I got my agent with a book proposal. The proposal was for my nonfiction pop culture book about the history of Black women on TV. I read a book about how to put together a proposal. That book was Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction and Get It Published by Susan Rabiner & Alfred Fortunato and it was recommended to me by my dear CP, Lucie. Then, when I told my mentor what I was writing, she put Celeste Fine‘s “7 Secrets to Writing a 7-Figure Book Proposal” on my radar. Finally, I turned to Google and YouTube for the appropriate blog posts and vlogs that would help and inspire me in this endeavor. Here’s what I did after I gathered what I needed from each source and molded it into what I wanted for my proposal:
First, I must start off by saying that I had NO idea what I was doing when crafting my non-fiction book proposal. The only thing holding me together was knowing that pop culture, TV in particular, is MY JAM and that’s what I was writing about so if I could just free write and enjoy the ride, the rest would come together. It did. So shake off the nervousness and when you’re ready to sit down and start working, let your passion for the project, your love for the topic at hand completely take over. Let it pour out of you. Let it bleed onto the pages. Give yourself permission to fangirl/fanboy over the topic at hand. Agents will see that passion, hear your voice and absolutely love it.
Second, while I was on the idea high, I needed to get organized. Fiction requires a completed (written and revised) manuscript and non-fiction requires the completed book proposal (written and revised). The proposal includes what I detail below and sample chapters, which together, is about 50 pages. So I needed to sit down and outline my plan for the book. And when I say outline, I don’t mean just bullet point all of the major beats of the story, I mean an outline that spells out every facet of the book to come. Since it’s non-fiction and I’m working with facts, it was much easier to nail down what I wanted to write about and organize all of that into chapters and scenes. I had a ball doing all of this because brainstorming is really fun for me. Enjoy the journey!
Third, once I had a clear vision of the project ahead, I was ready to sit down and write the proposal. Here’s what it included:
Title, Subtitle, Name, Contact Information, Projected Word Count
This is basically a slightly longer Twitter Pitch to the max. My hook came out to about 70 words and I was aiming for 50-100 words.
This is a brief summary detailing what the project is, why it’s important and unique, what inspired me to write the book and why I’m the right person to take on the subject matter. It also includes the projected word count, projected time of manuscript completion, and the mention of a possible sequel. Basically, it’s a much more detailed query letter (only nonfiction queries talk about the entire book whereas a fiction query letter does not give away the ending of a book). This came out to just under 700 words for me. Aiming for 500-1,000 words is a good goal.
Detail your demographic. Mention who the primary audience is. I repeat, primary. This is not the time to be vague! Know who you are targeting specifically. Explain why they are the primary audience as well as why this book will be in demand & the audience will pick up the book. This came out at just over 500 words for me.
Mention 3-5 books from the last three years that are successful comp titles. Explain what those books are about, why your book is different and the advantages of that – what your book has to offer that the other books are lacking. This is not about knocking another book to make yours look good, especially if you end up submitting your proposal to the same publisher as that book that you’re comping. This is about detailing how what is already out in the market is strong (which is good for you) but here’s what will take the conversation even further (your book being out there, which is good for you). Share what works about these books but detail how your book will fill the void where these books did not. This came out to just over 1,000 words for me as I originally had seven comp titles and a few of them were not published within the last three years.
About the Author
Your credentials are crucial for non-fiction. You must lay out why you are qualified to take on the subject matter you are for your non-fiction book. Mention every and any success you have had within the subject matter and what relevant experience makes you an expert on the subject at hand. All of your relevant credentials need to be in here. If you have been interviewed by the mainstream audience or made notable public appearances, been featured in the media, or recognized professionally for any relevant work, have a blog and/or newsletter with an impressive readership (share the numbers), have a strong social media platform (again, present the numbers) etc…, mention it all here and be detailed. Sell yourself. This came in at just under 400 words for me. Also, once I started editing the proposal with my agent, she added a photo of me above the About the Author section so I highly suggest adding a photo ahead of time.
Marketing and Promotion
Detail your plan of what you will do (not might do) to market the book. Mention all of your relevant influential connections, their websites/stats, and how they can endorse your work + who/what media you will reach out to for endorsements. Also, mention what you are excited about to possibly collaborate on with the publisher’s in-house publicity department over the course of the year leading up to your book’s release. This came in at just under 1,200 words for me which was cut considerably in editing with my agent because I was way too detailed. I’ve learned that less is more here! Give away the goods but not all of them! They need to know what work you’re going to put in on this end but they don’t need every little detail as to how you’re going to go about it.
Chapter Outline / Summaries
This is the Table of Contents breakdown. Write a one-two paragraph synopsis for each chapter of the book. Be creative and compelling, have fun, bring your voice. Your tone throughout the entire proposal needs to get those reading excited, especially as they get closer to the sample chapters.
Table of Contents
This is self explanatory. Have fun coming up with the titles and possibly subtitles for each chapter! I highly suggest studying the TOC of similar books to see how those books are structured.
The first 1-3 chapters of the book. I included the Introduction and Chapter One.
Finally, once I wrote and revised the proposal, a few CPs took a look multiple times and gave me notes until it was query ready, as some agents want you to submit the full proposal when querying. I had to make sure that every part of the proposal was clear, concise and engaging. Bringing your passion and voice to the page is a must as well. Your proposal must be just as strong as your sample chapters. And your sample chapters need to have the same amount of energy and excitement and voice as your proposal. Just because it’s non-fiction, doesn’t mean your work has to be sterile. Have fun with it. Show off!
So that’s how I put my non-fiction proposal together. I can only speak to my experience of putting my proposal together, every proposal has the same overall content but no proposal will look the same. So I highly encourage you to read the book that I mentioned in the beginning, Thinking Like Your Editor and figure out what works for you!
Since I know most of our audience writes YA fiction, I’m curious… if you were writing a non-fiction book, what would yours be about?