The non-fiction book proposal

Most writers who are hoping to sell a non-fiction book know that in order to do so it is necessary to create a book proposal. This document can be critical not only to the sale of the book but to the size of the publisher’s offer.  I often tell prospective clients that doing the proposal is an unnatural act—it can actually be more difficult to create a good one than to write the book itself.  Our website describes exactly what is required to be in the proposal clearly and concisely (see “Nonfiction Proposal Guidelines”).

These days, I am consistently trying to push writers to create proposals that are well focused and that clearly define the different readerships, both demographically and statistically.  Inevitably, as I learned last week, a writer will try to “game” the system—describing his or her book as neither fish nor fowl and thus confusing the reader (the editor).  The result is a rejection letter instead of an offer.  So I am stressing here that it is extremely important for the writer proposing a work of non-fiction to clearly define exactly what he or she wants to do in his or her book in a keynote sentence or two. That keynote is so very important!  If a sale is made, the proposal goes from the writer, to the editor who buys the book, to the publisher, to the person who creates both the catalog and cover copy and, finally, to the sales person who is selling the book in to the accounts.  It has to be right.

And, sometimes, for it to be “right” takes time.  The other thing that was brought home to me again this last week is that rushing a book proposal never pays.  It results in shoddy work which can be misinterpreted by the editor considering the material.  I use the saying “better late than lousy” so often these days—and it is very important to remember.  Doing the proposal the right way can make all the difference in the world.

Of course, as always, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences on the subject of proposal writing.

7 Responses to The non-fiction book proposal

  1. Carol Svec says:

    Proposals are hard work! The research required for my last proposal took months of combing through medical journals and interviewing experts, but it was worth the extra time because I now have a well-defined blueprint for writing the book. I have to say that the section I always have the most trouble with (and leave for last) is defining the market, with demographics and statistics. Although I understand the importance and necessity, it feels unnatural to think about the book in those terms. It requires a transition from describing my “amazing” new book, to chopping up and eliminating portions of the reading public. It’s not only demoralizing, but hunting for the appropriate numbers can be difficult. I always wonder how other writers have successfully tackled that section of the proposal. That said, I love writing proposals. They are a lesson in focus. The writer needs to simultaneously think globally and in minute detail. And finally: Thank heavens proposals are the first step of the nonfiction process. I marvel at the bravery of fiction writers who have to write and polish the complete book before getting feedback.

  2. Kevin Grange says:

    Great post, Jane! In addition to helping the editor, publishers, and marketing team, I think the proposal is invaluable for the writer too. Once an author signs a book contract and faces months of solitary writing, the proposal will be there for them as a companion and guide, leading the way with well-defined characters, chapter outlines, plot points and a narrative arc. Then, as publication nears, the book proposal waits with key demographic information about where to start marketing efforts. A solid proposal is as important to a book project as a map is to a cross-country roadtrip! Thanks for your advice here and your nonfiction book proposal guidelines–both have been immensely helpful!

  3. Mike Dowd says:

    Thanks so much for the timely advice Jane! Ironically, I noticed your post on this last night shortly after you basically told me the very same thing in regards to my submission just hours before. I have to admit it left me a bit red-faced as I was instantly beset with visions of you rolling your eyes over yet another aspiring author trying to “game” the system. I apologize. I’m new enough to the game that I wouldn’t even know how to begin to “game” the system, so I not only really appreciate veterans like yourself being magnanimous enough to share a little of your wisdom, but going one step further and actually providing some definitive guidelines. Thank you. I think I’ll get busy and write that proposal now. And to think I thought that all the really hard work was done once I’d finished my book…

  4. jane Dystel says:

    I will look forward to reading your proposal Mike.

  5. Donna Bozzo says:

    Stacey and I worked very hard on our proposal — and I feel it evolved into something greater through hard work and lots of right turns. The interesting thing is— you think your first attempt is so strong until you compare it to the (perhaps still evolving) end product. You would never go back to that first draft.

  6. When it comes to book proposals, I like to do things differently (as I do with most things in life).

    First, this approach is one that I have followed to create 15 books that have sold over 875,000 copies worldwide:

    “Do it badly — but at least do it!”

    And this bit of wisdom from a highly successful author has served me well since I read three of his “New York Times” bestselling self-published books in the late 1970’s

    “It’s better to do a sub-par job on the right project than an excellent job on the wrong project.”
    — Robert J. Ringer

    Recently I looked at two book proposals that I sent out around the year 2000. Both resulted in publishers wanting to publish the books with an advance of $13,500 in one instance and $5,000 in the other. To be honest, today I am actually quite embarrassed to read these proposals. The proposals may have been poorly written but the book ideas were great ones. In short, these were the “right” projects that Robert J. Ringer refers to so I could get away with substandard proposals.

    My substandard proposals have benefitted me in other ways. In 2003 I sent a proposal for my “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” to 35 British and American publishers. Every publisher rejected the book including Ten Speed Press (now owned by Random House) which publishes my “The Joy of Not Working”. So I self-published the book in 2004. This has paid off nicely. I have made three to four times as much money by having self-published than I would have made by having a traditional publisher publish the book. The pretax profits from the book are now around $1 million. Needless to say, this was the “right project” for me to spend my marketing time on once I self-published.

    Incidentally, I will still send out book proposals to traditional publishers since I am basically lazy and would rather have someone else do most of the work involved in publishing a book.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 280,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

  7. Pingback: The last few months in books 4/19/15 | Michiko Katsu

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