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The Non-Fiction Book Proposal: An Overview

When a client is seeking traditional publication of their nonfiction manuscript, they will need a nonfiction book proposal to accompany the query letter they send out to agents. While there is a technicality akin to grant writing involved, generating these documents does not need to be a dreaded exercise. Instead, the process can be used to learn more about their work, which will help hone it through subsequent revisions, and also be of practical use in the book’s press release, back cover, web copy, and other promotional literature. 

Let’s take a look at each of its parts in turn…

The Non-Fiction Book Proposal 

The traditional nonfiction book proposal has six sections. You may see numbers that fluctuate from that slightly, but that is because some sources recommend combining certain sections and exploding others. Here, we will take a look at the four that should comprise the bulk of your proposal. 

1. Overview/About the Audience (2-4 pages)

Some agents recommend separating these two sections from each other as well as starting with a writing sample—something dramatic that draws people in, either one medium-length story or more short snippets that demonstrate what makes your work unique. I suggest that we combine all of these approaches in the same section and that we make sure to address your book’s uniqueness (What does your book do that no other books do?), its audience (Who is your book for and what will they get from it?), and how it fits into the marketplace (Where would it be housed in a bookstore, or what would people search for online?)

2. About the Author (1-2 pages)

Literary agents and smaller publishers want to know about you, both from the perspective of the traditional CV but also in terms of who you really are. In the former camp: What are your largest accomplishments in the field in which you are writing? What degrees do you hold? Where have you been recognized as an expert in your feld? In the latter: Where does your interest in this area come from within yourself, or when did you realize you had empathy with people who read about this topic? What makes you unique?

3. Marketing & Promotion (1-3 pages)

Having defined your audience in the Overview, in this section you will talk about how you plan to reach them. Here, we will need to answer:  When it comes to the active promotion of your book, where will you be putting your attention? How much time do you have to devote to the promotion of your book, and how naturally do these efforts dovetail with your current position?  Where are your current contacts? 

Numbers are key here; I spoke with an agent recently who said the only thing that really matters is your book’s concept and your platform. By platform, she meant how many people you currently reach. Numbers, in other words. How many people visit your website monthly? How many followers do you have on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram? How many subscribers are there on your email newsletter list? What organizations will get the word out about your book—and what are their numbers?

4. Competitive Titles (2-3 pages)

The way I usually approach this section is to begin with one opening paragraph about your book. This is followed by 3-5 individual entries on the other top books in your field, and possibly a brief conclusion (or if your opener to this section is strong enough, you may have covered everything already).

The opener addresses what your book is about, really, and each other titles’ section addresses how your book compares to the others available on the subject in terms of style, content, and/or voice. We have to be careful not to put other books down too much in this section—it will be the same publishing house editors who are reviewing your proposal that purchased these other books! Depending on your genre, I think it is useful to note that readers often don’t have just one book in the fields of writing reference, say, or business memoir— therefore you can shade this discussion toward how your book complements the others and present its publication as a kind of win-win. I have even gone so far as to sometimes retitle this section, “Comparative Titles,” in that light.

After assembling the four main sections of your proposal, you will also want to present your material in both highly synopsized form in a Proposed Table of Contents and in full-blown fashion in your best Sample Chapters. Along with your query letter, this completed document is the tool most crucial in securing an agent and moving your manuscript that much closer to publication. 

The Value Of A Day

People have been known to say, Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Or, There are seven days in the week and none of them are called Someday. Like all maxims, however, these are only partially — or situationally — true. Because there is a converse: Put off until tomorrow the thing you’re not supposed to do today. Life can’t all be done at once. Let’s blame the Industrial Revolution for making us feel like we’re always out of time, all the time, trailing around with a hunted, hollow feeling.

In recovery, they say, One day at a time. Now that is actually good advice. Forget about human-defined parameters, like the 7:07:07 AM on your Casio (ed. note: update to Apple watch?). There is no January in nature. The sun comes up and the sun goes down. That’s the simplest, most observable unit of time. How shall we spend it?

From a work perspective or creative perspective (or both), the to-do list is the key to unlocking the true potential of the day. Here are some suggestions for making yours as effective a tool as possible: 

  1. Don’t put more on the to-do list than you can do. An overly long list becomes self-defeating and a setup for feeling bad about yourself. Instead of continually rolling items into the next day, let’s seek to understand the thing we’re putting on the list. How much is that going to take out of you? How much of this task do you want to accomplish? Obviously, I’m not going to write a whole book today, so what am I truly looking to accomplish? Am I going to transcribe three 40-minute chunks of interviews, and reflect on whether the material is better suited to the beginning, the middle or the end? Great, I have the time and bandwidth to do that. 
  2. All work counts. Brainstorming, planning, or list-making are needed just as much to accomplish a task as what we commonly consider doing. Getting organized is a form of doing. In fact, sitting down and mapping out what’s ahead is often more valuable for understanding what you’re trying to do, ensuring you’re prepared to do it, and setting a process up to be as smooth as possible, than simply plunging in out of harried anxiety.
  3. Prioritize balance. Balance is not something we can wish into existence. Whether we’re talking about balancing work and family, balancing being sedentary and active, or balancing having friends vs. hearing yourself think, to live a balanced life you are ideally living a balanced day — or at least a balanced week. Accomplishing this requires matching your to-do list with your priorities: important work meetings, meditation sessions, creative writing hours, attending your kid’s dance performance… If you can’t find the time for it on your calendar, you are saying it doesn’t really matter to you.
  4. Conclude the day crisply. I have a journal where I write a 75-100 word entry at the end of each day. It could be about a win or a loss, a loose end, or something I realized…writing this entry is the most important thing about it. This act says “I’m done. This day started and this day is over.” Releasing your attachment to this day and its list prepares you to embrace tomorrow. We can’t just be attached, attached, attached. There has to be a letting go. Ritualizing that, honors the day and what it contained.

