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10 Key Elements to Writing a Winning Nonfiction Book Proposal

Writing a proposal for a work of nonfiction may be intimidating and sometimes frustrating, especially if you’re unsure about the information you should include and how to structure the proposal. Authors often spin their wheels and look at multiple sources for guidance on this task. They look for multiple resources to make sure that they are doing it right, but in the end the varying instructions often add confusion. The problem is that the sources might have conflicting opinions, or might not be primary sources. In other words, they might be advice from someone who isn’t properly versed in what agents and editors are looking for, or how they want the information presented to them. This is why I decided to put this short guide together for authors who need quick and accurate information from an insider.

This guest post is byMarisa A. Corvisiero . Corvisiero is the founder of the Corvisiero Literary Agency and a senior agent. During the few years prior to starting her own agency, Marisa worked with the L. Perkins Agency, where she learned invaluable lessons and made a name for herself in the industry. She is also a literary consultant, speaker, author, and an attorney practicing law with a focus on corporate law and estate planning in New York City.

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My advice is simple: Keep your proposal focused on the gist of your book and the target market, with an eye toward conveying the subject matter in the most interesting and relevant fashion in order to hook the reader. Your goal is to present a professional looking and carefully drafted document that basically tells the reviewer everything they need to know about your project.

When I say “everything they need to know about your project,” of course I only mean the relevant things. I call them key elements. They are your title, word count or work status, tagline, description, audience, bio, platform, relevant promotional information, table of content, and sample chapters. This key information should be provided in clear, concise, accurate, and interesting sections that flow well into each other, and are easy for the evaluator to read, find, and understand.

Key elements in more details:

1. Title and Word Count:

The title of your book should be in the introductory paragraph of the proposal so that it’s one of the first things that the reader sees. The title says a lot about the work itself, the substance or topic of the project, the tone in which the material will be presented, the marketability of the piece, and how creative you are. If you have a great title, it might hook them right away. But don’t worry if you don’t, because they are always free to change it, and often do. So if you’re unsure about your title or want to subtly let the reviewer know that you are open to changes, you can simply state that the title is tentative.

The word count of the work should follow the title in the same introductory section. The golden number of words is 85,000—equivalent to about 300 pages when properly formatted.

If you haven’t written or finished the work yet, don’t worry. Many agents and editors consider work of nonfiction on proposal. As long as these materials look good, you can get an offer for representation from a literary agent, or an offer for publication from an acquisitions editor.

TIP: Although works of fiction come in all shapes and sizes a word count of 85,000 tells the reviewer that the work is neither too long nor too short. It’s like a Goldie Locks Zone, that’s why I call it the ‘golden’ number. ;) But of course, your work can be shorter or longer if the substance calls for it.

[New Agent Alerts: Click here to find agents who are currently seeking writers]

2. Tagline:

The same as a catch phrase, this is the one or two line hook that describes the work in the shortest, most interesting manner. The hook is the thing about your work that will make people want to read it, or make them think that they have to read it. It should be interesting and set the work apart.

TIP: This is usually used for multiple purposes when posting the work in catalogs, tweets, ads, announcements, etc. This is the one sentence that will get their attention. So pay attention to it!

3. Blurb:

Much like the description in the jacket of a book, this is a short summary of what your book is about. It should be written in third person and describe the work. It is usually very useful to describe the work in a way that shows how the work will be useful or entertaining to the reader.

TIP: Capturing the tone of the work in these descriptions isn’t easy, but it should be your goal so that the reader connects with the work and your voice at the same time without an abrupt transition when they start reading the first few pages.

4. Structure of the Book:

In a short section, describe how you will organize your book and why, as needed. This is especially useful if you break the book down into sections or have organized the chapters in a certain way for a specific reason. You don’t need to include this section if there isn’t anything that needs to be explained.

5. Target Market:

Your audience is composed of those who the book is targeting. This should be a section describing who the book will appeal to, who it is written for, why they need this book, why they will want this book, or why they will buy it even if they don’t want it!

TIP: Be sure to discuss the reasons and the benefits. Even if the goal of the book is simply to inspire. Describe the goal in some tangible form so that the evaluator can see the value for the reader.

