You have a fantastic idea for a nonfiction book (or perhaps you’ve already written one), and because you want to publish traditionally, your next step is to write a proposal to sell agents and/or editors on your idea.
When I was an acquisitions editor for a traditional publisher, I read hundreds of nonfiction book proposals. Like every other publishing professional does, I read those proposals in a certain order—but not necessarily in the order the author presented the material. (Find a list of the other sections of a nonfiction book proposal here.) When I write a book proposal, I begin with the author’s bio because this is the section I think of as the hub of the wheel; all the other sections are spokes on that hub.
In fact, there is no “right” way to order the sections of your proposal, so I’m going to present the remainder of this ten-part series the way I actually read and write book proposals.
First up: Your Author Bio
The first thing I read in a proposal is the author’s biography. I’m starting with this section because in a nonfiction proposal, the author’s platform is arguably the most important piece of the puzzle. If you’re unclear about what the publishing industry means by “author platform,” check out Jane Friedman’s post A Definition of Author Platform and search Google for more about what editors look for when they read your author bio.
By the way, the author bio is only one of the sections that contain information about your platform; you’ll highlight much of the same information in other sections, too. The advantage to writing your author bio first is that you focus on platform-related information you’ll then mine for the rest of your proposal. The only sections that won’t include part of your platform are the chapter synopses and the sample chapters. Every other section of a nonfiction book proposal markets you as the author.
Nonfiction authors are held to a high standard where platform is concerned. Dan Blank, founder of WeGrowMedia.com, writes, “As a writer, your author platform is about learning how to best communicate the value of your book, and developing trusting relationships with those who will care about it.” Bookends Literary Agency advises, “It’s critical that you have made yourself look like the Dr. Phil of your particular subject. . . . We don’t really care if you went to Harvard or not. We care whether or not you can sell this book to thousands of people.” Remember, you need to demonstrate specifically how your experiences relate to this book.
Platform is King
When I work with authors on nonfiction book proposals, one question I’m often asked is, “Do I have enough of a platform to get my book traditionally published?” That is a difficult question to answer, because there really isn’t a secret formula that guarantees interest from an agent or editor. If you’re writing a prescriptive nonfiction, you’re presenting yourself as an authority on that particular subject, so your bio must reflect that expertise—and remember, every section of your proposal is a sales tool.
Your author bio should be written in third person (unless your book is a personal memoir). Explain why you are uniquely qualified to write this book, and begin your bio with the most relevant information first. Do not include a CV unless asked.
In What’s Your Book, former acquisitions editor Brooke Warner suggests a creative way to begin writing your bio:
Before you dive in and get started, though, try this fun exercise. It’s one I love and have written about often: Create an “I AM FABUOUS” list. This list will help you spruce up your author bio, but it will also serve as a reminder, something you can revisit when you get down in the dumps about your platform. Because, believe me, when you’re first starting out, you’re going to get down in the dumps from time to time.”
Here is a list of questions to consider as you write this important section:
- What makes you an expert on the subject?
- How have you translated that expertise so far? Lectures, workshops, presentations, and other forms of personal appearances (especially recent ones) should be included. And if you have any of these scheduled in the future, list them with dates.
- Do you teach your subject matter? Have an advance degree? Belong to related professional organizations?
- Have you been featured in national magazines, TV, or radio? Regional or local press? YouTube videos?
- What are your writing credentials? This includes traditional and nontraditional publishing, so if you write a weekly column for your local paper, be sure to mention that. If you contribute one blog post a week to a community blog, include relevant statistics.
- Have you received any awards that might enhance your reputation as the author of this book?
- Are you previously published? If so, list the title, publisher, year of publication, and sales numbers for both traditionally published and self-published titles.
- Are you engaged in other ways with your potential audience? Here you not only list your website, blog, newsletter, and social media connections, but also give stats that demonstrate your reach, such as number of blog subscribers or unique website hits.
Social media stats are a hotly contested topic; 10,000 purchased Twitter followers means nothing if you are not engaged with your audience. Jane Friedman offers some great ideas on this:
You typically need tens of thousands of engaged followers, and verifiable influence with those followers, to interest a major publisher. Make sure that every number you mention is offered with context. Avoid statements like these: I have 3,000 friends on Facebook or I have 5,000 followers on Twitter. These numbers are fairly meaningless as far as engagement. You have to tell the story behind the numbers. For instance:
Better: More than 30 percent of my Twitter followers have retweeted me, and my links get clicked an average of 50 times.
Better: I run regular giveaway events on Facebook, and during the last event, more than 500 people sent their favorite quote on [topic] to be considered for the giveaway—and to also be considered for the book.”
In today’s traditional publishing world, who YOU are is as important as what your book is about. Spend the time necessary to craft the most compelling biography possible, and use persuasive marketing language. YOU know you’re the best person to write this book—now your job is to convince an agent and an editor.
Remember I said earlier that your author bio is arguably the most important piece of your proposal? As you construct the rest of your proposal, you’ll use parts of the author bio in other sections, such as the overview and marketing, because a great deal of the salability of your book depends on the strength of you, the author.
Next time I’ll share my approach to defining your target markets and the ways you convey your ideas for marketing to them.
Does the idea of writing a proposal scare you? Do you have other questions about what should (or should not) be included in your author bio—or any other parts of your proposal? Please ask any questions you have about any aspect of writing your proposal—I’d love to answer them as I cover each part of a proposal in more detail.
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Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, ghostwriter, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help, and on fiction ranging from romance to paranormal. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be. Learn more here.