Yeah, we got one, too.
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.