In the non-fiction world, book publishing starts with writing an amazing query letter. And after that? Send in your book? Nope. If you get past the query-letter round in non-fiction publishing you then move on to book proposal. There are many ways to put together a proposal but here is what I’ve learned about how to write a non-fiction book proposal in the past few months of, well, learning how to write a non-fiction book proposal.
In 2017 I had a goal of pitching a book to an agent at a writer’s conference. Yes, OK I also wanted to acquire an agent but I knew it was a long shot. In my reading about the industry I knew the path to publishing was a windy road and there was so much I still had to learn. But I did want to practice pitching (which is something I recommend doing often!) and I did want to get started. Doing it in person added that much more intensity. And live feedback. Yikes.
I knew enough to book appointments with agents who represented non-fiction and I practiced my pitch a few times over so I could deliver it without reading. My query letter was prepped and printed and I had supplementary ideas and media kits printed off in the event I should need it. However, I was not prepared for one agent asking me for my book proposal while I was pitching. It threw me off a bit, since in the conference instructions it said to limit my documents to a query letter. Whoops. A second agent asked me to send my book proposal “in a few months.” In the moment I thought…a few months? I’ll have it ready next week!
Uh…writing a book proposal takes longer than I thought. And even though it’s not the entire book it’s still a big project.
Here’s what I’ve learned in these months since the conference: a book proposal sells your idea to agents and publishers. And the most important thing is to avoid outlining what your book is about but instead highlight why you’re writing it, who you’re serving and how your book will benefit your readers.
Oh, OK. So a non-fiction book proposal is like writing a business marketing plan. I can do that
In my research I’ve discovered there are many different ways of putting together a non-fiction book proposal. While it’s important to craft your proposal to the specs the agent or publisher asks for, there are also common elements you can prepare ahead of time and reshape into each proposal you send out.
Common elements in a non-fiction book proposal
Your overview describes your idea and what you’re trying to accomplish. You want this to be succinct yet descriptive—in the marketing world it’s your elevator pitch; in the business world it’s your executive summary. Depending on the agent or publisher, this should be between 500 words and five pages. Yes. That is quite a range. Pay attention to instructions.
It’s tempting to think your book will appeal to everyone or to the masses in general, but in the marketing world, the more niche, the better. You want to know who you’re helping and what problems you’re solving. The more specific and detailed you can be, the better. The goal of this section is to outline who will purchase your book so don’t hold back from diving into the world of your target reader.
I’ve heard other authors describe this as the most important part of your proposal. Although it would be nice to sit back and let someone else be in charge of your marketing the truth is you need to champion your book like your book deal depends on it. Cause, well, it does. This is the place where you call in every favour and think of any and every way to get publicity. Overview your marketing plan with confidence and with as many actual numbers as you can. Outline your platform, present your numbers, and list every media type you can think of and how you plan to get coverage.
Drawing attention other books just like yours may seem counter-intuitive but competition shows there’s a market for your work. In your competitive analysis list three to 10 successful titles published within the past few years and demonstrate how your book is different from these titles, without trashing them. You want to create a case for a solid readership waiting for your work, which will complement other books already published in the genre.
About the author
You can repurpose your bio from your query letter and add a bit of flourish. Here you want to demonstrate why and how you are the right author to write your book. Highlight any relevant experience, expertise and credentials. Answer the implied question, how are you qualified to write this book? Why should you write it rather than anyone else? Where are you already active?
Table of contents and chapter outline
Although you don’t have to have your book written yet, you do need to know how the book is going to look when it’s done. This is like a map of your book and should include chapter names, section titles, subtitles and any other relevant information. Outline each chapter by writing a brief summary. The big idea here is to help the agent or publisher know what to expect from your final product.
In this section you want to include between one and three of your strongest chapters, which will give the agent or publisher a good sense of your writing style and the overall book structure.
Remember, your non-fiction book proposal is what your agent will use to sell your book to publishers. You’re building a case for your book to be published. You’re selling an idea, what you’ll do to promote and support it and enough of a writing sample to showcase your talent and skill.
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