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DIY MFA: How to Write a Non-Fiction Book Proposal (Part Three)

Welcome back to your Do-it-Yourself MFA program.

In traditional publishing, fiction and non-fiction are sold in two very different ways. To get an agent or sell a piece of fiction, you need to have a completed manuscript.

Therefore, if you want to write fiction, go do it and we’ll meet back here for the next part, which is getting an agent (and why you want to have one).

Nonfiction is different: To get an agent or sell a work of nonfiction, you usually write what is called a book proposal and sample chapters, which is what we’re going to talk about today.

The reason is pretty simple — agents (and then publishers) are going to want to tweak and focus nonfiction projects before they’re written. It’s much harder to guide a project when the author has finished the book (and is holding firm to the idea that her way is the best way to relay the material to the reader). But editors will want to guide the process, because they can see a bigger picture that you can’t — namely, how readers like to receive information based on numerous past projects and past reader reactions.

Remember back when I did the roll call in Part One?  It’s time for you to go back there and hook up with someone else who wants to write non-fiction on a topic very unlike your own (since they’ll be seeing your ideas).  Feel free to form online groups of more than two and set up an Google Group to house your exchanges.  Or grab someone from your face-to-face world who will read this post and then give you feedback on how well you’re hitting the goals.  And check out the people who are participating over at BlogHer.

A book proposal is a formal piece of writing with a format that allows agents (and later, publishers) to scan the document quickly and find what they are looking for. This is not a time to get creative with format and make your proposal into a three-dimensional shoebox diorama. Give the agents exactly what they want. Consider this as important as wearing the proper attire to a meeting.

You will be judged on the look of your proposal. If it’s put together in a sloppy manner, if you’re recycling an old copy that was sent back to you from an agent who rejected it (but covered it first with coffee stains), or if it doesn’t contain the necessary information, it doesn’t matter how brilliant your idea is — no one will want to work with you. Agents are looking for an easy reason to reject your work. Don’t give it to them.

All proposals contain these parts (and this is the order I give them):

  • Overview: 5 pages or so on what the book is about (definitely could be shorter, but not longer).  Spend a lot of time writing this part because it’s the first thing the agent reads and you want to pull them in.  Do you have a shocking statistic?  Put it at the front of the overview to point out how important it is that people read your book.  You can start it with an anecdote.  The point is to give the agent a taste of your writing style while also telling them about the book.  Think of it this way: if you only had 3 minutes to sit across from the agent and convince them to represent your book, what would you say?  Keep the writing formal–in other words, third person.  And make sure you say how many words you predict will be in the book to give a sense of size and how long you’ll need to write the book from the time you sign the contract.  Use this space to get the agent excited about the project.
  • Markets for the Book: in other words, who the hell would want to buy your book.  Give statistics and get creative.  For my non-fiction infertility book, I pointed out that the book would be helpful for those experiencing infertility, but it was also a book that doctors, nurses, adoption agency directors, therapists, and family members might want to read too.  Is there a specific place/conference where your book could be sold (a biography of Dolly Parton?  Might be good to sell that at Dollywood)?
  • Competitive Books: what are the books currently on the market that would be competition for your book?  As you tell the agent about those books, also tell how your book is different and fills a gap that other book does not.
  • About the Author: your biography–but more.  This is where you need to effusively explain why you are the best person to write this book.  Tell about your platform (remember that word from the last installment?).  List any awards, the url for your blog, or your education background.
  • Promotion: what are you willing to do and what can you do to sell your book?  If you have media ties, this is the place to list them.  If you speak at conferences that are related to your topic, are a member of an organization related your topic, or write for other sites that are related to your topic (did you get that it has to be related to your topic?), but those connections here.  This is a place to show the agent that you have considered the business side to writing and are going to be a cheerleader for your own project (because if you’re not–why should they be?).
  • List of Chapters and Chapter Outlines: on the first page, place all the chapters and their titles.  Then, on the subsequent pages, write one page for each chapter, giving a summary of what you plan to write.
  • Sample Chapters: write two or three chapters of the book.  You don’t need to write them in order.  Most people turn in the introductory chapter and then one other chapter from the middle of the book.  Make sure they’re your most interesting chapters.  And take your time with these–they are very important.  Consider them your audition.

A proposal may end up being between 50–100 pages when you factor in the sample chapters.  So this isn’t a small thing you can whip up in one day.  Take your time.

