The beauty of the literary profession is that it’s wide open to all manner of tastes, tones, styles and abilities. For example, you need not be a master storyteller to have a successful writing career. The arena of nonfiction has innumerable subcategories, and publishers are constantly on the lookout for new titles in every single one of them. Whether you’re a bonafide expert in a particular subject, or you simply have a fervent interest and are willing to do the requisite research, chances are good you’ll find potential publishers to at least give your work the consideration it deserves.
And it all starts with the proposal.
Unless you’re a celebrity, household name, or VIP whose agent or publicist can pitch their book idea to publishers far and wide until it finds a home, the vast majority of all nonfiction sells by way of a proposal.
Unlike fiction (novels, novellas, short story anthologies, etc.), which requires the manuscript be complete prior to submission (albeit with certain exceptions, but especially true for first-time authors), nonfiction projects typically get acquired as the result of an all-encompassing proposal document that ranges anywhere from ten to sixty pages (ballpark).
But don’t let that rather insignificant page count fool you. Writers cannot get away with doing less work just by choosing nonfiction over fiction. In the publishing world, there is no fast track to success. However, the rather formulaic process by which nonfiction projects are sold does allow for a certain “trial and error” approach to every writer’s ultimate goal: inking a book deal.
Now, please don’t read between the lines. If you’re lucky enough or talented enough (or both) to be an agented writer, you can’t just have your rep send out a different proposal every week until one of them strikes a chord. Not only does the “splatter effect” not work, it will quickly render your name—and your submissions—persona non grata. But for those writers that do it right and craft proposals that answer all the questions publishers want/need answered, even if their proposal doesn’t result in a deal, they’re likely to find that acquisitions editor’s door wide open the next time they go out with a query or a submission.
So let’s break down the components that every solid nonfiction proposal should include:
Table of Contents
For proposals longer than ten pages, I highly recommend a ToC. If nothing else, it’s highly professional and clues prospective publishers in that this isn’t your first rodeo.
Exactly what it sounds like—an overview of your project. Barring overly complicated content, I recommend keeping overviews to a single page. Think elevator pitch. Get to the point quickly with just enough detail to fully explain the manuscript. A good overview should make the reader want to dig deeper.
Why are you the absolute perfect author for this manuscript? There needs to be a solid reason why you’ve chosen this particular subject matter, and this is where you explain it. For example, if the manuscript you’re proposing is about World War II and you’re a current/former history professor, that’s a feather in your cap for sure. And if you’ve been recognized for any achievements or won awards, this is your opportunity to shelve the immodesty and lay it on thick. Stack the odds in your favor as much as possible, but remember, if you talk the talk, make sure you can walk the walk.
Exactly who will this manuscript appeal to? The more raw data you can provide, the better. And considering the Internet is chock full of every imaginable researchable detail, you’ve got no excuse not to source all the relevant information. The greater the case you can build for the number of people this book will interest, the greater your chances of getting a deal.
This is the section where you lay out everything you plan on doing to market your book. If you’ve got a monster following on Twitter or Instagram, let ‘em know. If you have a blog or vlog with a massive fanbase, or if you’re a YouTuber and your videos routinely generate millions of hits, those details might just lead to a bidding war.
Are there already similar books on the market that have “proven the concept?” If so, these titles will be in direct competition with your new offering. Explain how/why your book is different. If there are many, don’t list them all. Just the most recent four or five—or those with the greatest number of sales. That’s more than enough of a sampling to give prospective editors an idea of what’s out there. In addition to the title and author, be sure to list the publisher, date of publication, page count, and retail price.
Chapter Outline and Synopses
Once again, this is exactly what it sounds like—a general outline of the chapters your manuscript will contain. I say “general” because you can always expand or condense this list based on the notes or input of the book’s acquiring editor. Synopses should be detailed enough to give each chapter’s gist, but not so verbose that the descriptions read like an actual chapter.
Three sample chapters is usually more than adequate, but I have written and sold proposals with more and less.
Supporting Images and Documents (If Applicable)
From photos and illustrations, to graphs, to copies of any previously published material relevant to your manuscript, if the additional content in question adds to the overall look and feel of the proposal package without being too “heavy” (remember, less can often be more), then definitely include it.
The writer’s (or ghostwriter’s) bio and previous credits. This part is different from the previously mentioned author component as it’s simply a listing of prior literary achievements and, if relevant, biographical information that a publisher might find interesting.
And there you have it. Everything you need to create—and hopefully sell—a work of nonfiction. Until next time, good luck and happy writing!