How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal

7 Essential Elements and Ways to Stand Out

“It all starts with a book proposal.” That’s inevitably what I end up saying to a writer who asks me about publishing.

As a 20-year publishing professional who has reviewed thousands of book proposals, I’m regularly asked for advice on how to get published.

And that’s my answer: it all starts with a book proposal.

What Is a Book Proposal?

A book proposal is essentially a business plan for a book. The author submits their proposal to a publisher, sometimes by way of a literary agent, and the publisher uses the proposal to determine whether they want to publish the proposed book.

In this article I’m going to share the major elements of a book proposal in the order I recommend. I’ll also share my top tips for each.

Each element is important. Any one of them could make the difference between getting published or not. And assuming approval for publication, any one of them could significantly influence the advance against royalties a publisher offers.

Courtesy of Unsplash

Start with the Cover Page

A cover page presents your book’s title and subtitle, your name, and contact information. If you are represented by an agent, the contact information should be for your agent.

It sounds simple enough, but a lot goes into a good title and subtitle. Publishers often talk about the importance of a strong book “concept.” Your title and subtitle comprise a label for your book’s concept.

Strong book concepts do two things: (1) Meet a need that real people really have (2) in a way that is somehow distinctive.

To download an infographic and video tutorial that teaches a step-by-step process for developing a great book concept, click here.

Tip: Include a list of alternative titles and subtitles on the reverse of the cover page. Such a list suggests to the publisher multiple ways of positioning your book in the marketplace and also implies that you are coachable and open to input from the publisher.

Your Bio

Your bio is a one- or two-paragraph statement about who you are and why you’re qualified to write the book you’re proposing.

Good bios:

  • Are less than 250 words
  • Begin with a role that is relevant to your book
  • Do not hide the author’s main vocational role
  • Reference accomplishments that are relevant to the book
  • Reference the author’s ability to reach readers
  • Briefly tell the publisher what the author is passionate about
  • Include just a tad of humor or something about the author’s location and family

Bad bios:

  • Are more than 250 words
  • Say nothing about why the author is a credible source for the book’s content
  • Hide the author’s main vocational role
  • Do not refer to relevant accomplishments
  • Do not refer to the author’s ability to reach readers
  • Are confused about what the author is passionate about
  • Overdo the humor

To watch a replay of a webinar I hosted titled “How to Craft a Killer Bio,” click here.

Most proposals I review do not include the bio this early in the proposal. Often the bio comes after the brief description (see below) or later, but I’ve placed it here in my preferred sequence of elements because I think your bio is one of the most important elements of your book proposal. Regardless of where it’s located, I usually flip to it right after I read the cover page, and I doubt I’m the only one.

Why is your bio so important? It gives publishing professionals a quick glimpse of who you are as an author and as a person.

Brief Description

A brief description is a three- to five-paragraph statement that describes your book, including its purpose and intended audience.

Your brief description should do three things:

  1. Capture the reviewer’s attention. A great way to do this in my opinion is to tell a story or to use some kind of narrative element.
  2. Cast a compelling vision for your book, including both the need your book is addressing as well as where your book will take the reader.
  3. Give reviewers a taste of your excellent writing. Your writing sample will come at the end of the proposal, but your brief description is the publisher’s first taste of your writing on the content you’re proposing.

A while back I coached author Gary Neal Hansen on how to write a brief description of his book. To “listen in” on our coaching session, click here.

Competitive Analysis

A competitive analysis is a listing of about five other books that are in the same market space as yours. Think of it as providing the publisher with the marketplace context of your book. In providing such a list you’re saying, “This is the company my book will keep.”

Your competitive analysis should do two things:

  1. Assure the publisher that your book is in a space or genre that has seen good demand in the past. Be realistic. If your competitive analysis is populated only by New York Times bestsellers, the publisher is likely to cry foul.
  2. Point out the ways in which your book is unique among its peers. Don’t do this in a way that disparages other books; that’s not helpful. Simply point out the differences.

Chapter-by-Chapter Synopsis

A chapter-by-chapter synopsis is three-to-five sentences describing each planned chapter in your book. The essential function of each description is to relate the journey the reader will go on from start to finish of each chapter. If you can work in a brief narrative element of some kind for each chapter, this is ideal.

To read how I coached a Hansen on how to write a chapter’s synopsis, which also happens to be one of my all-time most popular blog posts, click here.

Marketing Plan

Publishing is first and foremost a partnership between author and publisher, and this is never more apparent than in the marketing of a book. As one of my editorial colleagues used to say, “There’s what the author can do and what the publisher can do, and that’s it.” This is why the marketing plan you include in your book proposal is so important.

I stress brevity for other parts of a book proposal. Not so here. Publishers welcome long and detailed marketing plans. Yes, publishers will want to help shape the plan, so feel free to make a disclaimer such as “The following are some initial thoughts toward a marketing plan, subject to feedback and collaboration with the publisher.” Then feel free to go on at length. I promise you: the publisher won’t mind. In fact, the publisher will be grateful.

I often encourage writers to divide their marketing plan into three stages: prelaunch, launch, and post-launch. Following are some ideas to use in each stage:

Each stage is important.

Don’t rush your marketing plan. Spend some time on it. Even if a traditional publisher doesn’t offer you a contract, you’ll be able to use this plan when you self-publish, so it’s worth the investment.

Writing Sample

For most books, an introduction and two sample chapters are sufficient. If you’re proposing a memoir it’s a good to include a longer sample.

Up to this point everything in the proposal has been contextual. When we (the members of a publishing board) get to the writing sample, our mindsets shift. Now we are reading that which we’re contemplating sending into the world. Don’t miss that.

I’ve read numerous proposals where everything looks pretty good until I get to the writing sample. Then the wheels fall off. It’s as if it took so much work to do the rest of the proposal that the writer just didn’t have the energy to land the plane. But remember, this is the beginnings of your actual book! Now is not the time to slack.

Make your writing sing. Over the years I’ve written several blog posts about how to write well. Here are some of the more popular ones:

4 “Aha” Strategies for Enhancing Your Writing

5 Ways Stories Can Make Your Writing Irresistible

My Top Piece of Advice on How to Write Really Good Stuff

Book Proposal Academy

I created a course, Book Proposal Academy, which contains over thirty video trainings including transcripts, a closed Facebook forum where you can get feedback directly from me and others in the community, and five sample book proposals that won book contracts. To be notified the next time registration opens, visit www.BookProposalAcademy.com.

Question: What questions do you have about writing a book proposal? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Janelle

    Useful and interesting — even a little inspiring. I’ll bookmark this, thanks Chad.

    • Chad R. Allen

      Glad to hear it! Thanks for taking the time to comment, Janelle.

  • terrywhalin

    Chad,

    Thank you for this excellent blog post. Even though I’ve been studying book proposals for many years and written a book on the topic (http://bookproposalsthatsell.com) I always learn something new. Like you I read many proposals and often find them lacking some critical elements. It’s why I have a free book proposal checklist at: http://terrylinks.com/bookcheck Keep up the great work.

    Terry

    • Chad R. Allen

      Thanks, Terry! I appreciate your work in this space!