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How to write a sellable non-fiction book proposal

You may have written (or want to write) a non-fiction book that is based on your professional expertise. Or a memoir (also a non-fiction by the way). Or perhaps it's an illustrated children’s book, a cookbook or a photographic travel book. Enough? Not quite. If you want to get a publisher or agent you are not going to send them your whole book.


You need to drill down your entire book into a shorter document that captures its essence. Most books are commissioned by publishers or agents on a proposal basis. (I am going to use the terms publisher / agent interchangeably). You don't send them the actual book on first contact.


This means that writing a proposal is actually a Pretty Big Deal. They are long and they take a whole lotta work. But they will easily weed out the serious writer (that’s you) from the ‘don’t care enough’ to an experienced publisher. Don’t rush the process of the book proposal and don’t underestimate how carefully crafted this needs to be.


​This is what is going to get your book sold....

On the most basic level a book proposal is a very simple document. It is going to spell out exactly what the book is about. Then you are going to detail all the key areas you will cover including a chapter list.


Remember, a publisher gets loads of these and they want to know, in a quick glance, what your book is about. The publisher needs to be clear after reading this single document on what is the story and what makes it a good read.


Why do publishers want them? We need to have as much information as possible to see your book’s potential. It also allows us to see an indication of what the book is going to cost to produce.


Many publishers will detail exactly what they want you to include in your proposal, others leave it up to you. Check their website if you can first. For my first book proposal I sent two pages and a rough chapter outline but I was very clear on what I was saying and my chapters were carefully crafted. A shorter one can work if your book is compelling and meets a clear gap in the market.

I am going to give you the pretty simple basics that generally work for any proposal.


LENGTH: I go for brevity and like to bring these in fewer than 3- 5 pages.


FORMAT FOR A PROPOSAL


1. BOOK TITLE + SUBTITLE + GENRE

Titles are fantastically important and can sell a book. A non-fiction book title does not leave the reader guessing. It tells a reader exactly what your book is about. They are not vague, elusive – but they can be very clever. Choose something that tells what the book is about. The title sits on the spine and will sell the book – the subtitle is on the cover and adds to the information.


Like...

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Rich Dad Poor Dad -What The Rich Teach Their Kids About Money That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!

Get me to 21: A mother’s epic battle to save her daughter’s life, by Gabi Lowe

From Meths to Marathons, by Costa Carastavrakis

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference


2. BOOK OVERVIEW / BLURB

Think of this as an executive summary and hard sell. It needs to answer the question – what is your book about? It’s short and snappy and gives an overall idea of your book and its message. This should be a short statement of what the book is about. If there are important things about you that would cause an agent or editor to take notice put it here. Otherwise make a clear statement of what the book is about and why it is important. No oversell or hype. Just be clear. If you have done your preliminary work this should be easy.


For memoir writers – your blurb needs to work harder. This tight piece of writing needs to be so crafted and clever. It needs to make your own story (and book) seem dramatic and desperately exciting (far more than it really is often).


3. ABOUT THE AUTHOR

This is a third person description of you and your persona. Think about how you would like to be introduced on a talk show. It should be relevant to why you are writing the book and can be considered the authority. Saying that you suffered and survived is not always enough. The agent or editor is looking for something that stands out and can be marketed. There are many members of the team making decisions. In today’s publishing climate sales has more authority then editorial. So make your statements relevant. You are not really promoting yourself you are promoting the book through you as an author so take a deep breath and blow your own trumpet.


4. BOOK CONTENT

This is a far longer version of the blurb above. It is 2 -3 pages. Here you are relying less on drama and are rolling the out nuts and the bolts of your story. The publisher wants to know HOW your story will play out. What is this book about?


In a memoir you will summarise your entire story here. Keep to the big points and only they main characters. Introduce any new character by putting their names in capitals the first time you name them … like… “the hitman JOEY PUTESCA was the next on the scene.”


In a non-fiction look at:

What are the main points? Where does it take the reader? What are the highlights? What the key arguments / areas you will cover? Keep your style good here but make sure it also just covers the basics.

