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  • [Path to Publication] How to Write a Memoir/Nonfiction Proposal
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[Path to Publication] How to Write a Memoir/Nonfiction Proposal
Contributor
Written by
Tracy Slater
December 2014
Contributor
Written by
Tracy Slater
December 2014

As I alluded to in an earlier Path to Publication post, I got the deal for my memoir, The Good Shufu: Finding Love, Self and Home on the Far Side of the World, through a slightly unusual process, at least at first. After an editor at Putnam (a hardcover imprint in the Penguin Random House group) saw something I wrote in The New York Times online and contacted me, (or rather after my heart started beating again from the shock of my good luck), I knew I had only one chance to wow her. If luck had gotten me this far, I knew I had to write a killer proposal to get to the next step: a deal.

I didn’t know how to write a proposal, but I wanted to make mine as professional as possible, so I read books on the topic and then signed up for an online class in nonfiction proposal writing with MediaBistro, which was invaluable because it gave me lots of feedback on my specific drafts. (If you're working on a proposal, I'd definitely urge getting some kind of writing group together to elicit feedback. She Writes could be a great, free resource for that.) In case you are wondering how to write your own proposal, I’m happy to share here a general template based on mine, as well as a few tips I learned while writing and selling it:

 

  1. A cover letter, which can basically be the same as or highly similar to the one-page query you would use to query agents. Most times, writers will query agents first (and I have lots of advice about this—so feel free to ask!), and then, once they have an agent, their agent will submit a full proposal to publishers.
  2. A title page with the title and subtitle of your book and then your address and contact info.
  3. A proposal table of contents, which isn’t necessarily required but which will make the proposal easier for the reader to navigate, and since I knew I wanted to please the reader at every point, I definitely wanted to include it.
  4. An About the Book section, offering approximately 4-8 pages that describe the basic story of your book and explain why your book is unique and sellable, and why you are the best person to write and help sell it. (You’ll cover these topics in more detail in the following few sections of the proposal.)
  5. About the Market: A section about your specific audience (who will buy the book, or what demographic your book will appeal to) that offers concrete data, if possible, about how large your audience is and why they are likely to buy a book like yours.
  6. Competition, listing a handful of books similar to yours that have sold well—and then explaining how yours offers something new.
  7. Author Bio: A place to detail what makes you uniquely qualified not just to write but also to market the book. This is where you really want to detail your “platform,” your past publications and current connections that prove you have a track record as a writer, at least in some capacity, and that can help convince an agent or publisher that you are well positioned to help market the book. (I’ll write more about platforms in a future post. Like almost everyone I know, I hate the word and felt very intimidated by the concept when I started my proposal.)
  8. The Promotion section, where you build on what you showed in the Author Bio section and provide concrete ideas about how you will help promote the book through your platform/connections.
  9. Book Table of Contents, which can be really brief: just the name of the chapters or sections. My final manuscript did not include chapter names, but using them in the proposal really helped give a snapshot of the narrative arc, which I then needed to flesh out in the next section…
  10. Chapter Summaries, often the heftiest section of the proposal, where you really detail each piece of the narrative. It helped me to think of this as a spine for my story, with each chapter a vertebra that needed to arc and curve in the right places and hold the whole story together, all while climbing nimbly towards the conclusion.
  11. And finally a Sample Chapter or Chapters. Today, many agents and publishers will want a full book manuscript from first-time fiction and memoir writers (unless either you happen to be famous or you luck out, like I did with an editor who had already expressed interest). In that case, this would be the section where you’d include a full manuscript, instead. (One upside: You’d only need really brief chapter summaries for the proposal itself!)

 

I hope this helps if you decide to try to publish your book with a traditional publisher. Either way, whether you are writing just for yourself, hoping to self-publish, or aiming to place your book with a traditional press, I wish you happy writing and I thank you for reading along with me about my own path to publication!

 

Tracy

 

Tracy Slater is an American writer based in Japan. Her memoir The Good Shufu: Finding Love, Self, and Home on the Far Side of the World has been named a Summer 2015 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection and is forthcoming from Penguin Random House’s Putnam imprint in June. Her blog is http://thegoodshufu.wordpress.com, she is on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TheWriterTracySlater, and she is grateful to be part of the She Writes community.
 

