a video instead, see my “Writing a Great Nonfiction Book Proposal” on YouTube.
The book proposal has two purposes
It’s important to understand that a book proposal does double duty.
- It’s a blueprint of the book that tells potential publishers about the topics covered, the style of the writing, how your book compares to others, how you will personally help promote the book, and so on.
- It’s also a sales pitch, a billboard announcing just how wonderful your book is going to be and suggesting how much money the publisher will make from the sales.
Once you’ve impressed an agent with your query letter, she or he will ask for your book proposal. The agent may or may not offer you advice about improving it, and some agents will even roll up their sleeves and work with you to polish it to perfection. Once satisfied, the agent will present it to editors at the appropriate publishing houses.
Key elements of a nonfiction book proposal
There is no standard format for a nonfiction book proposal, and various agents have their own ideas of what it should contain. Fortunately, all approaches contain the same basic elements, which can be shuffled and combined in different ways. These elements include:
- Title Page – A single page with the title of your proposed book, your name, plus a few “selling sentences”—that is, the gist of your book in a couple of scintillating sentences.
- Synopsis – Sometimes called Overview, the synopsis is your entire book distilled into a couple of pages—what your book is about and why people will want to read it.
- About the Author – A description of who you are and why you’re qualified to write and promote this book.
- Market Analysis – An examination of the potential buyers for your book.
- Marketing Plan – An in-depth look at how you’re going to help sell your book. This may include listings of the TV and radio shows you’ve been on and/or have booked, your lecture schedule, companies or organizations that will be interested in supporting your book, your own marketing budget for the book, and anything else that demonstrates your commitment to supporting book sales.
- Competing Books – A look at the competition. Ideally, there are already some published books on your general topic, which shows there is a market for your book. This section explains how your book is different from the others and what makes it stand out from the crowd.
- Table of Contents – A list of chapter titles in the order they will appear in your book.
- Chapter Outline – Two to four paragraphs about each chapter, explaining what the chapter will cover.
- Sample Chapters – One to three completely finished and polished chapters, so the publisher will be able to assess the content, writing style, and overall feel of the book.
- Supporting Materials – Endorsements, pictures, articles by or about you, your detailed CV, tapes of your TV appearances, website screenshots, and so on—anything that can help sell your book!
Depending on your book, other sections such as “Reader Benefits” may also be added to the proposal.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the book proposal elements listed above.
The proposal’s Title Page is your first opportunity to present your book idea in the most favorable light. As a key part of your blueprint/prospectus, every word is important. The title page contains:
- The book’s title
- The subtitle, if any
- Your name
- Your credentials – Keep the list brief, only citing those that are relevant.
- Selling sentences – Also known as the hook or the handle, these brief sentences (two at the most) encapsulate the book’s content and appeal. For our book Wake Up! You’re Alive, the selling sentence was: “An M.D.s prescription for healthier living through positive thinking.” In just nine words, several important points are made: that the author, an M.D., is qualified to write this advice book; that healthier living is the promise; and that positive thinking is the tool.
The Synopsis is your next chance to show that your book is fascinating, readable, timely, and otherwise a prime candidate for publication and that you are the right person to write it.
In this section, you present your idea, program, or story; briefly discuss the potential marketplace; and mention the book’s genre, word count, and more. Everything an editor needs to know should be touched upon in the synopsis.
This is a lot to cover, and it has to be done in a concise and readable way. But if done correctly, it will demonstrate that you truly understand what your book is about and are proficient in writing what people want to read.
Be sure to demonstrate the book’s writing style in the Synopsis. For example, don’t just tell the editors that the book is going to be funny—give them a taste of your humor. If your book will be full of dramatic case histories of miraculous business turnarounds, write a synopsis that includes some drama.
That said, don’t try to squeeze every detail of your book into the synopsis. Just hit the high points. Show the editors you can be concise, yet comprehensive and compelling.
The length of the synopsis is variable, with agents asking for anywhere from one to five pages. Remember to cover:
- Your idea/story – Just the essence of your idea or story. Do not delve into the minutiae, or give a blow-by-blow account of your topic.
- The book’s timeliness – Is your book tied to something coming up, like an important anniversary of a major event?
- What makes your book unique
- Why you are uniquely positioned to write and promote the book
- Potential markets – Briefly mention the primary, secondary, and specialty markets. (See more on this below.)
- Methodology – If appropriate, explain how you have gathered the information for the book. For example, are you working from the private papers of your biography subject? Will you be interviewing scientists? Have you already secured the cooperation of those writing the individual chapters in your anthology? You get the idea.
- Word count and genre
- Special features – Will your book have photos, menus, worksheets, maps, quizzes, or other non-text features?
- Anticipated delivery date – Indicate how long it will take you to write the full manuscript once the deal has been signed.
