Note: I’m teaching a class on nonfiction book proposals this February in partnership with Creative Nonfiction.
Book proposals are used to sell nonfiction books to publishers.
A book proposal argues why your book (idea) is salable and marketable in today’s market. It essentially acts as a business case for why your book should exist, and—for many authors—persuades a publisher to make an investment in your work before you sit down to write it.
That’s right: nonfiction authors, if they’re smart and strategic, will sell a publisher on their book before they’ve written very much of it.
Instead of writing the entire book, then trying to interest an editor or agent (which is how it works with novels), you can write the proposal first if you’re a nonfiction author. If a publisher is convinced by the proposal, it will contract you and pay you to write the book. This applies to all types of nonfiction, although it can be very challenging for memoirists to sell a project on the basis of a proposal if they are unpublished or without a compelling platform. (More on that in a second.)
If properly developed and researched, a proposal can take weeks, or longer, to prepare. While proposal length varies tremendously, most are somewhere around 10 to 25 pages double-spaced, not including sample chapters. It’s not out of the question for a proposal to reach 50 pages or more for complex projects once sample chapters are included.
Unpublished or beginning writers might find it easier to simply write the book first, then prepare a proposal—which isn’t a bad idea in the case of memoir, since many editors and agents want assurance that an unknown writer has sufficient writing chops to pull off their project.
But having the manuscript complete does not get you off the hook when it comes to writing the proposal. If an agent or publisher wants a proposal, you still need to write one even if the book is complete.
What about novel proposals? You may occasionally hear someone refer to novel proposals, which typically includes a query or cover letter, a synopsis, and a partial or complete manuscript. This bears very little relation to a nonfiction book proposal.
Your business case may matter more than the writing
People don’t like to hear this, but for many nonfiction books, the artfulness of the writing doesn’t matter as much as the marketability of the premise, topic, or author. You can see this played out in the rejections received by Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
If your book’s purpose is to improve readers’ lives or to teach, then you’re usually selling it based on your expertise, your platform, and your concept. The book proposal persuades agents/editors that readers will pay for the benefit that your book provides, rather than learning from YouTube, Google, or even a competing book. While everyone expects the writing to be solid, they’re probably not expecting a literary masterpiece. To learn how to lose weight, readers don’t need a poet; they need a clear communicator who can deliver her ideas and methods in a way that will help and inspire readers to achieve their goals. Plus those ideas and methods ought to feel fresh and exciting, and not like last year’s 100 weight-loss books on the market. (Even better: the book shows how the most recent books really missed something critical that readers must know to succeed.)
Especially in how-to categories such as health, self-help or self-improvement, business, or parenting, your credibility and platform as a professional in the field play a critical role; your background must convey authority and instill confidence in the reader. Would you, as a reader, trust a health book by an author with no medical experience or degrees? Would you be OK reading a serious guide on how to invest in the stock market by someone who is living in a van down by the river?
For narrative nonfiction, especially memoir, the writing does matter
Some types of nonfiction require authors with proven journalistic or storytelling skills. (What is narrative nonfiction? It’s a story of someone or some thing other than yourself. Think Seabiscuit.) If your book must succeed based on its ability to artfully weave a story, then your strength as a writer becomes more and more important to the proposal’s success. It’s still necessary to prove there’s a market for that story, but you won’t be successful if your sample chapters are poor or you can’t point to a successful publication record in outlets that matter to your topic or book’s future success.
If your book doesn’t require a narrative structure or long-form storytelling, with masterful use of craft and technique, then your skills as a writer mainly have to be up to the task of producing and revising a book manuscript with an editor’s or agent’s guidance.
The biggest mistake writers make in their book proposals
It’s natural to assume the book proposal should discuss what your book is about. But this is a mistake. Rather than focusing on the content, focus on why this book matters right now to the intended readership. Why is it going to resonate? How is it addressing an urgent need? How does it offer something new and surprising that doesn’t feel like everything that’s come before?
While some types of evergreen topics may not have a sense of urgency tied to them, they still have to demonstrate market relevance. For example, if you’re pitching a knitting book, you probably need to demonstrate that your techniques or projects will be of interest to knitters today, rather than knitters 30 years ago.
Whatever you do, don’t get lost in the weeds of your book’s ideas or content. Always discuss the content in relation to the reader’s need or community need and why it matters now.
Other common pitfalls:
- Assuming that a “comprehensive” treatment or an in-depth discussion of your topic is a selling point. Rarely is this enough. Instead, think about how and why the argument that your book makes is new and compelling. How does it shed new light on a topic people care about? How does your book illuminate the unexpected or challenge readers in ways they don’t expect? Another way to think about it: Eric Nelson comments on how authors should position their ideas in terms of a switch instead of a dial if they want to generate agent or editor enthusiasm.
- Assuming that a short, “accessible” treatment is a selling point. It is challenging to prove that an audience is out there waiting to a buy a book only if it were shorter or less difficult than the alternatives.
- Assuming that your personal experience of the issue is a selling point. Unless you are a famous author or have an established platform that has attracted agents and editors to your door, just because you have personally experienced something doesn’t make your book instantly more salable.
