Elements of a Nonfiction Book Proposal

A nonfiction book proposal is the key document that allows an agent or publisher to determine the viability of a project. Unlike fiction, where an author must have a completed manuscript ready before they approach a publisher or agent, a nonfiction author only needs to develop a proposal to submit to publishers and/or agents. 

The proposal should answer the following questions:

  1. Content: What is the book about?
  2. Market: Who would be interested in this idea?
  3. Competitive Titles: What other books already exist on this topic and how does this one differ?
  4. Platform: Who is the author, why is the author the best person to produce this book, and what are they doing to engage with potential readers?

Content: What is the Book About?

This section of the book proposal is usually 1-3 pages, unless you include a sample chapter which can range anywhere from 5-20 pages. Length is not as big of a concern as the quality of what’s included.

If you completed the steps in the section titled “Where to Start,” you should already have an outline for the information you want to cover in your book. Based on that information, you want to come up with a brief, one sentence pitch that captures the soul of your idea. For example: “Affordable and complete wellness.” This is the hook of your book—the key message we discussed earlier.

Next you want to create a short summary paragraph that goes into slightly more detail about how the book will achieve your hook. For example:

This book is a guide for achieving complete wellness in an affordable and holistic way. It explores the pitfalls of the modern health care system and identifies ways to integrate alternative medicine techniques into traditional medical practices. The book educates the reader on current practices and arms them with new resources and techniques to achieve total wellness.

If you have a startling statistic that stresses the importance of this message, by all means use it here. That information will help sell the importance of your topic to the prospective agent or publisher.

Once your opening summary is developed, you will follow it with your outline. Your outline identifies the chapters and the key topics they will address. Identify any compelling facts, strategies, case studies, or information you will use to support the ideas in each chapter. You may include a sample chapter if you choose. Some publishers and agents require one, but many don’t. It really depends on whether you will be the one actually writing the book (we will discuss ghost writing later), and on the agent or publisher’s requirements.

Market: Who Would Be Interested?

This section of the book proposal can be anywhere from 1/2 of a page to 2 pages. Here you identify the market for your book both in qualitative and quantitative terms. To determine who your audience is in qualitative terms, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who would be interested in your topic?
  • Where do they live?
  • What kind of work do they do?
  • What are their hobbies?
  • How do they get their information?

The key is to be as specific as possible. It’s not enough to say your book is geared toward “men” or “businessmen.” For example, this article is not geared to all professionals. Rather, it is for professionals who are considering publishing a book but who may not necessarily be writers. Instead of “businessmen,” one could say “middle managers of Fortune 500 companies” or “solopreneurs in the retail sector.” Not only does this help you identify marketing opportunities for your book, but understanding your market helps the publishing team cultivate your content so that it speaks to and meets the needs of your audience.

Quantitative information is a bit more time consuming to locate, but can be valuable in determining the strength and validity of your topic/idea. If there are a large number of potential readers, publishers will consider a project. Specialty or niche topics that appeal to a smaller group are more difficult to place with a publishing house and are even more difficult to distribute nationally. To help you, here are some resources for locating numbers on specific groups:

  1. Go to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics at www.bls.gov. There you can locate demographic information including numbers and geographical saturation.
  2. Contact organizations that cater to your market and ask for data on the number of members and their demographics.
  3. Identify the top magazines your audience reads. Go to their advertisers page. Often, there is an advertisers kit that includes demographics and audience size.

Competitive Titles: How Does This One Differ?

In your nonfiction book proposal, it is important to note the top 2-3 related titles and how your project is different from them. Not only does this help identify the potential sales numbers for your book, but it also helps the publisher identify exactly where you fit into the market. There are several ways you can locate this information:

  1. Go to the bookstore and talk to a bookseller responsible for the section your competitors are shelved in. Ask them which titles are “evergreens” and which titles have a good sales history. Though local trends can vary, it’s a good place to start.
  2. See which relevant titles are listed on the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists.
  3. Nielsen provides a service called Bookscan. It lists the sales for each book title, including each edition of every title. Publishers pay to have a subscription, but individuals can purchase sales history on individual titles for $85.

After you have identified the top 2-3 titles, compare them with your project. How are you different? It’s extremely important that your book be different in some way. Readers do not want a rehashing of existing information. They want something new and fresh. You can set yourself apart in a number of ways:

  1. Do you challenge any of the assumptions or strategies those authors make?
  2. Do you have a fresh approach or new information to add to the discussion?
  3. Do you have a more engaging voice?
  4. Do you have more credibility or experience?
  5. Are you more specialized, or more comprehensive?

Knowing the answers to the questions above will also help you to further hone your message and develop your marketing strategy.

With this overall plan, you will be well on your way to creating a strong nonfiction book proposal that can be used to make your book a reality.