Columns > Published on April 15th, 2013

Ask the Agent: Exploring the Nonfiction Book Proposal

Navigating the rough terrain of today’s publishing industry shouldn’t be a solo event. This week in Ask the Agent, I’ll explore & dissect the particulars of writing a nonfiction book proposal.

I promised in the last ASK THE AGENT column that I would discuss the nonfiction book proposal. We have discussed the query letter and when to query an agent for fiction but we have not talked about nonfiction. So I want to dedicate this post to nonfiction and the rules of querying nonfiction.

Querying fiction is to query a completed, beta-read, polished manuscript. Querying nonfiction is to query a thoroughly thought out and comprehensive concept for a nonfiction book. This doesn’t mean that you have an idea and you start throwing it out to agents to see if they bite. This is not license to start querying every nonfiction story idea you’ve ever had. There is much that goes into this process, more than most aspiring nonfiction writers ever realize.

Put it this way, and consider this as your Pro Tip: If you can’t complete a compelling, researched, and accurate proposal for your nonfiction book concept, you most likely do not have a solid concept.

Elements of a nonfiction book proposal:

Author Bio (including PLATFORM!): Nonfiction is all about platform. I’m sure as a nonfiction writer you have heard that so many times it’s like a catchphrase now. In fact, it’s probably started to lose its meaning. Your platform is what makes you qualified to write about this particular subject.

A lot of writers think that “not having a platform” simply means they have no prior experience with the subject matter. But it’s way more than that. If you do not have compelling, competitive, often times professional and academic experience with your subject matter, you do not have a platform. I say competitive, because the publishing industry is competitive. So when writing a nonfiction proposal, what makes you the expert on this subject? Why should someone buy this nonfiction title written by you instead of Johnny Writer?

This section of your proposal is probably the most important. Platform is generally the first thing we look for when determining whether or not a nonfiction concept is viable or not.

So in this section you will want to provide your bio, credentials and platform (relevant to the subject matter). This will help the agent and publisher to not only understand why, but to determine if you are the right person—appropriate person—to write this book.

Brief Description: This is a concise and intriguing summary of your book. It should somewhat resemble a query letter.

Your nonfiction concept (lay out the book for us): What’s your concept? Tell us about the book as if it is complete. Give us a captivating narrative about your book and subject matter. How many pages do you anticipate the book to be? A possible word count? What are the deliverables?

Why your book?: Tell us why your concept is unique and why/how it will stand out in our currently saturated marketplace. Who will your concept benefit? How? Why? Essentially, you want to convince us that this is a relevant, important subject that there is a real need for.

Comp Titles: You’ve most likely heard the term “comp titles” a lot and may not know what it means. Comp titles are your competition books. It’s a tricky thing to do: you don’t want to present us with books that are too similar to yours, because… why would we want multiple books on the exact same subject? You also want to be cautious of picking titles with authors that may dwarf your platform. You definitely don’t want to lay out for us books that prove why you are so unqualified to write this subject matter. You want to list a few titles that have sold recently, have sold well, have been received well—from respectable publishers—that are in the same vein as your book.

A good approach is to show us some qualified books that relate to yours but show us how yours differs and why this is important. What information are you providing/what will the reader gain from your book that isn’t already published? When providing this information in your proposal, please be very comprehensive: include the author, title, publisher, page count, and publication date, and 2-3 sentence summary of the book.

Marketing: How is this concept marketable? This section seems similar to the “Why your book?” section, but you will want to think like a publicist in this section and be really specific about the key selling points of your book. For example: why is the timing of your topic relevant?

Target market/Audience: Who is your intended audience? Who are the people that will most benefit from this subject matter? Why will they have an interest in paying money to read your words? In this section, think broadly. Don’t just give us the obvious audience: there are always ancillary markets for nonfiction books.

Chapter Outline: In this section, you will want to include the table of contents for your book as well as accurate and doable chapter descriptions. Don’t just speculate about what you will write… if you present it to us in the chapter outline, it better actually be what you are going to write!

The important thing to remember is that writing a nonfiction book proposal is not an exercise to see if your concept will fly. It’s a way to show us (agents, editors, marketing & sales, and publicists) that you have what it takes to sell your topic in the current marketplace.

"Be well, do good work, and keep in touch" -Garrison Keillor

Have a question about the publishing industry? I would love to discuss the specifics of researching and querying agents, finding the right agent, proper publishing etiquette, how to go from idea to completed manuscript, marketing yourself, social media for writers, and anything else you can think of! I am now taking questions for Issue 22 of Ask the Agent. Issue 22 answers will be posted Monday, April 29th.

About the author

Bree Ogden is a literary agent at Red Sofa Literary and a comics/TV columnist and reviewer at Bloody Disgusting.

When she's not agenting, compulsively watching horror films, reading comics, hiding out at her local science center, or killing off her bee colonies, she serves as the managing editor of the macabre children's magazine Underneath the Juniper Tree, which she co-founded in 2011 with artist Rebekah Joy Plett.

Bree teaches query craft and graphic novel scripting at LitReactor as well as serves as the Assistant Class Director. Unless you are an exciting new piece of taxidermy, she'll probably never let you in her room. You can find her at

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