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3 Questions to Ask When Writing a Book Proposal

The nonfiction book proposal is a unique creature. It's an essential package that you must create to attract the attention of publishers and "sell" them on your book, but most writers balk at the thought of spending weeks and even months developing and honing it.

But what if you could accelerate the process of creating your nonfiction book proposal? What if you could write a powerful proposal both quickly and professionally? Ryan G. Van Cleave shows you how with The Weekend Book Proposal, a practical, step-by-step guide to the nuts and bolts of faster, better proposal writing.

Here, Ryan shares three questions you should ask yourself as you start planning your proposal.


Start with your mom, dad, spouse, and immediate family. Then expand this list to any aunts, uncles, and cousins who you can guilt-trip into buying a copy. Great—you’ve sold maybe a dozen copies to people who are buying it merely because they know you. Now the real work starts. Who else is going to be persuaded to buy the book?

Determine the Primary and Secondary Markets

Your primary audience is the ideal group of people who’d love to read your book. If your book is a Florida orchid-growing how-to, the primary audience is Floridians who grow orchids. If your book is a memoir about a forty-something using her renewed Catholic faith and positive thinking to create weight loss and overall health improvement, then the primary audience is health aficionados. But it might also be Catholic women’s groups. And perhaps priests. Most books have a clear primary audience, though books that cover a lot of ground (like the latter example) might have more.

Your secondary audiences are the groups of people beyond the obvious primary audience. For that orchid book? Secondary audiences might be gardeners in Florida or the entire Southeast. Landscapers. Organic farmers. Member groups of the American Orchid Society. Botanical garden gift shops. For that memoir? Any Catholic church. Catholic parenting groups. Fitness clubs. Fans of The Secret and The Law of Attraction. Active forty-somethings and senior citizens. And so on.

Books should always have quite a few reasonable secondary markets. Make sure to mention them, even if they seem fairly small. The primary market should be doing the heavy lifting, yet secondary markets that bring in a couple dozen or a few hundred sales add up quickly.


How are you going to convince a publisher that your book is special? Different? Noteworthy? Reader-friendly?

It comes down to being clear about your book’s features and benefits. But the way to do that is in the context of seeing what’s already available in print—your competitors.

Determine the Existing Titles That Compete with Yours

It’s best to start by gathering the information already out there, so early on in your proposal, include a list of the top four to six books that in some way compete with yours. Don’t be scared to admit that similar books already exist. Editors expect that. In fact, if you can’t find any books that are similar to yours, editors will be leery of taking your book on. The assumption is, if it’s a viable market, someone would’ve already tapped into it. So find and name your main competitors.

Determine Your Book's Features and Benefits

Here’s the tricky part. Now it’s on you to think through what features or benefits your book has that the competing books don’t (or at least the ones they haven’t done as effectively as you will). Here are a few possible ideas:

  • Thoroughness: If your book is the most comprehensive, authoritative book on a certain topic, you’re in great shape.
  • Timeliness: Think about all the Y2K books or 2012 Mayan prophecy books that flooded the shelves before a specific calendar date. Dealing with the context of your book—the place and time—can help persuade your audience.
  • Access: If your book provides special access to something or someone people want to know more about, that’s a real value.
  • Skills: Are you teaching something useful, like how to safely shed two pounds a week by doing yoga in your office chair at work? I wouldn’t know how to do that without reading your book (and perhaps getting more flexible—ouch!).
  • Knowledge: Are you making readers more knowledgeable? Are you promising to raise their IQ? Despite having no evidence to support the idea that they raised the intelligence level of children, the Baby Einstein DVDs sold like crazy when they came out. Why? Every parent wanted their kids to be as smart as Albert Einstein.


Even if you have an amazing idea and a dynamite book proposal, you might still lose the deal if you don’t present yourself as the single best candidate to do the job. You'll need to discuss the following in your proposal:

Your Writing Background

If you have previous training in writing or some of your writing has been published somewhere—anywhere—awesome! That’s terrific information to include. Having something you wrote that’s been published says a few things:

  • You can complete a written piece.
  • You can edit/proofread it to a professional standard.
  • You understand how to submit work to a publisher.
  • You have worked successfully with a publisher in the past.
  • You take yourself seriously as a writer.
  • You’re building a writing career.

All of these seem like valuable things to communicate to a prospective publishing partner, no?

If you don’t have professional writing credentials, you might decide to take a bit of time to generate some. Considering how many print and online opportunities there are these days, it’s easier than ever to get something accepted for publication. Begin with local publication opportunities to start racking up credentials.

Your Education

Here’s where you say you went to Stanford (unless, like me, you didn’t!). If you went to a number of different colleges and universities, don’t give the entire laundry list. Give the last one and/or the most prominent. If your education stopped at high school or before, leave that out entirely. Now calm down—I’m not saying you’re a dud because you didn’t go to college. People like John D. Rockefeller, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Dave Thomas, and Henry Ford all did quite well without college, I realize. But it’s just too easy for an editor who’s never met you to have a negative reaction to your not having what’s considered to be the bare minimum of education. (If your book is about succeeding without a college degree, however, by all means, lead with that fact.)

A word of warning: Academic writers are trained to write stuffy, dense, reader-unfriendly works. So if you have advanced degrees, make sure that your entire proposal reads like you’re writing for actual people versus Socrates. Keep the massive, convoluted sentences and exotic vocabulary to a minimum. You’re writing for the twenty-first-century audience, not William Shakespeare.

Education, though, is more than just degree programs. Consider beefing up this area of your bio by taking classes at the local community college. You can find first-rate online classes through Writer’s Digest University (, Stanford University Continuing Studies (, and the Gotham Writers’ Workshop ( If you go any of these routes, they’re worth mentioning.

Relevant Background Information

You might be inclined to add that you raise Yorkshire terriers or that you hold three Guinness Book of World Records records relating to bubble gum blowing. Good for you. Just don’t put it in your author bio because it’s not relevant (unless, of course, your book is on raising/hoarding dogs or bubble gum blowing, or if it’s a memoir on your life quest to get as many world records as humanly possible).

If you truly think something is interesting albeit a bit off the topic of your book, fine; just include no more than one of those factoids to give your life a little color. Such an addition might make you stand out from a slew of other authors’ proposals. It also might make sense if you don’t have much to say by way of education or writing background. You have to say something, right? I get that. Just don’t go overboard with hobbies, interests, and skills. This isn’t a job résumé or dating profile, after all.

If you choose to add a nice detail for flavor, see if it can also—on some level—suggest something that might help your cause as a writer. For instance, if you’re a freelance web designer, then you must be pretty creative and industrious. You also probably know how to use the Internet to promote yourself and your book. And if you say you get in at least three rounds of golf a week at the best country club in San Jose (Silicon Valley), it’s reasonable to assume you might have an in with high-tech innovators and dot-com entrepreneurs. If you’re writing a book about the dot-com bubble bursting, then this is crucial information to share.



Looking for more ways to boost your proposal-writing skills and increase your chances of publication? The Weekend Book Proposal is jam-packed with proven strategies, sample queries and proposals, interviews with publishing experts, and "Hit the Gas" tips for speeding up the proposal process. Whether you're proposing a nonfiction book, memoir, anthology, textbook, or novel, you'll learn how to succeed and prosper as a writer—and sell your books before you've even written them!

Rachel Randall is the managing editor of Writer's Digest Books.

Rachel Randall
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