When non-fiction authors ask me, “How can I write a book proposal” or “Do I need a proposal if I write a how-to book?” I often say, “You only need a book proposal if you want to get your book published.”
Agents and editors don’t want to see a completed book nonfiction book most of the time. They don’t have time to read a complete book. They want to see a proposal that sells your book idea and gets them excited to work with you.
The #1 thing literary agents, acquisitions editors, and publishers must know before deciding whether or not to publish a nonfiction book is: “Will tens of thousands of readers buy this?”
That’s what matters, and so that’s the information publishing gatekeepers need to do their jobs well. You can’t answer that question just by reading the book; you have to understand who the author is, what their goals are, and what their marketing plans are.
That’s why you have to write a book proposal.
Why Write a Book Proposal
The main purpose of the book proposal is to convince literary agents and publishers that there is a market for your book and that you are the best person to write the book—and help them sell it.
The proposal is the key to making your really book come to life for your publishing partners.
Not only is a proposal the first step in gaining the positive attention of an agent or acquisition editor, but also a book proposal helps you in many other ways:
- A proposal keeps you right on track because it contains the theme, table of contents, chapter-by-chapter synopsis as well as a sample chapter.
- The book proposal is your marketing plan. It shows you and others who the book is for, how it will help them, how it differs from other books, and how you will market your book so that you and your publisher will make money.
- Writing a book proposal proves to everyone in the industry that you know what you’re doing and take yourself seriously. That means they’ll take you more seriously, and your chances for getting a deal will be much, much higher.
Frankly, if you don’t have a book proposal, agents and publishers will not talk to you and will not buy your book 99% of the time.
Let’s dig into what should be in a proposal for a non-fiction book.
Note: Different rules apply to writing a book proposal for fiction books, so make sure to do more research if you’re writing a book proposal for a fiction book.
What’s in a Book Proposal?
I’ve written and published several nonfiction books, so I had to study many articles, white papers, and books about how to write a book proposal along the way. They all have the same basic advice, but they might differ slightly in the order in which the material is presented. You can follow the advice in this article and you’ll know you are following a plan that works.
Some publishers or agents have their own suggestions, guidelines, or templates for proposals on their websites. In those cases, follow the publisher’s recommendations exactly as written.
Those companies get many more proposals than they can handle, so they will toss away any proposal that doesn’t match their requirements. They have to be choosy to be successful publishers—and so they are!
In this article, I’ll show you how I helped one of my clients, Amber Trueblood, write her proposal, which was accepted by a publisher and for which she received a nice advance.
In total transparency, the proposals I write are based on several works I read by Michael Hyatt and W. Terry Whalin. I am not trying to copy their works here. While some of their ideas for the structure have permeated my thought process, my advice, ideas and presentation in this article is original.
Book Proposal Template
The following is my book proposal template you can use to write your proposal.
What to Include in a Book Proposal
A book proposal has a title page (also called a cover page), a table of contents for the proposal, and several sections: about the book (the content, the market, and the author), about the promotion, and a sample chapter. Let’s dig deeper into each section.
1. Cover Page
The cover page shows the book’s title, the author’s name, and contact information including phone, email, and websites; the date and a copyright notice. You’ll also see the words “A book proposal for” at the top of the page so readers know what they are looking at.
No, it isn’t obvious. After all, this could be a white paper, a complete novella, or a proposal to steam clean their carpets. Let’s not make anyone guess what they’re reading. Let them know you are submitting a book proposal right away.
Here’s a sample cover page from one of my clients, Amber Trueblood:
A book proposal for
How to live freely using the A.M.B.E.R. Mindsets
———-, CA 90230
May 8, 2018
2. Table of Contents
Here’s Amber’s Table of Contents for the proposal:
- The Content 3
- The Market 6
- The Author 10
- Promotion 11
- Chapter-by-Chapter Synopsis 14
- Sample Chapters
Chapter 2 – Sorry To Be Gross 26
Embrace Your Flaws, Focus Forward and Double-Down
Pro Tip: Don’t put the page numbers in until you lock down the final version of the proposal. I guarantee the page numbers will change as you write, rewrite, and revise.
