Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, February 15, 2007

How to Write a Book Proposal

A few readers have registered their complaints that the blog has lately been heavily focused on fiction queries and manuscripts and novels, and what about poor, neglected nonfiction? Doesn't nonfiction have feelings too? When nonfiction is pricked does it not bleed???

Apparently so.

The art of writing a nonfiction book proposal is sort of like cooking lasagna. There are a thousand ways of making it, everyone has their own recipe, but most every lasagna will have a few basic ingredients and chances are it's going to taste good in the end. The below recipe, if you will, applies to just about every kind of nonfiction, from history to self-help to narrative nonfiction.

Also, people often ask if they need to write the whole nonfiction book before they query an agent. Not so! Or at least not usually so. An agent can often sell nonfiction projects on proposal, meaning you write the proposal first, then sell the project, then write the book. It mostly depends on the quality of the idea and its marketability, your platform, and your writing ability. There are definitely exceptions to this -- it really depends on the project, and sometimes it pays to write the whole thing, especially memoir. Think of a memoir like a novel. You may have to write the whole thing.

So without further ADO (thanks everyone), here are the basic sections of a nonfiction book proposal.

The overview is unlike anything you'll ever write. It's not quite a synopsis, it's not quite a sample chapter, it's not quite catalog copy, it's not even quite, uh, an overview. Its really the distillation of the book you're going to write. You're getting across the meat of the story that you are writing about. You're telling the story/narrative/subject in brief. You're telling the agent/editor what the book is going to be about, what it will be like and who's going to read it. It's really a sales pitch.

So to write the overview, pretend you're a broke screenwriter pitching a project to a big time Hollywood producer. You're telling the gist of the story, you're selling him on how America absolutely needs a movie about the number 23, baby! You want the producer at the end to have an idea of what the book is about so he'll scratch his chin and say, "Interesting.... Tell me more about this number 23."

A good overview will give the agent/editor a great sense of the subject, the scope, the heart, and the need for the book. It will get them excited about the project.

I know all of this is really vague, and that's because the approaches to the overview vary a whole lot depending on the project, and it's difficult for me to say that the overview is one thing or another. You have some room for creativity here, so just focus on summarizing and pitching your project while making it sound as appealing and necessary as possible.

Competing Titles/Market Analysis
This is the part where you discuss the other books that are out there as a way of convincing an agent/editor that there is a pressing need for your book. Counterintuitive, I know. The market analysis should not be along the lines of, "275,000,000 Americans drink milk, therefore my book about milk will sell 275,000,000 copies," but it should really address the market for the book and who your potential reader will be.

Also, in this section you should discuss other books that have been published on your subject. If they're close enough to yours you might list them and address them individually, assessing how each one differs from yours. This is not the time to Swift Boat other authors, but you should clearly differentiate your project from the other books that have already been published on the subject. It's not enough to try to convince an agent/editor that your book is like someone else's only better -- you have to find a genuine unexplored niche in the marketplace.

Platform platform platform. This is the part where you convince the agent/editor that you are the best person in the entire world to be writing the book. It's probably best not to lie in this section.

Outline/List of Chapters
Sometimes people include an outline or a list of chapters to give a sense of the scope of the project. Personally I feel like this part is a little overrated for something like narrative nonfiction because the finished product is probably going to change, but this section is very important for any sort of self-helpish or businessish proposal since you'll already have a pretty good idea of where the project is going and can summarize it here.

Sample Chapter(s) (1-3)
Other than perhaps the overview, the sample chapter(s) is(are) the most important part of the proposal. Some editors I know just get a gist of the overview and then turn straight to the sample chapters to see a sample of the author's writing. So work very, very hard on these chapters to make them as good as possible.

Other things that you might consider throwing in I mean including are copies of newspaper/magazine articles you wrote that apply to the subject (if the book is arising out of a published article), reviews of past nonfiction books you've published (not self-published), and anything else that will help convince the agent/editor that you're super-awesome.

And that's pretty much it! Easy as lasagna.


Jen said...

I knew there was a reason I wrote fiction.
Well, other than all that pesky research and such.

Simon Haynes said...

I agree with Jen. With non-fic it seems that the ability to write the book comes a distant third to the author's marketability and platform.

With fiction it's mostly about the book, and as a nobody I couldn't be happier with that situation.

green ray said...

Nathan, thanks again for your delightful blog! How hard and fast a rule is it that memoirs always have to be finished? An agent recently requested my proposal for a book that was previously agented, but then we were calling it more of a "how-to" of sorts. Now, I'm calling it a memoir, but it will still have essays on the subject matter in general. A little of both, I guess. I'm hoping the agent will be able to sell the proposal as it is, since it's not your typical memoir, and is quite unusual. What do you think? thanks, G.R.

Nathan Bransford said...

