How to Write a Book Proposal: A Guide for Nonfiction Writers

How to Write a Book Proposal: A Guide for Nonfiction Writers

As a literary agent at Trident Media Group, a plethora nonfiction book ideas come across my desk.

So many people think they have a book in them, with a great idea that will carry pen and page to publication, but it takes a little more than merely being audacious, to see a book through to publication.

What’s nice and unique about nonfiction, is that because it is idea-driven, it can be sold on proposal-basis to book publishers, as opposed to fiction (which needs to be sold on a fully-written and polished manuscript).

Want to write your own nonfiction book proposal? Use these guidelines as your template.

Title page

This is simple enough. Here you should put the title and/or subtitle (separated by colon or on a new line) and “A Proposal by” followed by your name.

Contents

As with a book’s table of contents (TOC) listing the chapters, a nonfiction book proposal will have a TOC page listing the individual sections and page numbers of the proposal.

Look at most any TOC inside a book to get a sense of what this page will look like.

Each of these forthcoming sections will have their own devoted page(s).

Proposed title(s)

Slightly different from the Title Page section of the book proposal, this is where alternative titles and subtitles can be proposed in a list format.

Author(s)

The author(s) name(s) of the book proposal will be listed here. Titles and suffixes can be excluded.

One-sentence description

Here is captured, in a one-sentence tagline/hook sort of fashion, what the book is about in its entirety.

This can be a stressful practice for authors as storytellers by nature, but it’s good to learn to speak about your book concisely.

Categories

The categories and subcategories the book will fall into are listed here.

For example, motivational self-help, personal transformation/growth, philosophy, positive psychology, etc.

Quotes

This is a section for inspirational/framing quotes that one would see in the opening pages of a book.

In a business book, a writer might want to quote Warren Buffet, or in a technology book, Steve Jobs. A poem or very short passage from a book could even go there.

Limiting this section to a few quotes is ideal.

Audience

Concisely in a paragraph or two, interested demographic(s) of the book are listed here.

Providing a testament of the public’s powerful desire and current trends behind that can also be listed on this section’s page.

Purpose and need

On a much deeper level, this section tells us why we as readers need to read this book, and why now? In a simple way, the reader has a problem or a yearning, and this book fulfills that need with its purpose.

It’s OK to take a page or so to explain.

Unique angles

How the book can carve its place out in a busy marketplace of similar books can be expounded here. Some of the takeaways that can only be experienced from this very book should be shared here, perhaps in bulleted format.

Reader benefits

What will the reader gain from reading this book? This section answers that question with a number of benefits to the reader.

Will the reader experience joy? Will they feel a part of something bigger than themselves? Tell us here in this section along a short list.

Potential endorsers

This is a section devoted to a list of people of note who could provide advance praise/blurbs for the forthcoming book.

They might even be people of note who would be willing to write an introduction or forward to the book. Not only names should be listed here, but titles and why these are important endorsements.

For example: Amy Poehler, founder of UCB, Parks and Recreation, SNL

Book structure overview

Here is where you list the format, eventual word count (preferably within normal or appropriate range), page count, deadline by which a finished manuscript could be turned into the publisher, following a signed contract.

About the author(s)

Can you guess what you do here? Write a little something about yourself!

It can be as simple as one paragraph or a couple of pages. Relevant writing experience, credentials, awards/accolades, previous publications, fun facts, links to author sites and social media pages (as well as the number of social media followers, if impressive), fun personal facts, and contact info can be listed here.

Sales history of previous books

For authors with previously published books, this is a list of titles, along with publisher name and publication date.

Below that should be the total sales numbers on the book, from publication-to-date.

If a book from this list was translated into other languages, had a film/TV adaptation, or was turned into an audiobook, that can be mentioned here, too.

Chapter outlines

This is a very sparse outline, breaking down each chapter, by name and number, into a one or two-sentence description, followed by bulleted chapter contents and/or very short description.

Bonus content

This can be fun bonus adds to the book, such as activities or interactive/online content having to do with the book.

Marketing plan

The sky’s the limit!

This section lists what the author and publisher might do in considering the marketing and publicity behind the book’s publication.

Sample chapters

Three-five fully-written and polished sample chapters from the forthcoming manuscript will need to be included with the book proposal.

On the higher end, nonfiction book proposals can top out around 50-75 pages, not including sample chapters.

