Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Anatomy of a Nonfiction Book Proposal

Dozens of web sites and books claim to teach you how to "sell your book without writing a word!" So what's the million-dollar secret? Create an amazing book proposal - which you have to write by the way - that will whet the publisher's appetite, and entice them to sign your book!

Yes, this is hype, but one part of it is true. 20-30 good proposal pages can land you a book deal.

Ultimately, the purpose of the book proposal is to cast a vision to the publisher for how they can effectively market and sell your book to a broad audience. Think of your book proposal as a business plan that you would present to a potential investor. And of course, the publisher is your potential investor. And what's the benefit of a proposal? Book proposals, particularly in the nonfiction world, save time for both the editor and the author. Your average acquisition editor can't physically read through every manuscript that crosses his or her desk. Similarly, authors do not want to write a dozen books for every one they sell (at least not the authors I know). So the book proposal is a happy compromise for everyone involved.

I have reviewed thousands of book proposals in my time in publishing, and I have acquired, edited and supervised the publication of several hundred of those books. And here's the thing: There isn't one, perfect book proposal format, though some agents or publishers or editors would like to make you think this is the case.

However, your book proposal MUST clearly and professionally present the following important pieces of information:

1. Book Title & Concept (Your concept might be one line or five)
2. Author Name & Biography
3. Overview of your book premise (2-3 paragraphs)
4. Book Details (Length, timeline to complete manuscript, any special features)
5. Marketing Opportunities
6. Competitive Overview (what other books are like yours, and how is yours unique?)
7. Key Connections, Endorsements or Partnerships
8. Table of Contents
9. 2-3 Sample Chapters

Every one of these elements of the nonfiction book proposal is critical, but how you structure your proposal is up to you. I have reviewed exceedingly creative book proposals, some that begin with a hook, compelling premise, key piece of marketing information or beautifully-written overview. However you decide to begin or end your book proposal, I believe it is wise to open with your project's strongest selling point, whatever that might be.

So rather than recommending a particular order or proposal structure, I believe it is more critical that the author focus on developing a salable book concept, and writing good prose (because if the book isn't good, it won't sell no matter what Oprah says!). Of course, it is always important to write clean copy and eliminate run on sentences, errors and misspellings. Also, many publishers have particular guidelines for accepting submissions—follow those guidelines religiously, even if those guidelines are: "We don't accept unsolicited submissions." If that's their policy, don't submit to them, at least not directly.

That policy usually means that the publisher will only review book proposals from a literary agent, or from writers that their editors approach specifically. So how do you get approached by a book editor? That's a topic for another post!

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