Today does not equal all time. And its essence might not be realized at all if you can’t resist the impulse to rush on to the next thing. If your to-do list has the proper heft, however, you won’t be worried about what you’re checking off and how quickly. Instead, you’ll be able to live inside the tasks and see them through the right way.

10 Albums for the Inspired Writer

If you’re like me, and you work with words a lot, for fun and/or profit, then at the end of the day you want to hear music that has no lyrics whatsoever (or lyrics in a language you can’t understand, which serves somewhat the same purpose). The mind can detach then from verbal formulations and engage instead simply with rhythm and tone. In fact, I suspect the music is itself assisting with clearing the mind.

This was how I first discovered some of my favorite wordless music which I then began playing while I worked with words. The right soundtrack can make you feel more whole while you are writing, more grounded in your experience and more enthusiastic about the prospects of what you are doing.

And so, I bring you five (actually ten) of my favorite wordless or foreign language albums along with some notes of what kinds of project they might be best suited for.

Journey in Satchidananda by Alice Coltrane. The widow of jazz saxophone great John Coltrane, and a monster on the jazz harp in her own right, this album was written just before Coltrane suffered a two year-period of hallucinating voices and retired to an ashram. The devotional Hindu kirtan pieces that came after that are pretty awesome, too.

Use when: trying to effect an actual change in consciousness.


*You might also try: World Galaxy by Alice Coltrane, especially the avant-garde version of “My Favorite Things” which there’s no way in hell Julie Andrews would recognize.


Ethiopiques, vol. 21: Emahoy. You may have heard this in the background of a recent Walmart commercial, but now you know it is was written by an Ethiopian nun who just passed away at the age of 99. Norah Jones says, “This album is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard: part Duke Ellington, part modal scales, part the blues, part church music.” 

Use when: you are working with a single voice and/or a delicate subject matter.

*You might also try: Weder Harder Guzo by Hailu Mergia. Ethiopian music and Reggae share similar instrumentation (and a belief in the divinity of former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie). You won’t realize it’s on, until it ends, and then you’ll wish it had lasted forever.

Dreams by Gabor Szabo. Szabo was a Hungarian guitarist who brought his Gypsy- and folk-inflected jazz to San Francisco in the1960s. He was on the bill the night Jimi Hendrix gave his first American performance. The Jimi Hendrix Experience first, then Szab

o, then Jefferson Airplane. And that’s the concert I bring up when people ask what concert would you most have liked to see.

Use when: you don’t really know what you’re doing with a particular piece, but you’re open to trying different alternatives.

*You might also try: In Stockholm by Gabor Szabo and Janne Schaffer. It’s two guitars now, both speaking, not quite in words, but they might help you figure out yours.

Interludes for the Dead by Circles Around the Sun. It has the trippy jams and good instrumentation of a Grateful Dead show without the lyrics about going out on a high note despite the tragic state of affairs. The loops create long spaces which can be both heartbeat and wallpaper.

Use when: you are drunk, as Baudelaire says, “On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

*You might also try: Live/Dead by the Grateful Dead. Apart from some minimal intrusion reminding you are going to die, this live album will take you on flights of fancy as far out as you may have ever considered going.

Ascenseur pour l’échafaud by Miles Davis. A noir thriller soundtrack that Miles composed with both members of his band and French session players. The plan was simple: get together, watch the film, and jam. The result: a priceless energy of exploration with the simultaneous resistance of perfection.

Use when: you’re writing the first draft of something and you don’t want to get carried away with knowing its final state or where it goes exactly because — whoops — the song is over already.

*You might also try: La Planete Sauvage by Alain Goraguer. A weirder and more sci-fi version of the same concept. 25 songs in 38 minutes, Got your idea? Good. Next!..

The Weirdest Thing About Being Edited is that You Can Grow As a Person

It started innocently enough. In the margins of the novel I am writing, one of my beta readers wrote: “I like this repeating thing where X. accepts that people’s opposing realities can both be valid, and how it seems like an enlightened/healthy concept, but X. actually applies it in a sort of dismissive, undercutting way instead (even if he doesn’t realize it).”

Um, what now? I’m glad my perceptive reader added that “even if he doesn’t realize it” part. Speaking for the narrator of my novel, if I may, I will say that no he didn’t realize that. He didn’t realize that his seminal trauma had effectively split his brain to where he could never really be sure if he belonged. And that when overwhelmed by the defensiveness that naturally proceeded from such a state, he envies the people who have been through worse than him yet who can still manage to act natural. If it comes off like he is judging them, it’s because it’s all he has left.

I don’t need to visit my therapist to realize this is all true of me as well. Besides, those appointments aren’t until Thursday. What I find most interesting about this projective exercise called creative writing, when brought before the eyes of a talented editor, is that — knowing this about myself now — I am faced with an understanding: If I want my character to grow along an arc, I will need to face that same arc along with him.

You might call it wish-fulfillment, but it is more substantive than that, these possibilities I can glimpse for both myself and for my narrator. The way each can heal the other. Risks will need to be taken, in fiction and in life. Stubbornness will have to be relinquished. 

At the end, I’ll worry of course, if this novel will get published. Or made into a series for Hulu. Or both. But for now I am content to watch the way art and living refract each other, pointing down an as yet untraveled hall of mirrors, to greater self-understanding and enhanced self-efficacy.

At one point my narrator asks, “Who was I supposed to be in this context? Will it ever get to the point where there is one me in every context?”

You and me, my friend, we have the same goal. Let’s stick together and see where this thing goes.