I’ve written and published four works of non-fiction – and have been involved as a ghost or behind-the-scenes editor on a couple of other things too.
Every single one of those books sold off the back off a simple book proposal. In no case, had I written more than about 10,000 words of text prior to the sales process.
Two of those books, I sold for £4000 (about $6,000) each. The books sold reasonably well, given their fairly niche material, and they continued to generate an income of about £2000 a year for years afterwards.
Nice outcome, right?
But those were fairly niche books. (They were on the subject of writing and publishing, which, as proprietor of this website, I ought to know a bit about.)
I also sold a book off the back of a non-fiction book proposal that had multiple publishers bidding for the rights, and ended up being sold to HarperCollins for £175,000 (or about $250,000). That was a two-book deal, admittedly, so you can divide the numbers by two to get a per book amount. But still: $250,000 for a proposal of less than 10,000 words?
Now, I’m not guaranteeing that kind of outcome for you. Assuming you can write really well, the ceiling price for your book proposal will be determined by its subject matter.
My book on “How To Write” was a niche-type book for a niche-type audience and it earned a niche-type advance as a result.
The book I sold for a lot of money had to do with British history, and was presented as the kind of book that you could give your dad for Christmas. The potential audience for that book was very much greater, so the advance was correspondingly greater too.
But although I can’t guarantee outcomes, I can guarantee to show you how to write a book proposal that will really work for a literary agent and a publisher. I’ll provide a sample proposal and give you examples of what to do (and what not to do) as you put your proposal together.
And we’ll start off by considering what publishers actually want from you. Their wants drive what you need to give them. In effect, we can just build a template book proposal where all you have to do is fill in the blanks.
Write A Non-fiction Book Proposal In 4 Steps:
- Prepare a query letter – include a book overview, target audience, USP, writing CV, and motivation for writing.
- Add a bio – including a professional resume and platform, i.e. social media, blog, mailing list etc.
- And a market overview.
- You’ll also need to send sample chapters, book outline, and introduction.
What Is A Book Proposal?
And what do publishers want from it?
A book proposal is a pitch to a publisher. Quite likely you reach that publisher via a literary agent, so the first pair of eyes on your work will be those of an agent, but either way, your final target is a publisher.
So when you’re writing a non-fiction book proposal you need to think about what makes your book stand out. Your pitch offers the publisher the opportunity to acquire a non-fiction book, authored by you, on the subject set out in your proposal.
In exchange, the publisher will (assuming they’re keen to proceed):
- agree to publish your work
- pay you an advance
- pay you royalties if and when your advance is ‘earned out’ by book sales.
You will receive a slice of that advance payment once a contract is agreed. The remainder of the advance will be paid out, typically, (a) on acceptance of a complete manuscript, (b) on hardback publication, and (c) on paperback publication, if you have one. If the book only comes out in one edition, the last two chunks will come as one.
Clearly, publishers make their money by acquiring books with commercial potential, so it makes sense to pitch them with interesting ideas.
But will your idea make any money for the publisher? Maybe, maybe not. There are dozens of dud proposals for every one good one, so any publisher will want to know:
- Subject: What do you want to write about?
- Audience: Why do you think anyone would be interested?
- Competition: What other titles are there in your area? Or, to be rather more accurate: what titles in your area have made money? That’s important, because those comparable books will form an important part of any acquiring editor’s in-house pitch at the time of acquisition.
- Angle: How does your book differ from everything else that’s out there? Why is the particular angle you bring feel urgent, necessary and compelling?
- Authority: What qualifies you to write on this topic? Why should anyone listen to you?
- Platform: What platform do you have to generate publicity or visibility for your book? Answers might include large followings on social media, or a regular broadcast presence, or a position as columnist on a major national newspaper or magazine.
- Title: It’s almost possible to overlook the title, just because it’s so damn obvious. But a great title counts for a huge amount. A good title should do two things. It should communicate what the book is about, but it should also do that in a sexy, edgy, novel, exciting way. A book called A Journey of Self-Discovery would be unpublishably bad. A book called Eat, Pray, Love could just be an international hit. Or just think how many extra sales Yuvral Noah Harari achieved by calling his first book simply Sapiens. That’s a huge subject with an utterly enticing one word hook. Perfect! Do likewise.
- Intended word count: Honestly? You won’t know this until you’ve written your book. But say something. 70-90,000 words would be about right for most memoir. A 100,000 word book would be about 350 pages in print, so think roughly how long you want your finished book to feel. Anything over 120,000 words will have a slightly epic quality for the reader (and be more expensive for the publisher to produce), so only aim for high or very high word counts if the subject matter is really worth it. (The American Civil War: yes. One somewhat interesting murder in Minnesota: no.)
