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Writing Your Nonfiction Book Proposal: A Step-by-Step Guide for Success

You’ve written your first book, or maybe you have a great idea for one. You know it will be perfect for the right audience, you know you are the person who should be writing it, and you have an inclination that it will sell well. The next question on your mind may be, “Well, how will I get agents to see this?” And “How can I get a publisher?” The key to answering these questions lies within one crucial component: writing a great book proposal.

Nonfiction authors, this step-by-step guide was built for you, and highlights the key aspects that your book proposal should contain before you send it off to an agency or publisher. As you read on, remember to keep these two questions in mind: Who will enjoy the book and why are you the best person to write it?

The main elements for your book proposal are not just describing or providing a sample of the contents inside your completed book, but rather developing a marketing pitch that highlights the salability and market potential of the work you have to share. On top of looking for a quality book by a credible writer, agents and publishers want to know how it will do in the market, and what you will bring to the table. 

Before we get started, keep these questions in mind: Why is your book special and how much does your publisher stand to make from it? Start here with step one and work your way through the checklist, making sure your proposal contains every element this guide has to offer. Of course, depending on the agent, it can be reworked to fit their requirements and necessary deliverables. Your complete book proposal should be at least twenty-five pages.

1. Title Page, Selling Sentences

The title page of your book proposal should be clean, simple, and exciting. You can create this with your real book cover in mind. Simply begin with your idea for the title and then your credentials, listing who you are in relation to the body of work. For example, if you are a doctor writing about health and wellness, mention that; or maybe you are a singer writing a book about life on the road—note that. Lower down on the page comes your selling sentence; a powerful sentence describing what the book is going to be about. Using our example of the singer, their selling sentence may read: “Life on the road, trials and tribulations of a small-town singer.” This line should be catchy and informative but also compelling; think of this as your elevator pitch. Also make sure to include the book’s target or actual word count.

2. Table of Contents (for the proposal, not for your finished book)

Your table of contents here refers to the one for the proposal, not for your actual book, and will list each section with page numbers, so that an agent can clearly see the focus of this proposal in its entirety. In your table of contents, you should have the following titles listed with page numbers referring to each section.        

  • Overview

  • Author Biography

  • Competitive Analysis

  • Audience

  • Marketing/Promotion

  • Outline

  • Chapter Summaries

  • Sample Chapters

3. Overview

While a short overview of the book you have already written may seem like a daunting task, it certainly doesn’t have to be. This is the place where you will tell agents what your book is about, why it is exciting, and most important, why they should publish it! Your book will be described in further detail in the final sections of your proposal, so this overview is your opportunity to dazzle the agent rather than tell them everything You want to make them feel like they will be really missing the boat if they pass on your book.. You’re going for brevity and emotive language. Additionally, if there is a standout point about why you are the qualified candidate to be writing this in the first place—and why this book will be a hit,—share that here, but keep it short. For example, if you’re an Oscar-winning actress, mention that, but you don’t have to explain everything about your role or what it was like to accept the award.

 If the work has a component of timeliness, this is also the place to address that. For instance, if the work is relevant to a current event or special anniversary, that is great information to share in this portion of your proposal. Other elements to include in the overview are the anticipated delivery date, potential selling markets, and genre. These four components in your overview will not only be intriguing to the agent but also help them realize where your work fits best, making their jobs a bit easier and yours as well. It will be tough, and you can jam it in with different font sizes and margins, but the overview should not be more than one single page. Agents and publishers are busy—give them the tastiest morsels only. The book proposal is a conversation starter, not the whole shebang.

4. Author Biography

Authors, here is your time to talk about yourself. Use this section of your proposal to reiterate why you should be writing this work and why it matters to you. This includes any past media exposure you have had on the subject, awards and recognition in the field, connections to important figures in this particular marketplace, and, of course, your authority on the topic. Even if it feels weird, it’s best to write about yourself in the third person, or even have someone close to you complete the first draft. This is your opportunity to pitch yourself as the authority on the topic. This section should be around one paragraph, concise, to the point but also exciting. It may help if you compose a few questions that you would want to be asked about yourself in relation to your book; pretend you are interviewing yourself and use those answers to get your point across. For more inspiration, check out some of your favorite author bios that appear on the back of their books and use those elements to support your own.

