Guide to Literary Agents: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published (Market) (2015)
NONFICTION BOOK PROPOSALS
Pitch your nonfi ction with confi dence.
by Chuck Sambuchino
A book proposal is a business plan that explains all the details of a nonfiction book. Since your project is not complete during the pitching stages, the proposal acts as a blueprint and diagram for what the finished product will look like, as well as exactly how you will promote it when the product is in the marketplace.
Better yet, think about it like this: If you wanted to open a new restaurant and needed a bank loan, you would have to make a case to the bank as to why your business will succeed and generate revenue. A book proposal acts in much the same way. You must prove to a publisher that your book idea is a proven means to generate revenue—showing that customers will buy your worthwhile and unique product, and you have the means to draw in prospective customers.
“There are several factors that can help a book proposal’s ultimate prospects: great writing, great platform or great information, and ideally all three,” says Ted Weinstein, founder of Ted Weinstein Literary. “For narrative works, the writing should be gorgeous, not just functional. For practical works, the information should be insightful, comprehensive and preferably new. And for any work of nonfiction, of course, the author’s platform is enormously important.”
If you’re writing a work of fiction (novel, screenplay, picture book) or memoir, the first all-important step is to simply finish the work, because agents and editors will consider it for publication based primarily on how good the writing is. On the other hand, when you have a nonfiction project of any kind, you do not need to finish the book to sell it. In fact, even if you’re feeling ambitious and knock out the entire text, finishing the book will not help you sell it because all an editor really needs to see are several sample chapters that adequately portray what the rest of the book will be like.
THE STRUCTURE OF A BOOK PROPOSAL
A book proposal is made up of several key sections that flesh out the book, its markets, and information about the author. All of these important sections seek to answer one of the three main questions that every proposal must answer:
1. What is the book, and why is it timely and unique?
2. What is its place in the market?
3. Why are you the best person to write and market it?
“Concerning how to write a compelling nonfiction book proposal: 1) Spill the beans. Don’t try to tantalize and hold back the juice. 2) No BS! We agents learn to see right through BS, or we fail rapidly. 3) Get published small. Local papers, literary journals, websites, anything. The more credits you have, the better. And list them all (although not to the point of absurdity) in your query. Why does everyone want to pole-vault from being an unpublished author to having a big book contract? It makes no sense. You have to learn to drive before they’ll let you pilot the Space Shuttle.”
- Gary Heidt (Signature Literary)
Every book proposal has several sections that allow the author to explain more about their book. Though you can sometimes vary the order of the sections, here are the major elements (and suggested order) that should be addressed before you pitch a nonfiction book to a literary agent.
TITLE PAGE. Keep it simple. Put your title and subtitle in the middle, centered—and put your personal contact information at the bottom right.
TABLE OF CONTENTS (WITH PAGE NUMBERS). A nonfiction book proposal has several sections, and can run many pages, so this is where you explain everything the agent can find in the proposal, in case they want to jump around immediately to peruse different sections at different times.
OVERVIEW. This section gets its name because it’s designed to be an overview of the entire proposal to come. It’s something of a “greatest hits” of the proposal, where you discuss the concept and content, the evidence of need for this new resource in the market, and your platform. Overviews typically run 1–3 double-spaced pages, and immediately make the case as to why this book is worthwhile for consideration and timely for readers now. Another way to think about this section is by imagining as it as an extended query letter, because it serves the same purpose. If an agent likes your overview, they will review the rest of the document to delve deeper into both you and your ideas. The overview is arguably the most important part of the proposal. “Your overview is the sizzle in your nonfiction book proposal,” says agent Michael Larsen of Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents. “If it doesn’t sell you and your book, agents and editors won’t check the bones (the outline of your book) or try the steak (your sample chapter).”