All that is to look at your proposal from a publisher’s point of view, but they have to think about things from a readers’ perspective as well. So they will also want to know:
- The pitch to the reader: How would you go about pitching the book to a reader, rather than to a publisher? Does that pitch feel compelling, or a bit flat?
- Writing skills: Can you write decently? What is the actual experience of reading your book going to be like?
- Detailed subject matter: What is your book actually about? It’s all very well to say (for example), that your book will be a history of Rome. And good – that’s clearly the kind of subject matter for which there is a perennial market. But what will be the actual, detailed, chapter by chapter content? You need to be able to outline that content, and do so in a way that will make sense to someone who has little prior knowledge of Rome’s history.
Those questions have to be answered by the proposal you offer to the publisher or (normally, in the first instance) to a literary agent. In effect, your proposal will simply go through these questions one at a time and answer them in a way that will give the strongest possible reassurance to the people holding the checkbook.
What Should Be In Your Book Proposal:
A non-fiction book proposal template might run roughly as follows.
(Why only “roughly”? Well, several reasons, really. First, non-fiction is a very varied field, and the basic template will need to bend a bit depending on what’s on offer. Secondly, there’s no required industry-standard format, the way there is with screenplays. That gives you some wiggle room. And third, you may be stronger in some areas and weaker in others. There’s nothing wrong with constructing your proposal so as to make the most of your assets!)
Right. So things may vary, but a good place to start is as follows:
1. A Covering Letter (Or Query Letter)
Your covering letter will deal with the following elements:
- Purpose: Explain why you’re writing in the first place.
Example: “Dear Annie Agent, I am writing to seek representation for the attached book proposal, A Puzzle in String”
- Subject matter: Explain what the book is about.
Example: “My book is a popular science book that explains string theory in terms that laypeople can understand [etc etc].”
- Audience: Explain who you think will be interested.
Example: “The book will appeal to anyone interested in understanding the most fundamental aspects of the universe we live in. It will appeal to broadly the same people as bought Steven Hawking’s Brief History of Time . . . etc, etc.”
- Angle: The world mostly doesn’t need more books. So why does it needs yours? Why is yours the one that readers will want to pick up, given the vast range of options they already have?
Example: “My book differs from the other books on the market in that it …”
- Personal background: Explain (in brief) who you are.
Example: “I am the Professor of Physics at XYZ University . . .”
- (Optionally) Motivation: In some cases it can help to explain why you felt driven to write this book.
Example: If you were writing a book on silence, you might want to mention (say) that you had spent six months living, in silence, as a hermit.
- Documents: Explain what documents you are presenting.
Example: “I attach the following documents . . .”
A good letter will run to no more than two pages. (If you were a novelist, we’d suggest your letter run to no more than a single page, but the rules are a bit different for non-fictioneers. You have a little more room.)
2. A Professional Bio
Your self-description needs to cover (usually) two elements:
- Here’s where you set out something like a professional resume. Even here, do bear in mind your audience. So let’s say you are a professor of physics. If you were applying for a job at the Harvard physics faculty, you’d presumbly list out your scientific papers in some detail. But you’re not. You’re talking to laypeople, so you can just say, “I have authored more than 70 scientific papers . . .”
- You should also set out your platform, assuming that you have one. That platform will include any way you have of reaching your target audience: social media, broadcasting, journalism, a blog, a mailing list – anything. Do note that publisher have pretty high standards here. Have 15,000 Twitter follows? OK, that’s impressive. That’s a lot more than I have. But you’d need several hundred thousand to move a publisher’s stony heart.
Typically, you will either bring significant authority (“I’m a physics prof”) or a significant platform (“I have more than 2,000,000 followers on Instagram”).It’s pretty rare that an author brings both, but if you have both – brag.
And what happens if you have neither platform nor authority?
You’re scuppered, right? You don’t stand a chance.
Not a bit of it.
When I wrote This Little Britain, my history book, I had no relevant platform to offer, and I certainly wasn’t a recognised authority on the subject I was writing about.
But so what?
I had an interesting theme. I could write well. When agents and editors (and, ultimately, readers) saw my book, they just wanted more of it. And in the end, that’s the heart of the whole thing.
In short, authority and platform are great, but if anyone tells you they’re essential – well, they’re just plain wrong. Great writing plus a great idea will work fine every time.
Oh, and since I had neither platform nor authority, my book proposal for that book didn’t include a personal bio at all. I knew my agent would choose to say something about me to the publisher – but he’d just say, “Look, this guy isn’t an academic, but he writes really well and I think you’ll love his material.” That was enough. No one ever asked me for a resume at any point.