The memoirist’s dilemma
Submission guidelines vary tremendously when it comes to memoir. Some agents don’t require a book proposal, while others want only the book proposal and the first few chapters. Some agents may even ask for both the proposal and the complete manuscript if you’re an unpublished author.
Professional, published writers can typically sell a memoir based on the proposal alone. New, emerging writers who have no publishing track record may be asked to submit a complete manuscript to prove they can write, sometimes in addition to the book proposal itself.
Your memoir is not salable unless you’re confident of several things.
- Your writing must be outstanding. If your memoir is your very first book or very first writing attempt, then it may not be good enough to pass muster with an editor or agent.
- You must have a compelling and unusual story to tell. If you’re writing about situations that affect thousands (or millions) of people, that’s not necessarily in your favor. Addiction and cancer memoirs, for example, are common, and will put you on the road to rejection unless you’re able to prove how yours is unique or outstanding in the field.
- You have the start of a platform. If you have a way to reach readers, without a publisher’s help, then you’re more likely to secure a book deal.
Here’s the dilemma for many memoirists: If an agent wants a book proposal for a memoir, they are likely judging you based on the strength of your platform or as much on the platform as the writing. They want to see if your story premise might have mainstream media potential or the ability to land major interviews that will lead to sales. If you have little or no platform, and your story is lyrical, quiet, or literary, then you should try to target agents and publishers who don’t require a proposal. A proposal will only highlight what your project lacks.
Finding a literary agent (and do you need one?)
If you want to publish with one of the big New York houses, then you’ll need to submit your work to literary agents. Projects that don’t necessarily require agents include scholarly works for university presses, books likely to be published by regional or independent presses, and niche titles with limited commercial appeal.
The most common book proposal sections
While there’s no single “best” way to write and assemble a book proposal—it will depend on the category, the author, and the publishers’ submission guidelines—the following sections appear in almost every book proposal.
Comparable titles or competitive title analysis
I mention this section first because this is where I suggest writers start their proposal research. It will help clarify your idea and avoid lots of wasted time. This section discusses competing titles and how yours fits into the overall scene. The analysis typically includes 5 to 10 titles, but you might be okay discussing just a few if your book is on a specialized topic or for a very narrow audience.
For each competing title, begin by noting the title, subtitle, author, publisher, year of publication, page count, price, first published format (usually hardcover or paperback), and the ISBN. You don’t need to list things such as Amazon ranking, star rating, or reviews. Also don’t worry about including the sales numbers of the competing titles. There’s no way for an average author to find out that information, and the agent or editor can look it up themselves.
Then comes the most important part: for each competitor, you briefly summarize the book’s approach in relation to your own (about 100–200 words per title). You should be able to differentiate your title from the competition, and show why there’s a need for your book.
Resist trashing the competition; it may come back to bite you. (Publishing is a small industry.) And don’t skimp on your title research—editors can tell when you haven’t done your homework, plus fully understanding the competition should help you write a better proposal. I discuss the research process here.
Whatever you do, don’t claim there are no competitors to your book. If there are truly no competitors, then your book might be so weird and specialized that it won’t sell.
For some nonfiction topics and categories, the availability of online information can immediately kill the potential for a print book. Travel is a good example—its print sales have declined by 50 to 75 percent since 2007. Also, many book ideas I see pitched should really start out as a site or community—even if only to test-market the idea, to learn more about the target audience, and to ultimately produce a print product that has a ready and eager market once it’s published.
Who will primarily buy your book? “Primarily” is key here. You want to describe the people who will be easiest to convince, or the most likely readership. Who will be lining up to pre-order and spread the word from there?
Avoid generically describing the book buying audience in the United States, or broadly discussing how many memoirs sold last year. Publishers don’t need to be given broad industry statistics; they need you to draw a clear portrait of the type of person (beyond “book buyers”) who will be interested in what you have to say.
It can be very tempting to make a broad statement about who your audience is, to make it sound like anyone and everyone is a potential reader. Avoid generic statements like these:
- A Google search result on [topic] turns up more than 10 million hits.
- A U.S. Census shows more than 20 million people in this demographic.
- An Amazon search turns up more than 10,000 books with “dog” in the title.
These are meaningless statistics. The following statements show better market insight:
- Recent reviewers of [competing titles] complain that they are not keeping up with new information and trends. The hottest new trend in [category] is not discussed or covered in recent titles.
- The New York Times recently wrote about the increased interest in military memoirs; [X and Y] media outlets regularly profile soldiers who’ve written books about their experience.
- My readers include the people who have become devoted supporters of [X podcast or Y paid newsletter], which have X subscribers/downloads.
For more guidance, see my post on How to Define and Describe Your Readership.
What can you specifically do to market and promote the book? Never discuss what you hope to do, only what you can and will do (without publisher assistance), given your current resources. Many people write their marketing plan in extremely tentative fashion, talking about things they are “willing” to do if asked. This is deadly language. Avoid it. Instead, you need to be confident, firm, and direct about everything that’s going to happen with or without the publisher’s help. Make it concrete, realistic, and attach numbers to everything.
