Writing a nonfiction book proposal can feel overwhelming, but never fear! I’ve read hundreds of them (as an acquisitions editor for a traditional publisher) and helped numerous authors write them, too, and I understand the importance of including the right information in the right way that will grab the attention of an agent or editor—and now I’m sharing that with you!
Like most publishing professionals, I read those proposals in a certain order—but not necessarily in the order the author presented the material. As I wrote in Part 2: Author Bios, the different sections of a nonfiction book proposal (find a list of them here) are dependent on each other; in other words, what you write in one section will be elaborated on in the others.
Nowhere is this truer than in defining your target markets and the ways you convey your ideas for marketing to those potential readers.
No one really knows who will buy your book, so be optimistic and expansive in your assessment. You’re the expert in your field, remember, so don’t be afraid to think outside the box and offer some ideas for potential readers the publisher might not think about.
You’re selling two things in your book proposal: your manuscript and you. A strong proposal weaves those separate entities together in creative and compelling ways. As you may recall (again from Part 2), I think of the Author Bio section as the hub of the wheel; all the other sections are spokes coming from that hub. And those sections first come together as you lay out your
Think about the people who will read your book. In What’s Your Book, former acquisitions editor Brooke Warner suggests,
Think about who would benefit from your book. Think about who your ideal reader would be. List five people you know who you’d love to have read your book once it’s finished. They can be a specific person, a type of customer, or just your ideal reader.”
Brooke goes on to discuss the value of this list when it comes time to market your book, and we’ll discuss that in Part 4 of this series, so stay tuned.
There’s an old saying that there’s nothing new under the sun, and another that says every story worth writing has been written, so why should anyone read your book? Consider the following as you think about exactly who your reader will be:
Timeliness. Is the subject evergreen? Or has there been a lot of news coverage about it lately?
Market size. Can you find statistics to support your belief that there are many people who are interested/will benefit from your knowledge?
Availability of current information. Will an Internet search turn up all the information a reader needs? How many other books are available on the subject?
Level of expertise. Will you introduce potential readers to a new concept in your field? Will your book appeal to readers who already have a firm knowledge base in the subject?
Let’s look at each point closely as a way to determine the information you should present in your Target Market section.
Many subjects are evergreen, so there is a continuous need for up-to-date information. If your book fits this description, you need to present evidence of that with solid examples. For example, if your subject is the health benefits of growing your own food, you might include:
- Lovers of homegrown tomatoes. Of the 36 million households with home gardens in America, 86 percent grow tomatoes, according to a study of home and community gardening by the Burlington, Vt.-based National Gardening Association (NGA).
If your book is about something that’s hot in the news, provide that information . . . but remember that publishers need to consider both long production times and the long-term salability of a book, so a book about today’s pop star might not have a long-enough shelf life to garner much interest.
As you list possible readers, be specific. “All women between the ages of 18 and 45” could be any book; instead give the publisher a much better idea of not only who might read your book, but how to best market it. Example:
- Women between the ages of 18 and 45 who worry about the impact of an extended maternity leave on their careers
Instead of “Men and women who prefer alternative medical care,” be specific:
- The 38% of Americans who seek some form of complementary/alternative medicine, according to the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (part of the National Institutes of Health).
Level of Expertise
Of course we all hope our book will appeal to everyone, but be honest about the potential reader, and use statistics to your advantage. If your book is about advanced scrapbooking techniques, don’t list every person who ever put a glue dot on a photo and plastered stickers on a page. Here is a targeted approach:
- 1.45 million women self-identify as intermediate and advanced scrapbookers (according to Scrapbooking.com)
One of the reasons agents and editors reject nonfiction book proposals is because the author is unable to clearly define the market for his or her book. If an audience is too small or too broad, chances are slim that a traditional publisher will take the risk on your book. That’s not to say a niche market is a deal breaker—but as I’ve said before, it’s up to you, the author, to make a clear case for the marketability of your book. If you can imagine standing in front of a group and talking about your book, that’s a group you should consider listing as part of your target audience.
And finally (and here’s where your platform really pays off), be sure to list the hundreds—perhaps thousands—of potential readers you’re already connected with through your website, blog, and other social media. Again, nothing generic like “I have 5,385 blog followers, but specifics like this:
- The 5,385 men and women who subscribe to my weekly blog posts about dancing for health, and the additional 2,711 who subscribe to my monthly newsletter that is focused on the health benefits of dancing and related subjects.
- A final note: Almost everyone finds bulleted lists much easier to read than paragraphs of information, so use them to make it easy for an agent or editor to zero in on specifics in this section.
Next up, in Part 4 of this series, I’ll share ways to make your Marketing section sing. Even if you’ve never sold a thing in your life, you’ll learn how to think like a bookseller and create a compelling marketing section.
Does the idea of writing a proposal scare you? Do you have other questions about what should (or should not) be included in your Target Audience section—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.
- How to Write a Compelling Nonfiction Book Proposal in 10 Easy Steps (changeitupediting.com)
- Your Author Bio: Step 2 of How to Write a Compelling Nonfiction Book Proposal in 10 Easy Steps (changeitupediting.com)
- Writers Workshop: The Nonfiction Proposal (mdkelleher.wordpress.com)
- How to Write a Winning Nonfiction Book Proposal (shewrites.com)
- The 8 Essential Elements of a Nonfiction Book Proposal (writersdigest.com)