3. A Market Overview
A market overview is also crucial. You’ll need to provide:
- A swift definition of your market as you see it. Be as precise as possible here. Don’t tell agents/publishers that your book will appeal to “all intelligent book buyers” or “anyone interested in science.” That’s marketing piffle and it’s not true. Define your audience as precisely as you can
Example: “This is a book of popular physics, part of the broader popular science market. Because the book lies at the harder end of the science market, it’s likely to appeal to those science readers with past enjoyment of quantum physics, astronomy, …”
- Measures of engaged audience size: You want to give publishers some kind of metrics for the possible target audience – but be sober here, not expansive. If you are writing a book about Ireland, for example, it’s just stupid to say, “The worldwide population of Irish, Irish-American, and other Irish descended people is estimated at a staggering …” Yes, you may arrive at a large number that way, but it will be a large, meaningless number. Much better to say, “Declan O’Guinness’s recent TV series drew audiences of X, and Nuala FitzShamrock’s history of the Irish Faminine spent Y weeks on the NYT bestseller list.” You could even add non-media related metrics such as, “X% of Americans claim Irish descent, and of those Y% have visited Ireland at least once.” It’s quite hard to get useful measures of engaged audience size, but you are better off giving a few hard stats rather than a larger number of fluffier ones.
- Offer an overview of major recent titles plus, if you want some older classics – but publishers will certainly be focusing primarily on titles of the last 2-3 years. Don’t just list out the titles themselves, but include details of author, publisher, publication date, ISBN, page count, formats (eg: hardback, paperback, e-book, audio), plus price points for each. These things matter a lot to a publisher, because they’ll instantly be able to tell what kind of market currently exists for these books. (They can also check, which you can’t, what the sales history for these titles are.) So if the only current publishers for your chosen subject are academic publishers with books priced at $100+, it’s unlikely that a trade publisher will think that a mainstream market will exist for your book. You will want to provide data on at least 5 comparable titles, but 10 would be a better number to aim for.
- Provide any data you have on sales / prizes won / publicity achieved. This can be hard, by the way, because this is an area where publishers will have paid-for sources of data that you don’t have. All the same, it’s worth making some effort here, simply because you can show yourself to be a professional, market-aware author – something that every publisher loves to see! The easiest way to guesstimate approximate sales is by looking at Amazon sales ranking . . . just be aware that those rankings are very volatile, so they can be an unreliable guide.
Example: “String Theory for Idiots, by Prof Quentin Quark (Pub: Penguin Random House, 2018) is currently ranked at #1,800 in Amazon.com’s overall bestseller list. Format, pricing and ISBN details are: …)”
- Angle: Crucially – provide a short summary of how your book differs from the competition. What makes yours special? Why does the market need your book?
This last point is the crucial one.
Sometimes, you might come across an idea that just hasn’t been done. In that case, just say so.
To take the example of my This Little Britain, I wrote a book about British exceptionalism in all its forms. The central question was, effectively: in what ways does British history just look different from the histories of its European neighbours? Weirdly, no one had ever really taken that question as the subject for a book like mine, and it was of obvious commercial potential.
A crucial part of the pitch for the book involved simply explaining what my idea was and pointing out that no one else had done it. Publishers were already half sold, right there. Yes, there were lots of history-of-Britain books – and those were the comparable titles I identified. But there was nothing taking my exact angle. And my angle was a good one. So the proposal sols, and sold very well.
With my two books on writing and publishing, I couldn’t claim to have any earth-shatteringly new idea . . . but I could claim to bring a particular angle.
(What was it? Well, weirdly, at that time there were a ton of “How To Write” type books out there, but there was nothing that just promised to be a completely comprehensive, non-gimmmicky resource for serious writers. So I offered to write that book – and teamed up with Bloomsbury who owned the strongest brands in the writing/publishing area. They liked the idea and we agreed a deal. I wrote the book in the two months it took them to generate a contract, and handed the book over almost literally as soon as the ink was dry.)
In any case, the point here from your point of view is that you have to bring something new to the market you are writing for. It is the newness and urgency of that idea which will go a long way to determine whether your proposal succeeds in generating offers or not.
4. Sample Material
So far, the material we’re offering to the publisher includes stuff about the book (your query letter, that market overview) and about you (the bio.)
But we do also need to give publishers a really good taste of the work itself, which means you will also need to supply:
A. Sample Chapters
But you will also, mostly, need to include sample chapters from the book itself, to give the agent and publisher an idea of whether you can actually write. Can you write engagingly for a broad audience? Or do you have the capacity to turn fascinating ideas into a dry-as-dust ocean of boringness?
If your book is narrative non-fiction, you will need to include the first three chapters from the book, because the narrative won’t make sense any other way.
