At some point in your writing journey, no doubt you’ve thought about submitting your manuscript to an agent or publisher.
Even if you’re on the self-publishing track, there may come a time when you want to pitch your manuscript or book idea with the hope of landing a traditional publishing contract.
And you’ve probably heard that agents and publishers will want a book proposal.
But does every book require a proposal? If so, what’s included?
If you write nonfiction, you’re expected to provide a book proposal, and there are specific elements agents and publishers want to see.
If you write fiction, you may be surprised to learn that a fiction proposal might be your ticket around the gatekeepers.
I put together a brief but targeted book proposal for my fantasy series and landed a three-book deal with a publisher—without the acquiring editor ever reading a single manuscript.
While that’s highly unusual, it speaks to the persuasion a great book proposal can wield.
First, know that you don’t necessarily have to have written your entire manuscript before submitting a nonfiction book proposal.
In fact, many book ideas are pitched via a proposal with just a few sample chapters, and that’s all you need to include in your proposal in terms of your actual manuscript.
However, if you’ve never written a complete book, it makes a lot of sense for you to get as far into the writing as possible—not only to convince people you can write (and complete a manuscript), but also convince yourself.
First, let’s take a look at what a book proposal is, and what it needs to accomplish.
The Purpose of a Book Proposal
Book proposals are exactly what the term implies: You are proposing a book idea for publication and making the argument that there is a market for your book and you are the right person to write it.
If your book is meant to instruct or in some way benefit your reader, your proposal needs to convince a publisher that you have the background, expertise, experience, and/or platform that gives you the “authority” to speak on the topic—and do so succinctly and in an engaging manner.
If your nonfiction book is a memoir or other creative storytelling, the uniqueness of the story and your impressive storytelling skills need to be showcased in your proposal.
Memoirs are difficult to sell—it seems everyone and their cousin thinks their particular life story will appeal to countless readers.
But a look at the market and competition shows that for a publisher to be interested, you have to present a riveting story that provides a unique angle or hook no other memoir delivers.
And, as with all nonfiction, you need to be able to show you’ve got an author platform.
Proposals require some effort to compile. You’ll need to do serious research into the market for your kind of book. That means finding comparable titles and authors, and being able to provide an explanation for how your book is similar, but unique.
The length of book proposals vary, but it’s not uncommon to run over fifty pages. You’ll need to include an annotated table of contents, as well as those three sample chapters. (More on that below)
Your book proposal needs to showcase your writing and communication competency. If it’s disorganized and your talking points are unclear, it will reflect poorly on the manuscript you are trying to pitch.
While some publishers allow authors to pitch their proposal directly (and, often, attending writers’ conferences will give you the opportunity to do so.), many require literary agent representation.
So, after doing the research, you may find you need to tailor your book proposal to pitch specifically to agents in the hopes of interesting them in you and your project.
What’s in Your Nonfiction Book Proposal
Clearly, nailing your genre is crucial, because your book needs to fit in a specific slot for a specific type of reader.
Do you know the basic demographics of your target reader? You’ll need to discover that and include the information in your proposal.
Your book proposal should feature a simple cover page that says, “A proposal for [title/subtitle] by [author name]”. At the bottom of the page, include your contact information.
Next is the table of contents for your proposal. (Not your book)
Here are the three basic sections for your nonfiction book proposal:
The introduction contains the bulk of your marketing information. It should include these headings, all on separate pages:
After displaying your book’s title and subtitle, begin with a clever hook or elevator pitch. You might share a brief story that showcases the theme and purpose of your book (no more than a few paragraphs) or some provocative statistics or questions.
This is followed by your fifty-word pitch, including your word count and any relevant back matter. Next, clearly and simply state the benefits and features of your book and your timeline for completing the manuscript.
You’ll want to note what the general and specific markets are for your book, including any segments.
For instance, your book might be in the self-help field, but, more specifically, it fits into the natural health market and segments for natural foods, healthy diets, and organic gardening and cooking.
Don’t say you’re writing for everyone or a general audience of “people who like to cook.” Narrow your focus. Publishers want specifics.
If you plan to write additional, related books (or you already have some published), you’d note these here.
This is an extensive section that should include (bullet lists) what the author has and will do to promote her book, pre- and post-publication.