What topics will be covered? What keywords could describe your book?​


5. SIMILAR TITLES

Which books are on the shelf next to yours? Be specific about the current competition for your reading audience, from the titles to the authors and their approach. What is your book going to compete with on the shelf? List big names in this genre. If you can’t find any you are not looking hard enough. Aim for around 4–6 in a list.


6. TARGET MARKET

This is a carefully determined statement of who will buy your book. Please do not use statements like every woman or every man. That is not possible. You have a certain audience in mind so that is enough. We all have dreams of viral bestsellers. But if you show that there is a market for your book that is enough. If your book is very niche a traditional publisher might not be right for it. But if it has a potential audience that is more mainstream stick to that. You can add relevant secondary markets but the primary market is most important.


7. VISUALS

This only applies to a book that includes photography (cookbooks / photo / travel) or illustrations. It is key if it is a children’s book. I want to see a sample of what the book is going to look like. Here you are going to have to put out some money if you are not doing the illustrations yourself. I highly recommend few pages actually designed, or at least some visuals of how the book is going to look. Don’t go too far as the publisher will have their own layout artists, but if images are critical to your book – include some of them


8. MARKETING AND PROMOTIONS


This is how you will access your potential reader and help your publisher sell your books. The minute you decide to write a nonfiction book you should be building your online presence and personal brand. This is a calculated strategy. Make sure you understand why the number of likes or followers on social media is important to your book.


Newsletters/blogs/websites/YouTube/LinkedIn/FB/Instagram.

Put numbers to each e.g. My newsletter ‘Healthy Food Fast’ has 5,000 subscribers.

How else will you promote your book? Are you an accomplished public speaker, do you do workshops, can you run a course?

List your last 12 talks. Note audience size. List your upcoming 12 months of speaking engagements


We want fixed channels and numbers here, not guesses


In addition to your online presence and brand you can offer to purchase a number of books from the publisher for back of the room sales. This is not necessary but they like it.


Never say things like you will be willing to do book signings or go on talk shows. Be very concrete about your plans. If you are going to buy books and drive across your Country to do book signings that translates into less risk for the publisher. This is why these things are important.


The publisher is always considering the economics of your work. The editors might love your writing and find merit. If it does not meet the economic or business requirements it will not be given a contract. This is where you stop being a writer and you start being an entrepreneur and self-advocate. Your book proposal is a business plan, plain and simple.



9. A well-organized Table of Contents TOC


This is not always necessary for memoirs but is for straight NF or any book where this will add to the proposal. Keep in mind the structure. If you are writing a prescriptive book you need to make sure your reader knows in the first chapter what you are going to teach them.

Keep your chapter titles explanatory. Your editor or agent should be able to look at the TOC and visualize the book. This of course depends on the type of book. Memoirs are different as are humor books. My preference is clarity over fluff.



10. Attach Your Sample Chapters

The sample chapters do not have to be long. But they need to be the best reflection of what the agent or publisher will be getting in the final book. It is worth putting in the time. Usually you will include your THREE best chapters, not always your first three.



What Makes a Non-Fiction Book Successful?

  1. The subject is topical, timely and/or timeless, it is unique or presented in a unique way. It has a wide appeal. Trade publishers are looking for books that speak to a wide audience.

  2. It has a title that is compelling, exciting and descriptive. Together the title and subtitle must describe the contents of the book.

  3. It is well written with attention paid to spelling, grammar and sentence structure. Well-written can mean simple, correct English, or it can mean a great tone and new voice.

  4. The author is a professional in the field about which he/she is writing, is considered an expert on the subject, has lived this journey or has done extensive research on it.

  5. The material is presented in a logical and easy to read manner.

  6. The publisher can see that the author will promote and market the book through talks, readings, book signing and their own database and connections.


What about a query letter?

I tend to double up and get my book summary really good. Then I will paste that into the body of the email with the title genre and the ‘about the author’ bit.


You may also want to read:


The article is from The Writing Room by Sarah Bullen

Please credit in full and link to this blog post if you share it.



​(This is the latest version of this - I regularly update this article based on market trends) ​

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