If you’re seeking traditional publication for a nonfiction book, you’re most likely going to need to write a nonfiction book proposal.
The art of writing a nonfiction book proposal is sort of like cooking lasagna. There are a thousand ways of making it, everyone has their own recipe, but most every lasagna will have a few basic ingredients and chances are it’s going to taste good in the end. The below recipe, if you will, applies to just about every kind of nonfiction, from history to self-help to narrative nonfiction.
Why a proposal for nonfiction? A literary agent can often sell nonfiction projects on proposal, meaning you write the proposal first, then sell the project, then write the book. It mostly depends on the quality of the idea and its marketability, your platform (a combination of your credentials and ability to promote the book), and your writing ability.
There are definitely exceptions to this — it really depends on the project, and sometimes it pays to write the whole thing, especially memoir.
Here are the basic sections of a nonfiction book proposal:
The overview is typically a page or two that gives, well, an overview of the book you plan to write. You’re getting across the meat of the story that you are writing about, in the case of narrative nonfiction, and the challenge you’re telling people to solve with self-help. It’s really a sales pitch.
In essence, a good overview will give the agent/editor a great sense of the subject, the scope, the heart of the project, and the need for the book. It will get them excited about the book you’re going to write.
Although the overview isn’t an excerpt from the book, as you’re writing it try to infuse it with the writing style you plan to employ in the book. Agents and editors should have a sense of what it would be like to read the book. It should have a cohesive and authoritative voice.
If you’re stuck, check out the jacket copy for books that are similar to yours and see the way the books are framed. An overview won’t be exactly like jacket copy (remember you’re pitching an agent/editor, not a reader), but it’s a good starting place for setting out the scope of your book.
Platform, platform, platform.
There are two primary things agents and editors are looking for in your bio:
- Do you have the credibility to write this book? Are you among the world’s foremost experts in your field? (Because if you’re not, you can bet those people are writing books too). Have you published articles in national publications on your topic that generated substantial interest?
- Do you have an audience you can draw upon to promote the book and a plan for activating it? Do you have an existing audience base, can you be booked on television shows, do you have a social media following or a substantial mailing list, do you have connections in your field that could be helpful to draw upon?
As you craft your bio, make sure to include blurbs from prominent people if you have them (or if they’ve already agreed) and anything that could give a sense of your ability to help market the book.
Note that you don’t necessarily have to previous publishing credits, but they can certainly be helpful in order to give agents and editors a sense of your writing style and your ability to engage readers.
Competing Titles/Market Analysis
Competing titles are a list of other books that are similar to yours or could be viewed as competitive. The goal with this section is to establish:
- There’s a market for your book
- Your book addresses a gap in that market and is unlike the other books out there.
For each competitive title you’ll need a quick summary that includes:
- Brief summary of the book
- How well it sold (if you’re able to determine this)
- How your book is different
Of these three items, how well it performed is the least important to include, and at the stage where you’re trying to find an agent you don’t really need much beyond including whether it was a bestseller or not. An agent will likely have access to Bookscan and can help flesh this out if they feel it’s important to be specific before the proposal goes out to publishers.
Outline/List of Chapters
Sometimes people include an outline or a list of chapters to give a sense of the scope of the project, along with descriptions of what the chapters cover. It’s another way of helping an agent or editor envision what the finished book would be like.
Personally I feel like this part is a little overrated for something like narrative nonfiction because the finished product is probably going to change, but this section is very important for any sort of self-help-ish or business-ish proposal since you’ll already have a pretty good idea of where the project is going and can summarize it here.
One to Three Sample Chapter(s)
Other than perhaps the overview, the sample chapter(s) is(are) the most important part of the proposal. Some editors I know just get a gist of the overview and then turn straight to the sample chapters to see a sample of the author’s writing. So work very, very hard on these chapters to make them as good as possible.
You’ll want to include about 25-50 pages so the agent and editor can get a sense of your writing ability.
Other things that you might consider throwing in… I mean including are copies of newspaper/magazine articles you wrote that apply to the subject (if the book is arising out of a published article), reviews of past nonfiction books you’ve published (not self-published), and anything else that will help convince the agent/editor that you’re super-awesome.
And that’s pretty much it! Easy as lasagna.
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Art: Junge Frau einen Brief schreibend by Albert Anker