Green Ray,

It's tough to say without seeing the proposal itself (it's part how-to part memoir part essay collection?), but I'd say in general if it's not a very clearly marketable high concept idea you're probably going to have to write the whole thing. You may find an agent with a proposal, but to find a publisher chances are you'll have to write the whole thing. But again, without seeing the proposal I'm not positive.

greeen ray said...

Thanks, Nathan. You're fast! I guess I'll have to wait and see what the agent says. I've done so much work on my novels without yet selling them, so it would be great to get paid before finishing this one! Maybe if we remove the word "memoir," as my new subtitle is very alluring, but I don't want to reveal it here. Thanks again.

gm said...

Hi Nathan,

Thanks for this informative post!

Can you tell me how much of these rules apply to humorous non-fiction, say of the kind written by Michael Moore and spoofs like 'I moved your cheese!'?
For humorous non-fiction, would it make more sense to write the book first? Would be nice to get your thoughts on this. Thanks!

Roxan said...

This information will come in handy for me. My sister has been harping on me to write a book about our family. Then again, the story is so weird it might work better as fiction.

Nathan Bransford said...


For humorous nonfiction, especially debut humorous nonfiction, it's probably best to treat like a memoir and write the whole thing. But like everything else, it depends a lot on the project.

Susan Gunelius said...

I'm printing this out and using it as a reference ASAP. I'm writing my proposal now for my copywriting book that I asked you about in the forum.

Your manuscript formatting post will also be so helpful. Every book I buy tells me something different, so it's nice to have an agent give his perspective. Thank you.

By the way, your blog is fantastic! I just started my own web site, which includes a blog, based on your recommendations to establish a web presence. It's been a lot of fun putting it together, and I can't wait to build it into a useful tool.

Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks so much, Susan! Good luck with the proposal!

Anonymous said...

I assume that platform is all about the author's ability to promote the book. Since commercial publishers are in business to make money, why isn't there the same emphasis on platform for fiction and memoirs? Wouldn't a novel by George Bush, even if it's awful, be likely to sell better than a novel by George Nobody?


Simon Haynes said...

Non-fic = information in book form. If people want that info, you have a sale. (Even if the info is 'what Ms Hilton keeps in her handbag'.) You can advertise to the intended audience and many will buy.

Fiction = entertainment. There are untold millions of novels out there, so why do people need yours? They usually don't, until other people they know and trust tell them how good it is. With fiction, advertising can only get the ball rolling - in the end, it's all about the book.

JHK said...

Hi Nathan. I came across your blog while searching literary agents on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Your site has been the most informative, enjoyable and honest that I have found so far. Thank you for sharing so much helpful information.

Dr. Hack said...

Guidelines? Who needs guidelines. Agents love it better when you show how creative you are by inventing new submission methods/combinations that they've never heard of.

Michael said...

Hi Nathan,

When writing a non-fiction book proposal,under the outline/list chapters section, should I include an outline of a preface or just the chapters?

Thanks for your help

Nathan Bransford said...

Yes, if it's relevant to what is to come later, you might give a brief sketch of your preface as well.

Anonymous said...

Nathan how can you tell what to consider a book that although it is based on real life situations and contains many elements of self-reflection and self help is put together as in a story using fictional charaters? The information offered is real but the characters are fictional and represent archetypes found within each person (such as Herne, the Hermit, etc.)

Cara Coslow said...

I must agree with anonymous. You really have an incredibly blog. It's fun, engaging, but incredibly thorough and informative.


CHRIS PASH said...

My View:
Start with the story.
This one got me a good response: many requests for the full manuscript. And I contract arrived overnight from a publisher

It’s the 1970s.
A group of hippies climb into rubber boats and head out to sea to face explosive head harpoons. They have whales to save. And they have faith.
The whalers have steel ships, spotter aircraft, sonar, radar and working radios. They have high paying jobs. And they have the law on their side.

camie jo said...

So my question is, is it ever refreshing to get a submission from someone who has absolutely no clue as to how this whole process works, and so submits something unlike anything you recommend here? I mean, don't all these monochromatic electronic emails get boring, or would anything else be so unprofessional and banal that you would scoff aloud upon opening? Just wondering as someone who has NO idea how this whole process works and hoping that beginner's ignorance can somehow come across as innocent and cute instead of trite and uninformed (or do I need to do alot more reading???).

Nathan Bransford said...

camie jo-

No, not really. Someone who doesn't know what they're doing comes across as someone who hasn't done their research.

camie jo said...

I figured as much. Good thing I didn't submit my entire proposal in rhyme...
And thanks for the quick response.

Cam said...

New post on an older thread here. Perhaps this is a stupid question, but should a writer have the n/f proposal ready-to-go before querying the agent?

Nathan Bransford said...



Anonymous said...

