The secrets of a brilliant nonfiction book proposal

Writing a nonfiction book? Want to have a go at getting it published by a traditional publisher like HarperCollins or Simon & Schuster?

Nowadays many traditional publishers accept online submissions for nonfiction, especially for business and self-help titles. With publishers still being a little on the pernickety side you must absolutely following their submission guidelines to the letter.

article on book publishingThe bad news is, each one will have a slightly different set of questions. The good news is, they normally are very like each other.

Here are the main elements of proposal forms that you’re likely to encounter, and how to ring the right bells…

Synopsis: the “elevator speech” about the book. As with almost anything when it comes to promotional writing, this is not about you! And whereas with promotional writing you’re usually writing for one audience, here you’re writing for two: readers – what they will gain from the book, and publishers – how easy the book will be to sell. It’s worth spending a lot of time perfecting this section. Use my SO WHAT? test to help you.

Competition: what other books on the subject exist and why yours is better. This can focus on the book’s content – better researched, more up-to-date, realistic case studies, easy format to use and work with, etc. And/or it can focus on your credentials that elevate you beyond other authors on the same topic … the fact that you’re a well-known expert, have a large social media following, have given a TED talk, etc.

Market/audience: to whom the book will appeal and why: this is where marketing needs to be defined clearly as many people, including traditional publishers, don’t get the difference between “marketing” and “promotion.” This is not just about how you will sell the book once it is published and out there: it’s about the fact that the basic principles of marketing have been used to formulate the book in the first place. You should show how you have researched it in terms of key audiences, price point, etc.

International market: if the book is suitable for translation or translation/adaptation. The less adaptation it would need to be translated into another language, the more the publisher will like it because that makes it more attractive financially to foreign language publishers.

Style & approach: informal/formal, textbook/friendly advice, didactic/anecdotal, etc. You should share why you have used this style and approach, e.g. because that’s how readers speak, because this environment tends usually to be very informal, technical details have been put into boxes or appendices so the main narrative is easy to read, etc.

Endorsements: whether you could get a suitable famous person to write a foreword. This does not have to be the Prince of Wales or the current POTUS! In fact it may only be someone who is well known in your industry or activity. At this point you don’t have to promise anything – just suggest an idea or two.

Delivery information: anticipated length of book, anticipated time required to complete, etc. One of the good things about submitting nonfiction book proposals this way is that you don’t necessarily have to have written the whole book. In fact in some ways it’s better if you haven’t, because a publisher may like your concept but want you to make some changes/additions to it. If it isn’t complete this is easier to incorporate. You need to think in terms of an average business or self-help book being at least 35,000 words, with a ceiling of about 80,000 words. Allow yourself plenty of time to get it to the publisher: they won’t mind because your book wouldn’t go on to their schedule for some months or even 1-2 years.

The author: brief biography, including any earlier books you have written or contributed to. Once again, it’s not about you – it’s about what you have to offer readers, and to the publisher. Focus on all qualifying information that demonstrates your expertise and suitability to give readers good value, and to do most of the promotional work for the publisher…!

The background to the book: why and how you came to devise it. This should focus on how you saw an increasingly wide gap in the marketplace for this book, how people were asking you if you had written a book, were asking you all the questions you answer in your book, etc.

Chapter list: with a working title and as many bullet-pointed details as possible of each one. The publisher, if they go ahead, will probably want to change this around but at least you won’t have written 40,000 words for them to change!

Sample chapter or excerpts: 1,000 words or so to demonstrate style and approach. It can be quite difficult to write a sample chapter in isolation unless you are working to a detailed book structure/plan. Yet another good reason to put a lot of effort into your book planning…

Marketing plan: actually this is a promotion plan but as so many publishers and other people don’t understand the real meaning of marketing (see above), you need to make it clear in your proposal how marketing here really means promotion. Basically it’s down to you to sell, promote, give talks, use media contacts, etc. and this is where you show what you can do. It’s also where you point out details of your social media following, associations with business groups, networking, and so-on. Launching a nonfiction book is a lot like launching any other new product, so look upon it in those terms.

There you have it: the basics of a nonfiction book proposal for traditional publishers

If you have any questions about this please don’t hesitate to drop me a note in the comments.

Adapted from Suzan’s forthcoming title, “How To Write A Brilliant Nonfiction Book,” to be published later in 2020 by BetterBooksMedia.







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    • Hi Sasidharan – I’m guessing you’re in southern India or Sri Lanka? I had a look at your blog! Are you an expert in construction? If so you might get paid to write articles for business / construction / project management journals in India and SL. That would be a good way to make a start at writing. Your book sounds interesting … there are many ways for you to self-publish and if you just have it as an eBook the cost is low. As I’m in England I don’t know what self-publishing platforms are available in your country, so you would need to Google “self-publishing platforms India” or “self-publishing platforms Sri Lanka” .
      If you want to improve your written English, there are many online courses available. Google “english writing courses” or “english as a foriegn language courses” .
      Hope that helps – good luck with your writing! Sz