What's a Book Proposal?

Non-fiction writers, it's your turn

Hi friends,

First up: get yourself ready for Open Thread Thursday this week! If you’re a paid subscriber, you’ll have access to our open thread where you can ask just about anything (no pitching) and I’ll answer. Our fantastic community will offer their experiences, too! It’s great. You should subscribe so you don’t miss out.

Moving on, today we’re going to talk about book proposals! While 99% of all the information and advice in this newsletter has been applicable to both fiction and non-fiction writers, today we’re talking about the non-fiction book proposal. You can use this rough guideline for memoir proposals, too, but it’s not likely you’re going to sell your debut novel on proposal. You might be able to sell your third, forth, or fifth novel on proposal, but your agent can help you with those. :)

Here’s a look at what I like in non-fiction book proposals. Other agents may have other preferences, but you work that out with them after you’ve signed on. This is a basic look at what I think you can use to submit your non-fiction work. And tbh, the many, many, many websites and books that cover this are not far off.

  1. Overview: this is a brief introduction to your book and the proposal. I treat it like an abbreviated introduction as you might see it in the actual book, but like 1000ish words. The reader (i.e. the agent or editor) should come away with the main takeaway, argument, or goal of your book, and how you’re going to get the reader there.

  2. Marketing and Publicity: I’d say this is the spot where writers mess up the most. This isn’t about the marketing or publicity of your topic. (Subscribers will remember what we talked about not using rando stats to prove your “market”). This is about marketing and publicizing YOU. This could also be labeled Author Platform, and maybe I’ll start doing that going forward. The publisher wants to know how people already know your name, and what you can do to publicize the book when it comes out. Obviously this information should be relevant to the topic of your book.

  3. Comp Titles: Editors use comparable titles to predict how your book might sell. Just the same as you might pitch your book in a query letter as “The Secret meets Dilbert” you’ll want to provide a list, with brief commentary, of realistic, relevant, and recent comp titles. You’re doing a little bit of homework for the editor or agent here, and that’s ok. But you want to spend some time on this section, picking relevant, successful books (even though you’re not going to have access to sales data). You want your comp titles to say these books are great, but this is why mine is better, WITHOUT disparaging the other books. You don’t want to call another agent or editor’s baby ugly. Here you’ll include the title, author, publisher, and publication year of the book and a sentence or two about how your book will serve readers differently or better. You might have to read some of these books! They have already been part of your research.

  4. About the manuscript: Somewhere in the proposal, the reader needs to know your projected word count, any illustrations required and how many, and how long it will take you to write the book. These can all be projections, but don’t under-promise and over-deliver here. You can put this short section lots of different places in the proposal, but it should be there somewhere.

  5. Annotated Table of Contents: This is like a long outline for your book. You don’t just want to list your chapter titles and move on, though. Provide explanation and description about each chapter or section of your book, so at the end, the reader understands the scope of your project, how you aim to address your topic, and where you get to in the end. Agents and editors are looking for the arc of your book, even if your book isn’t exactly narrative. Where are you taking the reader and how do you get there?

  6. Sample chapter(s): You need sample chapters! Probably two! Start with your introduction and chapter 1, depending on how you structure your work. If you have four chapters and they’re all 125 pages long, you don’t have to include 125 pages of sample work. (Also, that’s too long period.) You want and need to give the reader an idea of your voice and the tone of the book, how you set up your argument, and the beginnings of your execution. You can’t just wave your hands and be like this’ll be great I’ll figure it out later! You need to show the reader parts of your actual work. DO NOT skip ahead and include chapter four. Even though you sometimes can read a non-fiction book out of order, it’s not a great first impression.

  7. * If your book is highly illustrated and depends on the inclusion of illustrations, then you need to include those illustrations in the proposal. That may mean creating them yourself, which takes time and skill, or figuring out how to get those images. It’s ok to leave out illustrations that would be nice but are not essential at this point.

  8. About the author: I like to include a short paragraph about the author at the end of a proposal, much like you see in the back of a book. It’s ok if some of that info is repeated from the Author Platform section. You can include your picture, if you like, but it’s not necessary.

That’s about it! Some things are going to be more relevant to your topic than others, but this is basic information I need when I’m looking to sign up a non-fiction book. In the end, it should be a Word doc or PDF, in a reasonable font and type size (can’t go wrong with TNR, 12 pt). If your book is highly illustrated, then you’ll want to put more thought into the design of your proposal. You want to give the reader a feel for the finished product and also show the required design elements. You don’t have to make it look like a book, however, in landscape orientation, two page spreads. Most editors and agents will be reading this on various screens, or printed out on standard paper, so think about your end user here and don’t make it too complicated. If the file size of your proposal is too big to email because of images, a service like Dropbox is a good workaround. If you’re really fancy, you can host it on your own website, behind a password or not. If you need that option, you probably know how to make it work.

If you’re writing a memoir, sometimes you might write the whole thing and query it kinda like a novel, and sometimes you might write a book proposal and query it like non-fiction. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ There’s no single way to do it. If you’re writing memoir, your Annotated Table of Contents might be more narrative in structure, more like a synopsis, rather than a chapter breakdown. Either way! Do what works for your story! The end goal is the same.

Things you don’t need: a table of contents for the PROPOSAL itself, a book cover design, charts and graphs about the proposed market/readership of your book, unless that is showing the market/readership of your blog/social/etc etc.,—I was ready to write a big long list here, and tbh, that’s about it! I expect to edit a proposal when I sign someone up. At the query stage I’m looking for the raw info—platform, concept, writing style, execution—the rest we can fix together.

Thank you to everyone who’s reached out and said they’re enjoying the newsletter and that they’ve used it to help other writers. Have a friend lost in writing a query letter? Send them this post! Encourage them to subscribe! Are you publishing adjacent and tired of explaining a simple concept over and over to uncles who want to write picture books, or the like? Let me know! I’ll write a post on it and you can forward it to those pesky uncles and you’ll never have to say writing picture books is harder than it looks again! I consider it a public service I can offer.