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:

Doe/I AM ANONYMOUS/2

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.

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