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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[…] Publishing consultant Jane Friedman outlined some great tips for writing a book proposal. These steps are great insights to help you get started in writing a book proposal. Here! […]

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[…] a Book Proposal for any manuscript for longer […]

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[…] “Start Here: How to Write a Book Proposal,” a terrific blog post by publishing expert and writers’ advocate Jane Friedman […]

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

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

Tricia Carr

Hi Jane, amazing content! So generous and thorough, thank you! In Atria Books publishing guidelines, they ask for “A completed title information sheet.” Just wondering if you can shed light on what this is. Thank you again! I plan on buying your course once I’ve ingested all of the advice you have here!

scook

One question for you… If I have already wrote the book.. should I have its copyright done before submitting it to anyone??

Philip

Hi Jane, great post.
I would like to write a business book based on an extensive survey. Is this something a publisher would help me with or should I conduct the survey first?
Thank you.

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[…] recommend perusing Jane Friedman’s website, for she has a lot of resources available, including where to get started on a book […]

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[…] However, if you’re a nonfiction writer seeking a book deal with one of the Big Five New York publishers, then you’ll need to develop or demonstrate that you have a platform. I discuss that more in my post on book proposals. […]

Lucretia

what about a poetry volume, what should contain the book proposal in this case?

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[…] “How to Write a Book Proposal”: an incredibly useful post from Jane Friedman. […]

Finley Hollister

Very thorough! Thank you so much for the useful information!

Becky Livingston

Thanks Jane, I really appreciate the specifics, and the honesty. The literary agent I am prepping for requires a one-page book proposal (double-spaced)! My manuscript is divided into four parts so I’m working on a very brief summary of each – more difficult than it seems. Any thoughts on this?

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[…] you are going the traditional route, you need to woo agents/publishers. Jane Friedman lays out how to write a non-fiction book proposal and how to distinguish yourself among agents and editors, agent Carly Watters shares 5 tips for […]

Lynn Sollitto

I have written a memoir and am working on my proposal so this post came to my attention at the perfect time. Thank you for such detailed and straightforward information. 🙂

As you mentioned, memoir is a gray area. Would it be worthwhile to query agents first, to see how they want me to submit, or is it better to just submit a proposal and have the manuscript ready if they ask for it?

Jenny

Hi, Jane.
How do you format the citation for the Competitive Title Analysis? Do you use APA, MLA, or just list those items?

Thanks!

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[…] you have questions about how book publishing works? Read Jane Friedman. You can stick a fork in writing a book proposal or self-publishing your novel. Those topics are […]

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[…] Putting together a book proposal is sort of like writing a master’s thesis about your book, only more gruesome. In other words, writing a compelling book proposal requires a hell of a lot of skill. If you’ve been asked to produce a book proposal, you’ll want to buy a good instructional book or ten on the subject to do the job right. […]

Lynn Sollitto

Hi Jane,

I’m working on the chapter outlines for my book (memoir) proposal. My story is approximately 80,000 words. It has 41 chapters plus a prologue and epilogue. Is there a maximum recommended number of chapters in a proposal? If I’m over it that number, is it okay to combine chapters even if they won’t be combined in the story?

Thank you!

Fromthesticks

Jane, is it wise to submit a nonfiction book proposal in the month of December? I’m wondering if everyone will already be in holiday mode and whether it might be better to wait until Jan. to avoid getting lost in the shuffle. Is it safe as long as it’s received before, say, Dec. 10 or 15? Thanks.

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[…] you have questions about how book publishing works? Read Jane Friedman. You can stick a fork in writing a book proposal or self-publishing your novel. Those topics are […]

Lynn
I’m working on a narrative nonfiction piece. I’ve sent out some queries and received responses from two agents who requested to read my ms. This confused me, since I’ve read from so many sources (including you) that I should submit a proposal for narrative nonfiction. My ms is partially complete. In both cases, I responded that I have a completed proposal ready (and have attached it), and a partial ms if they’d like to read it. Since I’ve had it happen more than once, I wondered whether the expectations have changed? Do agents no longer want a proposal for narrative… Read more »
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[…] he could work with. To proceed, he wants a book proposal. For those of you who don’t know, a proposal is a different animal from the manuscript. A proposal includes a synopsis of the book, an introduction to the author, and chapter-by-chapter […]

Elsa Marie

Could you clarify – in the section titled “Competitive title analysis,” you suggest that writers should list information such as the title, publisher, and format of competitive books. What do you mean by format? Is that the physical format of the book, hardcover/paperback, or is it something else entirely? Thank you.