3. The Content
The Content section has several elements:
This element explains what the book is about—briefly. Use one or two paragraphs to hook the reader and make them want to read the rest of the proposal. Don’t worry about leaving out material. You’ll have ample opportunity to describe the book in greater detail in other parts of the proposal.
Here’s Amber’s Idea:
Stretch Marks is a self-development book for 35-55 year-old college-educated women, emerging from the other-focused world of raising young children, who are struggling with how to figure out what they want to do and don’t know how they can make it happen. Stretch Marks are an emotional, visual and psychological concept meant to represent growth, expansion and pushing past one’s limits. Women will live more freely, become better parents and have a healthy relationship with money when they apply the A.M.B.E.R. Mindsets.
What makes these women miserable on the inside when it looks like they have everything they’ve always wanted on the outside? The disconnect. The disconnect between what is truly most important to them, and how they use their time, resources and energy. Once they figure out what they value most and then line it up with what they do and how they act every day, the clouds begin to clear and they will feel alive again. Using The A.M.B.E.R. Mindsets, readers will learn the tricks and tools necessary to stop living the life they are told by others that they should be living, and start living freely.
The Unique Selling Proposition
This section shows how readers will benefit from reading the book.
Amber wrote her USP based on a formula created by Michael Hyatt:
After purchasing this book, readers will be able to:
(list several benefits in bullet form)
After purchasing this book, readers will be able to:
(list several processes you will use)
Here’s how Amber put flesh on those bones.
The Unique Selling Proposition:
After purchasing this book, readers will be able to:
- Determine what areas of their lives need the most change
- Identify what is stopping them from making those changes
- Learn the A.M.B.E.R. to overcome each roadblock so they can break through to the next level
- Use advanced techniques like gratitude, forgiveness and intention to flow through life peacefully and happily.
Because this book will:
Layout a unique, proven framework for identifying individual mindset blocks
Teach original techniques like The 333 Method and G.O.O.D.I.E. Visualizing
Provide scientific explanations in simple-to-understand terms
Offer tactics specific to the reader’s personality and particular mindset blocks
What other books are in this genre? Don’t say “None. My book is unique.
Every agent will throw your proposal away if you say that!
First, it isn’t true.
Your book is not unique. This shows you haven’t done your homework.
Second, if no publisher ever published a book on that topic, chances are there is a reason why: There is no market for it!
Don’t make this rookie mistake.
Instead, show that true bestsellers exist in this market, and that there is room for your book because if people buy one book, they will buy another book.
Look at your reading habits. Do own only one book on dieting? Or health? Or business? Or sales? Or, you get the idea. I like to say that books are like bananas.
People buy books in bunches.
You need to show them why your book is different.
You should list five competing books and show their point of view and how your book is different. Use a paragraph for each book.
Here’s how Amber sized up her competitors.
This book competes in very popular categories: self-development, personal transformation, psychology, motivation, meditation, and happiness.
You Are A Badass, Jen Sincero, Running Press 2013. Hardcover, $19.67.
Like You Are A Badass, Stretch Marks contains great ideas about what to do in order to be happy. Author Jen Sincero encourages readers to take action, listen to your intuition and follow your fantasies. Stretch Marks, however, specifically offers readers information on how to do it in a way that will work for your individual personality, lifestyle, and value system.
Who is the target buyer for the book?
What are their demographics (characteristics such as age, sex, education, and financial status) and psychographics (their attitudes, aspirations, and psychological makeup)?
Why will they want to read this book?
How will it help them?
Also included are “affinity groups” of people who are likely buyers of the book in large volume, such as book clubs, companies, and associations.
Here’s whom Amber looked at her audience:
The audience for this book is 35-55 year-old college-educated women, emerging from the other-focused world of raising young children. Their busy lives teeter between the repetitive, tedious, obligatory responsibilities of life and “emergency-mode” when you need to drop everything to deal with an immediate problem (i.e., the school calls to say Sarah has just vomited in homeroom or a pipe just burst in the garage and now boxes of keepsakes are in jeopardy of water damage.) This book gives women the psychological permission to follow their dreams free from shame or guilt… while still feeling good about the other roles they assume in their lives.