For subject-led non-fiction, the chapters can be non-contiguous. For This Little Britain, I just submitted a fairly random scatter of chapters – ones that were fun, engaging … and hadn’t required a whole heap of research to write.
B. A Synopsis
You need to give a detailed synopsis of the complete book. If you are writing narrative non-fiction, that can take the form of a regular synopsis, but probably a good bit longer than you’d offer for fiction. Aim for about 2,000 words, if you’re not sure – though again, these things are very variable. In some cases, indeed, you’ll find that narrative non-fiction – such as memoir or travel books – simply demand to be treated like the novels they resemble. And that will probably mean that you need to write the whole damn book, that a proposal will simply not be enough. Sorry! (Though you can always get a proposal over to an agent. At the very least, a good proposal will start a very useful conversation with an interested agent.)
OK, so much for the narrative-type work. What about the more subject-led non-fiction?
And the good news here is that you may be able to get away with relatively little. For each of the three non-fiction works for which I’ve submitted proposals, I basically offered a 3-4 page bullet-point style summary of content.
Now, I should probably admit right away that (a) I’m lazy, (b) my writing track record enables me to be a bit lazy, with the implication – (c) – that you should probably offer more than 3 pages of bullet points. But still. If you’re writing, let’s say, Paleo Science: What’s fact, what’s myth, and what matters to you, a detailed skeleton outline should be fine. Don’t go crazy.
C. An Introduction
As well as sample chapters and a detailed outline, I strongly favour including the introduction that you intend to appear in the final finished book. That intro should act as a kind of manifesto for the book. It needs to proclaim, in effect, “Here’s why this topic is so important and so urgent that you have to fish $20 from your pocket right now this minute and buy this book.”
The manifesto is partly a communication of facts. (For example: “If sea levels continue to rise at their current rates, 47% of lower Manhattan will be underwater by 2029.”) But it’s also partly a process of seduction. You are seeking to entice the reader into seeing the world your way. That’s where strong writing comes into its own – and indeed, this will probably the most important chapter you’ll write, as it’ll be the most influential in that buy/don’t-buy decision.
Quite likely, you’ll find that actually writing that intro will bring your own project into greater focus, even for you. You’ll realise exactly what it is about your project that drives you so much. Communicate that passion to the reader, and you are onto a winner.
How To Write A Terrible Book Proposal
And also: how to write quite a good one!
This entire post was in fact prompted by a sample book proposal I saw recently. The writer was a proper expert in his field. He was passionate about his knowledge. He could write decently. He felt that his material was incredibly important, and that sense of passion communicated itself freely and authentically in his writing.
What’s more, his book had a clear and sizeable natural market. There was a real dearth of books offering the slant and angle that he could bring to bear.
All good, right? Green lights all the way.
Except . . .
He wrote things like this:
In 2015 I spent three months in the Himalayas investigating how young Tibetan monks and nuns were trained from the age of eight. The purpose of their curriculum is … [then got into some detail on how those monks and nuns were trained.]
And that’s good. (Because – wow! – this guy learned about the way Tibetan monks and nuns are trained. I want to know about that!)
But it’s also terrible.
Because the information is delivered in a way that drains all the exoticism, all the human interest, out of the anecdote. There wasn’t in fact even an anecdote. Just a piece of information offered without any human colour.
Worse still, the proposed book was all about bringing higher human values into education. This drily delivered, almost ignored anecdote could actually work as a touchstone for the entire book.
So if I had been writing that proposal, I’d have actually opened my introduction for readers with something like this:
It’s not quite dawn. A rose light is creeping up the flank of Mount Yabbedeedoodha across the valley. Down in the still twilit valley, I can see water buffalo and yak drowsily munching.
This is a time when all humans should still be in bed or, at best, brewing the first cup of coffee to get ready for the day ahead. Except that I’m not in bed and I’m not alone.
I’m here in a hall of forty shaven-headed novice monks and nuns. The youngest of them is only eight. The oldest is sixteen. I’ve come here as a specialist in education, but I don’t feel very specialist in this crowd.
I’m not here to teach anything. I’m here to learn.
Now, OK, deathless prose that is not. But you get the point.
It places the author and the reader in some very special place. Human. Specific. Exotic. Located in a precise place and time.
The reader’s response is rather as it would be at the start of a novel. Why are we here? What’s going to happen next? What are these child-monks about to teach this Westerner?
It’s those questions that compel attention. It’s that human anecdote which seduces the reader into the author’s project, and the author’s passion.
If you can get your actual writing to strike the right seductive tone, you will succeed. And if not? Well, you will probably fail, because in the end readers will read your book for pleasure and interest. You need to deliver those things, or die.
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