How do I write a winning book proposal? Essential elements to include in your nonfiction book proposal.

(A partial summary/ review of  How to Write a Book Proposal: The Insider’s Step-by-Step Guide to Proposals that Get You Published, by Jody Rein with Michael Larson).

So, you have a great idea for a nonfiction book.

You already have a substantial author platform.

You’ve spent time building your author portfolio.

You don’t mind that your book won’t be out in the next six months or even this year.

And you’ve decided you want to publish traditionally

You’ll need to make sure you spend plenty of time writing a winning book proposal to get that book deal.

This post outlines the main components you’ll want to include in your book proposal and is a somewhat summary/ review of this excellent book by Jody Rein and Michael Larson (a book that I always recommend to clients who are writing proposals).

***Do check the specifications of your intended publisher/ agent before you submit your proposal!***

I don’t go into the pros and cons of traditional versus self-publishing here (what’s right for one author won’t be right for everyone). Jane Friedman has a great post about traditional vs self-publishing if you want to learn more.

And, if you are planning to self-publish your book or later decide to self-publish, writing a proposal is a useful exercise to go through anyway. Not only will this work help you focus your book and make sure it will actually sell, it’ll make the process of writing and marketing your book way easier as you’ll already have a clear outline and marketing plan. In fact, you’ll be able to turn your proposal into a plan for self-publishing.

My colleagues and I were lucky in that our commissioning editor at Macmillan worked with us to produce our proposal for Reflective Writing for Nursing, Health and Social Work (the book is now published by Bloomsbury).

This relationship was based on a simple email outlining our clear idea and viable audience for the book.

Book cover: Macmillan Study skills
Reflective writing for nursing, health and social work, Elizabeth Tanguay, Peter Hanratty and Ben Martin
Book cover: Bloomsbury Study skills
Reflective writing for nursing, health and social work, Elizabeth Tanguay, Peter Hanratty and Ben Martin

Working with a commissioning editor may not be the typical route to publication for many nonfiction authors (different publishers have different approaches so always check). However, going through the process with an editor at a top-five publisher did give us top-notch training on how to structure and write a winning nonfiction book proposal.

Unlike for fiction, nonfiction books are sold based on a proposal (including at least one sample chapter) rather than the whole manuscript. So the good news is that you don’t need to write your entire book to submit a proposal.

So if you don’t need to write an entire book to submit a book proposal, what should you include?

And, as promised here are the fundamentals of a book proposal set out in Rein and Larson, 2017:

The three main parts of a book proposal:

  1. Marketing information (to reassure your publisher that your book is actually going to sell).
  2. An overview of your book (to give your publisher a clear idea of how the final product will look, including number of pages and any special features).
  3. Sample writing (to show your publisher that yes, you will actually be able to write your book and also give them a flavour of your writing style).

Specifically, you’ll want to include the following elements in your book proposal:

  1. ‘Pizzaz’* (this is a term that Rein and Larson use and I think it’s useful to describe that ‘something special’ about your book): Pizzaz is the wow factor to grab the reader’s attention (often known as a ‘hook’). This might be a mission statement, how your book is the first book to do xyz or to do xyz in a particular way or perhaps a fact or question. For example, RW was the first book to actually teach the writing of reflection that health students or professionals need for study or continuing professional development. This hook shows a clear benefit to the reader and showed the book had the promise of being a valuable ‘longtail’ book that would continue to sell many copies for years to come.
  2. Overview: This is a brief summary of your book, including your primary argument or thesis and your target audience. This may also be similar to the description used on the publisher’s website to sell the book. Here’s the RW overview from the publisher’s website:
    • “This book takes students step-by-step through the process of planning and writing a reflective essay, beginning with crucial guidance on planning and structure. It introduces different reflective frameworks and shows readers how to structure a piece of writing according to a particular framework. Chapters contain a wealth of activities and exercises which will help build students’ skills and confidence. Suitable for students of all health-related disciplines in which written assignments requiring reflective practice are required.”
  3. Book specifications: How long will the book be (word count)? How many pages? What size will will the book be? You can check out similar books to your book or an idea of specifications.
  4. Author bio: Brief professional information about you, including any relevant credentials (experience, qualifications, publications or speaking engagements). Why are you the right person to write this book? Have you written any articles or blog posts on your topic already? Have you taught, or do you teach in some capacity on this subject? What is your expert status in working on or researching this subject? You may include a link to a video here.
  5. Author platform: The audience or community you have built and engage with. Your platform can include membership of organisations and leadership positions relevant to the topic of your book. This section can also include traditional media appearances, social media platforms, mailing list numbers and awards you have won.
  6. Personal promotion*: This section explains to the publisher your detailed plan for promoting your book. Contrary to popular belief, apart from for top authors, there is very little budget set aside for book promotion. Much of the promotion activity for your book will be up to you. And, this is a good time to suggest that if you don’t want to promote your book, then you may want to rethink becoming an author! Your marketing and promotion plan could include podcasts you intend to speak on, any conferences or summits you will speak at, professional organisations whose members would be interested in your book, and your current platform (mailing list or Facebook group numbers can be useful here). Be as specific as you can here. How many people can you contact directly to sell your book? Are a you a member of any organisations that might buy the book in bulk or add the book to a suggested reading list? If so, how many members do these organisations have? How many listeners does your podcast have?
  7. Audience: Who is the main audience for your book? Is there a secondary audience? For RW the main audience was nursing, health and social work students, but secondary audiences include professionals using the book for support in their continuing professional development as well as university staff and lecturers who would recommend the book.
  8. Competitive/ market analysis or ‘comps’: This is a comparison of the proposed book to similar books currently on the market along with figures. What other books do your readers like to read? If you’re worried that your book has already been written, read this post.
  9. Table of contents: This is what it says on the tin! You may change you chapter headings when you come to write the book, but make sure your TOC gives a clear indication of what will be in each chapter and that there is a logical progression from one chapter to the next.
  10. Detailed outline: This more detailed outline should include chapter summaries.
  11. Sample chapter(s): Sample writing from the book that demonstrates your voice and the book’s content. Choose at least one of your best middle chapters here to give a clear flavour of the style and content of your book (the first chapter isn’t always representative and though you may decide to include this as well.
  12. Supplemental material*: This can be anything to back up your proposal that you wouldn’t include in the main proposal (e.g. articles or reviews of previous books).

Finally, ensure that your proposal is well-written and professionally presented. And of course, you need to make sure you don’t have any typos so it’s worth at the very least getting your proposal proofread!

*Optional elements.

I highly recommend this book for anyone writing a book proposal. Not only does it outline each of the elements above in great detail, it also answers the kinds of questions clients often have about language when putting together a book proposal (for example, should I use first or third person in my author bio?).

If you want a professional pair of eyes on your book proposal, I offer nonfiction book proposal editing.

Pop me a message below to get started. I look forward to hearing about your book idea!

References and further reading:

How to Write a Book Proposal: The Insider’s Step-by-Step Guide to Proposals that Get You Published. Jody Rein with Michael Larson. 5th edition, 2017.

Reedsy book proposal template (not as detailed as Rein and Larson’s book but still useful).

Start Here: How to Write a Book Proposal + Book Proposal Template, Jane Friedman’s (a useful post on writing a book proposal with strong and weak examples).

Should you self publish or traditionally publish, Jane Friedman

(Jane’s blog is excellent and such a useful resource for authors!)

If you decide to buy based on the links in this post, I may receive a small commission. I only recommend books that I think my readers will find useful.

Published by Dr Lizzy Tanguay

Editor | Writing Coach | Applied Linguist

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