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Comments
  • Tracy Slater

    Dhana, I love the saying "Ima-style"! I've never heard it, even though we lived in Osaka for a decade. I need to start using that now! (Or Ima-style, I suppose...) Nan, congrats on getting great feedback on your own proposal. Nancy, glad you found the post useful. As I write above, yes, the suggestions did thankfully work for me. And Karen, I'm so glad this offers you something useful for the future! Best to all...

  • Thank you for posting this in-depth outline!  I will keep it for future reference.

  • Tracy, what a well written and informative post. Having written a proposal which was pretty well accepted, I can say that your suggestions on spot on. Hope they worked for you.

  • Very helpful guide, Tracy. I followed a format similar to this with my proposal, and when I had it critiqued by two publishing consultants, they complimented the professionalism and said you wouldn't believe how uncommon that is. Much of what they see is just thrown together. That surprised me. Sure, writing and polishing a proposal can be tedious, but it's so do-able. Putting some effort into it seems to give you a leg up, and who can't use that? 

  • Paula Wagner

    Hi Tracy, Wow! Thanks for such a clear and inspiring post. I'm going to save it as a guide when the time comes, which hopefully will be sooner than later. Glad you took your lucky break to the next level! 

  • Dhana Musil Querying

    Hi Tracy, yes I know who Jake Adelstein is. Have read all his work, contacted him once but never heard back... Anyhow, glad to connect with you, and thanks for your article, I need to get my proposal done Ima - style, as we used to say in Osaka!

  • Tracy Slater

    Thanks, Aine, Ellen, Many, and Dhana. So happy you found it useful and appreciative of your kind words. And Dhana, your book sounds fantastic. Do you know Jake Adelstein, who writes quite a bit about the Yakuza? I just read with him on a panel at the Tokyo Int. Lit Festival. Interesting and funny guy. Feel free to get in touch if you want tips on places especially open to publicizing works about Japan. Wishing you the best of luck with your memoir!

  • Dhana Musil Querying

    I used to be a good shufu too, until I wasn't! Great article, this is exactly the place I am at with my memoir about being married to a yakuza. You've inspired me to get off the bed and into action!

  • Mandy Smith

    Fabulous article, Tracy! Detailed and succinct. Thank you!

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Great post!  Also check out a post I wrote:  "Who Cares about Your Family Story?  Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will Care" here on SheWrites: http://www.shewrites.com/profiles/blogs/who-cares-about-your-family-story-ten-tips-to-ensure-readers-will/edit

  • Aine Greaney

    Love this. It's so well detailed. Thank you. 

  • Tracy Slater

    Really glad it's useful, Joan! And thanks for your kind comment. All the best to you!

  • Tracy Slater

    Sorry for the delay responding, all! We flew back to the US for txgiving and are now back in Tokyo (where we live--hence the Japanese in my book title), and dealing with a 14-hour time-change jetlag with a 10-month old when you yourself are not a spring chicken at age 47 is...let's just say challenging.

    Kelly, I actually got my agent after I got an offer from Putnam. In general, I think subscribing to Publishers Marketplace is a really good investment, even if you only do it for a month or two, b/c then you can see who is making deals in what topics and genres both in real-time and historically, so you can really target your queries. I'm going to write more about this in my next post, about what I think an agent can do for writers and why I definitely recommend having one if possible, as well as about my tips for finding an agent and/or publisher whether or not you get one traditionally or, like me, in an a**-backward way. Feel free to PM me though if you want more specific info and don't want to wait. (Trying to create some sense of anticipation here by not ruining my next post!)

    Marta, I love the concept of your memoir! I think surviving infidelity is an issue a lot of people would probably like to read about. I wonder if you created a blog where you invited people to post anonymously their own experiences with infidelity, if that would attract a lot of readers and help build your platform? I think we are all a little bit voyeuristic, esp. with memoir, so I could see this taking off if you did it really well. Just a thought!

    Eva, Shary, Christine, Lace--thanks so much for your comments and for reading the post. Shary, I didn't know Brooke had published this ebook--great to know about as another useful resource.