So my question is, is it ever refreshing to get a submission from someone who has absolutely no clue as to how this whole process works, and so submits something unlike anything you recommend here? I mean, don't all these monochromatic electronic emails get boring, or would anything else be so unprofessional and banal that you would scoff aloud upon opening?
Well you have been told Camie Jo. A Sense of humour and self depreciation is not something that the publishing industry indulges in en masse. They would have to come out of the own rears for that. Touche.

katherine said...

I know you get a lot of these, but is my overview too long?

“I wish my eyes had not been opened” are the words from a hymn written by Carol Etzler. “To see all of the cruel things that we do to God's children.” These words are echoed by all of the whistle blowers who dared to take on the American political machine. I wish MY eyes had not been opened because I was forced to do something! My life as a whistle blower began in a beautiful, gracious and picturesque historic town which melds the forces of good and evil like the broken images of a kaleidoscope. When my vision cleared, the world I knew would be forever changed.
A young black girl from a modest broken home was an unlikely candidate for the second most powerful position in a southern and traditional city that was the scene of a race riot only a hundred years earlier that destroyed the lives of many successful blacks. But doting grandparents, a solid Roman Catholic upbringing, and a strong and loving mother provided the incubator that created a strong, independent, compassionate, and outspoken woman who refused to turn a blind eye to evil and injustice. After earning a college education and escaping two broken marriages, I returned to my roots with plans to help the folks in my hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina experience the American dreams of peace, prosperity, and happiness.
But whistle blowers are never prepared for the ramifications of going public with government secrets, political corruption, police brutality, and most of all, stories of pedophiles in three-piece suits and priestly garb. Sadly, all of the events in the book were exposed and reported in the media with only tepid coverage.
Much has been written on all of those subjects, but “Wish” is the first book that issues a chronology of events of the personal strife suffered by a whistle blower, stories of the lives of other whistle blowers, and the governmental agencies quietly empowered to wreak havoc on the lives of people whose revelations could mean jail time and the end to many prominent public careers.
“Wish” is two hundred spellbinding pages that reveal the rise and fall of the author and many others who dared to go public .The story is riveting as it replays briefly the author’s rags to riches story and the last fourteen tumultuous years that resulted in a return to “rags.” The book is based on over thirty years in the political arena from the campaign chairman of a hotly contested US Senate race to twelve years as the Mayor Pro Tem in Wilmington, North Carolina.
My life reminds me of the film, Enemy of the State, which is a film that was released in 1998 starring the actor Will Smith. Billed as a thriller, it is the story of a young successful lawyer whose life was thrust into turmoil when he stumbled upon information that could implicate some high-level government officials. The story could have been ripped from the pages of the author’s life. I wandered blindly into a system plagued with political corruption, police misconduct, and child sexual abuse. I watched in dismay as Council members misused millions of dollars of federal block grant money with schemes that would make Jesse James blush. I was horrified when I learned of the problems plaguing the police department. With six chiefs in eight years, the department was awash with allegations of police brutality, sexual misconduct, rape, drug abuse and cover-ups. I Wish That My Eyes Had Not Been Opened describes briefly my life before politics and details my journey and survival in a world of unspeakable evils.
Wilmington, North Carolina is the personification of gracious living, southern hospitality, gentility, and charm. It stands like a grandiose sovereignty on the banks of the Cape Fear River and is recognized as the "City of a million azaleas” and the Hollywood of the East. Wilmington is the home to Screen Gems Studio and the fastest growing university in the South. It is the vacation destination of millions who come to bask in the sun on the dazzling shores of the Atlantic Ocean and to take a trip back in time as they stroll the brick streets of the old historic district beautifully restored to resemble America’s Colonial Era. Wilmington reigns as the economic and cultural heart of southeastern North Carolina.
I am proud to say that my roots in this splendid city were planted two hundred and fifty years ago... Aside from my African American lineage, my mixed heritage encompasses all of the cultural and racial complexities of the "Old South." Fair skin, auburn hair, and hazel eyes pay homage to my Native American great grandmother, my English great-great grandfathers, and one whose descendants served in the North Carolina Senate beginning in the 1800 and whose palatial home is now an historic landmark in Wilmington. The other was a wealthy landowner whose name still adorns the major thoroughfare to the North Carolina State Port in Wilmington. The cultural complexity of my genealogy includes a Jewish great great grandfather from a Muslim state. The history of this city flows through my veins as surely as the blood of my ancestors who lived and died there...
Like my ancestors before me, I blossomed in Wilmington. As a young businesswoman, I was intricately involved in the community, serving on many boards and commissions that included state appointments, Chairman of the New Hanover County Human Relations Commission, Second Vice President of the Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina Public Television, Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington .She entertained dignitaries and celebrities in her home including the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, State Senators, and Congressmen. A successful business was established that was nationally recognized in USA Today and Good Housekeeping. I was also a guest on Good Morning America, the Sally Jesse Raphael Show, and the Faith Daniels Show. And like a "Pop Princess" with a disastrous marriage, I graced the pages of Star Magazine. With a background as a speech and theater teacher, I traveled the country speaking as an advocate for women's issues and small businesses. The most extraordinary opportunities occurred when I gave the keynote address at the US Small Business Administration’s National Convention in Washington, DC and filmed the SBA’s national public service announcement.
After years of volunteering in the community, I fill an unexpired term on the Wilmington City Council and was re-elected three times in at-large elections by the citizens of the City and elected Mayor Pro Tem five times by my fellow council members spanning a decade. I often remarked, “I am home.”
But even in the "Garden of Eden," knowledge becomes a burden. Wilmington is also home to the 2nd highest crime rate in the state of North Carolina and remains on the FBI's list of high crime areas. Drugs flow freely as the Sheriff’s Department and the Police Department squabble over territory. Wilmington is the home to a Sheriff that traveled to Florida to confiscate drug money that he said belonged to a local attorney who defended the drug dealer. The Sheriff’s office also has the distinction of four deaths in four years, including an eighteen- year old college student who was shot through his wooden front door as a seven-member swat team went to question him about the theft of a play station. And among the six police chiefs hired in the last eight years at the police department, three were ineffective as they were mired in the three B’s: Boys, Babes, and Booze. One chief, Bob Wadman, was the subject of a book written by former Nebraska state senator, John W. DeCamp, entitled “The FranklinCover-Up which accuses the chief of numerous crimes against children. During Mr. Wadman’s tenure chaos reigned supreme amid allegations of intimidation, harassment, death threats, and sexual exploitation that sparked the birth of a very perverted police underground newspaper.
The latest departing chief left a memo with the following quotes: “I would describe the PD current status as coming apart at the seams," and referring to a fellow officer, “I would recommend he be moved to professional standards for his own protection.” The officer who needed protection was jokingly referred to as "Mr.Clean.”
As a councilmember for fourteen years, I fought the system of corruption, racism, lawlessness, police brutality, pedophilia, and illegal drug traffic and in frustration, wrote and self-published a book entitled, Under Oath: Memoirs of an Honest Politician, where I “spilled the beans.”
But I was not prepared for the events that followed the publishing of the book. I would soon learn that these criminals would resort to any means necessary to remain anonymous, including, harassment, intimidation, and character assassination and they were connected from the Court House to the White House. They destroyed anyone who dared to challenge them. I dared!
I have felt the sting of pain, grief, disappointments, racism, poverty and hunger; but nothing in life prepared me for the fourteen years that I served on the City Council in Wilmington, North Carolina. “I Wish My Eyes Had Not Been Opened.” There was no way to fathom what would lie ahead and how often her faith would be challenged. “Wish” offers a view of the life of a government whistle blower who has lived fourteen years in the dark and dangerous world of political corruption, pedophiles, and police brutality stalked by a government agency that few in the public are aware. Years of research produce a vivid profile of the operations of this agency also referred to by journalist, Bill Moyers, as the “secret government.”
Readers will enjoy a beautiful and descriptive story of a young girl growing up in rural North Carolina. They will be intrigued, fascinated and outraged at the stories of corruption and misuse of the millions of tax dollars used to stalk, harass, and intimidate government whistle blowers.