FORMAT. This section explains how the book will be formatted. Remember that your finished, completed product does not physically exist, and all nonfiction books look different from one another in terms of appearance. So spell out exactly what it will look like. What is the physical size of the book? What is your estimated word count when everything is said and done? How long after the contract is signed will you be able to submit the finished product? Will there be sidebars, boxed quotes, or interactive elements? Will there be photos, illustrations or other art? (If so, who will be responsible for collecting this art?)
SPINOFFS (OPTIONAL). Some nonfiction projects lend themselves to things like sequels, spinoffs, subsidiary rights possibilities, and more. For example, when I pitched my political humor book for dog lovers, Red Dog / Blue Dog, this is the section where I mentioned the possibility of a tear-off calendar if the book succeeded, as well as a possible sequel, Red Cat / Blue Cat. Unlike other sections of a proposal, this one is optional, as some ideas will not lend to more variations.
CHAPTER LIST. While you will only be turning over a few completed, polished chapters, agents still want to know exactly what will be in the rest of the book. So list out all your chapter concepts, with a paragraph or so on the content of each. This section is important, as it shows that, although the book is not complete, the author has a very clear path forward in terms of the exact content that will fill all the pages.
SAMPLE CHAPTERS. Although you do not have to finish the book before pitching nonfiction, you do have to complete 2–4 book chapters as an appropriate sample. The goal is to write chapters that you believe give a great representation as to what the book is about. Typical sample chapters include the book’s first chapter, and 1–3 more from different sections of the book. Your goal is to make these chapters represent what the final product will be like in both appearance and content. So if the book is going to be funny, your sample chapters better be humorous. If the book will be infused with art and illustrations, gather what images you can to insert in the pages. The sample chapters are the one place in a proposal where the author can step out of “business mode” and into “writer mode”—focusing on things like voice, humor, style, and more.
TARGET AUDIENCES. You’ve probably heard before that “a book for everyone is a book for no one,” so target your work to small, core, focused audience groups. This section is your chance to prove an evidence of need. Or, as agent Mollie Glick of Foundry Literary + Media says, “You want an original idea—but not too original.”
For example, when I was listing audiences for my book, How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack, they were 1) garden gnome enthusiasts, 2) gardeners, 3) survival guide parody lovers, and 4) humor book lovers. Note how I resisted the urge to say “Everyone everywhere loves a laugh, so I basically see the entire human population snatching this bad boy up at bookstores.”
When I was pitching a book on historical theaters around the country, my audiences were 1) theater lovers, 2) historical preservationists in the regions where featured theaters are located, 3) nostalgia lovers, and 4) architecture buffs and enthusiasts. Again, the audiences were concise and focused. I proved I had done my research and honed in on the exact pockets of people who would pay money for what I was proposing.
And once you identify these audiences, you must quantify them. If you want to write a book about the history of the arcade game Donkey Kong, a logical target audience would be “Individuals who currently play Donkey Kong”—but you must quantify the audience, because an agent has no idea if that audience size is 1,000 or 500,000. So tell them what it really is—and explain how you came to find that true number. You can find these quantifying numbers by seeing where such audiences get their news. For example, if donkeykongnews.com has a newsletter reach of 12,000 individuals, that is a proven number you can use. If the official Donkey Kong Twitter account has 134,000 followers, that will help you, as well. If Classic Games Magazine has a circulation of 52,000, that number can help you, too. “Use round, accurate numbers in your proposal,” says Larsen. “If a number isn’t round, qualify it by writing nearly, almost or more than (not over). Be ready to provide sources for statistics if asked.”
“Know your market. This is a business, and the more time and effort you expend in studying and understanding the demands of your [niche], the more likely you’ll meet with success.”
- Gina Panettieri (Talcott Notch Literary Services)
COMPARATIVE TITLES. This is where you list any and all books that are similar to yours in the marketplace. What you’re aiming for is showing that many books that have similarities to your title exist and have healthy sales, but no one book accomplishes everything yours will do. If you can show that, you’ve made an argument that your book is unique (and therefore worthwhile), and also that people have shown a history of buying such a book (and therefore the book is even more worthwhile). You’re essentially trying to say “Books exist on Subject A and books exist on Subject B, but no book exists on Subject AB, which is exactly what my book, [Title], will do.”
