9 Tips for Writing & Targeting Your Nonfiction Book Proposal

Douglas Haynes shares nine tips for writing and targeting a book proposal, based on his experience crafting more than thirty drafts of the proposal for his debut book.
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In the year it took to find the right publisher for my new narrative nonfiction book Every Day We Live Is the Future, I created more than thirty drafts of my book proposal aimed at all kinds of publishers, from major trade houses to boutique indies. In the process, I learned a lot about proposal writing that may help other writers sell their books and save time for writing their manuscript. There’s no substitute for dogged persistence. But these nine tips can help you target your proposal and streamline the writing process.

This guest post is by Douglas Haynes. Haynes is a nonfiction writer and poet whose work focuses on marginalized people and places. His writing has been featured in Orion, Longreads, Virginia Quarterly Review, Witness, Boston Review, North American Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and dozens of other publications. His many awards include a grant from the Fund for Environmental Journalism and a residency at the Blue Mountain Center. In 2014, he was a finalist for the Richard J. Margolis Award for social justice reporting. In October 2017, Douglas’s narrative nonfiction book Every Day We Live is the Future: Surviving in a City of Disasters will be published by the University of Texas Press. This cautionary tale of urban inequality and the suffering caused by climate change recounts the true stories of two Nicaraguan migrant families’ quests to survive in one of the world’s most disaster-prone cities.

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  • Before you write your proposal, cultivate your platform. Create or update your website to make it as professional and current as possible. Secure endorsements of your project from prominent writers to include in your proposal. Meanwhile, try to publish articles related to your book in high-profile places and get media attention for them, such as radio interviews. This attention for your work should all be mentioned in the bio or platform sections of your proposal.
  • In your proposal’s overview section, foreground the urgency of the central issues in your book. Don’t beat around the bush. Editors need to know what’s at stake right away. They won’t necessarily take the time to dig through several pages to discover what’s new and exciting about your book.
  • Keep your proposal’s chapter or section summaries very concise. These summaries need to reveal the book’s structure and showcase your deep knowledge of your topic. But they don’t need to include every event in the narrative, every piece of supporting information, or every minor character. Upon my agent’s urging, I shortened my section summaries from more than fifteen pages to ten pages.
  • If you have an agent, take her feedback about your proposal to heart. Your agent knows editors and what they’re looking for in this document. And your agent may have great ideas about how to shape your project for the current literary marketplace. The proposal is not the place to hold fast to aesthetic principles. It should accurately represent your project and your writing style, but don’t think of it as a permanent blueprint for your book. Things can change when you’re writing the book. That said, if your agent’s vision for the book is one you know you can’t or won’t write, then you may need to make a hard decision about whether your agent or the kinds of publishers she is pitching are right for your project.
  • Use the proposal revision process with your agent as an opportunity to rethink and experiment with your book’s structure. While spending months revising a proposal can be frustrating, consider it time invested envisioning the varied possibilities for the book. This is part of where your agent earns her share of your advance; take advantage of your agent’s experience and wide reading to get new ideas about how your book could be organized. Your eventual editor may or may not have time to work on big picture stuff like this with you, and this is the perfect stage to try out different structures before you get too far down any one road.
  • It sounds obvious but can’t be overstated: send your most polished, compelling writing as your sample chapter(s), both to agents and publishers. You don’t necessarily need to send the book’s introduction or first chapter. You do need to send a piece of writing that embodies the style, spirit, and central concerns of your book. Agents know that your proposal overview and chapter summaries will be revised before submitting to editors, but they have to be convinced that your writing itself is dazzling in order to take you on to get to that point. Likewise, editors can be sold on the writing even when they have concerns about the marketability of a book.
  • In your proposal’s market section, identify audiences for your book that the publishers you’re submitting to know and target themselves. For example, university presses are often particularly interested in selling books for course adoptions and appreciate seeing how you think your book would be used in academic contexts. Boutique indie publishers often have a certain subject area or literary agenda they specialize in. Explicitly recognizing this in your proposal can help sell your book.
  • Don’t overlook university presses. Many of them publish trade books for general audiences and do a great job producing and marketing them. But they may have very specific proposal guidelines that require reformatting your proposal. These guidelines are available on their websites. Don’t go to the effort of sending a university press a proposal without looking at their proposal guidelines and formatting your proposal accordingly. Make sure you direct the proposal to the appropriate editor, as well.
  • Identify your book’s potential audience and think hard about the kind of publisher that would be most committed to reaching this audience. Aiming for the biggest publishers first isn’t necessarily the best strategy for every book. Major trade houses often have expectations for sales that many books of serious nonfiction can’t reach in today’s literary marketplace, and these houses reject worthwhile books for this reason alone. If you know that your book’s subject makes it a hard sell for a major trade publisher, you may want to consider targeting independent publishers and university presses first. Doing so could save you time and many proposal drafts, and it may mean you don’t need an agent.

Following all these steps won’t guarantee you a book sale, but they will make the process of targeting, writing—and yes, revising—a proposal less overwhelming. And being less overwhelmed by the publishing process will ultimately help you make your book itself as good as it can be.

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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 cris.freese@fwmedia.com.

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