katherine said...

Sorry about error. Her faith should read my faith.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan-

Are you an agent who wants sample chapters and a table of contents with the query for nonfiction up front all at once? Or do you only want the query part of the proposal first?


Julie said...

Hi Nathan,

Do you have advice on how to approach putting together a book proposal for narrative nonfiction based on *upcoming* travels?

I'm quitting my 9-5 and heading to New Zealand for a year to hitchhike my way around both islands. I leave in Sept - and plan on submitting a book proposal before my departure. For obvious reasons, other than a chapter on Pre-Departure, there isn't much more I can write.

Is there a different approach for travelogues?


Julie Gauthier

msfriendly said...

Nathan, thank you for taking the time to share this information with the public. I have been struggling with the creation of a non-fiction proposal for the past month...I'm not quite sure what if I'm writing will be what agents are looking for. Will these guidelines also apply to blogs- turned-memoir?

Thank you!

Nathan Bransford said...


Upcoming travels is a challenge because editors are often reluctant to commit to a project when the events haven't happened yet, particularly when the author is unknown. But I would try to write as much sample material as you can if you do want to try it.


The rules for memoir are more like the rules for novels. There are exceptions, but usually the whole thing needs to be written.

msfriendly said...


Thank you for the information, and I do apologize for the error in my prior post!

Ms. Friendly

aileen said...

Great blog! One thing I am never sure about is whether or not to send the book proposal agents ask for when you have already written the book (new-age/eastern/philosophy)?

Any ideas on that?

tony said...

Nathan, your blog is fantastic. The best around.

