Anatomy of a non-fiction book proposal

Last week’s post on the structure of a book proposal for a fiction series resulted in a few requests for the structure of a non-fiction book proposal. There are some similarities. The biggest differences are that you need to include a table of contents and your sample pages should *not* be your first chapter.

Here’s the breakdown (skeleton):

  • Overview – Your first challenge is to describe your book in 2-3 paragraphs (500 words or less). Include the title and subtitle; target audience; anticipated length of the manuscript; when you’ll have the manuscript complete; and what makes your book unique and worthwhile. –I’ve seen a suggestion to consider this the copy that appears on the back cover of the book, in a publisher’s catalog, or even as the brief review you’d see in Publishers Weekly or the NY Times Book Review. Think big, but be concise.
  • Target Audience – identify your core readers – those most likely to buy your book. Research the market and try to find some hard numbers to use to identify the market size. Also include tangential readers – those non-fiction readers who may be drawn to the subject matter of your book. (i.e. a lot of your book relates to horseback riding, so a potential market is a horse enthusiast)
  • About the Author – Talk about your credentials and experience. You want the agent/publisher to completely ‘get’ what makes you uniquely qualified to write and promote this book. You can also include social media and other platforms you are already established on in this section, or include it in the Marketing and Promotion section below.
  • Competitive Titles – This is a list summarizing those books and authors you see as major competitive/similar titles. Also include an explanation about why your book is different from each title you list. This section serves two purposes: you’re proving there’s an established audience who will find your book interesting and clearly showing how yours is different enough to compete with them.
  • Marketing and Promotion – Whether you have created/started your author platform already or not, this section needs a lot of content. In this section, explain your comprehensive plan for actively promoting your book and how publicity needs to be focused. List magazines and other media outlets that your target audience pays attention to and identify the outlets you (and your publisher) will focus on to get your book reviewed. Name people who will write blurbs for you (you’ll need them before your manuscript is completed). What are the topics and target outlets, based on the subject matter or your expertise, that will allow you to obtain speaking engagements? List types of groups and organizations that will be interested in having you speak. Identify portions of your book that can be excerpted in magazines and relevant journals; include up to 10 publications you feel will publish the excerpts. And don’t stop there! Include other promotional ideas you can pursue: speakers bureaus, hiring a publicist, getting on relevant mailing lists, leading/speaking at workshops, your book tour ideas, and whatever else you can think of.
  • Detailed Table of Contents – Don’t skimp in this section. Be very specific about summarizing every chapter. This section can range from 3 to 20 pages or more. The agent/publisher is looking for the details of what is inside your book. (I highlighted ‘detailed’ to emphasize that you don’t want to skimp here.)
  • Sample Chapters – Non-fiction agents and publishers generally don’t want your first chapters submitted as samples. They want a couple of chapters from inside the book that will give them a good snapshot of your writing style, the content, and the structure of the book.

Also, if your manuscript lends itself to images or artwork, you’ll want to include details about them – ie. whether you will supply all relevant images/art, whether you’ll need to obtain permission/licensing, whether it’ll be in color or b&w, and so on.

I hope this helps you as you start working on a non-fiction book proposal. If you discover anything else that should be included, please let us know!

Lisa J. Jackson Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys New England’s crisp fall mornings and warm sunny days. She loves writing about NH people, places, and activities. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has an award-winning blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom where she gets to network with writing professionals on a weekly basis. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn, and Biznik.

14 thoughts on “Anatomy of a non-fiction book proposal

  1. Thanks for this! I keep planning on getting around to writing my proposal, but I find the idea so daunting. I feel like I get one shot at it and I don’t want to screw it up!
    These tips are helpful!

  2. Great post! On my experience writing NF – mostly for Penguin and Random House – that it helps to also build in hooks for input from the publisher – who will often take an idea and run with it, providing it can be adapted. I also often find that the NF proposal is maybe closer than might be imagined to the fiction proposal – certainly to the extent of providing hook-lines and even writing an overview in blurb-style.

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