And think about your proposal like pulling a piece of clay — you have an idea in mind of where you want it to be at the end, but you need to be flexible and fluid to get it there. Remember back when you wrote a paper at college and you came up with the thesis and then needed to tweak it 100 times as you did your research? Well, your proposal sort of needs to have that flexibility, too. You may need to tweak it 100 times as you conduct more research or write those first chapters. You may even decide in the middle of writing the proposal that this book is not worth writing. And that’s sort of the point — by making yourself tease the idea out on paper, you can see whether or not it works before you begin writing the actual book.

I think the most important advice I can give is to look at your proposal as a sample of what is to come. If you have a humour book, your proposal better be pretty damn humourous. If you’re aiming for a breezy, best-friend-like tone for the book, your proposal better have a breezy, best-friend-like tone. The proposal is an extension of the book — it’s not separate from the book.

And the book is sort of an extension of you, so the proposal is an extension of you, too. Use your strengths. Do you write really moving blog posts that get people crying? You may not be the best person to put together a humourous proposal — but, on the other hand, you may rock at putting together a really moving proposal about a sensitive topic.

You’re going to be judged by your proposal. It’s not just about how well you can write, but whether the tone is engaging for the subject matter. Think of your proposal as a document that is getting 10 minutes of face time to show the person you are. You want them to like you or you want them to hire you. And you need to be yourself.

Okay class, any questions on what was discussed here? Please leave them in the comment section below and I will answer them in the comment section below. Keep in mind that I have a lot of topics to cover so your question may be answered in a future installment (see below). So keep your questions about non-fiction book proposals.

Heads Up and Looking Back: topics that will be covered in future installments or that were covered in past installments

1. Before You Even Get Started

2. Are You Ready to Be an Author?


4. Why You Need an Agent

5. How to Find and Sign with a Reputable Agent

6. Querying Agents

7. What Happens Next–Waiting for a Book Sale

8. No Agent? Other Paths to Publication

9. What to Expect After You Sign a Book Deal

10. Be Your Own Publicist

11. A Mishmash of Leftover Questions and Answers


1 Calliope { 06.20.10 at 12:55 pm }

Reading these posts are so incredibly helpful and inspiring. Seriously. I feel like we are all at this great retreat and you have gathered us around and given us a great lesson: explained things it could have taken ages to glean on our own. And now we are all walking back to our sit under the trees with our notebooks and pencils. Damn I am so inspired. THANK YOU!!!

2 S.I.F. { 06.21.10 at 3:23 am }

OK… I’m ready for section 5 now! 🙂

3 Brittany { 06.21.10 at 12:27 pm }

Wow! This was incredibly helpful! Thank you for posting!

4 Keiko { 06.21.10 at 2:09 pm }

Thanks for this. I’ve been writing my non-fic book in chunks – not formal chapters, just chunks of memoir. I had no idea that you don’t actually write the whole thing and send it over. The proposal, while daunting, is totally worthwhile then for teasing out if this really is a good idea. So I’m wondering… would people really read a memoir about converting to Judaism? I’ve always wanted to write this story b/c it’s important to me, but is it sellable? A lot of stuff for me to think about. Thanks for this!

5 Lollipopgoldstein { 06.25.10 at 1:34 pm }

Keiko–I’m going to be blunt 🙂 yes and no. If you make it accessible to a lot of people and make the journey applicable to other situations, yes, it becomes an interesting book for others. If it’s very insular and only navel-gazing, it can still be interesting to others who have connected to you. Sort of the same way a blog is sometimes interesting from the start and sometimes you need to get to know the person for a bit before you’re truly interested. And agents want books in that first category but don’t have the time to dedicate themselves to that second. So the trick is making it interesting and accessible to a large audience.

6 The Casual Perfectionist { 07.12.10 at 5:19 pm }

I have a quick question. 🙂 How many books would you suggest I list in the Competitive Title Analysis portion? The book I’m writing doesn’t have any specific titles that truly match it, but there are some that touch on parts of my book…in a way. (I guess it’s good to be writing a book that is unique.) I’m curious what an agent would find helpful vs. my just trying to fill in the blanks. Does that make sense? Any info you could give would be greatly appreciated! Thanks in advance. 🙂

7 Mel { 07.13.10 at 8:58 am }

I’d go for three-ish. I’d talk about other books people buy because there is a space missing in the market and how your book fills this space. Explain that other books are trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, but your book is a round peg meant to fulfill that hole. Does that make sense?

8 The Casual Perfectionist { 07.13.10 at 6:55 pm }

Yes it does, Mel! Thanks!

9 Deanna { 08.02.10 at 10:24 am }

Such helpful info – thank you.

I’m wondering how do I include a list of chapters and 2 or 3 finished chapters if you shouldn’t write the entire book. I’m sure I’m looking at this way too literally, but humor me – I’m new to all this.

