Start Here: How to Write a Book Proposal

book proposal

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 pay 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Marketing plan

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.

Weak
I plan to register a domain and start a blog for my book.

Strong
Within 6 months of launch, my blog on [book topic] already attracts 5,000 unique visits per month.

Weak
I plan to contact bloggers for guest blogging opportunities.

Strong
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.

Weak
I plan to contact conferences and speak on [book topic].

Strong
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.

Author bio

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.

Overview

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.

Sample chapters

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


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Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

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 co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

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. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

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.

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216 Comments on "Start Here: How to Write a Book Proposal"

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[…] And finally, a word of warning from author Jane Friedman: […]

Nate

Hi Jane!

Thank you for all the advice above! I’m writing a non fiction book in which I have little credible expertise compared with other authors who have written about the same subject (Music learning). Would you recommend to write the book first and then decide whether go down the self publishing route, or write a proposal in the manner in which you have indicated above? Many Thanks!

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[…] I KNOW there are countless articles and blog posts from successful authors and agents (like this one from Jane Friedman who says what I’m trying to write is a novel proposal) out there with recommendations on how to do […]

Ryan

I am thinking about working on a non-fiction book and I found your site to be very helpful. I think I have a good idea with a unique twist that combindes a couple of old ideas, but my market is narrow. There are several publishers that deal in my subject matter. Is it a wise idea to submit a proposal to several publishers at the same time? Or, should I submit one at a time?

Mazen
Hello Jane, Great post, many thanks for the info. I am a Syrian Christian and I have been toying with the idea of writing a book about what life is like for people like myself – we are what is referred to as ‘a killer identity’. My plan is to write a book about some of my friends and myself, the kind of hardships we run through both for the people who stayed in Syria, and for the ones who relocated abroad. I get very excited about the thought of getting it all down on paper, but do you believe… Read more »
Robyn M

Jane, thanks for your generosity and and thoughtful advice. I am finding getting my third book published is much harder than the first two. It has been been strongly recommended to me to get publishers interested, I should have “major star”power (ie celebrities) contributing to the book I am editing. I would love your opinion on this.

lojack87
Hello Jane, I know it’s been a while since you’ve posted this article but I just came across it and found it helpful. I’ve been sitting on a memoir idea for a while but have been hesitant about writing it only because I’m still pretty young (26). But, I do feel like there is a market for young adult memoirs, based on blogs I’ve read about others who share humorous and relatable coming of age experiences. However, I am not an author of a blog nor have had the longevity to write for a well-known paper or magazine. Would you… Read more »
alisha

thank you so much for this just what I was looking for.

jen

How do you retain the rights to the book idea once you send it out to various publishers? I have a great topic for a book/screenplay, but I really do worry that once I get it out there, someone with more experience will run with it.
Thanks

Charlotte Tiller

Your website is fantastic and has really helped to put me in the right direction! i will be heading to your website for more tips and hints as i begin writing! thank you!

HappyOne

Great article! I am writing a book on self-harm, as this topic has definitely touched my family and brought some very tough yet insightful conservations. I am wondering if you know if this is a topic publishers are interested in, or tend to shy away from?

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[…] publisher of Writer’s Digest, publishing industry veteran, and educator—says that you have to address in your book proposal. Less pithy industry vets say that you need to be able to explain what your book is about and why […]

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[…] obra, parece sensato que las revise antes un corrector. Para las ideas de no ficción, se denomina book proposal al plan de negocio para el libro que se plantea escribir con el respaldo de la editorial o que ya […]

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[…] Start Here: How to Write a Book Proposal […]

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[…] Start Here: How to Write a Book Proposal […]

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[…] you pitch your book to editors and agents, one component of your book proposal [see Jane's 101 post on book proposals] is the competitive title analysis. The goal is to evaluate how unique and necessary your book is […]

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[…] you pitch your book to editors and agents, one component of your book proposal [see Jane's 101 post on book proposals] is the competitive title analysis. The goal is to evaluate how unique and necessary your book is […]

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[…] Start Here: How to Write a Book Proposal […]

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[…] Proposal by Jeff Herman includes sample proposals. This post by Nancy Peske is also useful. And these instructions from Jane Friedman are not to be […]

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[…] (Regarding getting an agent, it’s a bit more complex than “be an awesome writer”, but it’s not rocket science. It involves creating a pitch or proposal that doesn’t just showcase your writing, but why your subject matter is relevant to today’s readers. If you’re interested in more on that topic, here’s great stuff from Jane Friedman on How to Write a Book Proposal.) […]

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[…] resources available to help you create a killer book proposal.  Check out this awesome post [LINK: https://janefriedman.com/2012/11/09/start-here-how-to-write-a-book-proposal/%5D by Jane Friedman, former publisher of Writer’s Digest.  Another favorite resource is The […]

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[…] are many ways to approach a book proposal. Start with my post. Then see Michael Hyatt andJane Friedman for […]

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[…] wish I had sure-fire solutions to the above problems. The best you can do is take the time to develop a book proposal before committing to due dates and results. This won’t eliminate headaches, but it will […]

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[…] Jane Friredman’s guide, which is especially good with the kind of marketing stuff that no one evereverevereverever mentioned in grad school […]

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[…] This post is by far the most complete one, giving you pretty much everything you need to know on the subject. It explains the difference in proposals between traditional non-fiction and narrative non-fiction, helps you write a strong proposal, and gives a very thorough overview of the book proposal. […]

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[…] no longer sure how to answer these questions. I’ve got hints, such as writing a book proposal first and allowing more time for the first edition of a book than subsequent revisions. But I feel […]

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[…] your next action might be to draft a table of contents or write the overview section of your book proposal. Either document is 2-4 pages—500 to 1,000 words. Such tasks are crucial and still small enough […]

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[…] your nonfiction work, and maybe even for your novel. If you need some tips on writing a proposal, Jane Friedman offers excellent advice here. Even if an agent doesn’t require a book proposal along with your submission, I’ve found doing […]

Heather @ My Overflowing Cup

Thank you so much, Jane, for all of this detailed information. I am almost finished writing my first non-fiction book on marriage and I am beginning to think that writing the book was the easy part. That being said, thank you for all of the great advice.