You can find comparative titles by searching through the appropriate bookshelf in Barnes & Noble or any local bookstore, as well as by scouring Amazon. Once you have your list, it’s your time to write them all down—laying out details such as the publisher, title, year, and any signs of solid sales (such as awards or a good Amazon sales ranking). After you explain a book’s specifics, you should quickly say why your book is different from it. At the same time, don’t trash competing books. Because your book shares some similarity to it, you don’t want your own work to come under fire.
MARKETING / WRITER PLATFORM. This massively important section details all the many avenues you have in place to market the work to the audiences you’ve already identified. This section will list out your social media channels, contacts in the media, personal marketing abilities, public speaking engagements, and much more. This section is of the utmost importance, as an agent needs to be assured you can currently market your book to thousands of possible buyers, if not more. Otherwise, the agent may stop reading the proposal. “Develop a significant following before you go out with your nonfiction book. If you build it, publishers will come,” says agent Jeffery McGraw of The August Agency. “How visible are you to the world? That’s what determines your level of platform. Someone with real platform is the ‘go to’ person in their area of expertise. If you don’t make yourself known to the world as the expert in your field, then how will [members of the media] know to reach out to you? Get out there. Make as many connections as you possibly can.”
AUTHOR BIO / CREDENTIALS. Now is your chance to explain what makes you qualified to write the content in this book. Tell the agent things such as your degrees, memberships, endorsements, and more. Anything that qualifies you to write this book but is not technically considered “platform” should go in this section.
AN AGENT EXPLAINS 3 COMMON BOOK PROPOSAL PROBLEMS
1. Lack of a story arc. Many failed nonfiction proposals are mere surveys of a subject. The books that sell have strong characters who are engaged in some project that eventually is resolved. Don’t do a book about slime mold. Do a book about the Slime Mold Guy who solved the mystery of slime mold.
2. Skimpiness. I like big fat proposals. Writers worry too much about how much reading editors have to do and they self-defeatingly try to keep proposals short. Busy editors are not the problem. A great proposal will hook a reader within a few pages and keep that reader spellbound until the last page no matter how long. Short, skimpy proposals often quit before they can get me, or an editor, truly immersed and engaged. You aren’t just informing us about your book; you are recruiting us into joining you on what is going to be a long and expensive expedition. If crazy, fire-eyed Christopher Columbus wants me to join him on his trip to the “Here Be Monsters” part of the ocean, I’d like to inspect his ships very, very carefully before I set sail. Editors are scared to buy books because they are so often wrong. Thoroughness builds confidence.
3. Extrapolation. Many proposals say, in effect, “I don’t know all that much about this subject, but give me a six-figure contract and I will go and find out everything there is to know.” I understand the problem writers face: How are they supposed to master a subject until after they’ve done the travels, interviews, and research? Nevertheless, unless you are already an established writer, you can’t simply promise to master your subject. Book contracts go to those who have already mastered a subject. If you haven’t mastered your subject but you really think you deserve a book contract, try to get a magazine assignment so that you can do at least some of the necessary research, funded by the magazine. But if you’re just winging it, I probably can’t help you unless you have a superb platform.
Sidebar courtesy of literary agent Russell Galen (Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency).
CHUCK SAMBUCHINO (chucksambuchino.com, @chucksambuchino on Twitter) edits the Guide to Literary Agents (guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog) as well as the Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market. His pop-humor books include How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack (film rights optioned by Sony) and Red Dog / Blue Dog: When Pooches Get Political (reddog-bluedog.com). Chuck’s other writing books include Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript, 3rd. Ed., as well as Create Your Writer Platform (fall 2012). Besides that, he is a husband, sleep-deprived new father, guitarist, dog owner, and cookie addict.