How to Write a Non-Fiction Book Proposal (And Why You Should Write One Even if You Plan to Self-Publish)
A book proposal is required when pitching a manuscript to literary agents or editors in pursuit of landing a traditional book deal. Similar to a business plan for an entrepreneur, writing a book proposal forces the author to dig in and do some important research while also planning the details of the book.
Though you can certainly self-publish a book without a proposal, this is where many new authors make some big mistakes when releasing their first books. Writing a proposal helps you differentiate your work from the competition, identify a need in the market for your materials, develop marketing plans, and create a concise and compelling manuscript.
Elements of a Book Proposal
This is typically two pages that summarize the book, the market demand, and why you’re the best person to write the book. Even though it’s the first section in a book proposal, I usually write the overview last because it is a summary of the rest of the elements of the proposal.
This is a compelling summary of your book, typically in two or three pages. It should hook the reader and compel him want to read more. You can also view this as an extended version of the sales copy used on the book jacket. If you’re pursuing an agent or editor, this is where you can really get their attention. The exercise of writing the synopsis helps you position your book as a must-read, while developing key talking points about why your book is great. (And it is great, right? If not, then use this opportunity to go back to work and make it great!)
Here is the place to identify your specific target audience. Better yet, quantify that market. Look for statistics on how many potential readers are out there. For example, if you have written a business book for women, find stats on how many women business owners are in the U.S.
Identify five or more books that are potential competitors of your book and explain in detail how your book is different or better than each title. There are many benefits to this exercise. First, competing titles demonstrate that there is a need in the market for your subject matter. Second, this is where you can focus on differentiation for your book. You will want to understand the competition so that you can ensure that your book stands out. If you do nothing else, make sure you spend time analyzing the competition so that you can answer the question, “How is your book different from the rest?”
Every author needs a marketing plan, which should be in motion long before the book is in print. Agents and editors look for authors with a “platform,” which means that the author should come to the party with a built-in audience of people who are ready to buy the book. A platform can include speaking to thousands of people each year, running a high-traffic blog or website, maintaining a large mailing list (thousands of people) or having other networks that can generate impressive book sales.
Another important consideration is that agents don’t want to see what you will do, they want to see what are doing—the marketing efforts you’re making long before the book becomes reality. And remember, even if you’re self-publishing, there is an important lesson here. If you want your books to sell, you should begin building your audience early. Book marketing requires ongoing effort. Some tactics to consider for your marketing plan include blogging, social media engagement, professional speaking, writing articles, working with joint venture partners, building a mailing list, conducting media interviews, and spending time in communities where your target audience can be found.
Even if your manuscript is still in progress, a solid chapter outline demonstrates the flow of the book and the materials covered. Below each chapter heading, include a brief synopsis of the content within the chapter. A chapter outline should have a logical flow of information with compelling chapter titles.
About the Author
Here is where you should convince the reader that you are the right person to write this book. This should not be an extended biography about where you grew up and what schools you attended—unless theoe details are relevant to the book. Instead, it should focus on your experience as it relates to your book. Mention any previous media coverage you have received or involvement in any groups or associations that reach your target audience.
When reviewing non-fiction books, most agents and editors want to see two or three sample chapters. These don’t need to be in order, but they should represent your best work.
The truth is that writing a book proposal is hard work, but the exercise of doing so will inevitably help prepare you for success—whether you plan to pursue a traditional book contract of self-publish your work. For additional information, an excellent book to read is “How to Write a Book Proposal” by Michael Larsen.