TIP: This section should include comp titles of similar books out in the market to show that there is a like and demand for such books. It is usually very clever to show similar titles that have done well and cleverly describe something that sets your book apart from those comps and fills a gap or need that adds value for the audience.

[Get your creative juices flowing by trying this 12-Day plan of simple writing exercises.]

6. Author Bio:

Your Author-Preneur biography should only be a nice statement of your writing credentials. The information in this section should describe your special education, skills, publications, activities, memberships, etc., that attribute to your writing experience and skillset, demonstrating that you are involved in the industry and continue to learn and grow as an author and as a professional. Because this is a bio for a factual work, it should also tell the reader who you are, why you are qualified to write this book, why you are the right person to tell this story, or share this knowledge.

TIP: Your bio is a good place to hint at your connection with the audience as part of your platform. Subtly done, this can reinforce the information you will provide about your platform. Or you can include such information about your platform in this section and segue into your marketing plan.

7. Marketing Plan:

This section is your opportunity to tell the evaluating agent or editor how you plan on reaching your audience. The marketing plan should include information about your platform, if you haven’t included it in your bio section. Your author platform is a description of your reaching power. In other words, it is your ability to reach and grow your audience and convert those connections into sales.

TIP: The marketing plan can be as detailed as you wish. The more concrete information you can provide about your promotional plans for selling your work, the more enticing it will be to the publisher who wants to publish and sell your book.

8. Endorsements or Media Coverage:

A small section added to your marketing plan should be included to illustrate any endorsements you are able to get from other people with a similar audience who are doing well, or someone who is a reputable expert in the field of the subject matter of your book. If you have media contacts that you can use to promote your book include them separately if they are significant so that they stand out, or include them in your marketing plan or platform descriptions as applicable.

TIP: Include links to all media coverage that you have received. Make it easy for the reviewer to see or access your information if they wish to see it.

9. Table of Contents:

Include a list of your chapter titles with a very short description about the contents of each chapter so that the reader can determine what will be included in the book, how it is structured or organized, how in depth your work will be, and get a little more insight about the content of the work.

TIP: A table of contents is very helpful to show the evaluator a sort of skeleton or outline of what happens in the book from beginning to end.

TIP: In a fiction proposal, the author would include a synopsis here instead. A synopsis is a summary of what happens throughout the book. However note that fiction proposals should only be submitted when requested. These are often used for subsequent books or deals when the agent or editor already knows the author. Always be sure to follow submission guidelines.

10. Sample Chapters:

The first few chapters of your book should be included in or with your proposal. Many agents ask for a different number of chapters in their submission guidelines, but generally everyone wants three to five chapters. A sample should always be provided whenever possible in order to show your writing, tone, voice, development of the work, etc. This sample will help them decide if they will like the work, if they think that it will resonate with the audience, and determine if your writing is ready and how much editing help you will need.

TIP: Be sure to look up the Submission Guidelines for each person you are submitting your work to, to see if they list the number of chapters they desire (as well as other directions on how to submit your work) before sending it. If they don’t specifically state it, then send your first three chapters. If your chapters are short, send five chapters. Don’t send more than fifty pages unless they request it.

All of the above information must be presented in a concise, clear fashion that presents your material in the most captivating light. And if you are really ambitious, it should convey the tone of your work and give agents and editors a flavor of your voice. Your goal is to make the reader a fan.

Many agents like to see the information presented in this order—or a close deviation of it—because it flows well and the information is presented in a logical manner, but you are free to get creative if you’d like.

If you’ve read this entire post, congratulations! You’re on your way. When you’ve finished drafting your proposal, have a qualified reader critique it for you before you submit it. Then make sure you submit it to the right literary agents. A lot of research and a bit of stalking are always recommended.

Putting a strong proposal together—and getting it into the right hands—will help you avoid rejections and will get you closer to a publishing deal. Good luck!

The biggest literary agent database anywhere
is the Guide to Literary Agents. Pick up the
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If you’re an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Writer’s Digest Books Managing Editor Cris Freese at

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