You mention several times that "memoirs are like novels" -- does that mean not to write a proposal and stick with just the manuscript? I've completed and polished the manuscript for my memoir (coming of age in China), and now two of the agents I've queried are asking for a proposal, which I haven't put together. I thought proposals were for 'prescriptive' nonfiction. I do have a 4-page synopsis and (obviously) the completed manuscript. Is it worth my time to put together a proposal now, too?

Marianne Thomas said...

This post is so helpful; thanks for sharing your experience with us writing folk.


WindBlowerTM said...

Dear Nathan

Thank you so much for posting these advices, they are truly helpful.
Thank You!

Angel said...

Thanks so much for info-there is little 'decent stuff' on the web about non fiction proposals.

I am a rookie writer and have found your blog several times over recent weeks. It really is most informative and you are very good to give your time and advice as freely as you do.

will no doubt see you again
warm wishes

Anonymous said...

Nathan, thank you so much for all you do to help us neophytes. I have completed my first novel about a young, Native American couple who wish to leave the Meskwaki Settlement in Iowa and assimilate into the white man’s world of the 1930’s. It now seems to me that one of the most important things in finding an agent is to find one who looks for work within ones particular genre. The scope of my genre is rather unique and most agents are not willing to even take a look. Am I correct in this observation?
Thanks for your opinion.

R.E. Fitzgerald said...

Thank you for this blog. Am I correct to understand that a non-fiction book proposal can be 30 pages? How should it be bound? Should it include a table of contents or chapter overview? I've put my proposal into a blog. ( But, after reading your blog I assume this idea of sending a link to agents is not a good one, true?
-R.E. Fitzgerald

Anonymous said...

What a great Blog. Thank you for doing it.

You mention stating the reason I am the best person to write the book. What if I have no background in the subject? I am in advertising sales but I occasionally find subjects that I find fascinating and end up researching them to death just because of my curiosity. Often I feel I am the only person I know that is so well informed. However, does that make me an expert? I am currently researching Americans that retire overseas (because of a family member’s intent to do so) I have learned a great deal about the subject and have more books on order to further my knowledge. But as I said I’m in advertising so there isn’t a natural background there. Any suggestions?

Kenny Celican said...

Not sure if you'll have a useful answer or not, but based on past experience, the answer will be either informative, amusing, or both, so here goes:

How would a proposal for a textbook differ from that of narrative non-fiction? I've been asked to assist with the writing and submission on one, and mostly that means I'm doing the research.

Common sense tells me that the Biography / Credentials might have more impact on a textbook, but common sense isn't always.

Any advice?

Richard said...

You have a great blog.
I appreciate this entry but entries about non-fiction are rare.
So, if you don't mind, could you recommend blogs that are nearly as good as yours but focus more broadly on non-fiction?
Thanks a bunch,

Dr. Bingo said...

I want to question one (or several) of your claims. I have an agent for a serious non-fiction book. She has a history of sales of real books, so I'm reasonably confident that she knows what she's doing. The proposal is out with editors right now. To acquire the agent, I submitted sample chapters, as well as a full proposal of the sort you describe. After that, though, we completely rewrote the proposal. Stem to stern. We scrapped the sample chapters. We scrapped the market analysis. We just went with an overview, an explanation of my platform, and descriptive chapter outlines. Is my agent insane or does this sometimes also work?

Nathan Bransford said...

dr. bingo-

I would characterize that as atypical, but what's needed really depends on the particular project. Proposals vary a lot.

The Writer said...

Hi - does this cover comical travelogues? (The Bill Bryson / Stephen Clarke type of book? )

I'm editing mine again ... I was doodling on Accent Press' web and she asked to read 3 chaps plus synopsis but sadly it didn't fit in with her titles. But she recommended Summersdale. But I want to get it professionally read first - Hilary Johnson Advisory Service - then submit. Am also sorting a web out.

Lesley (from Old Blighty): 0 )

Douglas said...


Great blog. Questions, if you have time: I've written and had published two non-fiction books, both through non-agent approaches. While my first book was academic, my second book would probably be considered ... medium market ($-wise). This publisher and I have talked about doing more books. As I'd like to break into the top market, I'll need an agent, but one thing I never understood was whether the agent would now expect to get involved in the relationship I already have with my existing publisher? Or do they only get involved in the mss I send them? My fear in getting an agent is that it will disturb my good working relationship with my current publisher, who gave me above average royalties, and has scheduled ebook/audiobook editions for my first book (which I appreciate), and probably wants to do more books with me.

Also, since I am a (non-famous) published non-fiction author, how important is the pre-completed sample chapters when I contact an agent? My first book req'd a lot, my second req'd 2 chapters, and as I mentioned I am looking at a 3rd book with the same publisher who published the second, and they only want a few pages pre-contract. So, does being published matter? Or am I sorta starting all over again when I get an agent?