I plan to register a domain and start a blog for my book.
Within 6 months of launch, my blog on [book topic] already attracts 5,000 unique visits per month.
I plan to contact bloggers for guest blogging opportunities.
I have guest blogged every month for the past year to reach 250,000 readers, at sites such as [include 2–3 examples of most well-known blogs]. I have invitations to return on each site, plus I’ve made contact with 10 other bloggers for future guest posts.
I plan to contact conferences and speak on [book topic].
I am in contact with organizers at XYZ conferences, and have spoken at 3 events within the past year reaching 5,000 people in my target audience.
The secret of a marketing plan isn’t the number of ideas you have for marketing, or how many things you are willing to do, but how many solid connections you have—the ones that are already working for you—and how many readers you NOW reach through today’s efforts. You need to show that your ideas are not just pie in the sky, but real action steps that will lead to concrete results and a connection to an existing readership.
It can be helpful to begin with a bio you already use at your website or at LinkedIn. But don’t just copy and paste your bio into the proposal and consider the job done. You have to convince agents and editors you’re the perfect author for the book. Show how your expertise and experience give you the perfect platform from which to address your target audience. If this is a weak area for you, look for other strengths that might give you credibility with readers or help sell books—such as connections to experts or authorities in the field, a solid online following, and previous success in marketing yourself and your work. Agent Anna Sproul-Latimer has great advice on author bios for book proposals.
This comes at the very beginning of your proposal. I suggest you write it last. Think of it as the executive summary of the entire document, around two to three pages. It needs to sing and present a water-tight business case. If done well, it can become the basis of your query letter. My proposal template (see below) includes more guidance.
Chapter outline and/or table of contents
A chapter outline works well for narrative or meaty works, especially those that are text-heavy and anticipated to come in at 80,000 words or more. For each chapter, you write a brief summary of the idea, information, or story presented. I suggest your chapter outline not extend past 3,000 words.
If writing a chapter outline seems redundant or unnecessary for your book’s content, then use a table of contents. And if you want to use both, that’s completely acceptable. The most important thing is to show how your book concept will play out from beginning to end, and strongly convey the scope and range of material covered.
If you’re writing a memoir that has a distinct beginning, middle, and end, then include sample material that starts at the beginning of the book. If your work isn’t a narrative, then write or include a sample chapter that you think is the meatiest or most impressive chapter. Don’t try to get off easy by using the introduction; this is your opportunity to show that you can deliver on your book’s promise.
Common problems with book proposals
- The writer hasn’t articulated a clearly defined market or need—or the writer has described a market that’s too niche for a commercial publisher to pursue.
- The concept is too general or broad, or has no unique angle.
- The writer wants to do a book based on his or her own amateur experience of overcoming a problem or investigating a complex issue. (No expertise or credentials.)
- The writer concentrates only on the content of the book or his own experience—instead of the book’s hook and benefit and appeal to the marketplace.
- The proposed idea is like a million others; nothing compelling sets the book apart.
If you’re told the market isn’t big enough, maybe you approached too big of a publisher. Is there a smaller publisher that would be interested because they have a lower threshold of sales to meet? Big houses may want to sell as many as 20,000 copies in the first year to justify publication; smaller presses may be fine with a few thousand copies.
The most common problem leading to rejection: no author platform
A sizable platform and expertise is typically required to successfully sell a nonfiction book to a major publisher, especially for competitive categories such as business, cooking, health, self-help, or parenting. (Here’s a definition of platform.) An agent or editor is going to evaluate your visibility in the market, and will want to know the following:
- The stats and analytics behind your online following, including all websites, blogs, social media accounts, e-mail newsletters, regular online writing gigs, podcasts, videos, etc.
- Your offline following—speaking engagements, events, classes/teaching, city/regional presence, professional organization leadership roles and memberships, etc.
- Your presence in traditional media (regular gigs, features, any coverage you’ve received, etc)
- Your network strength—reach to influencers or thought leaders, a prominent position at a major organization or business
- Sales of past books or self-published works
You typically need to be visible to tens of thousands of people, with verifiable influence, to interest a major publisher. Traditional houses are pickier than ever; producing anything in print is a significant investment and risk. They need to know there’s an audience waiting to buy. Plus, given the significant change in the publishing industry, authors shouldn’t consider a print book their first goal or the end goal, but merely one way, and usually not the best way, for making money.
A book proposal template to help you get started
Download a nonfiction book proposal template (Word file) that is already formatted according to industry guidelines. It also includes brief guidance, tips and common mistakes for each section.
I also offer research worksheets, to help you prepare to write the book proposal.
More resources on book proposals
- Agent Ted Weinstein outlines the necessary parts of a book proposal, and also offers an audio recording of his 90-minute workshop on proposals.
- My favorite comprehensive guide on book proposals is How to Write a Book Proposal by agent Michael Larsen.
- For professors and academics, I recommend Laura Portwood-Stacer’s resources.
Looking for more help?
- This Saturday (Dec. 4), I’m teaching a class in partnership with Albert Flynn DeSilver on the business of writing nonfiction.
- Copy Write Consultants offers assistance with researching agents and publishers.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.