Note from Jane: I offer a self-study course on nonfiction book proposals.
Book proposals are used to sell nonfiction books to publishers.
A book proposal argues why your book (idea) is a salable, marketable product. It acts as a business case or business plan for your book that persuades a publisher to make an investment. Instead of writing the entire book, then trying to interest an editor or agent (which is how it works with novels), you write the proposal first. If a publisher is convinced by your argument, it contracts you and pays you to write the book.
If properly developed and researched, a proposal can take weeks or longer to write. 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 materials are included.
New 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 narrative nonfiction, 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.
Note: 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 little to no 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 book or the author. (You can see this played out in the rejections received by award-winner Rebecca Skloot.)
If your book’s purpose is to impart useful information or to benefit readers’ lives, then you’re selling it based on the marketability of your expertise, your platform, and your concept. The book proposal persuades agents/editors that readers will pay $20 or more for the benefit that your book provides. While everyone expects the writing to be solid, they’re probably not expecting a literary masterpiece. That is: 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 readers achieve their goals.
Especially in fields such as health, self-help, or parenting, your credibility and platform as a professional in the field may be most critical; 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?)
Some types of nonfiction can be credibly pitched by anyone with proven journalistic or storytelling skills. (Think of a narrative nonfiction book, such as 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. It’s still necessary to prove there’s a market for that story, but you won’t be successful in your pitch if you can’t deliver on the writing.
If your book doesn’t require a narrative structure, 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. (In some cases, a ghostwriter may come into play, but this typically requires deep pockets on the part of the author or a very motivated publisher.)
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 the content will benefit the reader or why the reader will care. At the publishing house I worked at, this was called “evidence of need.” Why this book? Why does it matter? What need does it fulfill? Your proposal must focus on these questions, and not get lost in explaining your book’s ideas. Always discuss the content in relation to the reader’s need or society’s needs.
The problem with pitching memoir
Submission guidelines vary tremendously when it comes to pitching memoir. Some agents don’t require a book proposal for memoir, 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, if they clearly have writing chops or publication credits to back up the proposal. New, emerging writers who have no publishing track record will likely 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 get a book deal.
Finding a literary agent (and do you need one?)
If you are writing a book that has significant commercial value, or you want to publish with a New York house, 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 other niche titles with little commercial value.
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.
Competitive title analysis
This section analyzes competing book titles and why yours is different or needed. The analysis typically includes 5-10 titles. You might be okay discussing just a few titles if your book is on a specialized topic or for a very narrow audience.
For each entry in your competitive title analysis, begin by listing the title, subtitle, author, publisher, year of publication, page count, price, format, and the ISBN. If it has a specific edition number, include that, too. 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 if required.
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 clearly differentiate your title from the competition, and show why there’s a need for your book.
Resist trashing the competition; it will come back to bite you. 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.
Keep in mind that 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 percent since 2007. 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.
Target market or target audience
Who will buy your book? Why will it sell? In as much detail as possible, discuss an identifiable market of readers who will be compelled to spend money on your information or story in book form.
Avoid generically describing the book buying audience in the United States, or—for example—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 specific type of person (beyond “book buyers”) who will be interested in your book. We need to be able to envision who the readers are and how they can be marketed to.
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:
- Media surveys indicate that at least 50% of quilters plan to spend about $1,000 on their hobby this year, and 60% indicated they buy books on quilting.
- Recent reviewers of [X books] complain that they are not keeping up with new information and trends.
- 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.
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 also guest blogged every month for the past year to reach another 250,000 visitors, 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.
This comes at the very beginning of your proposal; think of it as the executive summary, around two to three pages. I suggest you write it last. It needs to sing and present a water-tight business case.
Chapter outline (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, usually 100-200 words per chapter.
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 narrative work 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
- They’ve been submitted to an inappropriate agent, editor, or publisher.
- 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 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.
More resources on book proposals
- I offer a comprehensive course on book proposals that takes you through the research and writing process in 10 steps.
- 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 taking a look at The Professor Is In.