Corine St.Ofle said...

Hello kind sir,

First, of course, I would like to thank you for the blog. Everyone else seems to do so, and it would be rude of me not to.

My question is the following:
Can narrative non-fiction ever be pitched in the same manner as fiction (that is to say, without the "overview)?

Would you have any insight as to how to submit a story that is fiction-like in content, much like a "Running with Scissors", yet different from a memoir in the sense that it recounts a much shorter period than that which would be expected in that genre?

Thank you for your consideration, and I hope you are enjoying your time at the Cheneys. If Dick suggests a stroll in the woods, may I recommend that you politely feign a headache or temporary paralysis?

MH said...

I included sample marketing & PR plan as well :)

Vodka Mom said...

I have been searching for information like THIS for a week.

thank you...

and to katherine up there? yes.

JaneBoHa said...

Nathan, I don't know if I'm within the topic of this particular post but I'll send this out and let you be the judge. I'm writing a book from my dog's point of view - and it's a true story (started out as a blog): The book was initially intended to be a children's book, to guide children in caring for an injured animal (and as such had the blessing and support of the animal medical center), though as written (and with many photos to illustrate)it also had a broader appeal. As I experienced my dog's healing and continued to write, I then discovered, when talking to a child psychologist, that the book was really like a fable, as are stories with animals, with a life lesson, not just one life lesson but several. I then found one "proposal" suggestion that had us define the main characters, the conflict of each, how the conflict was resolved, etc. The main characters are the dog, and the two adults. While it's thought-provoking to think of my book from this point of view, the adult conflicts are not appropriate to include in a children's book, and certainly the dog doesn't know much about them! Now I understand that children's books have fewer pages and a lesser word-count than my book, which is too short for an adult book. But the adult books don't want to include the number of photographs that we have, which are important because they illustrate the process of healing from injury to renewal. Besides: Who ever heard of a book about (or by) a dog without cute photos?

Seems like the publishing world is organized into little categories, unless you're a BIG name and can operate beyond categories.

So now I don't know which direction to go in because it's about these genres. Which means also that I'm "stuck" at the "proposal" level. We're part children's, part mature, part narrative non-fiction, part "how to", definitely very funny, with a lot of photos!

What to do? Or who to turn to?


LLehrner said...

I just came across your blog while searching for, "how to write a non-fiction proposal," and it is very helpful. As a new author I feel as if agents are trying to scare me out of submitting because my credentials lack, but your blog is friendly and quite encouraging. I appreciate you taking the time to answer questions as the writing world can be confusing. I really love the blog and the warm feeling it gives off! Thanks!

Heather said...

Hi Nathan,

I'm curious. There's something I can't figure out. You are far and away the most helpful purveyor of advice for new authors that I've found, but even you do not have a listing on how to write a fiction book proposal. Book proposals are apparently for nonfiction. But last year trying to sell my novel at a writers' conference I had an agent AND a publisher ask for a proposal. I couldn't find out what on earth a fiction proposal should look like and when I asked them they weren't helpful. (As if they have time to give that kind of instructions! Agents aren't there to give stupid beginners instructions! Oh wait...) I finally threw something together loosley based on nonfiction proposals but with a synopsis.

So... were they really just asking for a partial, are the rules changing, or were they completely insane?

Nathan Bransford said...


Usually proposals for fiction are comprised of an overview/synopsis, sometimes accompanied by a character summary or outline, and then a hefty excerpt from the novel, 30-100 pages depending on the situation and project. Sort of a slightly scaled down version of a nonfiction book proposal.

You can almost never sell a debut on proposal, so I think they probably just wanted to see the overview/synopsis and sample pages to get a sense of the project.

Anonymous said...

Hope I'm not too late to this topic to ask. Are there any significant differences in the proposal structure for middle grade nonfiction? Does it make a difference if the writer will be pitching to her current (fiction) agent?

Thanks so much for your terrific blog!

Kay said...

Hello Nathan,

I realize you've heard this many times by now, but wow! What a great blog!

My question to you is: what does a good query look like for a non-fiction book? I've seen in your blog a formula for fiction queries, examples of good fiction queries and an excellent framework from which to build a non-fiction proposal. However, it appears to me that I would have to query an agent first before submitting a proposal and I was hoping that you could outline what a good non-fiction query would look like. Or do you just send the full proposal with sample chapters etc. right off the bat?

Thank you for all of your great info and the time you take to post it here!

Laura said...


Thank you for the excellent and extremely useful post! I (and many other readers of this blog, I'm sure) wouldn't mind seeing some of your favorite examples of a good non-fiction query letter. Just sayin'.

