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???
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.