The Knockout Nonfiction Book Proposal

The quality of your nonfiction book proposal will invariably make the difference between success and failure. Before agents and publishers will accept a work of fiction (especially from a newer writer), they require a complete manuscript. But nonfiction projects are different: a proposal alone can do the trick. This is what makes nonfiction writing a much less speculative and often more lucrative endeavor (relatively speaking) than fiction writing.

You may devote five years of long evenings to writing a 1,000-page fiction manuscript, only to receive a thick pile of computer-generated rejections. Clearly, writing nonfiction doesn’t entail the same risks, for the simple reason that you don’t have to write an entire manuscript before you can begin pitching it. On the other hand, writing fiction is often an emotionally driven endeavor in which rewards are gained through the act of writing and are not necessarily based on rational, practical considerations. Interestingly, many successful nonfiction writers fantasize about being fiction writers.

As you’ll learn, the proposal’s structure, contents, and size can vary substantially, and it’s up to you to decide the best format for your purposes. Still, the guidelines given here serve as excellent general parameters.

Appearance Counts

Much of what follows becomes less relevant, or perhaps not possible, if all your material is conveyed solely through digital transmission. However, even digital items should look as good as possible, and many people greatly prefer to print a hardcopy to read from. In my opinion, physicality is still king (or queen) when it comes to making best impressions.

  • Your proposal should be printed in black ink on clean, letter-sized (8½" x 11"), white paper.
  • Letter-quality printing is by far the best. Make sure the toner or ink cartridge is fresh and that all photocopies are dark and clear enough to be read easily. Publishing is an image-driven business, and you will be judged, perhaps unconsciously, on the physical and aesthetic merits of your submission.
  • Always double-space, or you can virtually guarantee reader antagonism — eyestrain makes people cranky.
  • Make sure your proposal appears fresh and new and hasn’t been dog-eared, marked up, or abused by previous readers. No editor will be favorably disposed if she thinks that everyone else on the block has already sent you packing. You want editors to think you have lots of other places to go, not nowhere else.
  • Contrary to common practice in other industries, editors prefer not to receive bound proposals. If an editor likes your proposal, she will want to photocopy it for her colleagues, and your binding will only be in the way. If you want to keep the material together and neat, use a binder clip; if it’s a lengthy proposal, clip each section together separately. Of course, email submissions negate the above issues.

Proposal Contents

A nonfiction proposal should include the following elements, each of which is explained below:

  • Title page
  • Overview
  • Biographical section
  • Marketing section
  • Author platform
  • Competition section
  • Promotion section
  • Chapter outline
  • Sample chapters

Title page. The title page should be the easiest part, but it can also be the most important, since, like your face when you meet someone, it’s what is seen first.

Try to think of a title that’s attractive and effectively communicates your book’s concept. A descriptive subtitle, following a catchy title, can help you achieve both goals.

It’s very important that your title and subtitle relate to the book’s subject, or an editor might make an inaccurate judgment about your book’s focus and automatically dismiss it. For instance, if you’re proposing a book about gardening, don’t title it The Greening of America.

Examples of titles that have worked very well are:
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
Baby and Child Care by Dr. Benjamin Spock
How to Swim with the Sharks without Being Eaten Alive by Harvey Mackay

And, yes, there are notable exceptions: an improbable title that went on to become a perennial success is What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard Bolles. Sure, you may gain confidence and a sense of freedom from such exceptional instances. By all means let your imagination graze during the brainstorming stage.

However, don’t bet on the success of an arbitrarily conceived title that has nothing at all to do with the book’s essential concept or reader appeal.

A title should be stimulating and, when appropriate, upbeat and optimistic. If your subject is an important historic or current event, the title should be dramatic. If a biography, the title should capture something personal (or even controversial) about the subject. Many good books have been handicapped by poorly conceived titles, and many poor books have been catapulted to success by good titles. A good title is good advertising. Procter & Gamble, for instance, spends thousands of worker hours creating seductive names for its endless array of soap-based products.

The title you choose is referred to as the “working title.” Most likely, the book will have a different title when published. There are two reasons for this:

  1. A more appropriate and/or arresting title may evolve with time.
  2. The publisher has final contractual discretion over the title (as well as over a lot of other things).

The title page should contain only the title, plus your name, address, telephone number, and email address — and the name, address, and phone number of your agent, if you have one. The title page should be neatly and attractively spaced. Eye-catching and tasteful computer graphics and display-type fonts can contribute to the overall aesthetic appeal.

Overview. The overview portion of the proposal is a terse statement (one to three pages) of your overall concept and mission. It sets the stage for what’s to follow. Short, concise paragraphs are usually best.

Biographical section. This is where you sell yourself. This section tells who you are and why you’re the ideal person to write this book. You should highlight all your relevant experience, including media and public-speaking appearances, and list previous books, articles, or both, published by or about you. Self-flattery is appropriate — so long as you’re telling the truth. Many writers prefer to slip into the third person here, to avoid the appearance of egomania.

