Last Updated on April 10, 2023
It's one of the most frequent questions I get as a nonfiction editor and book collaborator: Do I need to write the whole book before I pitch my idea to an agent or publisher?
The answer is an unequivocal no. Anyone who intends to get a nonfiction book published must write a book proposal first. That's when I usually have to explain what a book proposal is: an extensive sales pitch that describes your idea for a book and explains how you intend to market it to readers.
Unfortunately, you can't fake this important document by downloading a template off the Internet, filling in blanks, and submitting it to agents or publishers with hopes that you'll soon receive a big check in the mail. A book proposal that sells — and sells for a healthy sum — takes time, patience, and good old blood, sweat, and tears. I won't sugarcoat the truth: Writing an exquisite proposal takes work. But for some, it can win you that big advance and launch you as a bestselling author.
The Importance of a Book Proposal
A book proposal is arguably the most important part of the book-writing process. “The better the proposal, the higher the advance,” says Madeleine Morel, president of 2MCommunications, a New York-based literary agency. Morel represents ghost- and co-writers who collaborate with author experts. The other major factor, she points out, is “the size of the author's platform, or author marketability.”
Because there's no such thing as a brand-new idea, especially in nonfiction, you have to bring a provocative and compelling new twist to your subject. And you should start building a platform or audience for the book, if you don't have one already. This can include a large blog or Facebook and Twitter following; a good track record as a magazine writer; a loyal following of clients, customers, or patients, such as in the case of a doctor or therapist; or an extensive lecture schedule.
According to Megan Newman, VP and Editorial Director of Avery, an imprint of Penguin Group, “The biggest challenge with any new book is getting the world to notice — this is true whether you're publishing through Amazon's 'self-publishing' program or with one of the big houses.” She adds, “The publicist has to have something to pitch that goes beyond the book's content."
Content Is King
That said, although the business end is foremost in the minds of publishers, it is not always a simple matter of A+ B = Bestseller. Content still counts for something. And in some cases, it can mean everything. Take, for example, one of Newman's authors, Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., a doctor at the Cleveland Clinic who ran a study for many years reversing heart disease through a plant-based diet. He may have had a big reputation as a doctor when he started writing his book, but his platform was weak. He wasn't a Dr. Oz or regularly spot-lighted in mainstream media. “But I just knew he was the real deal,” says Newman. And his book, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, has become a bestseller. The lesson here is “you have to strike a balance — and content always matters,” she says. “Publishers have been known to bet big — and lose — on people with fantastic platforms who are light on content.”
So how do you make sure your idea is big on content and also shows the publisher that you're worth the monetary risk? Here are some tips for writing a winning book proposal and what to put in it. One thing to remember: a very busy, very frazzled, very young editor will probably be reading and assessing your proposal first. So make it clear upfront who you are and why you are the one to write this book. A good way to start is to answer some fundamental questions you can be sure the publisher's editors will be asking themselves:
- How is this author's approach dramatically different?
- Is the subject matter of interest to a wide audience? Who is the intended audience?
- Why is this person perfect to write this book? What credentials does she have?
- Does the author have an established platform?
- What are the key lessons a reader will carry away from reading the book? Will a range of people relate to them?
Components of a Book Proposal
If you can answer the above questions and still think you've got something to sell, then it's time to piece together the proposal, which will essentially address these questions in full detail. A typical proposal will be 40 to 60 pages long and contain the following sections:
- Competitive and Comparative Titles Analysis
- Author Bio
- Chapter Breakdown
- Sample Chapter(s)
If well written, the introduction to the proposal can become the introduction to the book. It acts as a thesis, explaining in general terms what the book is about and why there is a need for it in the marketplace. It should be cleverly thought out, upbeat, informative, and written in a style and voice that matches the book.
Any publisher will want to know who the intended audience is. The more detailed the audience analysis and the more statistics you can give, the better you will serve the publisher in the decision-making process. For example, if your book is about losing weight, get statistics about obesity and failed diets. Demonstrate the timeliness of the topic — is it something that's in the news a lot lately? As for the market, are there 100 million potential buyers for your book? Who are they?
Give the word count, approximate number of illustrations and/or photographs, and time you'll need to write the book.
Competitive and Comparative Titles Analysis
Agents and editors are extremely well-read, but they can't possibly be aware of every book that is already in the marketplace. It's your responsibility to make sure that the book you're writing is different from anything else and yet fits within a proven genre. Only include titles put out by major publishing houses that have been published recently and that have sold well, especially any title that had bestseller status. Give a brief description of the book and its publisher, and then say how and why your book is different. Be careful about criticizing a competitive title too much, for you just might turn off a potential acquisitions editor whose publisher published that very book!
Biographical details are obviously of great interest to any publisher. Be as specific as possible. If you're a professional such as a doctor or therapist, enclose a CV or resume. In other cases, a simpler bio will do. Remember, publishers are interested in how marketable you are. They want to know if you:
- Have an established website
- Blog or tweet
- Have a following
- Conduct seminars, workshops, or lectures
- Have media contacts in TV, radio, or print
- Write a regular column
- Have connections of note in your field or in the media
- Have a commitment from an organization or company agreeing to buy copies of the book when it's published
So if your cousin works on the Today show, mention it! The more you can help a publisher sell your book, the more appealing you'll be. One caveat: Publishers are interested in your current media platform, not your future plans for promoting the book or your interview for a Newsweek article ten years ago. Focus on your media contacts and publicity over the last two years.
TOC and Chapter Summaries
A table of contents (TOC) and a very detailed chapter breakdown — of one to two pages per chapter — is required. These should introduce the chapter and discuss what will be addressed in general in that chapter. When writing your TOC, don't forget any appendices or other supplementary material you intend to incorporate (charts, sample forms, etc.). Don't start each chapter summary with “Chapter one will include . . . ” Put your voice into it so the summaries read like actual chapters. Engage your readers. The most successful book proposals read like the book, not as a dry outline of what the book could be.
Most publishers like to see one or two sample chapters, full-length prototypes polished enough to be in the final book. They don't necessarily have to be the first chapters; choose the most intriguing ones that will demonstrate the range and breadth of your material.
Finally, remember that you're selling a written product. Although an agent — if you have one, and I recommend you do — will get you in the door, the quality/style of the writing and the strength of the pitch is what will ultimately sell the book. Make sure that you print out your proposal and read the hard copy before submission. Grammatical and syntactical errors will turn off an editor faster than just about anything else. And if you don't land an agent or find a publisher to buy into your proposal, then at least you have your roadmap. Traditional publishing is only one of many options an aspiring author has these days.
For more information on book proposals and literary agents, I recommend the following books:
How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen
How to Get a Literary Agent by Michael Larsen