This article by guest writer Arielle Contreras from Reedsy covers how to write a nonfiction book proposal for publishers.
A book proposal is your ticket to a traditional book deal.
It’s especially important if you don’t have an agent, as many small and medium publishers accept unsolicited proposals. Your book idea is fantastic, and it’s time to prove that to the people who can actually publish it!
Therefore, we’re uncovering in this post what goes into a book proposal—and what it’ll take to get an agent or publisher to notice.
1. Write An Overview
If you’re writing your nonfiction proposal, hopefully, you’ve already nailed down the summary that will go on the back of your book jacket. The overview is the place to put this back cover text, and it should accomplish three things:
- Convey your writing voice
- Establish the purpose of your book
- Intrigue the publisher to learn more
Wondering how to do all of this? With a well-crafted hook.
Here’s an example from the memoir My Family Is All I Have:
The extraordinary true story of how one British woman was trapped in Eastern Europe for 50 years, first by the Nazis and then by Communism.
Helen-Alice Dear was only 15 when she went to Bulgaria on a family holiday in 1937. Just weeks after her arrival, she found herself prevented from leaving. After her marriage to a Bulgarian man, she bore four children, but the family was often homeless, cold and hungry.
Helen refused to give up hope and bravely managed to protect and raise four happy children. When the Berlin Wall fell, Helen was finally able to fulfill her dream of returning to her homeland.
A heart-wrenching tale of courage and resilience that proves just how indomitable the human spirit can be.
Here’s an example from debut author Lisa Brackmann’s Rock Paper Tiger:
“The Beijing ’08 Olympics are over, the war in Iraq is lost, and former National Guard medic Ellie McEnroe is stuck in China, trying to lose herself in the alien worlds of performance artists and online gamers.
When a chance encounter with a Chinese Muslim dissident drops her down a rabbit hole of conspiracies, Ellie must decide whom to trust among the artists, dealers, collectors and operatives claiming to be on her side – in particular, a mysterious organization operating within a popular online game.”
In a nutshell, this hook is successful because it:
- Starts with a single sentence that encompasses the topic of the book
- Elaborates about the scope of the memoir and its purpose
In short, a good hook explains what's in it for the reader and why they should spend time or money reading your work. If you need help crafting a compelling hook, spend time analyzing books from your genre.
2. Identify Your Target Audience
However brilliant your book idea might be, a publisher’s going to be reluctant to publish if no market exists for it. In this section, you need to identify the audience for your book—and describe in detail who comprises that audience.
The biggest thing to avoid is failing to distinguish who will read the book. Don’t say your audience is “Well, everyone.” That offers nothing of value to the publisher.
Here are other common traps to avoid:
- Irrelevance. “People who surf will want to know what I’ve got to say about ocean conservation.”
- Generic inclusion. “Anyone who cooks will be interested in my book.” Or, “Anyone who’s backpacked through Europe will relate to my book about travel.”
This hypothetical example illustrates a better way to show awareness of your market: “The number of people traveling to Asia jumped 220 percent in the past year, and in subsequent surveys, 70 percent of those travelers expressed interest in reading a regional travel guide other than Lonely Planet or Rough Guides.”
In short, write a book for an ideal reader that represents your target audience. Your book should inform, entertain, inspire or educate them in some way.
3. Explain Who the Author Is
This is your chance to bring your author brand and background into the conversation with a publisher. The author bio is especially important for nonfiction authors, as you and your credentials are just as (if not more) important as your book idea itself.
Here are the main elements to include:
- An author photo
- Clips of your published work and awards
- Media appearances
- Any press coverage about you
- Information about your author platform or author website
4. Outline Your Marketing Plan
The rule of thumb for your marketing plan is to talk about what you’re already doing, not what you plan to do or will try to do. That means you should be working on your marketing efforts before you submit one.
Keep this section specific and numbers-driven. Don’t promise anything you can’t deliver because publishers will be able to see through that in a second. Here are some points to consider as you write your marketing plan.
- Platform: What’s your reach? Are you an authority in the community?
- Blog tour: Have you guest-written for any popular blogs in the past, and can you write for them again?
- Blurbs: Are you in contact with any notable names in your field? Could you get one or more of them to endorse you?
- Contacts in the media: Have you got any connections in the media to promote your book?
- Email list and social media channels: How many readers and followers do you have and how engaged are they?
It's a good idea to have a marketing plan that you can execute with or without the help of a traditional publisher. The reality is the authors of many traditionally published books still have to promote their work unless they have huge name recognition.
If you need more help, check out our guide to preparing a plan for writing.
5. Competitive Titles
It might seem a bit strange to acknowledge your competition, but it’s important if you want to prove that your book belongs on the bookshelf. This is where your analysis of your competition's titles becomes relevant.
Try to find between four and eight comparative titles. Note the emphasis on comparative—meaning if you’re a new author getting your start, don’t say your title is just like one that’s been on the best-seller list for years. Include in each analysis the comparable book’s title, author, publisher, year of publication and the ISBN.
- “Be as thorough as possible about outlining books that are similar in subject, and be clear about the ways in which your book will differ.” — Jeff Shreve, New York-based editor
- “Do your research. Because the marketplace is always changing, I'd advise selecting books that are not too old (unless an update to the subject is vitally needed). “Too old” is really anything published over five years ago.” —Patrick Price, former Simon & Schuster editor
6. Prepare a Chapter Outline
If your book proposal were your attempt to sell real estate, your chapter outline (a section in which you provide a brief summary of each chapter) would give the publisher a brief tour of the property. One to two meaningful paragraphs will do for each summary. You don't want to overwhelm anyone.
What if you’re not 100 percent decided on what exactly you’re going to write in each chapter? Don’t worry too much about the nitty-gritty, says editor Geoffrey Stone.
“Just settle on something that gives the publisher a strong idea of what you are thinking and planning. Frequently the publisher will ask for some changes in the end, anyway.”
7. Include a Sample Chapter
This is where you show publishers that you can deliver an actual product. Sometimes a sample chapter will be requested, or you can include one if you’ve already started writing your book. Either way, ensure that you choose chapters that really encompass what your book is about. Use a tool like Grammarly if you must.
Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal: The Final Word
Follow these seven steps, and you have a solid book proposal in your hands, ready to arrive on the desks of a literary agent or publisher.
Arielle Contreras is a staff writer at Reedsy, a curated marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers and marketers.
What must a book proposal show a publisher?
A good book proposal must explain what the book is about, who it's for and what's in it for the reader. It should also include a brief outline of the book and why it's worth commissioning. It should also explain how you intend to promote and sell the book and what type of return the publisher can expect based on your author platform.
Do you need a book agent to get your book published?
Although an agent can help you land a traditional book deal, many authors self-published their own books. After the book attracted readers and sales, they were approached by traditional publishes. Examples include Hugh Howie, author of the Wool Series and E.L. James, author of Fifty Shades of Grey.
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