Suggestions for Writing a Non-Fiction Proposal
Today’s editors are busy, often receiving ten or more proposals every day. They may take only a few minutes or even just seconds to decide whether or not to keep reading. Your job is to capture their attention. Think of the “elevator speech” or the headline. What is the most important and unique aspect of your proposed book?
Editors are looking for clear, engaging writing that tells a story and keeps their attention. We encourage you to write your proposal with the same care you will devote to the manuscript. Share it with others to see if it is convincing and understandable.
The editors whose interest is piqued then must “sell” the idea to their own sales and marketing teams.
The better the proposal, the easier this sell.
The best proposals draw readers in with a question, such as why did something occur-or not occur? How was a discovery made? Why did something go wrong? Why does it matter? What’s the question driving your book? And, who cares?
A proposal (usually 10-40 pages) might begin with a dramatic scene or event to give the reader a sense of your ability to write for a general audience and to set the stage for the book. Then the proposal should step back and present the subject and thesis of the book.
Here are some questions the editor will be asking while reading:
What’s the concept of the book? What is the intellectual question driving your book? What’s your thesis? Why is the subject important?
Who is the core audience? Are they book-buyers?
What’s novel about your approach? Does it overturn received wisdom, and if so, how?
Will your approach resonate with readers? Why will they care?
Why are you writing this book and why are you the best person for the job? Are you a reliable narrator, someone with the ability to convey information clearly, to ask engaging questions, to lead the reader down interesting paths.
Be specific. You need to fill the editor in on the importance of your topic. Demonstrate that you have a command of your material.
Table of Contents
After you’ve drafted an overall description of the book, write a brief chapter-by-chapter description to show how the book will be organized (a short paragraph or so per chapter on what the chapter will cover, what questions it will raise and answer).
What’s your plan for writing the book? Do you have new source material or access to sources?
What’s the estimated length of the manuscript and your projected delivery date?
Ideally, a proposal should include a sample chapter to give a sense of your style, your voice. Good book ideas are a dime a dozen, but good writing-the ability to tell a story, build an argument, keep the reader’s interest, maintain narrative tension and suspense- is rare. If you have not published a book, a strong writing sample provides essential evidence to the editors that you have the ability to attract and engage readers.
Today’s trade editors ask: Why will 25,000+ strangers go out and spend $25 for this book?
What are your credentials for writing this book? Please provide a c.v. and information on previous books (including key reviews and sales history). Why did you decide to write this book? Do you have any special connection to the subject?
Is there an upcoming anniversary or event to which publication of the book could be tied?
What type of “platform” do you have for speaking about the issues in your book? Do you regularly give lectures on its subject? What is your access to the media or to major experts in your field? Can you provide prepublication endorsements from well-known figures?
Have you appeared on any national radio or television shows or been profiled in any newspapers or magazines? If you have key press clips or videos, please send them.
Who is the audience for this book? Why will they buy your book? Please be as specific as possible, e.g. sources of mailing lists, conventions, etc.
Provide information on comparable books (these could be books on different subjects that take a similar approach) and competitive titles (books on the same subject). How does yours compare?
Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction – and Get It Published,
by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato. Available in paperback from W. W. Norton
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. Anchor paperback.
Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark. Little Brown.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Longman.
Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale. Broadway Books.
Any well-written, well-reviewed nonfiction book. Read successful titles and try to understand their architecture, the decisions the author made, the narrative tone, the way the story and characters are developed. Successful writers read widely!