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How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal: The Ultimate Guide

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What is a nonfiction book proposal, and at one point do I need one?

There’s a question that comes up regularly when I connect with writers, and it may be on your mind as well.

In my Book Proposal Boot Camp, I define a book proposal as a roadmap for the book that will ultimately ensue. It is only needed for nonfiction writers (and memoirists only need it on a case-by-case basis).

But a nonfiction book proposal is more than an editorial outline of your book; it’s a marketing document. It highlights all of those aspects of your bio and your marketing plan that would give agents and publishers a reason to take a chance on you.

While this document is especially crucial for first-time writers to put together, established authors will also create book proposals to pitch their next title. They can struggle with marketing as much as you do—you’re not alone!—which is why a proposal can assist an author in presenting themselves as the best person to pen a particular work.

A proposal can also help you write your book in full, since the structuring is already taken care of. Consider it an outline that takes the guesswork out of writing and pitching your project.

But where to begin? A nonfiction book proposal will typically span 30-60 pages, although there’s no specific, “right” number. It’s far more about providing a convincing argument for the 5Ws, which you’ll learn more about in my upcoming book.

These 5 Ws include:

  • Who (protagonist)
  • What (what happens in your book?)
  • Where (setting)
  • When (time period)
  • and perhaps most important, Why (What’s your book’s purpose? Why is it needed now?). As long as you’ve given the reader a solid foundation of your book’s premise—and what makes it interesting or topical—you’re in good shape!A book proposal typically contains:
  • An Overview or Introduction to Your Book
  • A Bio
  • A Proposed Table of Contents
  • Chapter Summaries
  • Comparative Titles (“Comps”)
  • A Marketing Summary
  • A Sample Chapter(s)

A compelling proposal will need to demonstrate three things to be a success: clear writing, a big idea, and some sort of audience on which to depend. It should contain your greatest hits! And it should be as engrossing for agents and editors to read as a novel you can’t wait to finish. (I’ve read and represented plenty of self-help titles with that quality. Strive for it.)

Most first-time nonfiction authors come to us with a manuscript already written—which is an incredible feat. But all too often, they’ll hear from an agent that they now need to work backwards to create a book proposal, because that is actually the material that an agent will consider. I’m sharing this with you to save you loads of time and effort, and I encourage you share this advice with other writers you know. You will end up very disappointed if you query agents or publishers with just a full manuscript, without first enticing them with your book proposal.

I know this might seem counterintuitive. Why wouldn’t an agency or publisher want to see a manuscript that’s already complete? I understand the question. But a nonfiction book proposal allows agents and editors our own vision for what the book could be, not just what it is. An agent or publisher will bring their own ideas to the table—and in my experience authors find the process both painstaking and revelatory.

Take your best shot writing a book proposal—knowing that the format or positioning may change as the idea grows clearer. It’s your agent’s job to guide you toward what’s most commercial, because that’s what will get you a book deal!

For real-life case studies from first-time authors and insider tips from top editors at Penguin Random House and Hay House, this unique course will divulge how to use Amazon to your advantage, what agents consider a major red flag, what each section of a book proposal must contain, and more! We are making our Book Proposal Boot Camp available today only for $99.

This course will address a ton of frequently asked questions that you’ve likely had about book proposals, such as…

  • In what scenario would I not need a book proposal?
  • What if my platform isn’t impressive? How do I address my smaller following in this document, while keeping my work compelling enough?
  • Which sample chapter should I choose to include?
  • What can a ghostwriter, outside editor, or book “collaborator” bring to the table?

Enjoy the course, and happy proposal writing!