book descriptions journey

How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal (with Examples)

Includes sample book proposals, and a proposal template for you to follow

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?

That’s crazy.

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.

Easy, right?

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What a publisher wants from your book proposal

Publishers typically want to know the following:

  • What do you want to write about?
  • Why do you think anyone would be interested?
  • Who are you? Specifically, what authority do you have in this area?
  • Who are you? But specifically, what platform do you have to generate publicity or visibility for your book?
  • 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.

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:

  • 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?
  • Can you write decently? What is the actual experience of reading your book going to be like?
  • What is your book actually about? What will you cover?

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.

A proposal template

A book proposal template

A good standard 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)
  • 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
  • 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].”
  • Explain why you think people 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.”
  • Explain (in brief) who you are.
    Example: “I am the Professor of Physics at XYZ University . . .”
  • 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.)

  1. A professional bio
  • 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 . . .”
  • 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.

OK. That’s kind of a diversion, so let’s go on with the elements of your proposal. You are also going to provide:

  1. A market overview
  • Provide a swift definition of your market as you see it.
    Example: “This is a book of popular physics, part of the broader popular science market.”
  • 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.)
    Example: “Recent titles in my area include . . .”
  • 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.”
  • 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.

But it’s not always that way round. With my two books on writing and publishing – well, heck, there are gazillions of those things out there.

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 literarlly 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.

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That course is quite expensive to buy . . . so don’t buy it. The course is available completely free to members of Jericho Writers. Not just that course. You get our Agent Match tool for finding literary agents. You get our awesome How To Write course. And every month, our members get the chance to pitch their work live online to a panel of literary agents.

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sample book proposal

How to generate your own Sample Book Proposal

For any subject you like, in any genre you like

So, we’ve dealt with the preamble-type material.

We’ve written a short covering letter for your agent or publisher. We’ve given them a professional bio of some kind. We’ve given them an overview of the market and a good understanding of why a book like the one we want to write is needed and interesting.

But . . .

All that material is fine and dandy in its way, but it doesn’t actually answer one rather important question. Namely:

Can you actually write?

Or, to put the same question a little more specifically:

Can you actually write in a way that ordinary readers will find interesting and compelling?

It is here where the vast majority of otherwise perfectly acceptable book proposals come unstuck.

The problem is that people who are expert in their areas, and passionate about their expertise, feel that they can simply talk about all the wonderful things they know and other people will just share the joy.

And no. It doesn’t work like that.

I’ll talk about the single commonest make we see in book proposals. (And we see it so frequently, that it’s actually quite rare we don’t have to do some work in this area.) But first we should just finish building our list of the documents needed to round out your proposal.

They are:

  1. The introduction for your book, as it would actually appear in your final book. In other words, this is where you are explaining your book to your eventual reader – writing a manifesto for it, in effect.
  1. The first three chapters of your book. Or, in fact, if your book can happily be read out of sequence, then any three chapters you care to offer. When I put together my proposal for This Little Britain, I just write five or six random chapters and picked the three or four I liked the best. They weren’t in sequence, and nobody cared.
  1. An outline of everything else. You can go detailed with the outline, or you can be quite light of touch.
    Because I’m lazy, I tend to go for a fairly slimline outline. With This Little Britain, I hadn’t in fact done much of the research that the whole book would need, so my outline was really quite sketchy. When I was having a celebration lunch with the team from HarperCollins that went on to buy the book, I brought up the subject of my very sketchy outline. “Do you actually want to know what the book is about?” I asked “Because my outline didn’t really tell you very much.” Publishers are very polite, as a rule, so they said, yes, please, they would very much like to know a little more about the book they had just bought for almost £100,000. So (being polite myself) I told them.

Now one implicaton of all this is simple.

If you want to see a sample book proposal for a book in your exact subject area, you can just wander down to your local good-sized bookstore and buy a couple of recent titles in your genre.

Here’s what you need to do next:

  • Take one of the books (just make sure you have completed your purchase before you proceed to the next step.)
  • Tear off the front cover.
  • Tear off any publisher’s yidda-yadda and any dedication page or the like.
  • Then flip forward to the end of chapter three, and rip off the entire back part of the book.

The stuff that remains in your hands – the table of contents, the introduction, the first three chapters – that right there IS the book proposal.

Yes, the covering material we talked about earlier in this post, that matters too. But it’s not the heart of it. The heart of any book proposal is the stuff you have in your hands right now.

If you get that material right – if it’s entertaining, compelling, urgent, repeatable – then you will sell your book.

So we’re good, right? You now know everything you need to put your book proposal together?

Well, no, not quite.

Because we haven’t yet addressed the hideous error that defaces almost every book proposal that ever comes our way.

Hold your hats on, my non-fictioneer buddies. We’re about to reveal all.

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Real agents, real writers, real decisions

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.

Want more help with your book proposal?

If you want more help with your proposal, we’ve got plenty of help to supply:

Get feedback on your proposal

Get one of our professional editors to review your book proposal and give you detailed advice on what to fix and how to fix it. Our full range of editorial services is here. You probably want the agent submission pack service, but if that isn’t quite sufficient for your needs, just tell the office what you’re after and they’ll be able to sort you out.

Learn in detail how to get published

We have a fantastic video course on how to get published – it just tells you everything you could possibly want to know about how to find agents, how to choose agents, how to write query letters, and much more besides. The course is relatively expensive to purchase outright, so most users will want simply to take out a Jericho Writers membership (details here). Members of Jericho Writers get access to all our video courses for free. And all our filmed masterclasses. And our proprietary and world-leading agent database. And a whole heap more as well. So why wait? You know we’re good. Come join us.


About the author

Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).

As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)