How To Prepare a Nonfiction Proposal, Or the Document I Email to Others the Most.
When people hear that I’m a writer, inevitably they want to tell me about their book project. I am a freelance writer of nearly 14 years. I have shopped maybe six books (maybe one of those might hit, someday). I’ve collaborated on a book, edited proposals, written proposals, and helped people refine their ideas.
I am constantly asked about proposals, and so I am sharing a document that I have sent out several times a week for about six years. The below is “How to Prepare a Nonfiction Proposal,” which was sent to me by an agent many years ago. It still holds up. Email me with any book-related needs and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
HOW TO PREPARE A NONFICTION PROPOSAL
Nonfiction often can be placed with a publisher on the basis of a strong, well-thought-out proposal. The following outline can help you put together the key components of a solid proposal.
There is an expression that “when you name it, you claim it”—so you must work diligently on your title. In many ways, it is the most significant part of the proposal. It is obviously the first thing an editor reads and it offers the first clue to the book’s focus and subject matter. Subtitles describe the book further and often are an essential element in fully communicating the subject matter.
Simply put, this section tells the editor what the book is about. Think of this section as a brief but thorough introduction to the book. It can be as long as ten pages—but only if that is what it actually takes to brief the editor. Regardless of length, the overview must give the editor a sense of the book’s purpose and significance. The language in this section should be engaging—as well as nonacademic and nontechnical, if possible. It should be a simple narrative treatment describing the book.
If you are a first-time author without any book writing credits on your résumé, this part of the proposal is especially important. Editors will need to know why you are qualified to write the book. Simple passion for a subject may not be enough. This section is where you must tell editors about yourself, listing any and all previous writing credits, if any. You also should include a shortened résumé or CV, which may or may not appear in the final proposal. Remember: Editors love writers with passion, but they mostly love writers who can actually deliver a finished manuscript.
THE CHAPTER-BY-CHAPTER BREAKDOWN
In this section, you must list each and every chapter you plan to write. A one-paragraph description of the chapter (at least) is essential. Obviously, this is the critical moment in the proposal, the point at which the editor should be able to “see” the entire book. Be sure to title each chapter and be sure the chapters follow a logical path, building on your particular subject. Be succinct.
THE SAMPLE CHAPTER (OR TWO)
A well-thought-out, well-written sample chapter is often the key element that makes for a successful sale. It is by far the most significant feature of the proposal in that it shows that you have your subject down cold and that you can communicate it in words. Basically, it shows that you can write the book.
THE PRODUCTION NOTES
This very brief section addresses three major topics:
the projected page length of the book;
the projected time necessary to complete the manuscript; and
where essential and appropriate, the number of photos, charts, or illustrations that must be included. (Note: Publishers are wary of high production costs; therefore, only include this portion if such material is essential to the book.)
To beef up your proposal, include any of the following:
magazine or newspapers articles on your topic—whether written by you or not;
articles, stories, or profiles about you—anything to show that you are qualified to write your book;
a list of any books you have authored (or coauthored), including publication dates and the publisher; and
any endorsements from other experts or authors in your field, which can help.
This section may contain the following:
a summary of the book’s key selling points;
a brief snapshot of the target audience and subsidiary audiences;
a list of any and all media appearances you may have made—keep them current and include radio; TV (cable, local, and network); the Internet; newspapers and magazines; and speaking engagements; and
a list of books on your subject, even those that may be out of print, highlighting why your book is different and better, why it’s more timely, more in-depth, more reader friendly, etc. (Note: Don’t put down the other books, but be sure to paint yours in its most favorable light.)
e) Any other marketing opportunities you will bring to the publisher.