Trade Publishing 101: Why Start with Nonfiction Proposals?

Today inaugurates a feature I’ve been mulling over for forever: Trade Publishing 101.

I’ve been itching to put together a series of how-to posts to better equip authors to get their books published, and I just launched the series with the topic I feel is in the greatest need of a free online resource – namely, how to write a non-fiction proposal. There are guides out there, but most of them lack specificity. Some are too long, some are too short, and I have yet to see one that’s just right. I don’t think I’ve got it perfect, but I’ve sold every nonfiction project I’ve sent out on submission, and I cut my editorial teeth working with nonfiction proposals, so I have the platform.

But there’s also this gnawing absence. While my interest has always been clear on my agent bio, the nonfiction portion of my slush pile has been perennially dwarfed by the fiction portion. Sure, the agency is better known for fiction, and more specifically for sf/fantasy. But when I started, the agency had barely dipped its toes into YA, middle grade, literary fiction, and general fiction, and as soon as I said I wanted to see that, I started to get quite a lot. Why not nonfiction?

Granted, there’s a good reason for this. Finding authors of nonfiction works a little differently than finding authors of fiction. Oftentimes we agents find ourselves scouting. I might reach out to the author of that feature article that just blew my mind, or that webcomic where I had to go back and read all 487 posts after stumbling upon it. And I’ve done that. I’ll continue to do that.

But, I find scouting to be problematic for a couple reasons.

One is inherent bias. Agents can only look for what we know to look for, and too often that means authors who are writing from a place of privilege.

Some evidence: According to this study of literary prize demographics conducted by the University of North Texas, 95% of Pulitzer Prize winners are white, 75% are male, and 85% of them live on the East Coast. When it comes to the National Book Award for Nonfiction, it’s only slightly better; 90% of winners are white, 70% are male, and 80% live on the East Coast. The winners are being drawn from a pool where the numbers are stacked against women and minorities. Seventy percent of the submissions for these awards are for books authored by men.

Shifting our gaze starts at the literary agent level, but there’s also only so much time we can spend in free reading. Some agents have interns (hopefully paid) or assistants scouring the globe for them, putting together tidy reader reports, but that doesn’t necessarily hedge all that much against biases. And it’s really easy to get caught in that echo chamber that leads to dog book after dog book after dog book.*

We need more voices in nonfiction. The world at large needs to reach the world of the book buyer, and it isn’t going to until more diverse nonfiction wends its way from conception to acquisition to publication to award nomination.

Not everyone is as privileged or as fortunate as, say, a New Yorker feature writer or the host of a popular late-night TV show, each of whom can reasonably expect to be approached about a book. Trade nonfiction is missing voices, and knowing the rules of the game will enable more people to play.

* – I don’t hate dogs. Or books. Or even dog books. They’re frequently heartwarming. But they’re also voluminous. And who knows whose memoirs they’ve crowded out of a publishing schedule?

Trade Publishing 101: Nonfiction Proposals

Welcome! Today I launch a blog feature I’ve been mulling over forever: Trade Publishing 101. This is the first in a series of posts intended to help authors crash the gates and get their books published.

If I’m going to have a blog, why not do some good with it? Over time, I’m going to build this up as a resource for authors to turn to when putting together their submissions. While there are other resources out there, not every essential topic is covered well, and nonfiction proposal writing is one of these.

I started to write out why I felt this way, and that metastasized into its own post.

So. You write nonfiction, and you have either written a book, or you would like to write one. Most nonfiction titles that are published sell based on proposals, and anyone who wants to write nonfiction should know how to structure one.

These are the key components of a nonfiction proposal, including length:

0. Title Page and Formatting

1. Introduction (1 page; optional)

2. Table of Contents (hopefully 1 page)

3. Overview (1–3 pages)

4. About the Author (1–2 pages)

5. Competition (1–2 pages)

6. Market and Publicity (2–3 pages)

7. Annotated Chapter Outline (depends on # of chapters)

8. Sample Chapters (15+ pages)

Title Page – This should include your address in a left justified, single spaced address block and include a phone number or email address (feel free to include both).

The title should be appear in the middle of the page, be centered, in BLOCK CAPITALS: WITH ANY SUBTITLE SET OFF BY A COLON, and followed immediately beneath by a byline.

Formatting – Please don’t do anything too out there with the fonts; it is typically best to use something simple like Times New Roman, 12 point, throughout.

It is also standard practice to include author name, title, and page number in a header that begins on the second page:


Introduction (1 page; optional) – This section provides a hook for the project. It may be as simple as a single paragraph; it could also run to a page. For a narrative book, this could be a scene. For a prescriptive book, it is often a good idea to be informational and to present especially interesting facts.

Table of Contents (hopefully 1 page) – This should include section titles and page numbers.

Overview (1–3 pages) – This section begins with another introductory paragraph and then describes what the book will be about. It should be concise and on point, containing why the book is being written, why you are the author to write it, and when you expect to complete the book. (You don’t have to have a finished book, but you do have to prove you have the writing chops.)