I'm writing a query for a non-fiction book that discusses the cultural impact of something that's been, up til now, largely internet-based. Would it be appropriate to include samples of blog posts and their photos in the 'Other' section, to indicate that there's a large and diverse online reach for this specific topic (which would be discussed in the book)? Examples include themed recipes, XBOX mods, fan costumes, snow sculptures, and hundreds of toys and clothing I said, it's diverse. Is there a good way to format stuff like that, if it's okay to present it?


JaneBoHa said...

What is more important in the sample chapters - the number "three" chapters or a word count? I ask because my first three chapters are a total of 500 words. If the idea is to see 750 words (derived by 3 pages averaging 250 words each), then I would include more chapters.

Thank you.

livejasmin said...

nice share you have here, keep up the good work !

Aaron Heideman said...

Hey Nathan,

I like your ideas, but what if my memoir is also a collective self-portrait of America? Do I have to play by the same rules? Find me on Facebook.

JP said...

I just jumped over here from the Authonomy site. The place is swarming with fiction, HELP!
I was shocked to see so few non fiction writers. Obviously I'm new, but is that an indication of the agent ratio for non fiction representation?

If so, this might be harder than I dreamed, considering my subject.


Angel-Star said...

Hi Nathan, just found you yesterday and already I am such a fan of your measured, wise and compassionate approach to the writing life. Your happy writer rules are awesome...and your generous spirit shines very clearly through your blog. I am a follower and fan, and plan in the near future to send a non-fiction proposal. Thank you for the tips.
Best Wishes, Star

Jennifer Stephens said...

Hello Nathan,

I just found your site and I love the way you give honest and useful information. I know you said to treat memoir like a novel, but I have a special case. I am currently helping a woman who is both well known and notorious in my city to write a short memoir of her life as a non-confidential ghost writer (name on the project). She and I are both dirt poor - so I am not asking her to pay me up front (i know, i know - bad idea, but it wont work otherwise and I like her a lot) and I was planning to get money from an advance to write the book. Now Im scared that I need the whole thing - which I dont have the time to write unless I have some money for it so I can take time off. I guess my question is this: Is it possible to sell a memoir with a proposal and sample chapters only since she is well known already? Do I address the fact that the manuscript is unfinished in the proposal? How should I proceed? Any help would be massively helpful.

Jennifer S said...

^ I made some misleading grammatical errors. I will be helping her to write about her life, and I will be the non-confidential ghost writer. (I made it seem like I said I would be writing about HER life as a ghost writer - which would not be a very interesting book compared to her real life as a performer and prostitute...)

alan said...

Just out of curiosity, how much of an effort should an author expect from an agent to sell a book?

I appreciate that this is a bit like asking 'how long is a piece of string?', but I recently received a knock back from an agent who said that although I was writing in a popular genre (the ms. is a biographical non-fiction narrative set in WWII), she felt it was insufficiently 'robust' for it to be a 'slam dunk project' with publishers.

I felt like writing back saying if it was a slam dunk, I wouldn't really be needing her services, because the publishers would be fighting themselves to get to it...

I realise that no agent is expected to flog a dead horse, but to extend her analaogy, is a hail Mary shot from outside the keyhole ever in order?

For the record, I'm an award-winning published author. Grateful your views.

Anonymous said...

I have a wonderful albeit complicated story for a book but I do not consider myself a writer. Do you have any suggestions for a novice?

PVC Mermaid said...

I am working on a non-fiction book at the moment and am preparing my proposal. The book itself is made up of a series of biographies of different historical women, linked thematically and compared and contrasted with one another. Each biography is one chapter and therefore, my chapters are on the long side (8-12k words).

I am therefore unsure if I should send the full 3 sample chapters sometimes indicated. I know "how long is a chapter" is like asking how long a piece of string is, but I can't help but think an agent is not really interesting in getting a novella-length "sample". I'm sure he or she will have made up their mind long before the end of that!

How much would you recommend I send in these circumstances?

Darah Zeledon said...

Wow! I am a total rookie and seems the work involved is far greater than a proposal for a fiction book.

My question is very basic and indeed ignorant, but I will go for it anyway since I can hide my identity behind the computer screen.

Once an agent agrees to "take you on," is an editor assigned to assist the writer in the actual writing/organizing/classifying process or must one simply arrive with a fully edited complete manuscript? For ex., in my case, I have a brief synopsis of each of the chapter of my book- for a total of about 50-70 pages. Is that enough to "use" in order to reel in an agent?

What is a respectable amount of pages for a non-fic book? Sorry, I am not versed in word numbers, I still think in pages...
Thanks so much! Darah

sparrowintherain said...

My question is fairly simple. When you're writing a chapter outline for a proporsal based on a memoir, do you use your name, or do you just say the author? Ex: Jane Doe was shocked to hear the news OR The author was shocked to hear the news?
Thanks kindly,

sparrowintherain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rich k. said...