Keep in mind that listing things like “the author will sell a hundred books a week” or “the author will appear on top TV shows” are promises you may not be able to keep. (Or prove you can accomplish)
Also, stating that you plan to do a book launch and tour may not impress, since things like that would be expected of any hardworking published author.
The idea here is to be specific to the genre and benefits of your book—what are some innovative and potentially successful ways you can promote your unique book, and do you have any “ins” that will make a difference?
List up to five best sellers (preferably published within the last five years) and explain how they are most similar to yours (direct competition).
Start with the:
- Year copyrighted
- Number of pages
- List price
- Whether the book is hardcover or paperback
- Share one positive and one negative aspect of the book
Do not harshly criticize these books or their authors. That’s a bad look for you.
List up to five best sellers and include the same information you did in the Competing Books section. Introduce the list with a sentence stating that readers who buy the following books might also buy your book. Put a paragraph or two after the list detailing how these books, in general, compare to yours.
About the Author:
This section should give a full biography, but include only what is pertinent to your book. (Not how many goldfish you own or that you like to take long walks)
Head the page with the title “About the Author” and write your bio in third person, with your professional photo centered at the top under the title.
Your mission statement should follow your Bio on a separate page, and include a robust paragraph explaining why you have written (or will write) the book and why it’s important to you.
Following the mission is your author’s platform, which should include:
- Past and scheduled presentations
- Appearances (in person, podcasts or other online interviews, TV, etc.)
- Any articles written about or by you that directly relate to your book’s topic.
Include a list of any awards you’ve won. (Again, only what’s related to your book—no one cares that you won first place in 1990 in your bowling league competition).
If your social media presence, or number of website visitors, is significant, share those numbers, as well as any organization affiliations.
Before you provide the annotated chapter summaries, be sure to add your simple Table of Contents for your book here. Then you’ll start the chapter summaries on the next page.
Summaries are written in future tense. (“This chapter will explain briefly what I did to survive the coldest winter on record …”)
As a guide, the number of lines in your summary should correspond to the number of pages this chapter covers in your book. For instance, a ten-page (double-spaced) chapter should be summarized in ten sentences.
This is where your creativity and expertise comes into play. Your chapter summaries need to spark interest and shine a light on your key talking points and supportive arguments.
With nonfiction, your sample chapters don’t have to be your first chapters. Choose the ones that are the most riveting or thought-provoking.
They might be chapters that present your unique perspective or approach to your topic, and highlight benefits to the reader. Aim for around thirty pages, though you can run longer.
This may seem like a lot of work, but it’s essential work. It will also help you narrow your objectives, purpose, and audience for your book, which will help you in all your marketing efforts, prior to and following publishing.
The Fiction Book Proposal
When agents or publishers request a fiction proposal for a novel (or collection of poems or short stories), they mean a query letter, a one-page synopsis of the story, and a sample chapter or specific number of pages from your manuscript.
(Always the first pages)
This is the default, unless the requester’s website states otherwise.
However, I mentioned earlier about my success with my own fiction version of a nonfiction book proposal. I got the idea from a successful novelist friend, who recommended pitching fiction in a way similar to nonfiction.
And, why not?
Agents and publishers of fiction want to know things like target market, comparable and competing titles, author platform and background, and any planned marketing and promotion efforts.
It is not necessary to include the book’s table of contents (not common in fiction unless a collection of stories or poems) or a chapter outline in a fiction proposal.
But, you can follow the basic proposal structure for your novel and novel series.
(Rather than have a spin-offs page, have one detailing your series idea and books planned)
In one of my fiction proposals, I included brief character sketches. I put my query letter inside the proposal, and I also included a sample reader discussion at the end.
You can be creative with your fiction proposal, but be sure you include the query letter, synopsis, and those first three chapters. Those items are a must.
One caveat: in your query to agents and publishers, it’s a good idea to mention you have a more detailed fiction proposal—one that looks at the marketing and promotion aspects of your book—and ask if they would like to see it.
They may decline. It’s best to only send the extended proposal upon request.
Showing you’ve done your homework by analyzing the markets and competition for your book—fiction or nonfiction—demonstrates your seriousness about your career as an author, as well as your professionalism.
A book proposal may sound like a lot of work, and it is.
But, you put a great deal of time and effort into your book idea—and the writing—so far. This is your opportunity to make the argument for why readers will be drawn to your story.
Make it shine!