Writing a Nonfiction Book Proposal, Part 2

If you’re working on a proposal for a nonfiction book, you need to include  the sections an editor expects to see. I posted about that last time. Once you’ve got the structure of your proposal, think about these tips to polish it up:

Show off your best writing. It can be easy to think of the proposal as being secondary to the book itself. But the proposal is what agents and editors see first, and as everyone knows, first impressions are important. Make your Introduction attention-getting, interesting, and sharp. Also, purge your proposal of typos, grammatical errors, and punctuation problems. If the mechanics of writing aren’t your strong suit, find a grammar maven to help you get the proposal in shape.

Be concise. Keep in mind that the person reading your proposal wants to know, as quickly and as clearly as possible, what your book is about. Don’t ramble, don’t give unnecessary context or background about how you came up with the idea.

Spend extra time on your outline. The outline is the basis for your completed book. The publisher will include it in your contract, and you’ll use it to write the chapters. A good outline at the proposal stage saves you lots of time later, when you’re writing. Be sure the organization makes sense. Look at it from a reader’s point of view. What’s the first thing someone new to your subject needs to know about it? After they’ve learned that, what comes next? And so on. This applies to the overall organization of the chapters and the organization within each chapter. If your outline is well organized, your book will be, too.

Be open to changes. Even though you’ve put a lot of time and effort into your proposal, it’s likely that an editor will want some changes. Don’t reject these out of hand. The editor has experience turning ideas into books, and you should work with your editor to refine and shape the outline. It’s common for an editor to ask for changes before presenting your proposal to the publisher’s editorial board; and the outline may well go back and forth between you and an interested editor several times before it’s ready.

Be realistic. Your book may be your baby, but to the publisher it’s a product. From an editor’s point of view, the whole purpose of a book proposal is to determine whether your project is a good fit and something that will sell. Keep this in mind as you create and submit your proposal.

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9 responses to “Writing a Nonfiction Book Proposal, Part 2

  • Steve

    Hello Nancy,

    I was just ‘googling’ proposals and came across your site, very very helpful!

    I have one question that I hope with the benefit of your experience you can answer.

    Should I submit author bio, marketing details and additional information even if the publishers submission guidelines do not specify to?

    I’ve built up of a list of publishers for my own non-fiction project (travel based) who all have specific submission guidelines, but none mention that things like author bio and marketing information are necessary.

    Any tips on this would be great!

    • nancyholzner

      Hi Stephen,

      Unless you find a publisher that specifically says *not* to include such information, I’d go ahead and put it in. But include only what’s relevant to the project: past publications (if you have any–if not, there’s no need to make excuses for that), the experience that gives you authority to write on the topic, platform (this is a biggie), and so on. There’s no need to get super-detailed about marketing plans at the proposal stage. You should show where the proposed book fits into the existing market and mention how you’ll use your platform to promote the book.

      Keep any “extra” sections short (a paragraph or two) and make sure you’ve touched upon everything the publisher does ask for in a proposal. Good luck!

  • Stephen

    Cool. Thanks for the quick feedback.

  • Dave Morgan

    Regarding competing/complementary titles in a book proposal: I read on another site that first-time authors will sound “unrealistic or perhaps delusional” if they use titles that have been huge sellers. Another author suggested the opposite: If a book is in the company of other bestsellers, it’s obviously a subject of interest. Any thoughts on the subject?


    • nancyholzner

      I think that advice applies mostly to fiction–i.e., don’t say your novel is the next DaVinci Code or Harry Potter or Twilight or whatever is in-the-news hot at the moment. For nonfiction, your emphasis is different when you look at comps. You’re positioning your book in the market in relation to existing titles. To show that you’ve done your research, you should have a good idea of what’s selling well. Then, you want to show what makes your book different, what twist you give it or extra information it conveys that will make your book competitive with the top sellers.

      Here’s where you have to be careful: Don’t make your comparison sound like mere wishful thinking. The top-selling books out there are proven entities; an as-yet unpublished book isn’t. Just because a book on the same topic has sold tnes of thousands of copies doesn’t mean the next book on the same topic will do the same. You need to have solid reasons and a real argument for why your book would compete with those that are already succeeding. These tend to be in approach, treatment, or information.

  • Meridith Osterfeld

    Hi Nancy! All the information was very helpful. We (my partner and I) submitted a partially completed book and the answer was “we would be thrilled to publish your book!!” The book has already gone through approximately one month of review by various committees, and the publisher is preparing a contract. They want to know if we can delivery the remaining chapters by a certain date, and they are sending “Authors Guidelines”. As a first time author I’m unfamiliar with “Author Guidelines” and what comes next in this whole process. Do you have anything written that could help with what comes after yes?

  • nancyholzner

    Hi Meridith,

    Congrats! That’s exciting news.

    And your question is a good idea for a post. I’ll get right to work on that so you can have a sense of what to expect.

    Again, congratulations!

    • nancyholzner

      I’ve put up that post. If you’ve got any questions, let me know! And please keep in mind that different publishers do things differently, although my post covers my experiences with four or five different nonfiction publishers.

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

    […] 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 that […]

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