These women are intelligent and ambitious. Having spent years focused on the care of others, they often end up feeling frustrated, lost, and left-behind. Once their children no longer need the same degree of attention, many women find themselves without a place to direct their energies, skills, and experiences. This book provides them the support and insight to uncover what they truly want and the encouragement and tools to create it in their lives.
Women applying for advanced degrees
Women looking to re-enter the job market
Parents of middle school and high school children
Parent Teacher Organizations
(Amber listed about 10 others. This is one section of the proposal that you can make as long as possible)
The Chapter-by-Chapter Overview
Now you can go in more detail by showing the synopsis of each chapter. This helps the publisher get a bird’s eye view of the book, and it will keep you on track as you start to write the book.
Don’t worry about getting locked into a rigid outline. You can change anything when you write the book. Publishers know that elements can change once you dig in.
In fact, some publishers might want to give you advice on topics to write about. Also, publishers will want to see a sample chapter so they can judge your writing style.
However, that chapter goes at the end of the proposal, not at the end of this section.
Please note that other proposal guides put this section near the end of the proposal—after the promotion section and before the sample chapter.
Here’s one chapter from Amber’s synopsis.
How to live freely using the A.M.B.E.R. mindsets
Chapter 1. I Might Be Drowning
“Busy is a decision…If we say we are too busy,
it is shorthand for ‘not important enough.”
– Debbie Millman
- Balancing Reason with Intuition
- Identifying Your Seeds of Frustration
- Eradicating the Shoulds and Distractions
- Being Too Busy
Excerpt: The crap truly hit the fan when my youngest started walking. I woke up to the glaring fact that I now had four sons and a husband, no career, two worthless master’s degrees, a perpetual extra 10 pounds (and then guilt about being so vain), and an intense feeling that I had no individual identity. Major first world problem, I get it. I had been through a divorce in my early 20s, bankruptcy, a brief eating disorder… but none of that hit me like this hit me.
Do you want to read more? So do I! And I’m not a woman. That’s a winning paragraph.
This is the physical description of the book.
How many words or pages will the book be? Is the manuscript completed? Or started?
There’s no right or wrong answer.
Publishers want to know where the book stands right now. Then they want to know when you expect to complete it so they can put it in their production schedule.
Let them know if there are special features, like pictures, charts, graphs or other elements that will require special care in production—and add to the cost.
Here’s Amber’s info:
Manuscript Status: The manuscript is currently 19,629 words, with 4 chapters completed and 8 chapters outlined.
Special Features: Personal stories, book recommendations, key messages, famous quotes, and a quick quiz in each chapter.
Anticipated Length: The final manuscript will be approximately 70,000 words (280 pages).
Anticipated Completion Date: The final manuscript will be delivered approximately 10 months after contract completion.
Input from the publisher is welcome.
Author Bio. The next part talks about you, the author. Let your personality shine through. One or two pages are sufficient. This isn’t the place to be modest, but don’t oversell yourself either.
Point out your relevant accomplishments, like blogging, article writing, and other books published, so they know you are qualified.
Share your mess-to-success story so they begin to get to know, like, and trust you. If you have a story of how you completed a big project, share it.
That will let them know you are a doer, not a quitter. Publishers want to see that you can have the ability to write and complete a book.
You’d be surprised to find how many people start writing books, but don’t finish writing them. Publishers don’t want to be burned by people who have a good idea, but who don’t have the follow through.
The next section is critical. It details your marketing plan.
Section 2 – Marketing
Not long ago, a publisher that had bought several over books I’ve written asked what book I was working on. I told them and they thought it was a good idea. The next step was to talk to a new acquisitions editor who would run point on the project – and be the evangelist for convincing the company to offer me a contract.
