How to Write a Successful Nonfiction Book Proposal

The Importance of the Book Proposal

Since they receive dozens of submissions per week, editors (and agents) need to be highly selective. It is not unusual for an editor to skim the first part of a book proposal and decide on that basis alone whether to reject the proposed book or read further. Improve your chances of having your submission seriously considered by making your book proposal compelling from start to finish, and be sure to include all the elements that an editor needs to convince others at the publishing house that you should be made an offer. Remember that the book proposal is a selling document, not just a descriptive overview. When written effectively, the book proposal persuades editors that 1) there is a need for your proposed book by a sizable audience, 2) your book will be different and better than other published books on the subject, 3) you are highly qualified and motivated to be the author on the subject, and have already established a marketing platform, 4) you are professional about your writing and will be hard-working, pleasant, and cooperative throughout the publishing process.

Before Writing the Proposal

Think carefully about whether your proposed book is truly needed by a large enough audience. Have other books already been written on the subject? Can you think of an approach or angle on the subject that would make your book significantly better? Have you taken the time to choose a title/subtitle that is appealing, and succinctly captures the essence of your book? It’s often helpful to develop a list of 20 or more possible titles/subtitles in order to come up with the right one. Have you considered the best way to organize your information and guidance? Have you sounded out friends, family, and colleagues about these matters? Informal focus group sessions can yield valuable insights.

The Parts of a Complete Proposal

  1. Title Page
    Attractively present the title, subtitle, your name, address, and phone/fax numbers, e-mail address, website, and urls for your blog or Youtube (if you have them) as well as the contact information for your agent, if appropriate.
  2. Table of Contents for the Proposal
  3. Overview
    Within the first couple of paragraphs, provide a “subject hook,” and “book handle.” This means you need to establish quickly why the subject of the book is of interest to a definable audience and what your book offers to this market. Remember a book sales representative has an average of 14 seconds to sell a title to a bookstore buyer, and the editor in a publishing board meeting has only a few minutes to convince colleagues of the potential of a book. Try to hone the rationale for your book into a statement that is less than 25 words. In advertising lingo, this is called the USP (unique selling proposition). Following this, provide some amplifying paragraphs about what information or guidance you will provide and how you plan to deliver it. Where appropriate, phrase these as selling points.Give a brief explanation of why you are especially qualified to write this book (detail will follow in your author biography section).
  4. The Market
    Define the market as precisely as you can. Avoid terms such as the “general reading public” or “all female readers.” Where possible, give actual numbers of your target markets. Further identify potential readers by their level of expertise in the subject (e.g., is this for novices, seasoned professionals?). Is this for people with certain minimal education or income levels? Are readers likely to be members of particular groups or readers of certain books or magazines? Publishing board meetings at most companies sound more like product development meetings these days and you help your editor be more persuasive in this setting if you provide accurate, measurable data about the target markets for your book.
  5. The Competition
    By researching well stocked bookstores and libraries as well as Books in Print, Forthcoming Books in Print, and, provide a list of 5-10 titles that would be considered competitive or at least somewhat related to the subject of your book. For each competitive title, give author, title, price, publisher, publication date, number and type of illustrations (if appropriate), and any known sales figures, rankings, or other indications of the success of the book. (My agency will provide Bookscan figures to clients who supply ISBNs.) Provide a brief statement about what the title offers and how yours would be different and better. Don’t be overly critical of the competition since in some cases you will be trying to sell your book to the same publisher. At the end of your list, summarize how your book will distinguish itself in the marketplace.
  6. About the Author (insert your name)
    Using third person (unless your book is a personal memoir), explain why you are particularly well qualified to write the book and how you will be an effective promoter. Instead of a chronological approach, start with your key qualifications and experience, followed by educational background that is relevant. If you have been previously published, give particulars about what you’ve published, with whom, and when. If the books have sold well, give sales figures. If you have received favorable reviews, provide links to a few of the best. If you have written relevant magazine or newspaper articles, include some samples via links. If you have promoted previous books or have made speeches or conducted workshops or classes related to your book, include some detail about them. If you have a video, CD, or DVD of one or more of your appearances, provide a link to an easily accessible source on the Internet . If you are truly at ease in front of audiences and media, say so and express your willingness to promote the book in cooperation with the publisher. Include a schedule of your upcoming speaking engagements, if relevant. If you have a website or blog, give particulars about the number of hits you get or the number of followers that you have. Mention any awards you’ve received that may enhance your reputation as author of the book. If your professional background is very important to qualify you as a good author on the subject, add a separate C.V. to this section. If you know some authorities in the field who are likely to provide endorsements for your book, include their names and positions; better yet, include an endorsement or two that is already written.
  7. Marketing
    Do you have any practical ideas about how to best reach the target markets of potential readers that you described above? Do you have a website or blog that can be used as a marketing tool? Do you have lists of names/addresses/email addresses that can be used to spread the word? Do you belong to organizations that would help you promote? Do you have a schedule of upcoming appearances and speaking engagements that would coordinate well with promoting your book? Do you know people who are influential in the media who would be willing to help you get on a show? Are you willing to commit a certain dollar amount to hiring a publicist to complement the efforts of the publisher? Are you willing to commit to purchasing a large quantity of your book (1,000+) because you have a ready audience who will want to purchase copies?
  8. Specifications and Delivery
    Summarize your proposed specifications for the book:
    1) estimated length in words or book pages
    2) preferred trim size (5 1/2 X 8 1/4, 6 1/8 X 9 1/4, 8 1/2 X 11 are standard economical sizes)
    3) number, size, and type of illustrations (color, black & white photos, line drawings).Try to include 5-10 samples of the art in the electronic version of your proposal.  If these are high-resolution photos, consider using a service such as Dropbox that editors can access since the servers of some publishers will reject big files.  For the few editors who still prefer hard copy submission, put the photos on a CD (jpeg format) or in a plastic sleeve. Don’t enclose originals; color photocopies, and duplicate transparencies are generally acceptable. In presenting your vision of the appearance of the book (especially regarding the amount of color photos), show flexibility to enhance your chances with a variety of publishers with different design budgets and strengths. State what portion of the manuscript is written and when you could complete it (usually stated as a number of months after signing of the contract).
  9. Table of Contents for the Proposed Book
    Include a brief listing of the parts and chapters of your book. Try to make your chapter titles interesting.
  10. Chapter Summaries
    For each chapter, provide anywhere from a few sentences to a few paragraphs to summarize what you will cover. To make the summaries more appealing, include some intriguing case histories, anecdotes or data, if possible. Communicate how the chapters will build on each other and advance your thesis.
  11. Sample Chapters
    Enclose one to two sample chapters of your best writing. At least one chapter should be from the heart of the book so the editor can get a sense of how you are going to handle a major issue or theme. Introductions and first chapters tend to repeat what is said in the proposal and, though useful, do not give the editor as much insight into your writing skills.