About the Author (1–2 pages) – This goes into greater biographical detail about the author than the overview does. Include any grants you have received to work on this book, and any credentials that you anticipate would be impressive to your audience for the proposal (agents and editors). Public speaking experience, prior publication credits, and other things that demonstrate that you have a platform go here.

Competition (1–2 pages) – Know where you belong in a bookstore! Agents frequently see the claim that “there’s nothing else like it” in this section, and this is almost invariably wrong. It’s good for there to be a couple other books, so the thing to do in this section is identify three or four titles, describe them with paragraph summaries, and position your book in relation to theirs. You may have to take a field trip to the bookstore to do this. That’s okay.

Market and Publicity (2–3 pages) – Here, you want to discuss the audience for the book and how you are both equipped and prepared to reach that audience. If you have a huge Rolodex and can make use of it for events and public appearances, promotion through social media, and the like, say so. If you have 20,000 Twitter followers, this is where you let us all know. And remember, this is about what you bring to the table. A lot of people fall into the trap of telling the publisher what they can do, and that is best avoided.

Annotated Chapter Outline (depends on # of chapters) – The annotated chapter outline should contain paragraph summaries of each of the chapters of the book. This section can be rather lengthy, but more frequently, it’s likely to be in the 5–10 page range.

Sample Chapters (15+ pages) – This is the single most important part of the proposal, even more important than the fact that you have a successful sitcom or 4 million YouTube subscribers. You need to show that this is a good book. That drives the asking price up, no matter who you are.

With narrative non-fiction, even if you’ve written the whole thing already, include your best 1–3 chapters. With prescriptive non-fiction, you’ll want to include samples from different parts of the book, enough to show its scope and your writing style. So if, for example, you’re writing about how to ferment things, you’ll want to include how you fermented a few of those things, as well as introductory paragraphs for those things you fermented.

That’s it! Nonfiction proposals aren’t rocket surgery, but it’s not widely known how to put them together correctly. Different agents and agencies will have slightly different tics, and it’s always important to check individual submission guidelines, but you can use this guide to put together a proposal suitable to most.

If you found this post to be useful, please disseminate it widely. While I have some self-interest here (I mean, the website URL is my name; this is going to come back to me), this is a type of document that is terribly important to writers of non-fiction, and the only way that some people are going to be empowered is to find templates like this and put their book proposals together themselves, so that they’re done correctly and don’t get dismissed based on ignorance of how to properly craft a very specific type of document.

On rejection

In the past few years, I would venture that I’ve received at least a thousand rejection letters for clients. Rejection sucks. It’s frustrating. I spend quite a bit of time and energy working with clients on revising their manuscripts and proposals, and on crafting pitch letters to try to demonstrate to editors that these future books* are worthy of immediate attention. The overwhelming majority of the time, the end result is still a rejection. Or it’s a non-response. As is the case with some agents, some editors also have a “no response means no” policy**.

During the same period of time, I’ve had to send out nearly 20,000 rejection letters of my own. The comma’s in the right place. There are no extra zeroes. Twenty thousand.

We get a prodigious volume of queries over in agent land, and so we’re faced with a choice. Give up entirely on responding to work we’re not into, or send form rejections.

I really would like to be able to devote enough headspace to people to give personal responses to everything, to labor over my thoughts on how to mend what needs mending with a given work. Regrettably, it’s just not going to happen. Time is finite. I have my clients and their publishers, my coworkers, my fiancee, and two soon-to-be stepkids. I don’t get the luxury of mulling over everything I read at the length it probably deserves. The numbers don’t work. As much as I’d like to sometimes (and I really would), this desire to do justice to everything can’t be a priority when I have greater ones.

So that’s where the form rejection comes in.

Here’s mine:

Dear Author,

I greatly appreciate the opportunity to consider your query—thanks for sending it.

Unfortunately, the query didn’t appeal quite enough to my own tastes to inspire me to offer representation or further consideration of your project. I wish I had the time to respond to everyone with constructive criticism, but it would be overwhelming, hence this form response.

This business is highly subjective; many people whose work I haven’t connected with have gone on to critical and commercial success. So, keep after it.

I am grateful that you have afforded me this opportunity to find out about you and your project, and wish you the best of success with your current and future creative work.

All best wishes,
Eddie Schneider
VP, Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.

This letter didn’t start out with the phrasing it has now. It’s been refined over the years based on unsolicited feedback.

About that – querying an agent with your writing can be a painful process. A good many people who write really open their veins to tell their stories, and I’ve had some people who were less than thrilled that all this effort resulted in an impersonal rejection and who told me as much.

For a long time now, I’ve wanted to thank those of you who offered constructive feedback. So, thank you.

I’ve viewed these comments, which typically come in the form of people finding particular turns of phrase to be insensitive, as the canaries in the coal mine. For every one person who speaks up, there have probably been ten or twenty who suffered in silence.