10 Lollipopgoldstein { 08.02.10 at 11:32 am }

No problem–it’s about thinking through the whole book, but stopping short of writing it. The chapter summaries are a one-page description of what will appear in the chapter. And the sample chapters ARE the ones that will appear in your book. So you are writing a portion of the book, but don’t need (and shouldn’t) complete the whole thing.

11 Jamie { 08.02.10 at 1:23 pm }

This may seem like a dumb question:

But once I have this proposal together — then do I send it to the various agents I’ve narrowed down through the rest of your process? Will the agent then sell the idea instead of the actual book and then once it is sold, I would actually write the book?

12 Mel { 08.03.10 at 7:19 am }

Not a dumb question at all. That’s exactly what happens. The agent sells the proposal, which is essentially a document which is a promise of what is to come. You say within the proposal how long it will take you to write the book, and when you get a book contract, a date is set for the book’s delivery. Along the way, you’ll have a lot of small deadlines with your editor to get the book edited before the date of delivery. But yes, your agent will sell the idea in the case of a non-fiction book. And then you write it after.

13 Lacie { 09.08.10 at 3:05 pm }

This is all such essential information. I am feeling the stirrings of a desire to finally get down to the business of writing. I’ve been talking about writing a book for the past six years, but I just didn’t know where to start.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

14 mark Egdall { 09.27.10 at 7:08 pm }

When you say 5 pages or so for overview, etc. So you mean single space or double space? Please advise.

15 Lollipopgoldstein { 09.27.10 at 7:34 pm }

Double-spaced, always (and agents/publishers will thank you for saving their eyes). Every document except for the query letter is done in double-space. Good question!

16 dana { 10.07.10 at 3:06 pm }

I feel like you’re giving us valuable information – information that people would pay a hefty price for – at no cost. And I want to thank you thank you thank you. This is precisely what I need.

17 The Casual Perfectionist { 10.27.10 at 3:54 pm }

Me again! Do you write your “About The Author” biography in the first person or the third person? Details, details…just curious! Thanks in advance!

18 Lollipopgoldstein { 10.27.10 at 9:33 pm }

Third person — which I know seems strange. But since it’s a formal piece of writing, always err on the side of third person.

19 The Casual Perfectionist { 10.27.10 at 9:41 pm }

THANKS!! JoAnn was thinking that, but then she talked herself out of it. 😉

20 Joe Mudd { 12.23.10 at 8:56 pm }

@Keiko (#4) – I know I’m really late to this party, and your book is probably published by now, but just in case…

You can find a very similar situation in the story of Dr. Scott Hahn. He was a Presbyterian minister and tried really hard to convert people away from Catholicism.

His book Home Sweet Rome is the story of his conversion to the Catholic faith. (http://www.amazon.com/Rome-Sweet-Home-Journey-Catholicism/dp/0898704782/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1293153679&sr=8-4)

It deals in detail with the path that led him there. He tells about all the emotional struggles and problems this caused for him.

It’s really an interesting read, and would be a good blueprint of how your story would need to be structured to be attractive to publishers.

21 Kathy { 01.09.11 at 9:12 pm }

This is so great Mel! I am just getting started and have a working draft/document that I plan to work on a bit at a time over the next year or so (we’ll see how that goes). Anyway, I so appreciate everything you shared here and the questions others have asked. Expanding on the formatting questions, so you recommend double spacing everything but the query letter. How about the particular font you use and/or font size? Is there an industry standard/what they will prefer/expect to see?

22 Lollipopgoldstein { 01.14.11 at 12:17 pm }

You can’t go wrong with Times New Roman in 12 pt font. Sometimes I write my manuscript or proposal in another font just because I like looking at it better day-in-and-day-out, but before I send it in, I hit “select all” and change the font to Times New Roman. Then I do a quick check to make sure that all the formatting still looks correct.

23 Victoria { 02.22.11 at 2:11 pm }

I just ordered two books today and wish I had read this post. Thanks.

24 Cynthia { 01.05.15 at 2:25 pm }

How does it work with sample chapters if you want to publish a compilation? I’m a little lost about whether I should collect the contributions first or write the proposal first.

25 Andrea { 02.17.15 at 1:38 pm }

Is there any way of gauging the marketability of your book before you get started _without_ starting a (paying) relationship with a publisher or agent? I have yet to find a book like the one I want to write.

26 Sara Jayne { 01.22.16 at 11:46 pm }

Thank you so much for your post. Quick question. Does the book proposal have to be in third person? Are there exceptions? Thanks so much!

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