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[…] the right time to build a platform? The 5 Most Important Numbers for Building Your Online Platform How to Write a Book Proposal Is Your Author Website Doing Its Job? 6 Things to Check Why Design Matters for Your Website 3 […]

rosemarywallsworth
Thanks for this Jane. We are a family living in Southern Spain and have been here for 11 years now. We always wanted to try to work our acre of land to its advantage, but it took over 9 years to be able to do it. We were originally filmed for a British TV documentary back in 2003, which was aired in 2004 after we made the move here, and are finally working our land, growing a lot of our own food, and keeping many animals. It’s been quite a journey. People have been saying for ages that we should… Read more »
Teresa Zerilli-Edelglass
Hi Jane…I am a published author. Folks just love my book. It is a non-fiction. Problem is traction, namely media snobbery toward Indie publishing. As you know, no matter how good your book is, high-profile types are reluctant to get behind it. Hence I decided that I would have to bite the bullet & try for a traditional publish which I am dreading. However, I have a solid lead to an agent who requested a proposal. I know how fortunate I am and must give it all I’ve got. Just to have gotten directly to an agent willing to take… Read more »
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[…] What is a book proposal in publishing? At the most basic level, a book proposal is like a business plan for your book. If you plan to write a non-fiction book through a traditional publisher, you’ll need to write a synopsis as to why your idea matters enough to be published. (For fiction, you submit a query letter and optional first chapter of finished manuscript.) Jane discusses the nuts and bolts for writing one here. […]

Tony Kirwood
Hi Jane Thanks for your wonderfully lucid information. I’m a UK published author – a How To book on comedy writing – and am working on a proposal for humorous non-fiction book in the literary parody genre. It’s been appearing as a column in a local London newspaper for 30 months, people love it and it has had some great comments. It’s in the form of short, discrete, blog-type entries. The proposed length is 36,000 words of which I’ve written 14,000 (I’ve outlined the remaining entries). The question is, do I need to complete the book, or will this depend… Read more »
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[…] she worked at Writer’s Digest, where she ultimately became publisher and editorial director. Start Here: How to Write a Book Proposal  Jane gives some great guidance on “How do I know if my memoir is salable or […]

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[…] Friedman “Start Here: How to Write a Book Proposal“: A great broad overview of proposal writing that focuses on the “business plan” […]

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[…] Friedman has written a fantastic guide to writing a non-fiction book proposal. I recommend […]

Caroline Schwarz

Thanks for the great, useful information. I have a question about format. Does one normally submit a book proposal in outline form or something akin to it, i.e. with numbers 1-8 of the components mentioned above literally listed out and described? Or are the elements you list incorporated into more of a narrative structure about the book, and one just needs to make sure they are all included somewhere in the proposal? Perhaps it depends on the publisher’s requirements? Thanks for clarifying!

Paula Hulse
I have been writing a journal since 1982 and have been encouraged by a therapist to write a book. The writings have helped me each day to find who I am and how to have a more productive life. I am 80 years old and 61 years with a man I am just now able to see is narcissistic. It was not till he retired that I saw what a mess our marriage is and how much I want to be able to deal with life now that I know much of the sick craziness was not my fault. My… Read more »
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[…] her article Start Here: How to Write a Book Proposal, author Jane Friedman […]

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[…] advice I got was to put together a book proposal and a query letter and start fishing. Initially I thought that I should just write the book and […]

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[…] “how to write a book proposal” and read advice from reputable agents. Here’s a great post on book proposals from former Writer’s Digest editor Jane Friedman.  The bible for nonfiction book proposals […]

Margo
Thanks for sharing your knowledge in this topic. You really gave good advice here. I don’t know if anyone has asked this question, but can one submit multiple proposals at the same time? I’m publishing my first quilting book with the AQS. When I planned to submit my proposal in January last year, I only had my facebook account for a few months. I didn’t have a blog nor any other social media experience. In fact it’s the Exe. Editor who suggested that I should get involve in social media stuff. I guess I was lucky. Right now I’m trying… Read more »
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[…] Your idea will be evaluated on your book proposal. A book proposal is a 10-30 page pitch for the book (explained here). […]

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[…] Start Here: How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal […]

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[…] Jane Friedman: How to Write a Book Proposal […]

Emilie

Thanks for all the information. I’ve had an idea for a book for a while now, but I’m nervous to write it because I’m not an expert by any means. The idea is for a children’s cookbook that came to me while searching for a cookbook my kids could use to learn how to cook. I spent hours searching local bookstores and online but could not find what I had in mind. In this instance since I am not a professional cook or nutrition expert, does it make it more difficult to get a book like this published?

Larry

Hi Jane
I’m a parent of a child with hearing loss and I’m writing a book about raising, educating, and teaching our child to talk. She’s made great accomplishments that have surpassed all odds but this came with hard work. I want to inspire other parents to advocate for their child with hearing loss. My question is would a memoir or blog post be best. I’ve been invited to present at a conference (not my book) but just as a parent speaker at a national conference. Would you consider this a platform?

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[…] book proposal, you ask? Well, the simplest way to describe it is a business plan for your book. According to Jane Freidman, it “argues why your book (idea) is a salable, marketable […]

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[…] Friedman has written a fantastic guide to writing a non-fiction book proposal. I recommend […]

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