Marketing section. This is where you justify the book’s existence from a commercial perspective. Who will buy it? For instance, if you’re proposing a book on sales, state the number of people who earn their living through sales; point out that thousands of large and small companies are sales dependent and spend large sums on sales training, and that all sales professionals are perpetually hungry for fresh, innovative sales books. Don’t just say something like “My book is for adult women, and there are more than 50 million adult women in America.” You have to be much more demographically sophisticated than that.

Author platform. The platform has become a crucial piece of the proposal in recent years. It’s expected that as a minimum the author is sufficiently savvy about social media to have a large digital network of like-minded “friends” who can be tapped to purchase the book. It’s all about the number of relevant people (“communities”) you can access, and the expectation that they will either buy your book or at least tell others about it (“viral marketing”). Mention the number of contacts you have through social media, as well as subscribers to your newsletter or professional services, and be as specific as possible about the numbers who visit your website.

Competition section. To the uninitiated, this section may appear to be a setup to self- destruction. However, if handled strategically, and assuming you have a fresh concept, this section wins you points rather than undermining your case.

The competition section is where you describe major published titles with concepts comparable to yours. If you’re familiar with your subject, you’ll probably know those titles by heart; you may have even read most or all of them. If you’re not certain, just check Amazon or AbeBooks, where pretty much anything ever published is listed. If the titles in question are only available through “resellers,” and not the original publishers, they are most likely out of print. Don’t list everything published on your subject — that could require a book in itself. Just describe the leading half dozen titles or so (backlist classics, as well as recent books) and explain why yours will be different.

Getting back to the sales-book example, there is no shortage of good sales books. There’s a reason for that — a big market exists for sales books. You can turn that to your advantage by emphasizing the public’s substantial, insatiable demand for sales books. Your book will feed that demand with its unique and innovative sales-success program. Salespeople and companies dependent on sales are always looking for new ways to enhance sales skills (it’s okay to reiterate key points).

Promotion section. Here you suggest possible ways to promote and market the book. Sometimes this section is unnecessary. It depends on your subject and on what, if any, realistic promotional prospects exist.

If you’re proposing a specialized academic book such as The Mating Habits of Octopi, the market is a relatively limited one, and elaborate promotions would be wasteful. But if you’re proposing a popularly oriented relationship book along the lines of The Endless O in One Easy Lesson, the promotional possibilities are also endless. They would include most major electronic broadcast and print media outlets, advertising, maybe even some weird contests.

You want to guide the publisher toward seeing realistic ways to publicize the book.

Chapter outline. This is the meat of the proposal. Here’s where you finally tell what’s going to be in the book. Each chapter should be tentatively titled and clearly abstracted.

Some successful proposals have fewer than 100 words per abstracted chapter; others have several hundred words per chapter. Sometimes the length varies from chapter to chapter. There are no hard-and-fast rules here; it’s the dealer’s choice. Sometimes less is more; at other times a too-brief outline inadequately represents the project.

At their best, the chapter abstracts read like mini-chapters — as opposed to stating “I will do...and I will show...” Visualize the trailer for a forthcoming movie; that’s the tantalizing effect you want to create.

Also, it’s a good idea to preface the outline with a table of contents. This way, the editor can see your entire road map at the outset.

Sample chapters. Sample chapters are optional. A strong, well-developed proposal will often be enough. However, especially if you’re a first-time writer, one or more sample chapters will give you an opportunity to show your stuff and will help dissolve an editor’s concerns about your ability to actually write the book, thereby increasing the odds that you’ll receive an offer — and you’ll probably increase the size of the advance, too.

Nonfiction writers are often wary of investing time to write sample chapters since they view the proposal as a way of avoiding speculative writing. But this can be a shortsighted view; a single sample chapter can make the difference between selling and not selling a marginal proposal. Occasionally, a publisher will request that one or two sample chapters be written before he makes a decision about a particular project. If the publisher seems to have a real interest, writing the sample material is definitely worth the author’s time, and the full package can then be shown to additional prospects, too.

Many editors say that they look for reasons to reject books and that being on the fence is a valid reason for rejecting a project. To be sure, there are cases where sample chapters have tilted a proposal on the verge of rejection right back onto the playing field!

Keep in mind that the publisher is speculating that you can and will write the book upon contract. A sample chapter will go far to reduce the publisher’s concerns about your ability to deliver a quality work beyond the proposal stage.

What Else?

There are a variety of materials you may wish to attach to the proposal to further bolster your cause. These include:

  • Laudatory letters and comments about you
  • Laudatory publicity about you
  • A headshot (but not if you look like the Fly, unless you’re proposing a humor book or a nature book)
  • Copies of published articles you’ve written
  • Videos of TV or speaking appearances
  • Any and all information that builds you up in a relevant way, but be organized about it — don’t create a disheveled, unruly package

Length

The average proposal is probably between 15 and 30 double-spaced pages, and the typical sample chapter an additional 10 to 20 double-spaced pages. But sometimes proposals reach 100 pages, and other times they’re 5 pages in total. Extensive proposals are not a handicap. Whatever it takes!

Guide

Jeff Herman’s literary agency has ushered nearly 1,000 books into publication. Herman is the author of Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents and coauthor of the acclaimed Write the Perfect Book Proposal and is often featured as an expert in print and broadcast media. He lives in Stockbridge, MA. Visit him online at www.JeffHerman.com.


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