BOOKS
07/10/2013 07:41 am ET

Writer Wednesday: How To Write A Nonfiction Book Proposal

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From Writer's Relief staff:

If you’ve had experience submitting novels to literary agents and publishers—query letter, synopsis, sample pages—you may think you know all you need to know about submitting your self-help book or other nonfiction project. The truth is the nonfiction book proposal is an entirely different beast.

Agents are looking for something more specific when it comes to nonfiction: You’re going to have to essentially sell them your book, sending them a document that contains details about your qualifications, a chapter-by-chapter outline, and most importantly, how your book is going to be marketable, and ultimately, profitable.

Fortunately, this format gives you a chance to get to know your book even better than you already do. Focusing on and organizing your project will enhance your confidence and show you areas where you may still need to edit.

There is one exception: If your book is a memoir, you’re off the hook! For the most part, agents expect a novel-style submission for memoir, even though it’s your true story.

ELEMENTS OF THE NONFICTION BOOK PROPOSAL:

Title Page

As usual, your title page should list your name and contact info, a word count, and the title of your book. The title will be your “working title,” since the publisher ultimately has control over the final, published title, but be sure that yours describes the content accurately. You shouldn’t rely on a subtitle to do the heavy lifting either, since they are rarely included in electronic catalogs.

Summary/Synopsis (optional, 1 page maximum)

Here’s where you present your “hook.” The summary should start with a strong, short description of the premise of your book and what makes it stand out. With any luck, it’ll lure the agent into reading the rest of your proposal, and then you can reel him/her in! Continue on to explain the rest of the book, but be sure you’re making it clear what you’re selling. If the point of your book is buried in a long paragraph instead of right up front, an agent is likely to pass on it.

Chapter Outline (1 to 2 paragraphs per chapter)
This will give your prospective editor a general idea of the whole book using one- to two-paragraph summaries of each chapter. Each chapter should have a unique point that adds to the overall meaning of the manuscript, so use the outline to that purpose. Short and sweet is the goal, but remember to give enough information on each chapter to entice the reader.

Market

What current trends are going to influence people to pick up your book? Think about the audience you’re targeting and how your writing will address their needs. Instead of having a niche audience, you’ll want your audience to be as broad as possible (i.e. “people in relationships” vs. married couples without children in the Midwest).

They say there’s nothing new under the sun—so if your idea has been done before, this is also a good place to mention how your book does it differently, or better than the competing books out there.

Author Information

If you’re writing a self-help book, you’ve obviously got to have the experience to be telling people what to do. What are your qualifications? Your writing credentials, contacts, and of course your education are all things you’ll put in this section of your proposal. If you don’t have any formal training or other connections but are still uniquely suited to be writing your book, focus on your personal perspective, your unique experiences, and what sets you apart.

Also mention any connections you have—if you’ve got a famous friend in line to write a foreword or endorsements, for instance. Do you have any affiliations or bookstore appearances under your belt? How about ideas for sequels or spin-offs? The agent will want to hear about these, as well as your background in media coverage, following of readers, publishing credits, and any other notable aspects of your writer platform.

Specifications Of Your Unfinished Book

Your approximate word count, the estimated completion date, and the number of chapters (usually 9 to 15—if you have fewer than 9 chapters, make sure you have enough material to be submitting a finished product!). Also note here if your book is going to have any illustrations, charts, or graphs, and give an idea of the general format. But remember to be flexible: Like the title, the format is ultimately in the publisher’s hands.

Table Of Contents

The list of chapters included in your book and their titles.

Sample Chapters

Send one or two completed chapters (preferably the first two) to give the agent a sense of your writing style and what tone you’re going for.

MORE POINTERS
As always, use 12 pt Times New Roman or Arial. The classics are classics for a reason.

Write your proposal in a similar style to your completed book. If the tone of your book is laid-back and easygoing, your proposal should be too.

Edit, edit, edit, and proofread, proofread, proofread. Make sure you catch every error, and use the cleanest, whitest paper you have. If you accidentally leave a coffee ring on one of your pages, don’t just let it go. You could have the next Men Are From Mars on your hands, but if your execution is sloppy, the agents will pass right over it!

And don’t think that you should be any less careful when doing e-submissions. Typos or other carelessness in an electronic submission—like not including a word count or the genre as requested in the guidelines—make just as bad an impression as smudges on a paper submission.

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