How to Write an Effective Non-Fiction Book Proposal

November 7, 2013

If you want to get a traditional publishing deal for your non-fiction book, the good news is that you can get one without writing an entire manuscript first. Publishers evaluate non-fiction based on proposals. The bad news is that proposals take a lot of work to write, sometimes many months. 

Your proposal is the place to showcase your writing skill, your authority on the subject, and the voice you would use in the book itself. It should be entertaining and informative and demonstrate how well you tell a story or build an argument.

Over the years many writers have told us that they don’t want to do the research required to write a full book proposal, since it’s time consuming and they’re doing the work on spec. But if you’re serious about getting a book deal, you will invest the time required.

Most editors read dozens of proposals in a week. A vague proposal may lead to an offer, but a compelling, well-crafted one that proves your mastery of your subject will excite an acquiring editor and make it easier for her to convince her colleagues throughout the publishing house that she should offer on the book.

If you need a financial argument that the work of writing a careful proposal is worthwhile, take it from us that doing so will likely also lead to a higher advance, since it will give the house confidence that you can pull off a thoughtful, original book. Acquiring editors don’t want to take a leap of faith that you can write something that might find a market. Prove to them that you can.

With that in mind, these are the elements you should include in your non-fiction book proposal:

Title page

  • include title, subtitle, and contact information. Obviously, right? Except we’ve seen writers forget to include this. Make sure you include your  email address or phone number, because nobody wants to take the time to write an actual letter.

About the book (3-6 pages)

  • an overview of what the book is about, showcasing your expertise and craft
  • should convey your approach: tone, voice, etc. If the book’s supposed to be hilarious, your proposal should be too; and don’t just say it will be – your proposal should make the reader laugh.

Market (a few paragraphs)

  • different from marketing: this section defines the audience for your book. Think like a publisher here: who do you imagine buying it?
  • where would it be shelved in a bookstore (e.g. parenting or memoir)?
  • how does it stand out from other books already available on the subject? Mention comparative titles and explain how yours is different and fills a gap in the existing literature.
  • you could include market research, particularly for practical non-fiction. For example, if you’re writing a book on natural pain remedies, you could include information on how many North Americans experience chronic pain and how much people spend on pain treatments in a year, as a way to demonstrate that there is a receptive audience for your book.

About the author (1-3 paragraphs)

  • usually written in third person, even if the rest of the proposal is first person
  • highlight previous publishing credits, awards, grants, anything showing external validation of your work
  • could mention specific experiences that led to your writing on this subject

Praise for previous work, if available

  • a few choice quotes from reviews, instructors, etc. will do

Chapter outlines (at least a detailed paragraph per chapter; max. 2 pages per chapter)

  • in this section you demonstrate how well you’ve thought through your idea, and how it would develop over the course of a book
  • there’s an understanding in publishing houses that a finished manuscript may diverge somewhat from your proposed outline

Promotion (1-3 paragraphs)

  • do you have media contacts that would be useful?
  • are there upcoming anniversaries or other relevant dates that the publisher could hook the publication to, to increase media interest?
  • are you active in social media?
  • do you know established writers who might endorse your book?
  • do you speak at conferences?

Research/resources (optional; a few paragraphs if you do include)

  • what access do you have to archives, sources, travel funds, etc. that will help you accomplish what you propose to do in the book?

Manuscript delivery (sentence or two)

  • how long do you need to write the manuscript, and what will the total word count be? (an average book is about 80,000 words)

Sample chapter

  • a full chapter from anywhere in the manuscript, showcasing your writing and the story at its best
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