Senior Editor Steve Cameron Shares Five Tips to Produce a Winning Non-Fiction Book Proposal
Thinking of submitting a book proposal for your non-fiction book? Well, after you’ve done your research on which publishers to approach (make sure they publish what you’re creating and accept unsolicited manuscripts), and you’ve decided on the kind of publishing you want to do (traditional or hybrid) these five tips will help you make it out of the slush pile and into the hands of the person responsible for signing books:
1. Know why your book should exist
I’ve read hundreds—maybe thousands—of book proposals, and the ones that have kept me interested beyond the cover page are those that start with a rationale for why the book should exist.
It is a simple step that is often overlooked. For most book subjects there is going to be competition, and good competition at that. So, why should prospective readers part with their hard-earned dollars to buy your book? What problem is your book solving? Who is it helping? What story is it telling? And why?
Your rationale need not be long (in fact, it is better if it isn’t, but more on that next). However, if you can’t come up with a compelling reason why your book needs to exist beyond, “I’ve always wanted to write a book” or worse, “I’ve been told I should write a book” then maybe it shouldn’t exist.
2. Keep it a reasonable length
Think of your book proposal like an elevator pitch. It needs to be succinct and memorable. Outside of the sample writing that you should be including, your proposal shouldn’t be any more than three pages. If there is more to say, save it for a follow-up conversation.
An ideal book proposal has these components:
- A succinct rationale for publishing
- A short abstract of the book
- An annotated table of contents (including overall wordcount and timeline for the manuscript delivery)
- An author bio, including relevant social media, media contacts/connections, as well as bulk-sales opportunities if those exist (don’t try and guess where they could exist)
- A list of competing/comparative titles and a short sentence for each on how your book differs/compares, etc.
- And, a sample chapter. Or, if the book isn’t written, some links to sample writing.
3. Know the competition
This is critical and aligns with tip number one—know why your book should exist.
Understanding what has been previously published in the same space will make you infinitely better prepared to know why your book should exist, but it will also stand to help prospective publishers assess the size of the market for your book and conduct comparative sales analyses.
If you don’t include comparative titles and the publisher is interested in your book, they’ll do this work (or at least they should), but by your doing it for them you are exhibiting to the publisher that you’ve considered your book carefully, and from multiple angles. This level of commitment illustrates to a publisher how seriously you are taking your book and its overall success, and that is important.
4. Include a writing sample
Acquiring editors and publishers are busy people and they don’t have time to read an entire manuscript. So, unless their submission guidelines ask for the full manuscript, don’t include it.
When I read a proposal, the first thing I do is skim the first page and then scroll through the PDF (you know to send your proposal as a PDF, right? Good.) and if it is too long, I save it for another day when I have more time. The problem is, I might forget. Or, I’ll keep putting it off because it seems too time consuming.
So, do yourself a favour and supply a short writing sample. Even better, send it as a separate attachment from the proposal. That way, if you get met with a scroller like me, I’ll only be scrolling through the proposal file. (And you already promised to keep that to a very reasonable three pages.)
5. Don’t fret over the title
Not once have I published a book where the title in the proposal ended up being the same title when the book went to press.
Publishers want to have input on the title. Some, particularly in traditional publishing, will insist on it. (And the bossy ones might not even consult you on the title!) Others, especially in the hybrid space, are collaborators who lead an iterative process that includes you, your editor, the sales and marketing staff, and other key members of the team. This process drives results that are superior to any that are derived from trying to nail the title by yourself. Harnessing the collective brain trust is crucial, as is trusting the book publishing professionals you’re working with.
So, don’t worry about your title. And, fair warning, try not to become married to it either. It is going to change.
So, that’s it. Making a book proposal isn’t difficult. However, keeping it succinct and making it memorable are. You want to impress potential publishers and not take up too much of their time. If your book is truly worthy of being published, your smart and snappy proposal will be getting you follow-up emails, and hopefully a contract.
Good luck out there!