Monday, January 05, 2009

What Is a Book Proposal for Nonfiction Writers

Welcome back everyone and Happy New Year! I can tell by my inbox that many of you have made a New Year's Resolution to get your book out on submission this year and for that reason I think today's post and tomorrow's are awfully timely. 

One of the nice things about being a nonfiction writer of self-help or how-to books is that you can almost always sell on proposal. Isn’t that a beautiful thing? In other words, you don’t need to write the entire book to find an agent or a publisher. However, writing that proposal can be just as difficult as writing the book. Writing the proposal is all about marketing and positioning and sometimes not so much about the book. But what is a good book proposal? What do editors and agents expect and what can help make your proposal rise above the rest?

We do have short guidelines to a book proposal on our Web site, but I thought I’d give you a peek into what I give my authors, the insider's look into the work I make my clients go through before I submit anything to publishers. In other words, what do I mean when I ask for an overview, author bio, sample material, and a table of contents (toc).

In no particular order and definitely in your own voice and style, a nonfiction book proposal should contain the following elements:

1. Overview
The overview tells the editor, in brief, what your book is about. If you are writing your overview in paragraph form I would suggest you write no more than one or two pages. While it’s true we want to give the editor as much information as possible, we also want her to know that we can be concise. Think of advertising. We don’t want to read pages and pages on the new Apple iPod. An advertisement grabs our attention because it highlights only those most intriguing points. Your overview is really an advertisement for your book.

If one of your biggest marketing or advertising points is you as the author (which it should be), your credentials and the work you do (in other words, your platform) should be part of the overview. In fact, it should probably be one of the biggest pieces of the overview.

Other good points to include are:
  • Timeliness of the topic—is it something that’s in the news a lot lately?
  • The market—are there 85 million potential buyers for your book?
  • The one thing that makes your book stand out from all others.
  • Details about the approach you intend to take.
  • Special features such as charts, checklists, photos, etc.

2. Author Bio
This could quite possibly be the most critical piece of your book proposal. If there’s one reason, more than any other, that editors are using to reject nonfiction, it’s because of the author’s platform, or lack thereof. When writing your author bio it’s critical that you have made yourself look like the Dr. Phil of your particular subject. We no longer live in a day when freelance writers can make it big writing books. It seems that everyone wants an already established author. Someone who can make this book a bestseller without any work from the publisher.

Again, this is a sales piece, and because of that it’s important to organize your author bio with the most intriguing and exciting information first. 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. Therefore, who are you and what makes you an expert on this subject, and, most important, what gives you a national platform? Do you give workshops? Presentations? Do you teach at Harvard (much different than having attended)? Have you been featured in national magazines, on TV or radio? Do you have a number of major media contacts interested in your subject? Teach at a local community center? Mention as much as you possibly can and highlight the big stuff—the stuff that gives you national recognition. We would rather have you mention too much and have you edit it down than find out after the proposal has already gone out that you are a regular columnist for Time magazine and simply failed to mention this to us.

3. Marketing
Next to the author platform and subject, this is probably the third most important piece of your proposal and actually goes hand in hand with your platform. Not only does the publisher want to know whether or not there is a market for the book, and how big it is, they want to know how you can bring this book to that market.

Some of this might be a repeat from the author bio; however, it should be written more extensively. While you might have mentioned in the author bio that you speak nationally, in the marketing section you are going to expand on that and tell us how many people you speak to and on what subjects. Do you have a speaking schedule for the upcoming year (or two)? Make sure to include it with your proposal. Have you already been featured in major national magazines and newspapers? Mention this and include clips.

Don’t waste a lot of time talking about what you could do or what the publisher can do. Mention instead what you are already doing. It’s easy to think that we can all write articles for major magazines, but unless you’re already doing that there’s no guarantee that you can get published in them. Just because you think your idea should get attention from media sources doesn’t mean they’ll agree. Everyone can make their book a bestseller if they get on Oprah, but don’t even bother mentioning this unless you’ve been on Oprah before. Everyone will take the time out to do whatever publicity or talk show circuit the publisher can get for them, so this doesn’t make you special. What does make you special are the things you’ve done or the columns you write that already get you noticed.

