How to Get Published, Part 3: How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal

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Welcome back to the How to Get Published Series.

In traditional publishing, fiction and non-fiction are sold in two very different ways. To get an agent or sell a piece of fiction, you need to have a completed manuscript.

So if you want to write fiction, go do it and we'll meet back here for the next part, which is getting an agent (and why you want to have one).

Nonfiction is different: To get an agent or sell a work of nonfiction, you usually write what is called a book proposal and sample chapters, which is what we're going to talk about today.

The reason is pretty simple -- agents (and then publishers) are going to want to tweak and focus nonfiction projects before they're written. It's much harder to guide a project when the author has finished the book (and is holding firm to the idea that her way is the best way to relay the material to the reader). But editors will want to guide the process, because they can see a bigger picture that you can't -- namely, how readers like to receive information based on numerous past projects and past reader reactions.

Remember back when I did the roll call in Part One? It's time for you to go back there and hook up with someone else who wants to write nonfiction on a topic very unlike your own (since she'll be seeing your ideas). Feel free to form online groups of more than two and set up an Google Group to house your exchanges. Or grab someone from your face-to-face world who will read this post and then give you feedback on how well you're hitting the goals.

A book proposal is a formal piece of writing with a format that allows agents (and later, publishers) to scan the document quickly and find what they are looking for. This is not a time to get creative with format and make your proposal into a three-dimensional shoebox diorama. Give the agents exactly what they want. Consider this as important as wearing the proper attire to a meeting.

You will be judged on the look of your proposal. If it's put together in a sloppy manner, if you're recycling an old copy that was sent back to you from an agent who rejected it (but covered it first with coffee stains), or if it doesn't contain the necessary information, it doesn't matter how brilliant your idea is -- no one will want to work with you. Agents are looking for an easy reason to reject your work. Don't give it to them.

All proposals contain these parts (and this is the order I give them):

  • Overview: 5 pages or so on what the book is about (definitely could be shorter, but not longer).

    Spend a lot of time writing this part, because it's the first thing the agent reads and you want to pull them in. Do you have a shocking statistic? Put it at the front of the overview to point out how important it is that people read your book. You can start it with an anecdote. The point is to give the agent a taste of your writing style while also telling them about the book. Think of it this way: If you only had three minutes to sit down with and convince an agent to represent your book, what would you say?

    Keep the writing formal -- in other words, third person. And make sure you say how many words you predict will be in the book to give a sense of size and how long you'll need to write the book from the time you sign the contract. Use this space to get the agent excited about the project.

  • Markets for the Book: In other words, who the hell would want to buy your book? Give statistics and get creative.

    For my nonfiction infertility book, I pointed out that the book would be helpful for those experiencing infertility, but it was also a book that doctors, nurses, adoption agency directors, therapists, and family members might want to read, too. Is there a specific place/conference where your book could be sold (a biography of Dolly Parton? Might be good to sell that at Dollywood)?

  • Competitive Books: What books currently on the market would be competition for your book?

    As you tell the agent about those books, also tell how your book is different and fills a gap that other book does not.

  • About the Author: Your biography -- but more. This is where you need to effusively explain why you are the best person to write this book.

    Tell about your platform (remember that word from the last installment?). List any awards, the URL for your blog, or your education background.

  • Promotion: What are you willing to do and what can you do to sell your book? If you have media ties, this is the place to list them. If you speak at conferences that are related to your topic, are a member of an organization related your topic, or write for other sites that are related to your topic (did you get that it has to be related to your topic?), put those connections here.

    This is a place to show the agent that you have considered the business side to writing and are going to be a cheerleader for your own project (because if you're not -- why should they be?).

  • List of Chapters and Chapter Outlines: On the first page, place all the chapters and their titles. Then, on the subsequent pages, write one page for each chapter, giving a summary of what you plan to write.
  • Sample Chapters: Write two or three chapters of the book. You don't need to write them in order. Most people turn in the introductory chapter and then one other chapter from the middle of the book.

    Make sure they're your most interesting chapters. And take your time with these -- they are very important. Consider them your audition.

A proposal may end up being between 50 and 100 pages when you factor in the sample chapters, so this isn't a small thing you can whip up in one day. Take your time.

And think about your proposal like pulling a piece of clay -- you have an idea in mind of where you want it to be at the end, but you need to be flexible and fluid to get it there. Remember back when you wrote a paper at college and you came up with the thesis and then needed to tweak it 100 times as you did your research? Well, your proposal sort of needs to have that flexibility, too. You may need to tweak it 100 times as you conduct more research or write those first chapters. You may even decide in the middle of writing the proposal that this book is not worth writing. And that's sort of the point -- by making yourself tease the idea out on paper, you can see whether or not it works before you begin writing the actual book.

I think the most important advice I can give is to look at your proposal as a sample of what is to come. If you have a humor book, your proposal better be pretty damn humorous. If you're aiming for a breezy, best-friend-like tone for the book, your proposal better have a breezy, best-friend-like tone. The proposal is an extension of the book -- it's not separate from the book.

And the book is sort of an extension of you, so the proposal is an extension of you, too. Use your strengths. Do you write really moving blog posts that get people crying? You may not be the best person to put together a humorous proposal -- but, on the other hand, you may rock at putting together a really moving proposal about a sensitive topic.

You're going to be judged by your proposal. It's not just about how well you can write, but whether the tone is engaging for the subject matter. Think of your proposal as a document that is getting 10 minutes of face time to show the person you are. You want them to like you or you want them to hire you. And you need to be yourself.

Okay, class, any questions on what was discussed here? Please leave them as comments, and I will answer them in the comments section below. Keep in mind that I have a lot of topics to cover, so your burning question about getting published may be answered in a future installment (see the lineup below). So keep your questions here about nonfiction book proposals.

Heads Up and Looking Back -- Topics that will be covered in future installments or that were covered in past installments:

1. Before You Even Get Started

2. Are You Ready to Be an Author?


4. Why You Need an Agent

5. How to Find and Sign with a Reputable Agent

6. Querying Agents

7. What Happens Next -- Waiting for a Book Sale

8. No Agent? Other Paths to Publication

9. What to Expect After You Sign a Book Deal

10. Be Your Own Publicist

11. A Mishmash of Leftover Questions and Answers

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.

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