book proposals

Breaking Down the Nonfiction Book Proposal

Once a year, the literary economy descends upon a single U.S. city for the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. This year it’s Tampa (for a few days the Davos of the creative writing world), and the first panel I attended was Thursday evening’s “Writing Before You Write: How to Write a Book Proposal.” The panel was moderated by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee—managing editor of The Rumpus and author of the memoir Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember—and it consisted of: Ayesha Pande, founder of Ayeshe Pande Literary and former editor at numerous New York publishing houses; Elizabeth Isadora Gold, author of The Mommy Group: Freaking Out, Finding Friends, and Surviving the Happiest Times of Our Lives; and Marie Mutsuki Mockett, author of Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye.

A book proposal is a regular part of publishing a nonfiction book for most writers. Novelists and poets still typically need a full manuscript for publishers to consider, but for nonfiction books it’s quite the opposite—publishers and agents don’t even necessarily want an entire book to consider. Rather, they want a thorough, considered book proposal from authors.

This is what editors and agents want to read,” noted Gold, “not your entire book.” Moreover, proposals are a very important aspect of the writing process. A self-described “huge evangelist” for book proposals, Pande claims that “Short of writing a book, it is the very best thing and author can do,” as it forces a writer to figure out things like structure and voice. Regarding the purpose of a book proposal, Pande advises, “It has to make an editor instantly fall in love.”

According to Lee, a book proposal is broadly understood as “a document that shows the book is a sellable object,” and it contains basically the following:

An overview of the book

According to Gold, the overview section is “almost like writing a review of your own book.” Written in the voice of the book, this part explains what the book is about and why the author is the person to write it. Due to how overworked editors are, along with the great number of submissions they receive, Pande advises her authors to make the overview “totally immersive.” She even recommends writing this part last, after other parts of the proposal have been figured out, in order to better address such necessary considerations as “Why me? Why this book? Why now? Why nobody else?”

The author bio and platform

The author bio should help the editor understand why the author is right for this book—and the panelists noted that such credentials found in bios like degrees and publications can be very helpful to make a case for non-personal nonfiction books. (All the panelists nonfiction proposals were for memoirs.) Possibly the biggest takeaway from the panel was just how important platform—from social media presence to speaking engagements to previous publications—is in the proposal process. Before writing their successful book proposals, each of the panelists published widely read essays in recognized publications (New York Times, Buzzfeed, etc.), a pattern they noted is increasingly common for debut nonfiction authors today. This initial essay publication demonstrates audience interest and begins to establish the topic as something the author is known for writing about—their platform.

Ideas for marketing and publicity

As book publishing is a difficult, low-margin business, publishers are increasingly looking to authors for help marketing and publicizing the books—which kind of makes sense, as the author is the expert in their own book, and so perhaps best understand how to discuss it and who might be interested reading it. In this section of the proposal ideas about marketing and publicity are offered. Who the author might know to blurb. Where interviews could be done. What bookstores to visit. And so forth. It might be easy for proposal authors to spend the least amount of time here, as it may seem someone else’s area of expertise—a publicist, for example—but Pande made the really persuasive point that proposal authors should want to make it as easy as possible for acquiring editors to pitch the book to others in the company, and this place in particular can help argue the case to the marketing arms of the publisher. A really efficient and effective proposal will allow the editors to use every bit of its text to persuade the publisher to take the project on.

Book comp titles

This is a list of similar titles to the book being proposed. In this section the proposal needs to make a case for how this proposal project is distinct from the comps. This also offers and opportunity to demonstrate there is a market for the book. Authors could even note the marketing and publicity strategies for the comp titles and use this to inform the previous section.

Chapter summaries

The summaries of the chapters of a book not written yet can seem like an odd thing to, but all of the panelists spoke to the benefits this offered the writing process. Lee noted that it took her 2 months to write the proposal for her memoir, and then 12 months to write the memoir—comparing it to the 12 years she has been working on her novel. “The book proposal enabled me to writing the book much more quickly,” she said of her memoir. Gold used scenes and dialogue in her chapter summaries, which she recommends doing, as it demonstrated that she had sufficient material for her subject. Mockett noted that she was often asked by editors if her work couldn’t be simply an essay, and that the chapter summaries make the case for the book-length treatment of the topic.

Sample chapters

These are, of course, sample chapters of the book to be written. Spend some time on these, the panelists urged.

Overall, the panelists recommended writers take the book proposal seriously. “The most important this is to have a really great story,” Mockett ended with. “If you’re excited about your subject, it comes through in the writing.”

Before I sent my own nonfiction book proposal out last year, I had no idea how one was written, and so—like many I imagine—I just figured it out as best I could. This panel opened my eyes to everything I didn’t understand and wish I had known. Many in the panel audience were interested in seeing a model book proposal; some are available here on The Business of Writing website.

Travis Kurowski

Travis Kurowski is the coeditor of Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century and editor of Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine, which won an Independent Publisher Book Award and a Foreword IndieFab Award. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Mississippi Review, Ninth Letter, Little Star, Poets & Writers, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. He is an assistant professor at York College of Pennsylvania and lives with his daughters and dog in York, PA.

One thought to “Breaking Down the Nonfiction Book Proposal”

  1. Travis, this is helpful information, even for novelists, short story writers, and poets. I’m a poet, and I learned a lot when I pitched my creative writing textbook A Writer’s Craft. At that point, though the book was complete, I had to write a proposal much like what you describe. I realized that though there often isn’t a formal proposal stage like there is with nonfiction, having as much of this information as you can, or as makes sense for the kind of book you’re pitching, can really help your cover letter. You might not need chapter summaries for a poetry collection, for instance, but you might need a synopsis and sample chapter for a novel (but have the whole novel ready to send upon request). Creative nonfiction is pitched more like fiction than like other nonfiction. Demonstrating that you know your market and have a marketing plan will help you get your book accepted, even if you’re working with a small press. Go to textbook or other major publishers of nonfiction, and you will often see that they have book proposal forms on their submissions guidelines page. They’re not all identical, but they’re similar, and looking at a few will give you more ideas of what you might include for your book. Then follow the guidelines for each publisher you target, and if they don’t have a proposal form, try to work that information into your cover letter.

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