In addition to showing what you can do to market this book, you want to prove that there is a market for this book. Statistics can help. Do you have a Web site with 100,000 subscribers? Did Dateline do a piece on just the topic you’re discussing, or on you? Was there a Newsweek article on you or the subject? Are there organizations all over the country that your book pertains to?

Other things to consider mentioning regarding market:
  • Statistics on the size of the market and the extent to which it’s growing.
  • Demographic information.
  • Media sources you have a connection to—reporters, columnists, etc., in your Rolodex.
  • Do you have a foreword writer already—a big name?
  • Do you know of an organization that’s already agreed to buy copies of the book when it’s published? Include this information and how many copies.

4. Competition

Probably the second biggest reason an editor will reject a nonfiction book proposal is because of lack of competition or too much competition. Are there other books on the market similar to yours? Don’t be afraid to talk about that fact, but most important, prove how your book stands out from them. When doing this it’s important to see it from the editor’s point of view. I know that we all think your book is different, but the truth is that bookstores are going to shelve it next to other, similar books. So how is your book going to distinguish itself from others? In other words, if readers are only going to read the title and back of the book (probably something similar to your overview), what makes your book shine? Look back to your bookstore activity and the number of books next to yours on the shelf and use this as a guide.

While it’s not necessary to name every competitive title, it is probably a good idea to list the top three or so and show how your book is different. The key here is to present your differences. If an editor likes your book her next job is to present it to the rest of the editorial staff and sales department and convince them that your book is worthy of publication. By giving her ammunition, such as the point of difference between your book and others, you are helping her sell your book. In addition, doing a comparative analysis shows the editor that, in fact, you are an expert and know your competition. She will assume, as we will, that you know all of these books intimately and have read them.

*** Don’t ever think that by not mentioning competitive titles you will trick the editor into believing that there aren’t any. Editors who buy in a certain genre—yours—know the market and know just as much about the competition as you should. They read the books and reviews and regularly scour bookshelves. Therefore, it’s better to be up front in your proposal and prove why your book is different rather than leave it to an editor’s imagination.

5. TOC and Chapter Summaries
The TOC (table of contents) might seem obvious, but it’s amazing how many people will submit a proposal without one. This is a simple way to give an editor another overview of the book. It’s also the first thing most readers (and editors) will look at when they open a book. If you feel that your TOC warrants cute titles, that’s great. We always want something that makes your book stand out, but it’s important that the title headings clearly describe what the chapter will be about. We shouldn’t have to try to guess. When writing your TOC don’t forget to include any appendices or other supplementary material you intend to include (charts, sample forms, etc.).

Chapter summaries are chapter-by-chapter breakdowns. Including this allows the editor to see how you intend to approach the material and also gives her an idea of your writing style. Chapter summaries are what allow nonfiction writers to submit on proposal rather than with the entire book. When writing your summaries remember to include all of the information that makes your book different and intriguing. If you intend to include charts or photos in a particular chapter, mention that, and, if possible, mention what they will be of.

One important note about chapter summaries: They are the first real impression the editor has of your writing style—so make them shine. Chapter summaries should be fun to read an exciting (as long as you intend for your book to be fun to read and exciting). Please don’t start each one with, “Chapter one will include . . . ” Put your voice into it and make them read as if they were the chapters themselves. The most successful book proposals read like the book, not as a boring outline of what the book could be.

Chapter summaries should be anywhere from one paragraph to five pages long (each).

6. Sample Chapters
Sample chapters are the icing on the cake, and we all know that bad icing can ruin a cake. We should probably stop using the word “sample” when describing the chapters you intend to send out with your proposal. While these are meant to give the editor a sampling of how your chapters will be written (style, voice, and tone), they should be submitted as if they are going straight to publication. In other words, they should be perfect. Like the rest of your proposal the grammar, punctuation, and style should be impeccable. There shouldn’t be any typos and the tone you’ve written the samples in should be indicative of the tone your entire book will be written.