What one agent says about “The Synopsis”
Here’s what literary agent Kate McKean says about the overview (synopsis): “I treat it like an abbreviated introduction, as you might see it in the actual book, but like 1000ish words. The reader (i.e., the agent or editor) should come away with the main takeaway, argument, or goal of your book, and how you’re going to get the reader there.” – “What’s a Book Proposal?” by Kate McKean
About the author
Also known as the Author Qualifications or Biography, this section is a more detailed look at both you and your qualifications, expanding upon what was mentioned in the synopsis. The goal is to show that you are exactly the right person to write and promote this book.
This section should prominently feature:
- The parts of your education and experience that make you an expert on your topic.
- Your publishing history, if any, to show that you are already published in the field and are a professional writer who can deliver as promised. Even if you are not well known to the general public, you may have a following in your field, thanks to your previous publications.
- The number of hits you receive per day on your blog, Huffington Post page, and other media platforms.
- Your social media engagement, emphasizing how engaged your social media followers are, not simply how many there are.
- Your TV, radio, lectures, webinars, and other appearances, whether virtual or real-life.
- Articles written by or about you.
- Your personal contacts in the media—those who may be helpful when it comes time to promote your book.
- Your personal contacts with VIPs in your field who can help promote your book.
- Any seminars or classes you teach on the topic or related topics.
- Anything else that shows you already have in place the means to sell a lot of copies.
Remember that the About the Author section is part of the overall pitch. Don’t just toss your CV into the proposal. Instead, use this section to demonstrate that you understand the book business and you write well.
- Approaching this section as you would your CV, creating an endless list of your accomplishments.
- Rattling on about your family, where you live, your hobbies, and your favorite foods—unless it’s relevant to the book.
- Fibbing about your past publications and sales figures (or anything else), as these may be vetted.
What one agent says regarding “About the Author”
Advice from the Levine, Greenberg, Rostan Literary Agency: “Don’t be shy in developing this biographical sketch…. If you have published other books, let us know what they are and if any were critically and/or commercially successful. If you lecture or make frequent media appearances, let us know. Err on the side of tooting your own horn too loudly….” – “Proposals” by Levine, Greenberg, Rostan Literary Agency
In this section, also called the Potential Markets, you identify your probable readers, so the publisher can get a ballpark idea of how many copies might reasonably sell.
Note the word “reasonably.” It’s tempting to believe that everyone will want to read your book, but that’s unrealistic. I had a New York Times bestseller, The Arthritis Cure, that sold well over a million copies—a huge success. Yet most people have never read it or even heard of it. That’s because the book wasn’t aimed at most people, but at a specific, well-targeted audience: those suffering from osteoarthritis.
It’s important to be realistic when estimating the size of your readership. Claiming that “everyone” or “the hundreds of millions of Americans offended by politics” will want to read your book tells a prospective publisher that you haven’t really thought through the book’s premise or potential readership. Who exactly is it for? A book on weatherproofing your house shouldn’t be aimed at everyone who owns a house. It should be designed for those who own a house and live in a place where the weather is an issue, and are willing and able to do something about the problem themselves. It may also be aimed at home builders and contractors.
Be aware that your potential readership doesn’t have to be huge for you to get a book deal. Publishers know the number of potential readers is less important than their degree of interest in books like yours. A book on the history of cameras wouldn’t be compelling to everyone who uses a camera, but it could be of great interest to the small and dedicated group of camera aficionados. And they’ll buy it!
Once you’ve zeroed in on the book’s primary market, keep thinking. Secondary and specialty markets can also provide plenty of readers.
You can think of secondary markets as sort of “second-tier”—people who may be interested in your book even though they don’t fall into the primary category. For example, if you’re writing a romance set in New York during the Gilded Age, your primary market may be readers of historical romances, which consists primarily of women 50 and over. Your secondary market, however, could be people interested in American history and historical figures, as well those who like to read about historic New York.
The third category, specialty markets, includes venues that sell books related to a particular activity or interest, such as religious stores, museums, gift shops, websites, and others. For example, the gift shop at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles sells items with a musical theme or motif—including books, scarves, games, jewelry, and toys. Your book about how to understand great music might sell like hotcakes there.
Specialty markets may also include schools, companies, and other institutions or groups to whom you can sell the book directly. Our book, Green Tea: The Natural Secret for a Healthier Life, was picked up by Jamba Juice and sold in their stores nationwide, ratcheting up our sales by about 500 percent!
Identifying potential specialty markets is important. Although publishers are very familiar with primary and secondary markets, they may not be aware of the specialty markets that can really ramp up your sales.
What one agent says about “The Market Analysis”
Agent Rachelle Gardner suggests you consider this: “Why would somebody buy this book? How is this audience reached? Do you have any special relationships to the market? What books and magazines does this audience already read? What radio and TV programs do they tune in to? Demonstrate an understanding of exactly who will buy your book and why.” – “How to Write a Book Proposal” by Rachelle Gardner
Also known as the Competition, Competitive Analysis, and Comparative Titles, the Competing Books section looks at books that are similar to yours.