We had a nice chat for about 45 minutes. The conversation went something like this:
I like the idea for your book. So what are you going to do to market it.
I said something.
He said, “and what else will you do?”
I said something else.
He said, “And what else will you do?”
No matter what I said, he came back with “And, so what else will you do.”
For 45 minutes.
I don’t blame him for being persistent. Or for wanting to know that I had 101 ways to market my book. But it become clear to me that if I were going to do all that marketing, I would rather publisher the book myself and keep all the money from my marketing!
I’m sure this conversation takes place every day at every publishing house, but maybe not for 45 minutes.
Publishers today want to work with authors who can sell their books for them. There. I’ve said it. If you can’t prove to a publisher that you can market a book, then the odds are very much against your chances of getting a contract or a large advance.
Let’s look at the all-important marketing and promotion section.
Marketing and Promotion
The first thing publishers want to know about your marketing plan is the size of your platform. Simply defined, a platform is the number of people whom you can contact directly and easily via email, social media, speaking engagements, or other media you have earned.
Think about all the ways you can get your message out to more people and make an impact:
- You might speak to tens of thousands of people at conferences.
- You might be appearing on TV, radio, and podcasts that reach large numbers of target buyers.
- Some of my clients are paid sponsors for big companies that book them to speak at major events or do publicity for them so they appear in large circulation magazines and newspapers.
- You might be part of a large group that could buy the book in bulk (i.e., professional associations, hobby groups, and political organizations).
The more marketing tactics you put in and implement, the better. The more you can quantify each activity with numbers, the better (i.e., I speak to 100,000 people a year. I will be on the XYZ Podcast which reaches 50,000 people).
More is better. Don’t hold back. This section could easily decide whether a publisher buys your manuscript, or passes. Or offers a large advance of a small one.
Here are some other marketing ideas you should consider:
- Do you blog? How many readers do you have?
- Will you hire a PR firm or a book launch firm?
- How much will you budget for marketing?
- Will you be paying for advertisements or specific marketing campaigns?
At the very least, the answers to these questions will show publishers that you are thinking in the right direction.
Are there any groups that will buy large numbers of your books, such as corporations, associations, libraries or groups you speak to?
If you aren’t a professional speaker who addresses hundreds or thousands of people at a time, there are still opportunities to speak at local groups where people will buy books, such as:
- Library events
- Service groups (i.e., Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, Junior League)
- Chambers of Commerce
By now you might realize marketing is a numbers game. The more numbers you have, the better off you will be and the happier the prospective publisher will be. Whenever you can, quantify the numbers for everything from the listeners who will hear you on a podcast; to the number of readers your blog or guest column will reach.
Numbers will help you sell your book to the publisher.
Section 3 – The Sample Chapter
The sample chapter can be any chapter, not necessarily chapter 1. Publishers want to see your writing style. They’ll learn a lot from this chapter. Pay attention to the content and tone as well as mechanics like grammar and punctuation.
How to Improve Your Book Proposal
No matter how wonderful your book idea is, the proposal won’t get past the slush pile if it isn’t well written or if it has grammatical errors.
At the very least, run the proposal through a spell checker. At the very best, hire a professional copy editor or proofreader to review your proposal (this is what the pros do).
Book Proposal Template
You can download our free book proposal template and use it as you write your own book proposal. This template is in .docx (Microsoft Word) format.
Book Proposal Sample
You are welcome to download our free book proposal sample that was contributed by author Amber Trueblood who followed the book proposal guidelines detailed in this blog post and received a book deal from a major publisher.
Start Writing Your Proposal
It might seem that writing a proposal is a lot of work. I won’t sugar coat this. Yes, it is.
However, if you can write a proposal, you can write a book.
Good luck with your proposal!
Dan Janal has written 13 books including, “Write Your Book in a Flash.” As a book coach, developmental editor, ghostwriter, and book proposal writer, he shapes stories and strategies that can transform a career or a business. For information, go to www.WriteYourBookInAFlash.com
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- Book Submission Template: What to Include in Your Manuscript Submission File