The 8 Essential Elements of a Nonfiction Book Proposal

In the process of writing my own nonfiction book proposal earlier this year (thanks to my Year of Amazing pledge), I searched everywhere I could for tips and advice on how to write a nonfiction book proposal. Many were great, but super lengthy and time consuming to read. I found this advice once offered by former Writer’s Digest publisher Jane Friedman (who rejected and approved proposals over the years) not only spot on, but easy to digest. I followed her points and I landed a literary agent. Read on as these tips could help you, too.

1. Hook

Start by simply giving a brief description of your book, including its title.

2. Market Overview

Address the “So what?” and “Who cares?” questions (see Page 40). Never claim that anyone or everyone can benefit from your book. Instead, identify the specific demographic your book primarily targets—e.g., married women over 40 who want to feel younger and more energetic. Then, demonstrate the evidence of need for your book within that target market.

3. Author Bio & Platform

Answer the “Who are you?” question (see Page 40). There are two critical aspects to this: expertise and platform.

Expertise is related to your credentials and experience. Are you considered authoritative or trusted on the topic? Why are you qualified to write this book?

In addition to having some expertise, you also need a platform. Platform is your visibility and reach to your intended audience or market. Platform includes your online efforts, your online content strategy, and how you’re visible offline, and can involve speaking engagements, publication credits, websites/blogs, social media presence and media mentions. It encompasses relationships, networks and influence you have in the field of your topic.

Don’t expect to succeed by being the “outsider” or “everyday” person who’s going to break the mold. Nonfiction publishers today want recognized writers who already reach readers, especially online.

4. Competitive Analysis

List the key resources (in print and online) that already target your specific market. Be sure the analysis supports and strengthens the evidence of need for your book that you’ve established in your market overview.

5. Marketing Plan

Your marketing plan is one of the most essential components of your proposal. Do not write this plan in a tentative fashion, describing things you are “willing” to do, or how you will “try” to contact people for publicity. Eliminate all wishful thinking. Ground it on what you can accomplish today. Make it concrete and realistic, and include as many numbers as you can.

Weak: I plan to register a domain and start a blog for my book.
Better: Within three months of launch, my blog on [book topic] already attracts 5,000 unique visits per month.

Weak: I plan to contact bloggers for guest blogging opportunities.
Better: I have been a guest blogger at [list great blogs], which on average brings my site 10,000 new visitors each month. I have invitations to return again, plus I’ve made contact with 10 other bloggers for future guest posts.

Weak: I plan to contact conferences and speak on [book topic].
Better: I am in contact with organizers at XYZ conferences, and have spoken at three events within the past year, reaching 5,000 people in my target audience.

Your plan should be executable without the help of a publisher. You should also mention if you’ll be investing a portion of your advance (or a particular dollar amount) on marketing or a publicist.

6. Outline

Include a short description of every chapter you plan to include in your book.

7. Sample Chapter

This is your chance to demonstrate to publishers that you can successfully execute what you are proposing. Include a complete, well-written and well-researched chapter that will leave them hungry to read more.

8. Putting It All Together

This all is a very cursory overview of a complex topic. For more information on how to craft a full book proposal, consult a resource such as How to Write a Book Proposal: 4th Edition by literary agent Michael Larsen.

Thanks again to Jane Friedman for this great publishing advice that I found inside a copy of Writer’s Digest magazine (I don’t know about you, but I save all of mine).


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