It’s also worth noting that in nonfiction, it is not enough to have a good idea to write about, for it to be well-written and for the author to be an authority on the subject matter — author platform is what is key to nonfiction.  

Nonfiction tends to be more idea-driven and therefore is actually highly reliant on author platform (number of social media followers, etc.), as opposed to fiction.

Have you ever written a book proposal? Do you have questions about the process? Leave them in the comments below.

Karan Bajaj

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23 comments

  • Colin Guest says:

    Many thanks for giving all this critical information, it is much appreciated.

    On another note, I am having an audio version made of my memoir Follow in the Tigerman’s Footsteps and inquiring as to if you could advise on any companies I could approach re publishing this, apart from Amazon ACX.

    Best regards & many thanks

    • Thanks very much and I am glad you enjoyed the article.

      I do think you are better off with ACX when getting an audiobook made from a self-published work. I am assuming that’s the case here? Most audio book publishers are not open to self-published works as they prefer to receive submissions from publishers and agents where audio rights were retained. If you happened to turn your self-published title into a big bestseller, then they might be more open to it.

  • Conni says:

    I don’t mean to be unkind, but I found this article to be poorly written, mostly in the passive voice, and in need of a good copy edit and proofread. This surprised me since this is coming from a writing site. I am a professional copy editor and copy writer and would be happy to submit my version of your article (the content of which is very helpful nonetheless) copy-edited and proofed so you can compare your copy to my punchy rendition.

    • You’ll have to excuse me for saying so but I find your comment to be very rude. The polite thing would happen to contact the site’s administrator, rather than making a public comment. It sounds to me like you’re merely trying to invent work for yourself. Hopefully you don’t go around to the other blogs doing this very same thing. And hopefully you find something better to do, like doing your own job, elsewhere.

      • Wow! I have to agree with you Mr Gottlieb. If Conni continues to make posts like that no one will hire her but instead ban her from further postings. Her post is akin to the kid who pushes another kid off a swing on the playground and says, “Hey I don’t like the way you swing, let me show you how it’s done!”

  • JOHN T SHEA says:

    “Will the reader experience joy? Will they feel a part of something bigger than themselves?”

    A good and challenging question to ask of any book, fiction or non-fiction, from both the writer’s and reader’s viewpoint.

  • Nick Triolo says:

    This is great stuff, Mark. Super helpful in the stage I’m in right now. To the contrary, I think your writing was right to the point, direct, and informative. Looking forward to more.

  • Marty Fetterly says:

    Mark, very motivating, completely helpful. It’s been a tedious four years to a first draft, always learning the business bit-by-bit as a new writer. These articles are so thoughtful in design to pave the way for others.
    Thank you

  • Dr. Ahmed H. Fadlalla says:

    Thanks so much, Mark for the very informative, brief and concise article. I find it very useful as I am preparing a submission fora book proposal. Greatly appreciated.

  • Pam Nelson says:

    I am almost done with a book proposal I am working on but wanted to conduct research to see if the format I am using is the best. I ran across your article and found it to be most helpful and will be incorporating some changes into my proposal as a result of reading your article.

  • Liz Hamper says:

    Writing a book proposal, for me, at least, is like writing a very difficult thesis – your article was so helpful, Mark. Thank you so much for making the process much clearer, I really appreciate it.

  • Great concise advice. I’ve started reading Larsen’s book on writing a nonfiction proposal, but I find your approach more helpful.

    My proposal is for a memoir. Does any of your advice change for a memoir?

  • Elizabeth says:

    Thanks so much for the great information! This is exactly what I have been looking for. I just finished my first book and would like to get it published. If I want to submit my proposal to an agent, do I just cut and paste my entire proposal into the email text? Or can I attach it as a file? I read somewhere that agents don’t like to open attachments, but I feel like this would be too much to put directly into an email.
    Thanks!

  • Luthando says:

    Thanks so much for this information,. During the past two weeks I have been studying it trying to put together my own book proposal which I finished today. I would like to know what is the best way to get your book proposal into the hands of a publisher?

  • Mel says:

    Thank you for this!

  • lesley kinney says:

    Fabulous informative information. I feel I have a template now to work from, a credible starting point. Thank you so much.

  • Nicole Levac says:

    Thank you, this is what I had been looking for.

  • Irene Lewis says:

    was just asked for a book proposal. i’ve never written or seen one. this was invaluable, mark.

  • Thanks for the process.

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