Mechanical Details

  1. Double-space all text.
  2. Use serif typefaces such as Times or Courier, which are easier to read than the more modern sans-serif typefaces.
  3. For electronic submissions, group the elements of your submission into as few attachments as possible. If your sample materials include many illustrations, offer to send by Dropbox or a similar service to avoid rejection by the server of the publisher. For hard copy submissions, do not staple anything. If necessary, use paper clips to secure chapters and sections together–they’re easier for the editor to deal with when photocopying parts of the proposal for colleagues.
  4. Start each section of the proposal on a fresh page so editors can locate needed information easily.
  5. Make sure your proposal is free of typos and incorrect grammar. Get help if you need to, and don’t rely solely on your computer’s spelling software. Errors distract a trained editor and can even spoil your chances of getting a positive response.
  6. Consider using boldface subheads to break up the text.
  7. Put your name, the title of your book, and the page number at the top of each page of your proposal so the editor can collate easily after photocopying.
  8. Do not date your proposal nor refer to being able to finish by a date in the near future. It is not uncommon for the submission process to take months and you don’t want to have any clues in your proposal that it might be dated.

For Electronic Submission

  1. Group elements of the proposal in as few attachments as possible.
  2. Provide urls for your website, media appearances, blog, reviews of previous books, magazine articles, etc.
  3. For long proposals with many illustrations, consider using a service such as Dropbox or Hightail to avoid the situation where a publisher’s server rejects your proposal since it is too long.

For the Paper Version of Your Proposal
(Yes, a few editors still prefer this form of submission.)

  1. Use letter-qualilty printing on standard 8 ½ × 11 white paper.
  2. Do not staple anything. If necessary, use paper clips to secure chapters and sections together–they’re easier for the editor to deal with when photocopying parts of the proposal for colleagues.
  3. Be sure that each copy of the proposal looks fresh. Provide your agent with some additional first pages to replace those that tend to get worn after being reviewed by the first editor.
  4. If you are sending the proposal directly to an agent or editor for consideration without having an established business relationship, enclose a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope for reply or return of the proposal).