Preparing a Nonfiction Book Proposal

If your book’s theme has been narrowed, massaged and pumped up to a power theme, you must still convince an agent or editor to bite. Preparing a nonfiction proposal isn’t rocket science but there are some things which must be included.
Writing Tip for Today: For years, writers relied on a book by Michael Larsen for nonfiction proposals. The main complaint was that Larsen’s advice tended to make a very long document for agents/eds to wade through. Today, a good nonfiction proposal should be clear and as short as possible. The order or elements may vary depending on who you ask, but overall, here are the essentials:

  • Presentation is everything. A good cover page need not be full of gimmicks like photos or art. Rather, I think the title should be centered and in a large font (say 20-24 pt), followed by the subtitle, by you and underneath “A nonfiction book proposal.” In the bottom left corner, print your full contact information, including email, web site and Facebook or Twitter handles.
  • Organize the Rest. A Table of Contents for the proposal is appropriate and will make yours easy to navigate. For e-proposals, you can insert hyperlinks to make navigation even easier.
  • Overview. This is like your sales pitch, a page or two long (TNR, 12 pt, dblspced). You will write, in your very best way, the scope of the book, the power theme, the reader takeaway and possibly a couple of stats that reflect the total potential market or appeal. Don’t go into detail, but you may be able to lift a particularly meaningful or well-written bit from the book and put it into this overview.
  • Purpose. This may sound a bit redundant, but list the purpose of your book in a bulleted list.
  • Promotion and Marketing. Remember that platform you’ve been working on? Here’s your chance to show that you work diligently to build your readership. I think that even if you still have only a few followers on your blog, for instance, you can say, “My blog has grown by 250% in the past three months,” or some other way to show you’re serious about this. If your private life has a following for a topic that relates to the book (say you’re a spokesperson for an organization and your book is about the organization’s cause), you can use those stats. It gets a bit dicier to try to say that the folks in your database for improv actors is important to a book about accounting.
  • Audience. Who is your typical reader? Are there secondary markets for your book. Why this book? Why Now? Why should you write it?
  • Complementary Books. I prefer the word “complementary” (note the spelling) rather than “competition.” It’s up to you to stay up on market trends, to know what you’ll be up against. Know where on the shelf your book will go. Know the recent (as in past couple of years) books published on your subject. Be able to compare and contrast your book. Be specific, and refrain from saying your book is superior or the next Prayer of Jabez. A list of 3-6 books should suffice.
  • Mechanics. This is a simple listing that says which computer program you will use to write the book and about how long it will take to complete.
  • Endorsements. We’re celeb crazy these days. If you don’t know anyone prominent enough to endorse, try contacting an expert in the field and asking for a foreword. Try not to be pushy with authors if you approach them for endorsements. I know some who never endorse any book and others who put their name on anything.
  • Author Bio, Credits. List your brief (about 50 words) bio, and if you have no pub credits yet, either get some (nonpaying markets are still a credit) or don’t mention it. Only put stuff in your bio that relates to writing or your subject.
  • Future Projects. Are you exhausted yet? The agent/ed wants to know you’re no one-trick pony.
  • Chapter Outline. Write a brief paragraph for each chapter, covering each chapter’s main points.
  • Sample Chapters. The first three sample chapters of your book must be your best writing, well-edited. You want to end on a positive note. All told, this proposal shouldn’t run more than about 30 pages + the sample chapters.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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