When choosing which sample chapters to write don’t just automatically go to the first. What chapters are your strongest and most intriguing? Write those. After all, your goal is to grab someone’s attention, so why would you submit the most stagnant chapter?

At a minimum, your proposal should include two to three sample chapters or two sample chapters and an introduction. Of course, what you submit can always change depending on your proposal. It might be helpful to discuss this with your agent before getting started. Whatever you decide, think of this: we have seen editors reject a proposal because there wasn’t enough material submitted. From an editor’s perspective it looked lazy, as if the author was unwilling to do the work required to sell the book—which doesn’t bode well for the future. It’s always better to have too much material than too little.

7. Publicity
This is obvious. Supply your agent with newspaper and magazine clips, tapes of radio and TV performances, copies of articles you’ve written or been interviewed for. Etc. Again, it’s better to send too much rather than too little. Your agent can always weed through it and decide what are the most important pieces.

Extra Things to Consider
When all is said and done there are a few extra little tidbits we’d like to add:
  • There’s no right or wrong to writing a proposal. Use this as a guide, but don’t forget to add your own personal flare. We’ve sold many, many books and no proposal has truly been like the one before it.
  • Page numbers—make sure your proposal has page numbers. I’ve actually had editors complain about this.
  • Spelling, typos, and grammar. We can’t stress this enough. If you don’t think you are a strong enough writer or self-editor, consider bringing in someone else to work with you. If you need suggestions ask your agent.
  • Extras—do you have an author photo? It can’t hurt to include it.
  • Do you plan to include photos or illustrations in your book? Mention that and roughly how many. And always, always include samples.
  • Sample news pieces—Did Newsweek do a cover story on just the topic you’re writing about? Include a copy.
  • Title—this is the very first thing an editor looks at when reviewing a proposal, so let’s give them something that grabs their attention and yet says clearly what the book is about. Believe it or not we’ve had editors very interested in a book, but before even bringing it to an editorial meeting they called to see if they could change the title. This might be something you and your agent can brainstorm on together.
Have fun with it and good luck!!!



Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jessica! This is perfect timing, too!

Faye, who hopes you had a fabulous holiday season

Lorelei Armstrong said...

I don't write non-fiction, but I have to say that this is an extremely impressive post that will help many, many writers! Thank you!

Anita said...

Regarding the author photo:
I've read a lot of books lately which have horrible author photos on the jacket. I'm not being catty---the people are, I think, OK looking, they were just dressed all wrong...or their hair looked funky...or the background was messy.

I think if a person is submitting an author photo in a proposal, the photo should be a good one. But how does the author know if it's good? Maybe ask a trusted, honest friend? Or will the author's agent tell them, "Uh, should you rethink that blouse?"

Not that my profile photo is perfect...I can just "hear" the Anons commenting on it now!!!

I know how a person looks isn't everything, but it seems like for a nonfiction book which might be riding on a public appearance platform, it should be considered seriously.

Diana said...

How does a memoir or other form of narrative non-fiction fit in? Would you go through the proposal process in the same way?

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...


Memoir or narrative nonfiction would be submitted as if it were fiction.


Angela Ackerman said...

Excellent post--thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jessica. This is incredibly helpful!

Diana said...

Thanks! This was a really informative post!

Anonymous said...

Highly informative post. Thanks.

Keri Ford said...

Very cool to read.

Welcome back!

Anonymous said...

Anita --
I agree. I think many authors are moving away from posed studio shots toward more candid shots, some of which look a little too candid for my taste.
I had the opposite experience recently. I went to a lecture and I swear the photo on the person's book/publicity materials must have been forty years old. (By that I mean taken forty years ago.)
Have a flattering picture of yourself, but live in reality. In nonfiction, at least, age is wisdom, right?

Anonymous said...

Another person posting here asked if memoir and narrative nonfiction would seek to put together a proposal similar to the one that you outlined. Would there be differences in content and emphasis?

I would add to that, how to adequately describe or propose a book where each chapter could stand on its own as an essay or feature story, but in total add to a consistent theme describing an event or experience or some other nonfiction topic.