Kennet Janks
Dear Ms. Jane…Just read your Start Here: How to write a book proposal. Your excellent article convinced me to never use a publisher. Writers, write. Your article puts all the business and market burdens on the writer. Publishers are free to steal (oh and they do) fresh ideas and tactics from authors who have done all the leg work. Publishers take the lion’s share of royalties and do little value added work in the long process. What am I missing here? The 25+ page book proposal easily adds months to the book launch process. I am about to launch a… Read more »
Maria Carson Breber

This is very helpful information! Thank you so much for laying things out so clearly and concisely. It is a gift to your readers and I really appreciate it.

Michelle Terry

Hi Jane,
I just had to pop in and say thank you for this! I am preparing a live pitch at the end of the month, and keep referring back to your sound advice.
Thank you for always being a fantastic resource to new authors like me. I truly appreciate you!
Michelle

Clarence J. Elliott Jr.
Clarence J. Elliott Jr.

Your piece was very helpful and clear. Much thanks!

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[…] a query letter and synopsis (or a book proposal for nonfiction), and research agents who are interested in your genre, just as you would for an unpublished work. […]

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[…] of the book proposal as marketing in letter form. It’s a method to pitch your book idea, and tell people why […]

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[…] After twenty-three years of teaching in the classroom, three years of reading studies and articles, and doing interviews with lots of professionals and parents, I decided I was ready to take an online class with Media Bistro to write a killer book proposal. […]

Peggy

Excellent Information. Do you have any articles or suggestions to faith based books?

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

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

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

John
I am a very young author currently pitching a book of poetry, that I self-published, to a popular bookstore here in my country. Unfortunately I believe it was a premature proposal due to the fact that I barely developed my platform. I am still a highschool student and I’ve sold less than 200 copies. I don’t know how I should go about this proposal. Should I take an angle of an “underdog” and flaunt the fact that I am a still a student and this is what I’ve achieved or should I make promises. I know my platform and credentials… Read more »
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[…] Writing a nonfiction book proposal—a good one—requires not only sharp clarity about your idea, but also how that idea, in book form, is relevant and unique in today’s market. You’ll have a much easier time writing your proposal if you take time to conduct market research beforehand. […]

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[…] If an agent requires a synopsis or a book proposal, Suzanne Purvis zeroes in on how to write a sizzling, scintillating synopsis, and Jane Friedman discusses how to write a book proposal. […]

Michele Morin

This is incredible! Thanks!

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[…] I recommend are found are at agent Rachelle Gardner’s blog (on book proposals or query letters), Jane Friedman’s blog and a free download from a Writer’s Digest article. If you can track it down, former agent Terry […]

Janet

Jane, Thank you so much for your awesome website. You have great information here. I may have missed it somewhere, but I’m wondering if it is best to submit the proposal single or double-sided. It looks like it should be unbound, yes? Thank you in advance, Janet

Laura Markowitz

Thank you for so generously sharing your expertise. All your advice is really solid. I’m grateful for all the resources you’ve created for writers and editors. Wishing you all the best, and looking forward to receiving your newsletter.

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[…] Traditional Publishing. If you would rather have someone else pony up the manufacturing, promotion, and editing costs, as I’m sure most of us do, then traditional publishing is for you. Being able to focus on the craft of writing while professionals handle the business end is definitely an advantage, though like I mentioned before, the downside is higher barriers to entry as well as less control over the final project. Most authors do not have much say, if any, in the cover design or the “blurb” (synopsis) listed on the back. If an editor wants you to change something,… Read more »
Matt

I’m considering writing a book about my very unconventional approach to raising my son as a father with sole custody (think Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother applied to single dads). The hook would be that my son ended up getting into Harvard (and six of the remaining seven Ivy League schools) with a four-year scholarship after finishing high school as student body president and nearly perfect grades. Where do you recommend starting? Our story has resonated very strongly with lots of fathers I have communicated it to.

Ren Powell

Thank you for this!

Steven Murigo

I really appreciate your great work of advice to the younger ones.
Steven M. C/of Kigali Rwanda

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