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Rachelle Gardner On: 5 Reasons Nonfiction Writers Need a Book Proposal

If you have a completed manuscript, you may be tempted to think that’s enough. It’s not. You still need a proposal. Here are a few reasons why: 1. Publishers usually don't look at nonfiction manuscripts. The proposal itself provides information publishers need in order to make a purchasing decision. Before they even want to read sample chapters, they will review elements such as the author's platform, how the book fits into the marketplace, and what titles already exist on your topic. Guest column by literary agent Rachelle Gardner of Wordserve Literary.

Editor's note: I am declaring November 2010 to be "Agent Column Month," and therefore, every weekday, I will be posting a guest column by a literary agent. Day 1: Today's guest agent is Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary.

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Guest column by literary agent
Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary.
Rachelle runs a popular
blog on publishing.

As a literary agent, I receive queries every day. When a query interests me, I ask to see more material. If it's fiction, I'll ask for the manuscript. But if it's nonfiction, I'll ask for a book proposal. Occasionally I receive an e-mail back from the writer: What is a book proposal? Needless to say, that's not the answer I want. A book proposal is the basic sales tool for a nonfiction book—a business plan, if you will. An agent can't sell your book to a publisher without it. You've got to have one, and it's got to be good.

Let me put it to you straight: If you don't know what a book proposal is, you're not quite ready to approach an agent. You shouldn't even query an agent with your nonfiction project until your proposal is complete. So if the proposal is your key tool to getting an agent’s attention for your book, let’s review why you need one and how to compose it.

(Writer's Digest asked literary agents for their best pieces of advice. Here are their responses.)

5 REASONS YOU NEED A PROPOSAL

If you have a completed manuscript, you may be tempted to think that’s enough. It’s not. You still need a proposal. Here are a few reasons why:

1. Publishers usually don't look at nonfiction manuscripts. The proposal itself provides information publishers need in order to make a purchasing decision. Before they even want to read sample chapters, they will review elements such as the author's platform, how the book fits into the marketplace, and what titles already exist on your topic.

2. The book proposal can be used throughout the publishing process to help the editorial, marketing and sales teams understand your book. They’ll refer to it when they write copy for your book—copy that goes on to your book cover or into marketing, advertising, and sales pieces. Therefore you’ll want to write the best and most effective “sell language” into your proposal.

(Learn book proposal and platform tips from literary agents.)

3. Your efforts in putting together a complete book proposal (believe it or not) can be instrumental in your own understanding of the structure, theme, and execution of your book—and you may be able to identify and correct any problems. If done correctly, your proposal will also help you understand and be able to explain who your audience is and why they would buy your book.

4. The proposal shows the publisher that you’ve done your homework. It shows you’re a professional, and you have a good understanding of the business of publishing. Alternatively, a shoddy proposal makes it easy for an editor to quickly say “No” and toss it in the reject pile.

5. Reading entire manuscripts is extremely time-consuming. Proposals give editors the information they need to make decisions as quickly and effectively as possible.

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