    Best to all!

  • Lace Wanders

    Nice read Tracy!

  • Christine Keleny

    Thanks Tracy - I will definitely share!

  • Shary

    Brooke Warner's e-book How To Sell Your Memoir: 12 Steps to a Perfect Book Proposal

    http://www.amazon.com/How-Sell-Your-Memoir-Proposal-ebook/dp/B00GA3KYS4/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1383918767&sr=8-1&keywords=brooke+warner+memoir

    was my bible. I have several other "how to write non-fiction proposals" books on my shelf-- Brooke's is the most succinct, powerful and full of insider secrets from a seasoned publisher.

  • Eva Schlesinger

    Congratulations! Thanks for sharing your special tips with all of us.

  • Wow Tracy your article is priceless, thanks. I write in various genera but the memoir I am currently and finally writing is the hardest thing I have done. It is about a painful and at times hilarious journey back from infidelity. I know we will be judged but like my husband says "it is theraputic for us" and will help many women and men realize that the fix is not necessarily a change of partners.

  • Tracy, thanks for checking out my web site!  I've been pretty aggressively marketing my book (even though I'm not finished with it yet!)...Been lucky to have chapters published in 9 anthologies and several literary journals.  How has your experience been with your agent?  I'm still searching for one....

  • Jo Anne Valentine Simson

    Tracy, I'm looking forward to reading your book when it comes out! I spent two years in Korea, and have published ("assisted publishing") a book on those experiences, which has had pretty good reviews.  http://www.amazon.com/Korea-Are-You-Peace-Travelers/dp/1458210383/ref=asap_B00BH3326S_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1418295585&sr=1-1

    In the book, I compare my experiences with those of a Victorian travel writer, Isabella Bishop, who spent two years in Korea and nearby Asia at the end of the nineteenth century. This approach was a vehicle for looking at the tragic history of twentieth-century Korea.

  • Tracy Slater

    Kelly--wow, your experiences must have been fascinating. This is such a very timely topic. I checked out your site and it looks like some of your book's sections have also been anthologized in some great places. Congrats! Also, thanks so very much for adding your suggestions below for what what helped you w/your proposal and your marketing strategy. Looking forward to keeping in touch here

  • Tracy Slater

    Jo Anne, Thanks so much for your comment--and for catching that grammar error! Love it! I also love the idea for your book and would guess there is quite a market for it. It also sounds like you have a potential built-in platform already with your extensive background teaching  in the field. I'm going to write a post later about self-promotion and platform, but I found one of the best ways to build what my publisher saw as my platform was the literary series I started, Four Stories, in Boston and then in Tokyo and Osaka. That way, I could build a huge community of contacts by promoting other writers first. I think your teaching sounds like something similar. One idea might be if you have a blog to invite readers to submit questions about communicating w/doctors, and that could possible help you build a following? Anyway, wishing you the best of luck. I have huge problems communicating w/my doctors, but that's because I live in Japan and don't speak Japanese... Looking forward to keeping in touch through She Writes!

  • Tracy, congratulations!  I look forward to following your publication path.

    While writing my book proposal, Michael Larsen's How to Write a Book Proposal was invaluable.  And a tip from Linda Joy Myers:  Make it really, really clear in which section of the bookstore your book should be sold.  I made the mistake of suggesting choices, which narrowed agent interest....So, now I've redefined how I describe my book: a work of literary journalism about my experiences in the Middle East with Iraqi refugees.

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt

    Mosey on over to my web site and sign in for your free gift -- an mp3 of me reading my book's first chapter about a beggar in Iraq!
  • Jo Anne Valentine Simson

    Thanks, Tracy!  I think this will help me revise a proposal for a nonfiction book that's currently in its third draft. I do get hung up on the platform issue. I've joined several online social media sites, and have a twitter account, but I still have trouble with self-promotion.

    My book is aimed at helping people to understand the way their bodies work and to communicate effectively with physicians if something goes wrong. It's tentatively titled "The Whole Body Health Guide for Bewildered Patients." I taught medical students for nearly three decades and understand both sides of the patient-physician communication issue.

    (BTW, the singular of vertebrae is vertebra.)