Why a Book Proposal Is a Must for Nonfiction Authors

If you’re writing a nonfiction book, you’ve probably already heard this advice—write a proposal before you write your book. The foremost reason to start with a proposal is that, if you’re pitching to an agent or publisher, a proposal delivers the most pertinent information about your project in the shortest amount of reading time. In a few pages you can lay out your goals for the book, your credentials, and how you fit into the current market. This allows agents and publishers to determine if and where you’d fit into their current list more quickly than if they have to dig for the information themselves.

Another advantage of a proposal is for you as the author. If you dive into writing with no proposal or planning, you may not ask yourself all the right questions to set your book on a solid path. Some authors invest valuable time in writing, only to find out that their content reads exactly like that of a competitor’s. Others have trouble choosing just one topic to focus on and end up with a jumbled manuscript. A proposal, when done correctly, can alleviate these risks by clarifying, for you and your agent/publisher, who you are, what your book’s purpose is, and how you plan to differentiate it in the market. As you start your proposal, keep these words in mind: what, who, how, and why.

The What

What is your book about? In a proposal, you’ll answer this question both on a macro and a micro scale. Generally, a proposal will open with a one-sentence hook introducing the book, then a one-to-three-paragraph summary. While you’ll have a chance at the end of the proposal to present a chapter outline with descriptions of each chapter topic, the one-sentence hook you develop should guide your decisions for the rest of the manuscript. Every time you complete a section or a chapter, ask yourself if it contributed to that singular goal or if it went off course. Your instincts will be helpful here as well; if you feel like you’ve gone off subject, you probably have.

The Who

Who is the book for? Freebie answer: it’s not for everyone. Your target market, or audience, should be described in enough detail to take up half a page to two pages and should include detailed description, as well as data when possible. A book designed for “executives” will have too broad an audience, but a book for “executives of legacy brand computer companies facing challenges from tech startups” has a more specific audience. Whenever possible, include relevant statistics that help define the audience. (Ex: “A recent New York Times article cited an X% decrease in new applicants for legacy computer brands.”) If your book has a strong secondary audience, include that as well and make sure to provide the same level of detail.

The How

How is this book different from others in the genre? Choose two or three popular titles that are similar to yours and explain what questions your book answers, or problems it solves, that the others do not. Setting your book up against other titles will help an agent or publisher understand where to place you in the market, and it helps you gain a deeper understanding of who you are and who you aren’t, which leads directly into Why.

The Why

Why are you the best person to write this book? The answer to this question will be in your author biography and your description of your platform. In addition to your credentials, awards, and career experience, include details about how you reach your audience. Reference your website, your social media presence, the number of people on your newsletter mailing list, and how often you speak at conferences or other events. Your platform matters because it indicates how effectively you’ll convey your information to the intended audience.

Writing a proposal before you begin the heavy work on your book will produce multiple benefits for you and your potential agent or publisher. As you’re creating your proposal, keep these big-picture questions in mind and make sure that you’re answering them for yourself as well as your reader. To see a more detailed list of the elements of a book proposal, check out our other article on the subject. Most importantly, keep at it. Happy writing!

For more resources on writing great nonfiction book proposals, check out in-depth articles from Jane Friedman, Reedsy, and The Write Life.