The Non-Fiction Proposal Roadmap


Approximately, 80 percent of all non-fiction is sold to trade publishers by proposals to literary agents or editors, which means it’s not only an important part of the submission process but also raises the stakes in your ability to produce a proposal that stands out. If you're considering the self-publishing route, it is still recommended that you layout your project like a proposal, as it will serve as your roadmap to write your book. 

WHAT IS A BOOK PROPOSAL? Essentially, it is the promise you make to a publisher about your intentions to write a book, and its potential to perform well in the marketplace—in other words, the potential to make money. Publishers are a business and the proposal is a document to convince them to invest in your book idea, and offer you a contract, with an agreed date to deliver your book.

Unfortunately, there is no blueprint for a book proposal, but there are common elements to the proposal that exist across book types. Therefore, it is necessary to grab an agent or editor’s attention during those first few pages of your proposal — from an attention grabbing title, to the concise book description, with market analysis and marketing ideas, table of contents with chapter summaries, and a sample of your strongest chapter.

Before sending this hefty package to an agent, you must first query them, for them to request your proposal. See post on the query letter.

THE TITLE. You only have one chance to make a great first impression. Your title should be to the point, grabbing the attention of the agent. A great title may not convince your browser to become a buyer, but a terrible one will certainly make them pass. Your title should sell the reader by explicitly or implicitly promising value in reading your book. Here are a few examples:

In Dan Poynter’s Writing Nonfiction, he illustrates where ads were run featuring two similar titles for the same book. The Art of Courtship (17,500 units sold) versus The Art of Kissing (60,500 units sold). And An Introduction to Einstein (15,000 units sold) versus Einstein’s Theory of Relativity Explained (42,000 units sold). As you can see, the sexier titles sold more units. People have this natural desire to get insider scoop on something. The title examples above all illustrated exactly what was going to be talked about, in a way that was specific versus being vague.

Your subtitle is equally as important. Let’s look at a few examples: The Lose Your Belly Diet: Change Your Gut, Change Your Life; The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt. Did you notice how the subtitle solidifies the promise of the book? Self-help and how-to books lean on this strategy. The audience for these kinds of books are coming from a state of lack, so it is important that your title draws them in.  

CONCISE BOOK DESCRIPTION. A good way to tackle the book description is to look at book jacket descriptions for direction. You'll see that they follow the same strategy of using sexy language that is to the point in describing the books objective. Some even use illustrations and bullet points to drive points more succinctly. 

MARKETING ANALYSIS. Naively, first-time authors believe their only requirement is to deliver the book. Wrong. You have to convince the agent or editor you that your book is salable and the return on investment is lucrative. Your market analysis should reveal what books are similar to your own, how those titles faired in the marketplace, and how your book can match or supersede what was done before. You must be clear on who your audience is, and your analysis is to highlight where and how many of them there are. For instance, if your proposed book is about birding, your primary audience would be middle-aged to senior men who are hobbyists and are likely to be Audubon Society members. You would then need to decide on who the secondary audience is, and quantify them in numbers. Think about what publications they may subscribe to, events they may attend, and always think of the reach in numbers. Think about Google keywords and terms for your book, then look in Google’s AdWords to see what the global monthly searches are for the search words and terms. Your goal in the market analysis section is to create a picture of your audience, so that a marketing team use your insights to guide them in promoting your book.

MARKETING IDEAS. Here, you map out what you can do to market your book. List what mediums are available to you, the size of your email list, what partnerships you can form, your social media metrics, events that you can speak or be active at, how you can use your website and what are its monthly impressions. Think seasonally about what your book can be tied into, whether it's in-store or media promotions. The marketing ideas section is where, in a nutshell, you tell your prospective publisher what you are prepared to do for your book.

CHAPTER SUMMARIES AND SAMPLE CHAPTER. Your chapter summaries are essentially the anatomy of the book, where you will walk the agent through how will put everything together. Your chapter summaries should be no longer than 2-3 sentences in length. The sample chapter is where you get to showcase your writing and argument, or what you plan to illustrate in your book. It should draw your reader in. The case you have made for your book in the earlier pages, positions your sample chapter to be take seriously, and seen as a viable publication. 

To Query, or Not to Query? That’s a Dumbass Question

The Revision: What Do You Really Mean?