How to write a successful nonfiction book proposal, part 1

Many people want to write a nonfiction book and now that the whole book publishing picture has expanded into a good choice of options, getting your book published by yourself is relatively easy and should not break the bank, either.

How to write a successful nonfiction book proposal, part 1

We still can’t deny that there continues to be some useful kudos in having your nonfiction book published by a “proper” publisher…

However much as we authors may smile cheerfully when it comes to self-publishing and co-operative publishing, we still can’t deny that there continues to be some useful kudos in having your nonfiction book published by a “proper” publisher – i.e. a conventional trade publisher with the industrial-strength distribution power and a name everyone has heard of. (And that applies to publishing eBooks as much as it does to the printed variety.)

Here’s the series you need to get your nonfiction book proposal right

Before you get anywhere with a conventional publisher, unless you’re J K Rowling, you have to write some scintillating proposals for your nonfiction book.

In this forthcoming series I will walk you through the whole book proposal process, but to do that in one article would make almost a book in itself! So let’s start at the beginning…

…and watch out for more articles in the series over the next few weeks.

Writing the book proposal can be as hard as writing the book

Quite often publishers will give you guidelines on how they want you to frame your proposal. Nearly always now, too, you can submit your proposal via the publisher’s website (although there are still some paper-based sticklers around.) And nowadays you hardly ever find a publisher of nonfiction**  that insists on your work being submitted by a literary agent. Thank Heavens.

But it takes a lot of work to get your proposals right. Let’s see if I can help you do precisely that.

Here are the main elements of detailed proposals that you will be expected to include. I’ve taken these from the proposals I did for one of my earlier books, “Powerwriting.” The elements were set out by Prentice Hall, its publishers, but they’re typical of all the publishers’ submission guidelines that I’ve seen.

The book proposal’s key elements:

  • Synopsis … the “elevator speech” about the book (probably taken from your one-sheet – see below)
  • Competition … what other books on the subject exist and why yours is better
  • Market/audience … to whom the book will appeal and why
  • International market … if the book is suitable for translation
  • Style and approach … informal or formal, textbook or friendly advice, didactic or anecdotal, etc
  • Endorsements … whether you could get a suitable famous person to write a foreword, etc
  • Delivery information … anticipated length of book, anticipated time required to complete, etc
  • The author … who you are and why you’re the expert on your topic; include any earlier books you have written or contributed to
  • The background to the book … why and how you came to devise it
  • Chapter list … preferably with a title and as many bullet-pointed details as possible of each one
  • Sample chapter or excerpts … 1,000 words or so to demonstrate style and approach

Don’t be afraid to be informal, as I always am! If you keep your style simple, direct and enjoyable to read you will earn brownie points from the editor, believe me.

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Remember, the purpose of this proposal is to sell the concept of your book and why readers will be absolutely gagging to devour its every word. It’s not merely a description, no matter how much it may seem that way from the guidelines the publisher puts out.

The staffers at the publisher’s who are likely to read your nonfiction book proposal:

Gatekeepers – normally junior editors, recent English graduates, nice people but a bit green when it comes to book sales

Editors – people with experience of commissioning books, but not usually very knowledgeable about sales and marketing

Sales people – these people are interested not in what your readers want, but in how effectively your proposal will convince bookshop buyers to stock your book

Production people -they will view you book on the basis of how expensive it will be to design and print. So unless it’s essential, avoid insisting on the inclusion of lots of complex images.

In many ways, this all makes your job harder, because often you are performing a bit of an education job for the above four groups of people … both in terms of your market and target readership, and also in how they should be doing their jobs!

Rather than drone on listing all the theory on what to write, let me share some examples of a very successful nonfiction book proposal I wrote a few years ago. From this basis I got offers from three good, well-known publishers and naturally chose the one which offered the highest “advance on royalties!”

Let’s start with a sample “elevator speech” or synopsis: a written soundbite

The hidden skills you need to transform your business writing
by Suzan St Maur

Book cover - PWRThe real secrets of success in business writing happen before you write down a single word….
Nearly all business writing aims to bring about some kind of change in the reader – of perception or behaviour or both. Good, persuasive wording helps, but on its own it’s not enough. For your business writing to work, you need to use an additional set of less obvious, but equally important skills before your fingers touch the keyboard… so what you do write is always effective and absolutely right for the purpose. In Powerwriting, business communication expert Suzan St Maur reveals those hidden skills and shows you how to use them for business writing that’s powerfully successful – whatever your objectives.

And now, a sample preliminary proposal (“one-sheet”)

The hidden skills you need to transform your business writing
by Suzan St Maur

In our high-tech age, the written word in business is even more powerful than ever before. Yet millions are wasted every year on business communications that don’t work. In 90% of cases, such failure has little to do with the quality of writing (or design/production.) It’s due to a lack of understanding of the audience, and the message being conveyed in the wrong way – in other words, inappropriate and inadequate thought. Powerwriting is the first book of its kind to teach you the thought processes you need to work through before you even put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Then it shows you how to use those thought processes to harness the power of words for business and other communications that get powerful results every time.

This fresh new business book will provide invaluable help to the rapidly increasing number of business people and other individuals who write their own business communications. The arrival of the internet has consolidated what already was a growing trend away from the use of professional communicators. Most people in business or other activities are now on their own, other than for “above-the-line” advertising. Marketing and other training courses merely skim the surface of business writing, and existing books and courses focus largely on the crafting of words rather than the thinking behind them, which often leads to catastrophic results – see above.

Powerwriting, therefore, is targeted at anyone aiming to influence readers or viewers through their writing, online or offline, whether they’re in a small or large business, government department, charity, political party, hobby/special interest group or any other area of activity.

Non-parochial, Powerwriting is suitable for all English-language markets and is also suitable for translation into other major languages as well as online/audio publication. Its style is informal, personal, and humorous in places. In effect, it is a “sharing” of valuable experience and true common sense between author and reader.

Its author, Canadian-born Suzan St Maur, has a long and successful track record both as an author (31 published books including 5 previous business communications titles) and as one of the UK’s leading business communications writers over the last 20 years.

Anticipated length is 60,000 – 80,000 words. Delivery time 6-10 months from signing of contract.  Full proposal, detailed chapter synopses and sample chapter available on request.

Can you see how I have pressed the right buttons in these two samples?

Please share your thoughts and experiences! And watch out for the next article in this series where we look at how to tackle markets, style, approach and more…

If you want to get right on with your nonfiction book proposals and the whole nonfiction writing and publishing experience now, this minute, check out this page here.


**Fiction is a different ballgame. It is very hard to get a fiction book proposal to a publisher directly; nearly all insist that a literary agent screens it first. You can’t really blame those publishers, though, considering that they get thousands upon thousands of unsolicited manuscripts every year, 99 percent of which are dumped in the trash. For more about writing fiction, check out Lucy McCarraher’s brilliant series here on HTWB.