I’m posting this as much as an exercise for myself as I am as a How-to for those who may want to know.
Non-Fiction Book Proposals are weird beasts, as you’re trying to sell a publisher or agent on an idea of a book, rather than a completed one. For a fiction book, the book should be complete (or complete enough) to be sold soon after purchase by the publishing house. The publisher knows immediately just exactly what they are trying to sell. For non-fiction, the publishing house is essentially looking to understand how to sell the book months, sometimes years into the future. The non-fiction book proposal should have ideas on how to solve that problem throughout the document. Here is the template I’ve used that seems to work well for me.
Section 1. General Overview: I term this the “purpose and scope” section, or the “Why My book idea is interesting” section. Keep this at a paragraph, maybe two, to discuss the premise of the book. For example:
99 Drams of Whiskey seeks to explain the world of whiskey to the newcomer, in a way that provides context to its history, rather than the myths and legends that are used to sell it today.
Sweet Tooth is a book where the dreams of our childhood meet the realities of adulthood. It’s a world-wide candy binge where consequences must be paid.
A little flowery, I know, but the quicker and more succinct the premise of the book that this section gets across, the better an agent, or a publisher can sell that idea to somebody else. Remember! Other people have to sell your book for you. Make it easy for them! They should be able to sell your idea in less than 30 seconds. This is the section that let’s them do just that.
Side Note: I’ve taken to adding blurbs about me in this section as well, below the purpose and scope. For example
Section 1.1: Praise for Kate Hopkins · “…Hopkins’s enthusiasm for giving us the lowdown on the best tasting brands makes (99 Drams) well worth sipping slowly.” – Playboy
This is me up-selling myself. Nothing more. If someone is going to read only one page of the proposal, I want to intrigue them enough on who I am to make them want to read more. I have no idea if this hurts or helps.
Section 2. Book Synopsis: Here’s where you get to explain the book in greater detail. This section should not only explain the idea of the book so that anyone who gets to this page starts to understand it, it also provides you the roadmap you want to travel (or have traveled) when writing the book.
I break this section down into several parts:
- Section 2.1: Thesis: This is the exact point you want your reader to get when they read the book. If you don’t have a thesis for the book, you should ask yourself why you are writing it. I may elaborate on this in a later post.
- Section 2.2: General Summary: Here’s your chance to expand upon the General Overview in Section 1. Here is where you want to start getting into the details of the why (is the book worth writing, publishing, and reading) and the how (are you going to prove your thesis). My summaries have never taken more than a page.
- Section 2.3: Proposed Table of Contents: Remember in section 1 where I said you have to provide just enough information for an agent or publisher to sell your book in less than 30 seconds? This section (as well as the General summary) gives them enough insight to know what the book will look like. If they are able to get someone’s attention with their 30 second pitch, questions will soon follow. These sections should help them answer those questions. A brief paragraph of a sentence or three to explain each chapter will go a long way in accomplishing that.You should note the word “Proposed”. You will find that an idea you have had at the start of the writing process will be unworkable for one reason or another. This is okay, but make sure that you keep those who have bought your proposal in the loop.
- Section 2.4: Book Delivery: This is the “I promise to deliver the first draft of the book consisting of x amount of words on such-and-such a date” section. My section for Sweet Tooth looked like this:
It is anticipated that the book should be approximately 70,000 to 75,000 words.
Plates and Graphics
As of this writing, I would like to set aside sixteen pages for color graphics. However, this request may change as the book evolves.
“Accidental Hedonist” is a brand owned and copyrighted by Kate Hopkins. She should retain the right to all content provided on her website in regard to this project. She will license the use of her site at no cost to the publisher.
The first draft of the book can be delivered to the editor twelve to fourteen months after all the applicable contracts have been signed. Much of this is dependant upon time needed to co-ordinate travel plans.
I ended up at over 80,000 words and used no plates or graphics. I did hit the delivery date. I’m of the belief that the delivery date should be written in stone (at least in my mind). Everything else is up for discussion.
Section 3. The Book’s Market Place:
Answer this question – Who do you want to, or who do you believe will buy your book? This is the section where you make that case. And, from anecdotes I’ve heard from other non-fiction writers, this is the part that is the most difficult to craft.
For Sweet Tooth, I specified five markets (Candy and Chocolate fans, food historians, Foodies, Travel Aficionados, and online enthusiasts). I then explained each market as best as I could, and then found evidence (through magazine subscription numbers, to the amount of non-fiction books dealing with food in the Amazon top 100 list). The goal here is to demonstrate that the market to which you want to sell is big enough that the publisher should be willing to risk x amount of dollars in your project. Remember, the money they invest in you and your book, they expect, not only to make back, but also to make some measure of profit from it. If you can explain this market well enough, it should make them want to research their own numbers (which are assuredly better than yours) to support your initial assertions.
Into this section I list other similar books and when they were released. This does two things
- Publishers will check the sales numbers of these books to see how viable of a project it may be for them.
- It forced me to look at what I am bringing different to the marketplace. If my book concept is too similar to another book on the shelves, why publish it at all? There are dozens, if not hundreds, of whiskey books out there. Very few are written from the perspective of an outsider to the industry.
Section 4. Promotion: Or as I term it “How far will I go to sell this book”. Most books don’t have an extensive marketing budget. This is the section that tells the agent and publisher what new and innovative (or old, but triend and true) ideas you have to sell your book. The more ideas the better, and one may just catch the eye of the publisher.
This is important: Do not levy any requirements on the publisher in regards to promotion. This section is all about you and what you will do. It is not about expecting your publisher to pay for a publicity tour, and getting you on the Today show.
Section 5. The Book (Sample Sections): You should have written at least some of the book already. Place a chapter in here that demonstrates both your writing skills, as well as the premise of the book. I’ve placed anywhere between 3000 to 5000 words in this section. For 99 Drams, it was one full chapter. For Sweet Tooth, it was two separate sections.
Section 6. The Author: Again, more up-selling of yourself in this section. Who are you and what experience do you have? I’ve typically placed two to three paragraphs in this section, pretending that this was the section that would end up on inside of the book flap.
I have also added 1 or 2 small samples of additional writing in this section, mostly to convey my sense of humor as well as the “voice” in which I write. Both samples came from other published work. I would never put samples of unpublished work in here, for a variety of reasons.
When all is said and done, the proposals should be anywhere between fifteen to twenty-five pages, depending. I add a cover page that reads:
Sweet Tooth: The Accidental Hedonist’s Quest for the History of Candy A Book Proposal
…along with my contact information in the lower left corner.
I then send the proposal to an editor friend who ensures that my problems with grammar and spelling aren’t apparent. Following that, I print the document (never handwritten, and never printed in a font that’s more flamboyant than arial), and then send it on its way to the proper people.
I am not saying that this is the perfect proposal, but it has worked twice now. And I’ve purposefully avoided discussing the current state of the publishing industry, as well as the idea of self-publishing. Those are posts for later times. Right now, all I wanted to convey is how I write a book proposal.
My key points:
1) Write the book you want, but make sure that the proposal is written in such a way that it makes an agent want to sell it and a publisher want to publish it.
2) Writing is a professional business. That means that the proposal should be approached in a professional manner.
3) The proposal is the means by which people sell your book. It’s how you sell your book to an agent, how the agent sells the book to a publisher, and how the publisher sells the book to others at their publishing house. The more effective you are at explaining how interesting/novel/exciting your book is, the greater the probability of selling that proposal.
Now go off and do magnificent things.