5. Competitive Analysis

Here is the part of your book proposal that will require some research. To start, ask yourself: What does my book address that the others on this topic do not? What does my book challenge that these others stay quiet on? This section of your proposal will not only showcase that you are writing about something that has a clear buyer in the marketplace but also will persuade agents to further grasp why your book needs to be published, even among an array of similar-subject work. In doing your research, pick books that are newer—nothing outdated or out of print—and compare them to make your book stand out in a respectful, but informative and compelling way. Don’t pick any mega hits like Romeo and Juliet or The Bible; keep it narrowed to titles that are actually competitors.

Every title description should contain the following items:

  • book title

  • author

  • publisher

  • publishing date

  • page count

  • a description 

The description should be a short paragraph. Usually, one to two sentences explaining the book in a sterile way are enough. Then you should explain any weakness in the competing title and what sets it apart from yours. You should also note any awards or bestselling statuses the book received. This will signal to publishers and agents that there is a market for your book!

6. Audience

One of the most vital components of your book proposal lies in its marketing potential. Who is going to read, buy, and share your work? The first thing to think about here is: Who is your book for? Define, understand, and reiterate your primary marketplace—even if it is small, it can prove its salability through understanding their dedication. It is important to remain realistic here. For example, if you are a chef who is writing a book about home cooking during the COVID-19 shutdown, your primary audience will most likely be people who enjoy cooking. Of course, this may not be the only audience who would buy the book; this is where your secondary and specialty marketplaces can be addressed. This section of your proposal can highlight that, while people who love to cook may be reading this, so will chefs, parents, people working from home, etc. You can further push this idea of the specialty marketplace as timing is an important factor and that can be detailed here as well.

7. Marketing/Promotion

In regard to the promotion of your book, you may be thinking, “Well, this is not my area of expertise.” The agents and publishers know this, but what they really want to see is how you can promote this book yourself with your own list of contacts, followers, and direct community where you have influence. How will you as the author increase the book’s salability through word of mouth and your own connections? If using the same example from above, you could suggest that because you are a home chef, you know lots of other industry people who would buy your book. Maybe you have a dedicated Instagram account sharing your simple at-home recipes with a large following; this is an important thing to mention as your followers may be the first people to purchase your book when it is published. Use this section as a tool to showcase your own promotional abilities to entice the agent to pick up this work and use their channels to promote the book further. If you have experience running events or speaking in front of crowds, this is important to mention because publishers will want you to go on a book tour. It’s best to approach the marketing section as if the publisher is lazy and desperate; they want to know how much effort you and your community will be putting into the marketing of the book, and if they can rely on you to support their own marketing agenda.

8. Outline

This is where you will share your book’s table of contents with the agent/publishers. Envision your book in full print, hardcover in all its glory, and share all chapters in a clean, single page so the reader has a full bird’s-eye view of the contents and chapters inside.

9. Brief Chapter Summaries

After the outline, you will want to write a brief (one- to two-paragraph) summary of each chapter. Remember to stay clear, concise, and focused when writing these summaries. It may be helpful to write and revise them and then have a friend who has read the book look at them, as there is always an opportunity to cut out excess description. Also, it is important to remain intriguing; make every summary stand out in its brevity but keep the reader interested so that every chapter feels necessary and in its proper place.

10. Sample Chapters (up to 3)

Here is the fun part, the part you have been waiting for: you get to share your writing. Your reader has perused the above and is now ready to read a few chapters from your book! Pick a few, usually three that stand out, to give them a glimpse of your work. This can certainly be the first three chapters if you feel those convey the work best, or they can be taken from the middle of your book where an important moment is revealed or from a catchy section that feels necessary to convey the essence of your book. If you have a favorite section, go with that—this is the time to showcase what you have drafted in detail and it is what you will be leaving them with.

Finally, it’s worth having an editor go over your proposal. At the very least, you should get your work proofread before sending it out. A typo can make of break a publishing deal! ;)

Congratulations on working through this step-by-step guide to writing your first nonfiction book proposal! If you need a professional eye for your sample chapters, or just some help outlining your book, get in touch.

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