Putting Together a Book Proposal

Up until recently, I’d kind of forgotten about non-fiction. I didn’t really read it or keep track of its trends. I didn’t know who was writing books or what made for a good platform. Heck, sometimes I wasn’t even sure what qualified. (I mean, come on. Memoirs are kind of in that hazy limbo between fiction and non-fiction, right?) I’d randomly walk past the non-fiction table at Barnes & Noble and think to myself, “Oh… So-and-So wrote a book? That’s nice.”

Ever since I started working at NSB, I’ve definitely been reading more of it. And not just because it’s part of my job description. These days I find myself heading to a book store specifically to buy a non-fiction book. Sure, the majority of my purchases have been memoirs, art books, or fabulous coffee table finds, but I’ve definitely been branching out.

Working where I do, a lot of proposals pass through my hands. As a fiction writer, the querying process is pretty straightforward: you write a novel and when you begin querying, you send out the query letter, a synopsis, and maybe some sample pages. Not so with non-fiction. Proposals include a handful of things, such as sample pages, marketing info, author bio and their platform, as well as other useful tidbits that make their book legit. Also, when querying a non-fiction proposal, you’re selling your idea not on a completed work, but on an idea. In my opinion, it’s much more difficult.

Here are some things to keep in mind when putting your proposal together:

1. Have a strong platform. I could write a book about being an avant garde skateboarder (does such a thing even exist?), but that doesn’t mean I’m qualified. You need to show why you’re an expert in your field, and why your opinion matters. Do  you have a doctorate? Are you a celebrity? Where else has your name appeared? Those kinds of things lend you credibility (or, at the very least, selling power).

2. Know the market. If you’re writing about avant garde skateboarding (god, I really hope this exists, the more I think about it), know what other books have been published pertaining to your topic. Do some research, and explain what gap in the market you plan to fill.

3. Give them sample pages. And don’t skimp. If you’ve got room to put two or three chapters in, do it. The average proposal is 50ish pages, so fill that space with writing – the reason you’re querying in the first place. If your platform isn’t that strong, but your writing is, it may be enough to pique someone’s interest. Conversely, if your idea is good, agents and editors want proof that you can actually deliver a decent book.

But that’s not all you need to include. Below is a list of everything you want to consider when putting together your proposal:

– A kickass title that will give people an idea of what they’re getting into right off the bat.

– An overview of what the book is about. I’ve seen these be as short as a paragraph and as long as ten. Say what you have to say — that’s the best advice I can give.

– A section about you and your qualifications.

– A table of contents of your book’s chapters.

– A breakdown of what each chapter is about. A few sentences will suffice.

– Sample chapters.

– At some point you also need to include how long you expect the book to be, and how long it should take you to write it.

– A section about marketing, which details what’s out there that’s similar, and how your book will stand out.

– Any relevant supplemental material.

And if you include those things, your proposal should be in pretty good shape. Be as thorough as possible because, remember, you’re querying/submitting based on an idea, not a completed book. Lots of other people probably have an idea similar to yours, so you need to stand out. Having a great proposal will definitely give you a leg up. And sometimes, that’s all it takes.


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