You had a fantastic idea for a nonfiction book, and now that you’ve written it, you need an agent and then a publisher to bring it to the world.
Writing the book is the easy part—after all, you’re an expert on the subject you’re writing about, aren’t you? But you’ll need to convince the literary agents you query, and ultimately acquisition editors (who decide whether or not to bring your proposal forward for consideration through several vetting steps) why this book will stand out in a sea of other books about your subject, and why you are the perfect author to write this book.
You convince them through a nonfiction book proposal.
How do I know what should go into a proposal?
I was an acquisitions editor for a traditional publisher for several years. I read literally hundreds of nonfiction book proposals, many from the “slush” pile (unsolicited manuscripts) and many from agents who represented both new and established writers. I’ve read more poorly written proposals than I care to remember as well as a few that knocked my socks off; I speak from experience when I tell you that a great proposal will have an editor picking up the phone and calling the agent before the last page is even read.
Now that I’m a freelance editor, I work directly with authors to help them write compelling book proposals. I’ve also been contacted by agents who represent an author with a great concept who needs help polishing the proposal before the agent shops it because I know what works and what doesn’t.
Why and when to write a proposal
A book proposal is, in essence, a business plan for your book, and it’s all about marketing and positioning. You sell your idea, you sell your execution of that idea, and you sell yourself. A book proposal outlines what your book is about and provides facts and figures that give an agent or editor the necessary ammunition to convince the publisher that your book will make money.
If you’re a new author, I strongly suggest you write your book before you query agents. Although it’s perfectly acceptable to shop an idea with a proposal and a few sample chapters, you do not want to be in a position where you are asked for an additional sample chapter or two and you have to hurry to write them. In addition, publishers plan their seasonal lists many months in advance, and if there is any doubt about your ability to finish a manuscript in time, your proposal will most likely get a pass.
Focusing and organizing the project through writing your proposal will help you see your idea from a different perspective, give you a better idea of ways to make your book stand out against competing titles, and help you think about marketing and platform building.
What should be in your book proposal
In her article Start Here: How to Write a Book Proposal, author Jane Friedman writes:
Always answer these three questions
While these questions are not explicitly addressed in the proposal (e.g., with specific sections), these questions will be running through the mind of every publishing professional who considers your project. Make sure, as a whole, your proposal effectively answers them.
- So what? This is the reason for the book’s existence, the unique selling proposition that sets it apart from others in the market.
- Who cares? This is your target readership. A unique book is not enough—you must show evidence of need in the marketplace for your work.
- Who are you? You must have sufficient authority or credentials to write the book, as well as an appropriate marketing platform for the subject matter or target audience.”
More specifically, your book proposal includes sections that outline everything your (eventual) publisher needs to know to position your book in the marketplace. These include:
- Overview of the book (synopsis)
- Market for the book (who will buy it)
- Promotion (how you will sell it)
- Competitive titles (other books on the subject and how yours compares)
- About the author (your platform)
- Table of contents
- Chapter summaries
- Sample chapters
While the order in which these sections appear isn’t cast in stone, the importance of each section as part of the whole marketing tool cannot be understated. You must give the agent, and later the editor, the answers to the questions they will be asking as they read through your proposal.
Over the next several weeks, I’ll offer detailed information about specific information for each section of your nonfiction book proposal. In the meantime, here are a few general points about proposals you’ll need to know, no matter what genre your book fits:
- Use an easy-to-read serif font such as Times New Roman or Courier. Don’t use a variety of fonts or point sizes.
- Double space all text
- Put your name, the title of your book, and page numbers on each page
- Begin each new section on a separate page, and include a table of contents for the proposal itself (this is separate from the book’s TOC)
- Have your proposal and sample chapter proofread—nothing screams amateur like a document full of errors
So now you have Step One of “How to Write a Compelling Nonfiction Book Proposal in 10 Easy Steps.” I hope you’ll visit again over the next few weeks to learn the tricks of the trade that will help you construct a book proposal that will sell. And if you’re looking for one-on-one help with yours, I’m here to help.
Does the idea of writing a proposal scare you? Do you wonder if your proposal should include details on that talk you gave at the PTA meeting, or the book you self-published? 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.
- The Difference Between Your “Current Platform” and “Future Platform” (writersinthestorm.wordpress.com)
- Pitches, Queries, Proposals . . .Oh My! (nhwn.wordpress.com)