If you get a form rejection, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that Agent X hated your work or has it out for you or is a spiteful gatekeeper who doesn’t understand the mountain you had to climb to write your novel. And how could they respond to this thing that took months or years of often thankless effort with a “nope?”

Because I can’t realistically respond to everyone with the deliberation their work deserves, I’ve worked to develop a general response that’s sincere and hopefully humane. I’ve gotten enough thank you emails post-rejection to supply me with anecdotal evidence that I’m on the right track. I’m sure it will be revised a few more times in the coming years in unforeseen ways as well.

There are a few different reasons for why I ended up writing this post. The selfish one is that it was something I wanted to get off my chest. A better one is that I think it’s important to know that this process is challenging for everyone. It feels personal even when it’s not, and we all have to learn coping strategies. For some this isn’t a big deal, while for others it’s visceral. The general advice I’d have here is to go ahead and feel your feelings rather than suppress them or try to get over it quickly, but analyze them, and remember that they’re temporary.

Practically everyone gets rejected, and most of the time it happens a lot. It still happens after you publish. It still happens after you hit the New York Times bestseller list, and it still happens after you’ve had your work adapted for TV or film.

Keep in mind that rejection is rarely ever forever. Most commonly, it’s not for a given work at a given moment in time.

Keep going, as long as you can. And remember that if I rejected the first thing you queried me with, well, that’s not goodbye forever***.

* – Published or not, it’s a book, and it’s real, and it doesn’t need one of us to rubber stamp it to validate its existence. Some books don’t get what they deserve, but this doesn’t negate their existence.

** – Which I don’t love. And this underwrites my desire to respond to everyone, eventually.

*** – Exhibit A: Mike Grosso, whose success story you can read on QueryTracker. Mike queried me three or four times over the years before he sent me I AM DRUMS, which I’ve since sold twice: first to Egmont USA before its untimely demise, and more recently to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Clarion imprint – at auction!


Hello again, world!

So, I like the #MSWL hashtag. Most of the readers who find their way here probably know what it is already, but for the uninitiated, it stands for ManuScript WishList, and many agents and editors flex their creative muscles and dream up concepts for novels they wish they were working on. They range from the broadly general:

to the hyperspecific:

There’s even a website. (I’m verified, but as of this writing, haven’t put up a profile yet. Soon—I swear!)

This post, then, serves as an index of the things I’d like to see. It’s curated, and current, and the curious can bookmark it.

Maybe you can use it as a writing prompt, maybe it’s something you decide you want to share with your workshop/writer’s group. The #MSWL is definitely not the be all and end all of what I’m looking for, but it’s a different take, and I think it’ll be a useful one. Enjoy!

And if you feel like there’s something sorely missing in your reading life, then feel free to #MSWL it up on Twitter, or comment, or, you know, write the book . . .

I feel like everyone knows this about me, but I long for a great non-Western fantasy novel, for MG, for YA, or adult! #MSWL

I still have yet to get that YA novel about a girl group in Motown. . .

It was a queer, sultry summer

… when I finally updated the site.

Being inside on the hottest day of the year, when publishers are certainly observing the summer Friday, has led to my finally doing a few updates.  The new header is one; I’ve also deleted the annoying category cloud, and provided links to client blogs.

And now for the piece of news with the most interest and of the most relevance to 99.9% of this blog’s readers; I have opened to e-mail queries at JABberwocky.

My e-mail address for query letters is queryeddie [at] awfulagent [dot] com.  Any unsolicited e-mail query sent to any other address will be deleted, unread.  Likewise, don’t send any attachments; any synopsis must be included below the cover letter in the body of your e-mail.

Now, why the change?  Two reasons.

The first is that, although I’m expecting we’ll get hit with a wave of material worse than what we’d see in print, we’re also finding that many people e-mail first, and send letters once they’ve finished e-mailing. If a query is good, we’re put at a competitive disadvantage, because other people get more time to read. The second is that we get fewer queries from authors who live outside the US.  This cuts us off from a good portion of the UK, South African and ANZ markets (we’ve always had many letters from Canada, though), among many others, and making it necessary for people to hunt down IRCs seemed foolish to me, after I thought about it.

So, enjoy! Let your writer friends know I’m now open to e-mail queries.

Narrative development

So, since there’s a light trickle of literary people to my blog, I’m going to type up what are the beginnings of some thinking I’ve been doing about narrative theory (using this term a bit loosely). And I’d like to know what you think.

In the thousands and thousands of pieces of writing I’ve read over the last couple years, a pattern has started to emerge, and while I haven’t approached these in anything resembling a scientific manner, I do think, based on the improperly gathered evidence, that there is a hierarchy of needs related to narratives, and that the more of these needs are met, the more successful a narrative will be.

For simplicity’s sake, I’ve tentatively called it the CASE Hierarchy. You’ll see why after the jump.
Continue reading


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.