Most non-fiction books are sold on the basis of a book proposal, often with one or more sample chapters rather than on a completed manuscript. While every agency and editor may have a slightly different opinion on the mechanics of writing a winning non-fiction proposal, most successful proposals have the following elements in common:
This is an introduction that summarizes the book’s contents and tells why the book should be published. In essence, this is your main selling statement. Concisely address all that is the most exciting, interesting, introspective and unique about your book. Make it clear that you are the best and most qualified person to write this wonderful and very necessary piece of non-fiction, as well as make a persuasive case for your intended market.
Understand and present how your book will fit in the marketplace. Select 4-6 of your major competing titles and compare them to your own. How is your book different and unique? The point here is not to denigrate other works (which may very well be beloved by your audience), but to highlight how your book successfully fills a gap in the market. Be honest but always keep in mind that each component of the proposal is to help you SELL your book, and showing how your project is at the head of the class is an excellent way to do so. It is not advisable to state that your book is “like no other” and decline to cite any comparative titles.
Who is your intended audience? Who will relate to your book and rush to buy it? In this section, illustrate how the market for this book not only exists, but is a large, robust, book-buying section of the general public. It is unrealistic to make a statement that everyone will buy your book, so be mindful of exactly who your subject will appeal to. If there are any special markets that you can tap through any of your own personal connections this would be the place to mention it. An editor needs to see how your market translates to bottom-line sales.
This is your space for telling the editor a little more about yourself, specifically about how your experiences relate to this book. For example, if you are writing a cookbook, you’ll want to tell the editor about your experience working under the tutelage of Jacques Pepin. Be sure to mention your publishing history, if applicable. Keep this section as concise and professional as possible.
If there are built-in publicity opportunities for your project, address them here. Any ideas for marketing or promotions you may have, especially if you have personal connections or direct access to likely prospects, should be mentioned. Make sure you let the editor know if you have any previous publicity experience.
- Chapter Outline
This is one of the most critical sections of your proposal. List each chapter, with chapter title and give a brief description of the material covered. The style in which you deliver the description should be informed by the type of non-fiction book you are selling. A how-to book chapter description would necessarily be quite different from a travel narrative chapter description.
- Projected length and date of delivery
Estimate the number of months you expect to take writing the book from signing to contract until completion. Give either a projected manuscript page length (use the standard of 250 words per page) or word count.
- Sample Chapters
Sample chapters may or may not be necessary if you have written a complete and compelling proposal. If you have a track record of previous publications, you may not need to include sample chapters. If, however, you do elect to write a sample, you should draft the chapter that “puts your best foot forward” so to speak. Write the section that is the most interesting, the most compelling and the one that you feel most passionate about.