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8 Tips for a Marketable Nonfiction Book Proposal
Written by
Melanie Votaw
October 2019
Written by
Melanie Votaw
October 2019

Over the years as a ghostwriter, editor, and book coach, I’ve met many first-time authors who underestimate the difficulty of writing a successful nonfiction book proposal. Writers tend to focus on their creativity, which often results in a lack of the marketing skills that proposals require. It's important to recognize this fact: A book proposal is a business plan for your book.

If you remember that and also keep these tips in mind, you’ll have a much better chance of capturing the attention of a literary agent or publisher:

1. The only portions of your proposal that are written for your book’s audience are your sample chapters. Everything else is written for a literary agent or editor at a publishing house. Therefore, you should focus your proposal on why an editor would want to publish your book. What’s unique about your book, and why do you think it will sell well?

2. Keep your Overview at 2-5 pages, and get right to the point of why a publisher would want to bank on your book. This includes mentioning why you’re the right person to write it.

3. Today’s literary agents tell me that we shouldn’t be afraid to add some graphics and color to proposals. This is the opposite of what I was told in the past, but just like the rest of us, editors begin to glaze over when there’s nothing but page after page of straight text. So don’t be afraid to add a little pizzazz to your proposal. Just don’t go overboard!

4. Don’t be afraid to blow your own horn, but be careful! Write about your accomplishments in a professional way without resorting to superlatives or claims that might appear outrageous. For example, you should never say your book will be a bestseller or will sell “hundreds of millions of copies” (or even hundreds of thousands of copies).

5. Make sure you include a Target Market section that narrows down the readers you expect to buy your book. You may have heard the expression, “If your book is for everyone, it’s for no one.” It’s true! Publishers are not looking for books that are supposedly for everyone.

6. In your Competitive (or Comparative) Analysis section, publishers want to know (1) if your book will attract a similar readership as the competing books and (2) how your book will bring more to those readers than the books in your analysis. Choose books that you believe are selling well and that were released within the last two years, if possible. Avoid books that were self-published. If you aren’t sure if a book was self-published, look up the named publisher. If it’s a traditional house, it will have submission information on its website. If it’s a self-publishing company, it will likely be selling publishing “packages” on its site. Lastly, don’t put down the other books! Simply state what your book will provide that they don’t.

7. While your chapter summaries don’t have to contain a lot of detail or go on for longer than a page, try not to be vague. The more your summaries sound like you know what you’ll put in your chapters, the better chance you’ll have of selling your proposal. If you sound vague, it’s simply an excuse for editors to put you in the “pass” pile.

8. Don’t scrimp on the amount of time you spend coming up with a good title and subtitle. While they may be changed before your book goes to print, you still want your title and subtitle to catch the eye of agents and editors. Choosing well will also show that you’re a professional who understands the market.

Your proposal deserves all the time you can give it, and it's vital that you get industry assistance before submitting it to an agent or publisher. If you send a subpar document, agents and publishers may remember you and avoid your work in the future. So do everything you can to give yourself the best chance at earning that coveted publishing contract.

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