How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal

Derailed from the Ella’s Story project!. I’m afraid this week’s episode  ain’t a-goin’ online tomorrow (Monday), as scheduled. That would be because I’ve spent the last ten days or so working on a new book proposal — one to be sent out to real publishing houses, one after another, until someone folds and buys the thing. 😀

First part of next week, I’m sending this thing to a prominent Canadian university press, mostly because the subject matter (which shall remain unnamed until I have a contract) has had more press and regulatory attention in Canada than in the U.S.

Writing a nonfiction proposal is a project. And since you don’t do this every day for a living, it’s usually a gestalt project: interrupted every time you turn around by more immediate concerns. Kids, jobs, spouses, barking dogs, blog posts… Hereabouts, paying work has been coming in over the transom — the Chinese mathematicians do not spend any time sitting on their hands! — so of course their projects take precedence over a speculative endeavor. Even though I expect this speculative endeavor to turn a few shekels. Eventually.

But now is more immediate, by far, than eventually.

So here’s a plan: Not having a chapter of idle fiction to post, why don’t we talk about how to write a nonfiction book proposal…

Probably we should start with why one would do such a thing.

Here’s my line of reasoning for this book:

Amazon is all well and good for a bookoid that you don’t think is very important (the Fire-Rider series, for example, or yet another diet/cookbook, or a strange fictional ramble that doesn’t fit into any standard genre but surely isn’t literary fiction either…). But if you have something you think people will buy, or a subject you think is important enough to bring to a wide audience (not just your friends, relatives, and those folks on Fiverr you paid to write reviews), you’re best off to bring it out through a real publishing house: a commercial publisher or a university press.

Advantages:

  1. Publishing houses have marketing departments. No, they’re usually not the high-octane variety, but they at least give you a leg up.
  2. Publishing houses have copyeditors. You don’t have to pay those copyeditors to clean up your manuscript and make it fit Chicago style.
  3. Publishing houses have book designers and page layout artists.
  4. Publishing houses have acquisitions editors and editorial committees and marketing committees. Yes: the dreaded gate-keepers. When you can get past those gate-keepers, you signal to interested parties that you have a half-way decent product. Maybe even a salable product.
  5. Publishing houses have advertising budgets. They also have catalogues and websites that feature your book — free of charge to you.
  6. Book reviewers at major publications — the New York Times, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times,  the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and that ilk — will not give your self-published tome a second look. Nay, not even a first look. To get real book reviews in real markets that reach real readers who are likely to buy your book, you need to be published through a publishing house with a real gate-keeper. And that doesn’t include CreateSpace.
  7. Libraries and bookstores will pick up your book from a real publisher without you having to jump through hoops to make that happen.
  8. Real publishers will pay you an advance against royalties. You don’t have to return that advance if your book doesn’t sell enough to earn that much for the publisher (they may not love you, in that case…but at least you get paid something for the work you put in to writing the book).
  9. Real publishers don’t jack you around, trying to get you to give your book away for free in their profit-making “lending” program.

Okay, so once you’ve decided you want to get serious about publishing and moving your writing career a notch above the outsider level, you need to write a winning proposal.

The proposal is your sales pitch. It’s the tool you use to persuade the staff of a publishing house that you have a book idea that fits the company’s mission and that they can market successfully.

So, a proposal is a pretty standard document — though you have to write with some flair and have a winning idea to make it fly. Here’s what’s in a proposal:

  1. Cover letter to the acquisitions editor. (Find this person’s name at the publisher’s website or from a current edition of Literary Marketplace.) Give your book’s working title and explain what the book is about and why you think their house is the appropriate publisher for it.
  2. An overview of the book
  3. A discussion of why you’re writing it.
  4. Explanation of how your book compares to others in the field. (It’s OK if there are other books on the subject: sometimes the existence of similar books even helps to sell yours by showing there’s a market for it.
  5. Description of the intended audience. Who do you think will buy this book, and why. If there’s a special market segment — such as textbooks, for example — say so and explain why the book fits into that segment.
  6. Statement of the anticipated length of the final manuscript.
  7. Description of the number and nature of any graphics (tables, illustrations, figures)
  8. Explanation of your qualifications for undertaking the project.
  9. A table of contents: a list of chapter titles.
  10. A chapter outline: bulleted outline or narrative description for each chapter.
  11. Your book’s introduction and one to three completed chapters.

None of these things is very hard. But they can be time-consuming. You shouldn’t let yourself get in a big hurry to do them: leave time to let it sit, come back to it, and revise.

Like I say: It’s a project.

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