Don’t try to make your book stand out by saying it’s so unique there’s nothing like it anywhere. If there are no competing books, the publisher may conclude there is no market for your book. Your goal in this section is to show there is a flourishing market for your type of book and that you fill a gap in the market. Your book has a different angle on the topic, new research, it’s counterintuitive, it’s designed for different readers, or there is something else that makes it special.
To prepare this section:
- Select and briefly describe five to eight books that compete with yours. Pick the top competing books to discuss.
- Point out how your book is both different and necessary.
- Say that “there are no other books like mine” or “mine leaves the others in the dust”—this suggests that you have either not studied the market, or are trying to pull the wool over the publisher’s eyes.
- Give misleading information about other books.
- Ignore pertinent books because you don’t know how to distinguish your book from them. The editor reading your proposal will notice the omission.
- Rely on only well-known blockbusters that everyone else is writing about in their proposals. Explore books like yours in-depth to demonstrate to editors that you truly know the market.
- Trash the competing books. The person reading your proposal may have edited the book you are disparaging!
What one agent says about “Competing Books”
Advice from literary agent Ted Weinstein: “You are trying to accomplish two things with this section: prove there is an audience who would find your book interesting, as demonstrated by earlier, successful books, while making clear how yours is different enough to compel those readers—and others—to buy it.” – “Nonfiction Book Proposal Outline” by Ted Weinstein
Table of contents
The Table of Contents is just what it sounds like—a listing of the chapters in your proposed book, just as you’d see it in a book. Make sure your chapter titles are as interesting and evocative as they’ll be in the finished book.
If your book is witty, be sure to reflect that wit in the chapter titles. If it’s scholarly, the reader should be able to tell immediately, just by looking at your scholarly table of contents. Don’t worry about getting locked in. You can always change the chapter names and move chapters around when the proposal has been sold and you begin writing the rest of the manuscript. Publishers understand this happens.
Please note that the table of contents for your book is not the same thing as the contents section of your book proposal, which lists the elements of the proposal and page numbers.
The Chapter Outline, sometimes called the Chapter Summary, consists of a series of one-to-three-paragraph summations of each of the book’s chapters. The goal is to show what’s in each chapter and how the chapters work together to make a complete and compelling book. This is also an excellent opportunity for you to show the publisher how readable your book will be.
You should write the outline in the style of the book, whether it’s humorous, dramatic, factual, or you name it. The essence of the book and your voice should always shine through. So don’t simply list whatever it is you intend to cover; present each chapter outline with flair, gusto, pathos, or whatever else is appropriate for your book.
What one agent says about the “Chapter Outline”
Advice from the Margret McBride Literary Agency: “Give the publisher a glance at how the entire book will read. One paragraph per chapter is adequate. This lets the publisher know you have the book planned from beginning to end.”
Now it’s time to put your money where your mouth is, to demonstrate that you truly can turn your ideas into a well-written book by delivering one or more sample chapters. Some agents prefer just one chapter, others want more, but you can expect to write, rewrite, edit, polish, and proofread up to 50 pages taken directly from your manuscript.
Which chapter(s) should you use? The first chapter is often included because it typically lays out the premise of the book and introduces the main ideas. But as a general rule, you’ll want to include the funniest, most controversial, most dramatic, most shocking, or most interesting chapter(s).
A well-written book proposal speaks volumes!
The proposal gives the prospective publisher a clear idea of what you’re writing and its money-making prospects, so don’t skimp on quality or thoroughness. It’s your book’s calling card and can definitely make or break a sale.
Obviously, since book proposals are primarily selling documents, they are only necessary if you want to go the traditional publishing route. If you intend to self-publish, you can skip it. However, some self-publishing authors decide to write a proposal anyway, as it makes them think through how they intend to structure the book, who it will appeal to, who their audience is, and other important issues. The proposal is also a valuable blueprint of the book that will guide the writing process.
What one agent says about the well-written proposal
Advice from agent Deborah Grosvenor: “…everything about your submission must be outstanding, from the way it reads to the way it looks to what you bring to the table in terms of credentials. It is increasingly important to educate yourself about the publishing industry and understand the importance of selling and marketing yourself and your ideas.”
An editor for HarperCollins adds:
Emily Rodmell (@EmilyRodmell), an editor at HarperCollins/Harlequin, offers this advice: “The best way to spot typos before a submission? Read your book out loud or have a computer program do it for you.”
The nonfiction book proposal is a combination of a description of the book-to-be and a marketing document.
As agent Adriann Ratan suggests in her “How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal,” the goal is to “make buying your book as easy for the publisher as possible. Think of any question a publisher might have and answer it first: Who will provide the photographer or illustrator? Who’s the target audience, and what’s the best way to reach them? Why are you the best person to write this book? Why does the book-buying public need this book? At its root, this is the purpose of each section in a book proposal, so be clear and persuasive.”
If you’d like help with your proposal…
Contact us! We’re Barry Fox and Nadine Taylor, professional ghostwriters and authors with a long list of satisfied clients and editors at major publishing houses.
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Then call us at 818-917-5362, or use our contact form to send an email. We’d love to talk to you about your exciting book project!