Columns > Published on August 17th, 2021

A Quick and Dirty Guide to Writing a Book Proposal

When it comes to traditionally publishing nonfiction books, a book proposal is completely crucial. Instead of sending off full manuscripts complete with “THE END,” nonfiction authors usually submit detailed proposals to publishers. (It’s worth noting, though, that while a whole manuscript isn’t part of a book proposal, sample chapters are required. But more on that later!)

A book proposal is, in many ways, a boon: with a proposal in hand, you don’t have to waste the time and effort that goes into writing an entire book. That said, how can you sell your book to an agent or commissioning editor when you don’t actually have, well, the book yet? What can you do to convince them to offer you the much coveted book deal?

Well, there’s always the option to hire a ghostwriter to help you with your proposal. But if you want to tackle it on your own, here are the five essential steps you need to take in order to write a book proposal that agents and editors will be snapping at one another’s heels to acquire.

1. Open with a concise overview

Most book proposals begin with an overview of the book, so that the reader — be it agent or editor — has a clear idea of what your book is about. Think of it like an advertisement or elevator pitch: in a short space of time, you want the reader to think, “Hey, wait a minute, tell me more!”

A concise summary of your main idea is enough — emphasis on concise! As any literary agent will tell you, whether you’re pitching fiction or nonfiction, the aim is to strike a balance between portraying the essence of the book and overloading the proposal with information. It’s understandably very easy to have a wonderful book idea and talk a bit too much about the things that could go into it.

Say you’re pitching a memoir on parenthood in its early days — it’s tempting to mention the backstory to contextualize how different life becomes once you have a child. But that’s not what you want to highlight, because it’s not essential to your key theme. So remember: keep it concise and clear, stick to the very core of the book, and your book proposal will be a lot more convincing.

Now, this does require quite a strong understanding of the book that you want to write before you even write it. Your first step will thus be to distill your idea to its main theme or message, and then you can put that into words in a coherent, appealing way.

2. Make the case for your authorship

So the book is interesting. That’s great. But now you have to show the agent why you’re the person to write it. Now’s the time for your experiences and your credentials to shine.

If you’re writing a book that leans more on the academic and factual side (things that are medical, scientific, historical, etc.), qualifications and professional experience in the field is more or less a must.

For books like memoirs or self-help titles, relevant experiences and stellar writing skills are most important. Why would readers be interested in your writing? Why should they trust your advice? If you have an existing following — i.e., a potential readership — or a previously published book, mention it to show that you have some authority in the subject area.

This part should also be quite short and straightforward, and you can either write it in first or third person.

3. Demonstrate a clear understanding of the target audience

The next element of the book proposal is the dreaded marketing section. This portion is what sets the nonfiction submission process apart from its fiction counterpart. Since the audience for some nonfiction books can be quite niche sometimes, pitching your book often involves convincing the editor that readers who will buy it exist.

Be ready to do market research on your niche, so that you know exactly who your audience is. Knowing your audience isn’t just crucial to a successful book proposal — it’s also important to writing a good nonfiction book. This is especially true because nonfiction readers are usually looking for specific information about something, whether it’s a solution to a problem in life or additional knowledge in a certain field. So when you show that you hold the key to the subject in your hands, you not only prove to the publisher that this is worth their investment, you also reinforce the idea that you’re the right person to write the book.

Additionally, you’ll also want to prepare some ideas for your marketing plan. The time to market won’t come around for a while, but publishers will still want to know whether you’ve got what it takes to reach a considerable audience. Since nonfiction books can be incredibly personal and specific, the author’s personal promotion can be more effective (a.k.a. identity marketing) than widespread advertising.

So if you’ve got personal connections to those in the field, or if you’ve previously written for prestigious papers and can do so again, now’s the time to show it off! Think about your personal reach, and how that can be used to get your book to the right target audience. Commissioning editors will be very happy to hear you’ve got some plans laid out!

4. Determine your book’s place in the market

So far, you’ve spent much of your proposal on your specific audience. Now it’s time to zoom out a little to look at the market. Surely, there are plenty of books already out there that cover what you’re trying to write about. Why should another be added into the mix?

It’s a fair question for publishers to ask — and they always ask it — so you’ll want to go ahead and answer it for them right in the proposal. To do this, you can dig into competitive titles to see how yours might compare. For instance:

  • What have other books covered?
  • Is there a gap in the content that you can fill?
  • Is there a fresh perspective that you can offer?

The point is to find a good place for your book to sit in the current field. Don’t go back too far in the past — books from six or seven years ago will no doubt have gaps in their information when read in today’s context. You might want to avoid high-profile authors as well, since their platform is probably significantly different from yours and would inherently have a different reach. Explore some middle-ground books, read and review them (it’s good for writing a good book anyhow), and show editors why your book can stand alongside them on the shelves.

5. Write a clear outline

And now that you’ve shown all of your knowledge on the niche, the audience, and the market — now that the foundation of trust between you and the editor is hopefully built — finally, you can spend more time elaborating on your book. If the teaser at the beginning is a hook, this outline at the end is the substance. If a publisher believes in the potential of the book idea, they'll want to know that you have what it takes to finish that manuscript. And the outline is your demonstration of commitment.

For this, you first have to figure out a coherent nonfiction book outline — the structure of which largely depends on your main theme. Once you’ve nailed that down, you’ll want to summarize the chapters one by one, with a maximum of two paragraphs each. This chapter-by-chapter summary is what goes into your book proposal. Keep it short, as always, and avoid jargon if your book is focused on a special field or industry.

This is the ideal way to end your proposal because editors will move on to read your sample chapter(s) next. The combo of the outline and the sample bring the point home: you can deliver this book to the publisher.

And with that, you know how to write your book proposal! We’ve gone from introduction to sample, working to convince agents and publishers every step of the way. Think of it as a well-crafted and well-structured essay — and if you’ve already decided that you want to write a nonfiction book, you’ll have no problem with it!

About the author

Emmanuel Nataf is a Founder at Reedsy, a marketplace and set of tools that allows authors and publishers to find top editorial, design and marketing talent. Over 3,000 books have been published using Reedsy's services.

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