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Ask the Publisher: How to Write A Nonfiction Book Proposal

Ask the Publisher

Common Deer Press doesn’t publish nonfiction…yet. But I get enough questions about it that it has sparked another blog series.

Let’s start with some basics. The nonfiction book market continues to be robust and sales in fiction are declining. Adult nonfiction provides 67% of the sales in adult books while juvenile nonfiction contributes a more modest 25% of total sales of juvenile books. Both are providing the growth in books sold (1).

The overall growth in nonfiction adult books was 3% with self-help (+ 18%), history/law/political science (+13%) and reference books (+ 12%) contributing the biggest gains with crafts/hobbies/antiques/games (-29%), house & home/gardening (-19%), and art/architecture/design/photography (-16%) providing the greatest offset.

Juvenile nonfiction grew significantly in the categories of biographies/autobiographies (+26%), social situations/family/health (+22) and education/reference/language (+22%).

To get your book, or book idea, into the nonfiction book market, it is necessary to write a proposal. Even if you decide to self-publish, it’s a really good idea to have one as it can save you a lot of wasted time and effort.

What is a Book Proposal?

The book proposal is a 15-50 (or so) page manuscript that a writer uses to pitch a nonfiction book to publishers. This includes the proposal and several (typically three) sample chapters. Though it’s written in place of an actual book, it should build a complete argument for the book idea. (NOTE: An exception to this is memoir. Typically the complete manuscript needs to be available at the time of submitting the proposal.)

Book Proposal ‘Must-Haves’

The proposal’s sole purpose is to build a solid and complete business argument for your book idea. A good book proposal will:

1. Demonstrate a market need for your book

In nonfiction, instead of having to complete the entire manuscript and then trying to interest a literary agent or publisher, you use the proposal to sell them on your idea. Doing the research for your proposal demonstrates to you and/or a prospective literary agent or publisher that there is a gap in the market and this particular book fills that spot.

2. Demonstrate that it fulfills a need for the reader

A common mistake is to focus on the content of the book (as one would do with a fiction query). Instead the proposal must demonstrate how the content will benefit the reader in some way. Readers buy nonfiction to a) learn something; b) solve a problem they are having; and/or c) help them to reach a desired goal. They are first and foremost concerned with ‘what’s in it for me’. Therefore, proposal must demonstrate that it will do one or both of these things for the reader so they will shell out money for your book.

3. Show why you are the perfect person to write this book

If you are expecting to teach the reader something new or solve a problem for them then you’re selling it based on the strength of your expertise, your platform and your concept. For example, the fields of health, self-help, and parenting require that you have a background that conveys authority and instills confidence in the reader. Illustrate how you are going to communicate the message: This will be communicated in your Overview and your Table of Contents sections.

If you successfully execute this, the sum of the proposal’s parts will convince a publisher to invest in you and your goal: a published book.

Coming next week: The Most Common Book Proposal Sections


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