Nathan. Great info!!! I am a new writer and my book is a memoir about growing up in Cleveland during the 60's. I am getting conflicting info regarding query vs. proposal. I am being told a proposal must be done. Others say I must finish my book prior to submitting a query; no proposal needed. Whar are your thoughts on this? Thanks!

Bob said...


Are your book proposal guidelines any different for humor book proposals? I'm writing my first humor book.


Hristo said...

Hello Nathan Brandsford!
great Blog! Very helpful information. Am,i just wonder, if the nonfiction book is about reduce the poverty and crime in the world, reach the milenium revolution in our lives on the planet and all future times, to what or who agen i should send a proposal?
Thank you!

arodrigu said...

Hi Nathan,
Your blog is wonderful. Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge (and humor). I have a meeting with an editor in two months, scheduled through the writing community I belong to. (So she has agreed to meet with people without seeing their queries.) I can now submit a query, a synopsis/overview, and 20 pages of writing. I am writing a collection of essays (humor and parenting). I have scoured the internet looking for a way to do the overview for a book of essays. Could you help point me in the right direction? It doesn't fall under regular non-fiction guidelines. I'd love your help. Thank you! (The book is basically done.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan - Love your blog. I recently wrote a memoir, have been sending out query letters and two agents have asked for my proposal and a sample chapter. Is the proposal in question the same as a non-fiction book proposal? The memoir is about a recent trip to the Middle East - uggggh. Can I just send in a synopsis?

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan - Love your blog. I recently wrote a memoir, have been sending out query letters and two agents have asked for my proposal and a sample chapter. Is the proposal in question the same as a non-fiction book proposal? The memoir is about a recent trip to the Middle East - uggggh. Can I just send in a synopsis?

Owatrol Paint Conditioner said...

It is important that the proposal include a writing sample, for the editor to have an idea on the sense of your style. You may have great ideas, but that is not enough if you cannot effectively convey them.

Ndnchic83 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Torg said...

Well done Nathan. Thanks! Shared it with my Facebook buds. Take care!

Fearless Leader of the CLF said...

Thanks so much for the great article. This was the most concise article on the subject that I could find.

Bee said...

After reading this I am now thinking how I can turn my non fiction book into a fiction one! :-)

Sarah said...


I am writing a proposal for a chapbook related to food. Since the particular book I am doing hasn't been done before in this vein - I've found a fresh angle - I assume I would still have to compare it to books that have been written about the same subject.

The next issue is that the chapters aren't really chapters in the traditional sense. Do I therefore include two or three sections?

Finally, while I don't have much of a platform - most of my published work doesn't relate to the subject - I assume that my extensive background in the area would suffice.

If you need further information to provide a genuine answer, please leave me an email address where I might contact you. Otherwise, I look forward to your answer to my post on this board.

tg said...


What would be your advice for a non-writer with a compelling true story (as in one that will be told in national media) who also doesn't have the money to get hire an editor to help with the proposal. I'm afraid I'll butcher a fantastic story. At best I could come up with a one page on my own I would say.

Emmanuel K. Agbeletey said...

You guys are awesome. You really helped me.

Avery June said...


You're a good egg.


Anonymous said...

I've seen here examples of good fiction query letters. Are there any examples of good non-fic query letters?

Carreen Schroeder said...

Hi Nathan and thank you for this post. Although I have been a poetry writer throughout my life, I have been in the throes of a very passionate non-fiction book for a number of years now. I write, I shy away, I write, and so on. I am currently in the 'I am ready to draft and send my query letter' frame of mind. I do not know how long I will be at this bold venture but hope I can keep up the momentum to see it through and was wondering if you would be so kind as to help me with a little confusion I have: I have been told that for a non-fiction query letter,there should be three parts ONLY: The Hook; Mini-Synopsis; Bio. However, you have reminded me of what I have read before - 1. Previously written books in the same genre but how 'mine' is unique and; 2. The necessity of my book - how the world will know a more peaceful existence when it is published sort of thing.

My letter has been modified to include #'s 1 and 2 above but I will now barely have room to add the Addressee's name at the top without spilling over to a second page which I have been strictly told to avoid. Any advice?

Anonymous said...

And a couple more questions, if I might.

1 - How does the overview differ from the query? At first glance, they seem to cover the same territory.

2 - How long should the proposal be (minus the sample chapters)? one page? Two?

3 - I'm guessing the non-fic query also needs to be one page, right?

Nathan Bransford said...

Nonfiction queries are really very similar to fiction queries. They should still be in the same word count range, and they need to get across the voice of the work and the gist of the project. The only main difference is that credentials for any kind of prescriptive nonfiction (e.g. "The Platform") is more important in nonfiction than fiction.

The overview is usually 3-5 pages and is something different than the query letter. Hope that helps!

Beatty said...

Your blog is FANTASTIC! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

If I have a book written and need an agent, do I use a query or a proposal? My book is non-fiction but not one that needs research. its true events that perrsonally happened.

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