Writing a Nonfiction Book Proposal, Part 1

A Facebook friend of mine is working on a nonfiction book, and we’ve been discussing how to find a publisher. I’ve published several how-to/reference books (most under the name Nancy Conner), so I told her I’d put together a guide to what goes into a book proposal for this kind of book.

The nice thing about writing how-to and reference is that even brand-new authors can sell a project based on a proposal. The publisher pays an advance, usually broken into three or four milestone payments, so you have some money coming in as you write. For example, the nonfiction publisher I work with most often breaks the advance into four payments, payable at these milestones: first two chapters submitted, 50% of the manuscript submitted, 100% of the manuscript submitted, author review completed. (Author review is going over the changes, queries, and requests made by various editors.)

Before you see any advance money, however, you need to sell the project. And to do that, you need a killer proposal. A nonfiction book proposal usually contains these sections:

Introduction: This section gives a high-level overview of the book.  It answers the Big Question: “What’s your book about?” Start with a hook–something that grabs readers’ attention and makes them want to keep reading. Depending on your project, this could be an anecdote, an interesting fact or statistic, a trend. Be concise; keep this section to a couple of paragraphs.

Audience: Who will buy your book? Be specific here; don’t say “everyone,” for example. You may hope that’s true, but publishers know it won’t happen. Specific numbers for a specific group are helpful, such as “Volunteerism is the fastest-growing segment of the vacation industry, increasing by 50% since 2005. Last year, more than a million people spent their time off working to make the world a better place.” (Note: I made up those statistics for the example.) If you don’t know who’ll buy your book, do some research to find out whether the project is worth your time and the publisher’s investment.

Competition: This section shows how your book will be positioned in the market. Which books are its closest competitors? List them. What makes your book different from those books? For example, maybe you’ll inject humor or focus on real-world case studies. If there are too many competing titles, the publisher may think the field is too crowded. If there are no competing titles, however, that’s not necessarily a good thing. It may suggest that publishers have considered and rejected similar ideas.

Marketing: Publishers want to know what you’ll do to sell the book. List your marketing ideas here. If you have media contacts, a popular blog, frequent public speaking engagements, involvement with professional or other groups that will publicize your book, list them here. No matter how good your idea, books don’t sell themselves, and publishers want to know how you’ll help to get the word out. This section is optional, but it can get a publisher’s attention.

Table of Contents: This section shows your proposed book’s contents at a glance. It’s a list of parts, chapters, and appendices, like the Table of Contents at the front of a published book.

Detailed Outline: Here, show your Table of Contents again,  but go into detail. For each chapter, write a paragraph that gives an overview of what’s in the chapter. Follow that paragraph with a list of section headings and subheadings (A- and B-heads).

Author Bio: Include a paragraph or two telling about yourself. If you’ve published other books, mention those here. If you haven’t, focus on your expertise in the subject you’re writing about and any platform you’ve developed. Platform — your visibility as an expert — is important to publishers. Your platform may be a blog or Web site, membership in professional associations, media appearances, high visibility in a community (online or off) related to the topic. You may have mentioned some of this information in your Marketing section; mention it again here. The Author Bio is where you say what your platform is; the Marketing section is where you detail how you’ll use that platform.

Sample Chapters: If you’ve never published a book before, you need to include one or two sample chapters that show off your writing skills. If you’re already published, you may be able to send clips or chapters from a previously published books. Even so, it’s best to give a taste of your approach to this particular project.

So those are the basics of a book proposal. Next time, I’ll give some tips for making your proposal shine.


About nancyholzner

9 responses to “Writing a Nonfiction Book Proposal, Part 1

  • Silky Hart

    Nancy, this is so helpful! Thank you!!!

  • nancyholzner

    I’m glad you found it helpful, Silky. If you’re ever working on a book proposal and you have any questions, email me and I’ll see if I can help.

  • Glinda

    Great article with really helpful tips! I am looking forward to part two.

  • Meridith Osterfeld

    Hi Nancy- Thank you! This is exactly the kind of information I’ve been looking for. I am a first time co-author of a how-to book. I am collaborating with a friend who is an award winning quilt artist with a unique approach to designing and constructing art quilts. I write and she creates the art pieces. We have been in contact with several publishers who have invited us to submit a proposal. I am concerned because although I have done a great deal of technical writing for many years, it has all been part of my “job” and I haven’t received individual credit.- The credit has always gone to my employers. How does an individual list qualifications in these circumstances or does it even matter?

    • nancyholzner

      Hi Meridith,

      I’d definitely include a sentence about your technical writing in your bio. You could say you have X number of years of professional writing experience, on topics ranging from Y to Z. Even though your experience may not be directly relevant to this particular book, it shows that you can organize concepts in writing and complete projects.

  • Meridith Osterfeld

    Thank you, again. We have several publishers who have suggested we submit. Do we submit a proposal to one publisher at a time and wait for a reply or use the buckshot approach and hope to get a yes? They all have different expected reply times and several want to see actual art pieces in addition to the proposal chapters.

    • nancyholzner

      If you’ve got several publishers interested, send all of them the proposal as soon as it’s ready. Include images of the art pieces in all of the proposals, because they’re an integral part of your project. I think a visual like that can make a huge difference in a proposal for a book like the one you’re working on.

  • Diane Turnshek

    I’m working on a proposal for a book on how to teach genre fiction. Your post is perfect. Thanks so much, Nancy.

  • What comes after yes (the nonfiction post) « Nancy Holzner, author

    […] (If you’re interested in writing a nonfiction book, see my posts on writing a proposal here and here.) The questioner wants to know what happens after you get an offer. I’ve been around […]

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