I ask because I am working on a memoir (I have samples at based on the year I spent being treated for cancer, but it doesn't stick exclusively to that as the story. The experience of having cancer is something like watching your life go before your eyes in slow motion while also trying to manage your way through the present--maintain your young children, deal with each crisis (money, work, home) as they come, exist and struggle to live through extreme pain and sickness and on and on. As you go through all of this and you go through the puzzle of your past, you find that it is your past experiences that act as the emotional and intellectual tools to help you through. Therefore, I am relating my story through the experience of remembering, utilizing and almost reexperiencing the past while also trying to take care of my little ones and the needs of daily life.

As such, each chapter can really stand on its own as it is a series of interwoven stories that hold are meaningful in the context of the experience of diagnosis, fear, pain, sickness and etc.

I have a brief query lettter that I think may work, but advice would be much appreciated.

James Buchanan

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this in-depth outline. I think I'm going to have to pass this on to the prof of Intro-Publishing at my university. Awesome breakdown of the nuts and bolts. Thank you.

Karen Mahoney said...

Jessica, this is an amazing post - THANK YOU. My partner is writing (in early stages) a book re. emotions/feelings in the body and how they relate to our mental & physical health. I am going to force him to read this! ;)

Anonymous said...

Dear Jessica,

Thank you for the great advice.

How would you tailor the proposal if your work was narrative nonfiction that happens to be a cookbook?

Because it is a humorous work, I'm following the advice of Michael Larsen and Nathan Bransford to complete the book before querying.

The stories play as large a part as the recipes; they're the life experiences of Ukrainian grandmothers I grew up with. If I knocked out the food, I'd still have a book.

I have a curious hybrid on my hands.

Jean said...

Thanks, Jessica. I'd like to add a link to this page to my blog.


Marla Taviano said...

Thanks, Jessica. This is great!!

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natalie said...

Thanks for all the great info! Any specific advice that would be different for publishing a cookbook?

Bishop Collins said...

Thank You for this post. I am currently at this point in my writing process/career. this will help me a great deal.

Divascoach said...

Thanks for this information. I will gladly use it.

BooksbyDiedra said...

After three weeks of searching, this is the first time I have found anything on the 'how-to' book. Thank you so much for this. My book is in final edit so I have started looking into getting it to an agent (or 10) and have found some very disturbing information on other sites. Some of these are just horrifying. "Your book will change so much by the time it's printed you won't even know it's yours." or "You won't have any say over formatting or anything else that happens once you sign your contract." Surely these things can't be right, can they?


KarenERM said...

Right on the money ... speaking of which, I just posted a piece on my own blog about the substantial advance our nonfiction book proposal drew, even in these supposedly lean times. We owe that directly to a stellar proposal that followed your guidelines nearly to a T. (You can read posts about all that at Thanks for sharing!

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Unknown said...

Great summary if what I tell authors on a daily basis. I love all the folk that ask about fiction submissions, but nonfiction is tricky as well for different reasons, and hardly anyone talks about them.

@Reisa Stone: include recipes in your sample chapters that have been tested thoroughly!! A tsp and a tbsp are very different, so look for typos. No photos required, unless they are integral to the idea. An agent may ask for art to add to your proposal, but they won't scoff if you don't include them when seeking an agent. But, like the author photo, if they look great and make it better, it can't hurt!

Essays Writing said...

Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

Saxon Henry said...

Thanks for this post: I really needed it as I'm working on a proposal for my memoir and this was really helpful. I've listed your blog on mine

Nick Weston said...

Hey Jessica,

Incredible Breakdown! Thank you so much! My first book: The Tree House Diaries has just been published, I am know struggling with my second proposal- this post should help!


Christy said...

Thanks so much for posting this!
I have a meeting with a publisher at a conference at the end of the month. I will presenting them several chapters and a proposal. Do you have any recommendations on how I sould present it to them (bound, in a folder, loose, etc.)? Thanks!

Fritz said...

Thanks so much for the super helpful rundown, Jessica. I really appreciated the detailed 'insider' insight you share.

In regards to Anita's comment about author photos, I completely agree. As a professional photographer, I've helped many professionals improve their public image through excellent portraits. It's a worthwhile investment.