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Ask the Publisher: How To Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal⎯Part III

Ask the Publisher

Welcome back! This post highlights the must-haves in your proposal’s marketing plan, competitive titles, chapter outline, and sample chapters.

Marketing Plan

In this section you outline what you can do (irrespective of what the publisher is doing) to promote and sell the book. Only list what you know you absolutely can do within your current resources of both time and money. You need to be confident, realistic, and direct about everything that’s going to happen and include concrete targets (with numbers attached, please).

Here’s where you highlight

  • Recent and upcoming speaking gigs (as an expert) at conferences

  • Your contacts who are expert VIPs and might provide a quote for your book jacket and or promotional materials

  • Recent writings on the subject for other publications e.g. peer-reviewed journals, newspapers, guest blog post spots

  • The size of your newsletter list and your plans to leverage it

Pro Tip: The key here is to demonstrate how many solid connections you already have and how many readers you already reach.

Competitive Titles

This is where you list 5-10 competing book titles and say how yours is different and fills a need in the marketplace. While you may be okay discussing fewer titles if your book is on a narrow topic or for a specialized audience, under no circumstances say that there are no competing titles. That gives one of two messages: either you were too lazy to do the work or the book is so niche that there might not be a market for it.

Where do you find these titles?

  • A good place is your local bookstore. Go to the section you feel is best representative of your subject and take a look at what’s currently on the shelf.

  • Go to and search for the books and/or the category you identified in your bricks and mortar search. Scroll down to find two sections: “Frequently Bought Together” and “Customers Who Bought This Book Also Bought.” This will give you plenty of titles to choose from!

Each book you list needs to include

  1. title

  2. subtitle

  3. author

  4. publisher

  5. year of publication

  6. page count

  7. price per format (trade paperback, hardcover and e-book)

  8. ISBN

As you make your list, note who provided the blurbs and praise and criticism in the reviews. From this you will gain an understanding of the book’s strengths and weakness and how your book might compensate for some of the perceived gaps.

In a brief summary compare that book’s approach to the subject matter to your own (100-200 words/title) showing clear differentiation (how does your book challenge the competitive title, update it, or enhance its ideas). Here’s your chance to really show how your book is unique and needed in the marketplace.

Pro Tip: Don’t pick any books that have a publication date more than five years ago or are already out of print.

Chapter Outline

This is exactly what it sounds like: a list of your chapters with a brief (one to two paragraphs) summary. The summary needs to demonstrate both the concepts covered and your method of approach. This is where your crystal clear, linear approach is concise, compelling and purposeful.

Pro Tip: Make sure you write this section in everyday English and be mindful that the publisher reading it is likely not an expert on your subject. Do not make their eyes glaze over with acronyms and jargon! Sample Chapters

Here’s where you strut your stuff and demonstrate that your book fulfills the promise outlined in the proposal. Pick the three or four chapters that best exemplify that your book is

  1. filling a need in the marketplace

  2. ground-breaking

  3. written exceptionally well

Your goal here is to leave the publisher wanting more!

As you can see from the detail we have covered in this post and the last one, it is easy to understand how a properly researched and developed proposal can take weeks or more to write. Proposal lengths do vary significantly but 10-25 double spaced pages (excluding the sample chapters) is fairly typical. Complex proposals with their ancillary materials can swell the page count to 50 or more!

I’m happy to delve into any of these areas further. If you don’t want to ask publicly, you can shoot me a line.

Coming up next: Why book proposals fail and the problem with memoirs.

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