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How to Pitch a Nonfiction Book

Pitching an idea is an art form in and of itself. Nonfiction writer Rick Lauber breaks down the best ways to pitch a nonfiction book.

Writing a nonfiction book may be the dream of many, but unfortunately book ideas may never get off the ground. Creating a book idea, and finding and pitching a book publisher can be difficult, draining, and time-consuming—leaving hopeful writers becoming discouraged and giving up. Before throwing in the towel (or never trying at all), try these tips to smoothen the process, open the door with a book publisher, and get better results.

(How to Write a Nonfiction Book Outline)

Develop your idea

What do you want to write about? Why is this subject matter relevant to readers? Once you get a better handle on your own intended content and direction you intend to take, you can better pitch—and persuade—a publisher. A thorough, well-developed pitch will be far more appealing than a vague one.

Research book publishers

Among the best sources for publisher’s information are the Writer’s Market guidebooks (the two versions are for American and Canadian writers, and include listings for both writing markets and publishing houses with updated contact information). Both the Writer’s Market guidebooks are sold through bookstores but may also be found at a public library (check the “Reference” section). Remember that a library’s reference books are not meant for public borrowing; bring ample change for the library photocopier, or use your cell phone’s camera to snap photos of publisher’s listings to pursue.

Publisher listings can also be found online (here and/or here). Consider your own circle as well. A colleague of mine became a published author, and I successfully reached out to his publisher with my own book idea. Researching also involves visiting book publishers’ websites. Prospective authors will need to look for “Submission Guidelines.” These will be everything the publisher is looking for from contributors and their submission criteria.

While exploring publisher’s websites, writers can also review the publisher’s library of current authors. Are these authors new or more established? Have the authors been published once or multiple times? Have any books on similar topics been previously published? Writers need to remember that they are entering into a—hopefully long-term—relationship with a book publisher. Therefore, writers should also consider the size of the publishing house (a smaller firm may provide more individualized attention to their writers), the number of published titles, and their willingness to work with new writers.

How to Pitch a Nonfiction Book

One of the best ways to learn more about a publishing house is by speaking with their published authors. The publisher should be willing to provide names and e-mail addresses of published authors for reference checks.

Contact book publishers

If you don’t have a specific contact name, address your pitch letter to the “Submissions/Acquisitions Editor.” Craft that pitch letter carefully as first impressions count. Write that pitch letter as you write other content—create a strong hook (or opening statement), be brief (1 – 2 pages maximum), and remember to be respectful. Blow your own horn, but don’t blow it too loudly. Tout your own experience, qualifications, awards won, and so on; however, don’t make any false claims about how readers will rush to buy a copy of your published book the minute it becomes available.

While being deliberate with your pitch letter can be advantageous (I can’t tell you how many hours I spent scouring my pitch for grammatical errors), resist the urge to continuously wordsmith. “Selling” your book idea to a publisher can make an introverted writer nervous to delay submitting a proposal. But how can a publisher consider your book idea without your pitch?

Supply everything that they ask for. When pitching my “Caregiver’s Guide for Canadians” book project, I was asked to summarize my book idea, identify potential readers, outline possible chapters, differentiate between other books on the same subject on the market, share my writing credentials, list several personal and professional references, as well as provide my C.V. and writing samples. The best writing samples will be current and related to your book topic. Sharing three website links to my published/posted articles about eldercare proved I was established, recognized, and knowledgeable.

Pitching authors may also be asked to offer some promotional ideas. This may sound surprising, but books don’t just sell themselves and authors cannot—and should not—rely entirely on the publisher and/or bookstores to move product. An active author is his/her own best salesperson and publishers will appreciate your hustle to partner with them on sales efforts.

Initially, I suggested book signing events at bookstores and public speaking but have also explored many other promotional avenues: exhibiting at trade shows, writing related articles/blogs, hosting webinars, and pursuing bulk order buys as means to effectively drive more book sales. I’ve been known to also carry copies of my book in my vehicle (car stock) and had a book to sell to my dentist after an appointment! A traditional publisher may employ an in-house publicist … this individual can be helpful initially, but remember that he/she will be working with all of the publisher’s authors and not just you.

(What Is Creative Nonfiction in Writing?)

Casting a wide net and pitching a book idea to multiple book publishers at the same time may sound tempting. This practice, however, can be frowned upon. By doing so, an author is making simultaneous submissions where the idea will be considered by various publishers at the same time. One publisher could agree to your proposal when another publisher has already done so. Usually, the publisher’s Writer’s Market listing or their online writer’s guidelines will indicate whether they accept simultaneous submissions. If doing so, a writer needs to explain upfront that he/she is contacting other publishers and will follow up immediately if the proposal is accepted elsewhere.

Writers may be reluctant to submit their ideas to a publisher feeling that this idea will be “stolen” and/or offered to another one of their more established writers. One woman I know hesitated to do so until I convinced her that publishers were ethical. If you are worried, just send yourself a copy of your pitch via registered mail.

Contacting book publishers can be an exhausting experience. Author J.K. Rowling pitched her Harry Potter series to 12 different publishers before finally being accepted. If this happens, try not to be discouraged, every “no” you hear will be one step closer to hearing a “yes.”

Contact agents

Writers may wish to bypass directly contacting book publishers and pitch to agents instead. Agents make their living from writers, and will have a wealth of contacts and experience with what works. If pursuing agents, a writer should follow that same advice as when reaching out to a book publisher.

Include a SASE

If pitching via regular mail, a writer should tuck a self-addressed stamped envelope in with his/her proposal. This will make things far easier for the book publisher/agent to reply.

Discussing Dollars:

Writers can also begin to explore offered royalties and advances. Standard book royalties range from 10-15% of the book’s list price. A royalty may be paid by the publisher before the author writes a book. A royalty is not free money! It is an advance on paid royalties.

Publishing a nonfiction book may be a dream, but, with being proactive and following due process, you can turn that dream into a reality. Good luck!

Writing Nonfiction 101: Fundamentals

Throughout this 12-week workshop, you will get step-by-step instruction on how to write nonfiction, read Philip Gerard's Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, and write articles, essays, or a few chapters of your book. Register for this workshop and discover how fun writing nonfiction can be.

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