Contents of a non-fiction book proposal
Unlike fiction, non-fiction can often be sold to a publisher on the basis of a book proposal. That’s great news for highly qualified professionals who want to share their expertise with a wider audience, as they can write the book only when they’ve got a buyer for the finished product.
Non-fiction is more likely than fiction to be a response to things like a change in the world, a trend in the culture, new research, or analysis of an event, and as such it can be time sensitive. Therefore, it makes sense for a publisher to acquire a book on the topic, by an author qualified to write it, as soon as they can and slot it into the publication schedule.
As with any other kind of book, of course, there is tremendous competition for publication and the publisher will need to be certain both that there is a market hungry for the proposed book, and that the author is the right person to write it.
The best and most exciting non-fiction book proposals will stand out and so be considered more seriously. Having a great idea for a book is not enough. Nor is being an expert on the topic. The successful author of non-fiction needs to find a coincidence of great material, a space in the market, qualifications, audience, timeliness, and then demonstrate all these things in their non-fiction book proposal so as to convince the publisher that the book needs to be published, and by that publisher.
Contents of a non-fiction book proposal
Here, then, are the contents of a non-fiction book proposal a hopeful author will need to include in order to show a publisher their book is necessary, timely and can achieve success with its audience.
Overview of the proposed book
This is a brief introduction to the material, and should point out the main reasons the book is necessary and will be successful and why you are the right person to write it.
Summarise the central idea or thesis and explain who the book will serve. You can briefly address why there is some sense of lack of this resource and so some urgency to getting this information to the people who need it.
Any of the points you raise here should be expanded upon in other sections of the book proposal.
Be as specific as possible about the intended audience for the book and why they will be interested in it, and then support the book’s potential appeal to that audience with data about the audience size and engagement with the topic.
If it’s a textbook, it may be more suitable for postgraduate students than undergraduates (or vice versa) and you can show how many students take a relevant course every year and whether that number is increasing. If it’s for people in a specific line of work, how many of them are there and how likely to seek additional information or resources? If it’s about a cultural change, include recent research and data from Google Trends to show interest in the subject over time.
Remember that a specific audience supported by solid numbers, even if it is quite narrow or niche, makes for a better and more convincing book proposal than an apparently wider audience only supported by woolly connections to the material.
The more you are tempted to describe the book as ‘general interest’, the harder the numbers you will need of specific groups of people who may have a good reason to buy the book.
You need to know and be able to explain the book’s place in the market, so this is the place to describe comparable titles, and how they differ from or are similar to your book.
That analysis of comparable titles will also help you show your book’s unique selling point and the reason it will stand out amongst its fellows.
Ideally, you’ve identified a gap in the market that other books do not serve. Be careful here though – some gaps exist because there’s also a gap in interest or demand there.
Maybe your book is more up to date with its research, or your day job provides you with specialist access or an unusual viewpoint, or you have a different and more successful or exciting take on the subject than previous books.
This market analysis does not have to be exhaustive. A list of three to five really precise comparable titles that show why your book is special and will catch the audience’s attention is great. A long list of all the titles on the market might show that the audience is already being served well and there’s little left to say, or that competition for a share of the audience will be too fierce.
Readers want to hear from people who know what they’re talking about, so this section is the author’s time to shine. What’s the reason you are the person best placed to write this book?
Explain your training and credentials in the book’s subject, or the experience that makes your viewpoint so interesting.
Include your past publication history, highlighting those that are especially relevant to the book you are proposing.
Table of contents
You will need to have planned the book already, and provide the book’s table of contents, with a brief description of each section and chapter.
You will need to write and include at least one chapter or section of the book. This will give the publisher a sense of your writing style, the tone you are using, and demonstrate the overall approach you are taking to the content.
It’s best to make this representative sample a section or chapter from the beginning of the book.
Marketing and promotion
This section of the book proposal is much more than telling the publisher how many thousands of Instagram followers you have and saying you are willing to go on breakfast TV to talk about the book.
Traditional promotion via TV, magazines and the radio are only one aspect of modern marketing activities, and while it’s great if you’ve got the kind of profile that will mean there’s in-built demand for an interview with you, it’s not fatal if you haven’t got that kind of following (as so many authors of non-fiction do not).
Wherever possible, include supporting data about the amount of traffic you get to your website, speaking engagements you regularly book, bloggers you have already guested for, and so on. But beyond such promotional outlets, you will need to think creatively about how to reach the audience and pique their interest enough to get them to go and pre-order or buy a copy.
This section of the book proposal is about concrete ideas for getting the book in front of its intended audience, because it’s much easier to persuade people to buy a book if they know it exists.
You can provide a list of supporting articles you could write and place around the book’s topic, events you could run, conferences you will be speaking at, relevant organisations or charities that could be persuaded to make a bulk order, lists of recommended resources it could be added to, bloggers or podcasters you know or know of who might review it or interview you about its subject, famous friends or important stakeholders who could provide an endorsement for the cover – anything you can do to help the publisher get the word out.
Mine your contacts list for possibilities and be prepared to make new friends.
Concluding the book proposal
Bring together the key points of the book proposal and highlight again the book’s potential to make an impact on the market and its readers.
Once your book proposal is solid, you will need to find the literary agent who will sell it, or the publisher who will want to have it on their list. Your longlist of comparable titles will probably provide a few possibilities to start with, and once you’ve got a list to submit to, your covering letter can explain why the agent or publisher is a great match for the book.
Before you start to submit your book proposal, it’s a great idea to get some fresh eyes on it. If you want to run it past a professional who will help you polish it up and make sure you’re submitting to close matches, my mini consultation service may be just the thing.