The Periodic Elements of the Nonfiction Book Proposal

elements of a book proposal

Literary agent Mark Gottlieb sees a lot of book proposals every week. That’s a lot of nonfiction book ideas passing across his desk at Trident Media Group every year. In this guest post, he provides his tips on writing a book proposal that will show off your idea in a manner that makes an agent take notice.

It takes a little more than merely being audacious to see a nonfiction book through to traditional publication. You need a good idea and a way to present your idea to an agent so it sells. In other words, you need to know how to write a book proposal.

This article will help along your journey to publication by providing you with what I call the “Periodic Elements” of a nonfiction book proposal.

Nonfiction can be sold on proposal-basis, which is essentially three to five sample chapters accompanied by proposal material. Oppositely, fiction only can be sold on a full manuscript to book publishers.

Want to write your own nonfiction book proposal? Use these guidelines as your template.

Title Page

This section is simple enough. Here you should put the title and subtitle (separated by a colon or on a new line) and “A Proposal by” followed by your name.

Contents

As with a book’s table of contents (TOC) that lists the chapters, a nonfiction book proposal will have a TOC page listing the individual sections and page numbers of the proposal.

Look at most any TOC inside a book to get a sense of what this page will look like.

Each of the forthcoming sections will have their own devoted page(s).

Proposed Title(s)

Slightly different from the Title Page section of the book proposal, this is where alternative titles and subtitles can be proposed in a list format.

Author(s)

The author(s) of the proposed book will be listed here. List their names; titles and suffixes can be excluded.

One-Sentence Description

Capture in a one-sentence tagline/hook sort of fashion what the book is about in its entirety.
Doing so can be a stressful practice for authors, who are storytellers by nature, but it’s good to learn to speak about your book concisely.

Categories

The categories and subcategories the book will fall into are listed here.
For example motivational self-help, personal transformation/growth, philosophy, positive psychology, or business.

Quotes

This section features inspirational/framing quotes that one would see in the opening pages of a book.
In a business book, a writer might want to quote Warren Buffet, or in a technology book, Steve Jobs. A poem or very brief passage from a book could even go there.

Limiting this section to a few quotes is ideal.

Audience

Concisely list in a paragraph or two the interesting demographic(s) of the book.

Provide a testament to the public’s powerful desire for this book and current trends behind that desire in this section as well.

Purpose and Need

On a much deeper level, this section explains why readers need to read this book, and why now? Explain simply that the reader has a problem or a yearning, and how this book fulfills that need with its purpose.

It’s okay to take a page or so to explain.

Unique Angles

Expound here on how the book can carve its place out in a busy marketplace of similar books. Share some of the takeaways that only can be experienced from this book. You might do so in a bulleted format.

Reader Benefits

What will the reader gain from reading this book? This section answers that question along with a number of benefits to the reader.

Will the reader experience joy? Will they feel a part of something bigger than themselves? Tell us here in this section by creating a short list of benefits.

Potential Endorsers

This section is devoted to a list of people of note who could provide advance praise/blurbs for the forthcoming book.

Your list might include people of note who would be willing to write an introduction or forward to the book. List not only names here but titles and why these are important endorsements, too.

For example Amy Poehler, founder of UCB, Parks and Recreation, SNL

Book Structure Overview

Here list the format, eventual word count (preferably within normal or appropriate range), page count, deadline by which a finished manuscript could be turned into the publisher, following a signed contract.

About the Author(s)

Can you guess what you do here? Write a little something about yourself!

This section can be as simple as one paragraph or a couple of pages. List relevant writing experience, credentials, awards/accolades, previous publications, fun facts, links to author sites and social media pages (as well as the number of social media followers, if impressive), fun personal facts, and contact info.

Sales History of Previous Books

For authors with previously published books, this is a list of titles, along with publisher name and publication date.

Below that should be the total sales numbers on the book, from publication-to-date.

If a book from this list was translated into other languages, had a film/TV adaptation, or was turned into an audiobook, mention that here, too.

Chapter Outlines

These are sparse outlines that break down each chapter by name and number into a one or two-sentence description, followed by bulleted chapter contents and/or very short descriptions.

Bonus Content

Here you could include fun bonuses to the book, such as activities or interactive/online content having to do with the book.

Marketing Plan

In this section, the sky’s the limit! List what the author and publisher might do to market and publicize the book upon publication.

Sample Chapters

Include three to five fully-written and polished sample chapters from the forthcoming manuscript with the book proposal.

On the higher end, nonfiction book proposals can top out around 50 to 75 pages, not including sample chapters.

Additional Elements to Keep in Mind

It’s also worth noting that in nonfiction, it is not enough to have a good idea to write about, for the manuscript to be well-written, and for the author to be an authority on the subject matter. Author platform is key to nonfiction.

Nonfiction tends to be more idea-driven and, therefore, is highly reliant on author platform (number of social media followers, etc.), as opposed to fiction.

Include all of these elements in your nonfiction book proposal. Doing so increases the odds that an agent will take note and a publisher will offer you a contract.

Have you written a book proposal with these elements?

About the Author

Mark Gottlieb attended Emerson College and was president of its Publishing Club, establishing the Wilde Press. After graduating with a degree in writing, literature and publishing, he began his career with Penguin’s vice president. Mark’s first position at Publishers Marketplace’s #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group, was in foreign rights. Mark was executive assistant to Trident’s chairman and ran the Audio Department. Mark is currently working with his own client list, helping to manage and grow author careers with the unique resources available to Trident. He has ranked #1 among Literary Agents on publishersmarketplace.com in Overall Deals and other categories.

Profile photo of Nina Amir About Nina Amir

Nina Amir, the Inspiration to Creation Coach, inspires writers and bloggers to create published products and careers as authors. Additionally, she helps her clients and readers achieve their potential, fulfill their purpose and make a positive and meaningful difference with their words. She is the author of How to Blog a Book, The Author Training Manual, and Creative Visualization for Writers, all published by Writer’s Digest Books. As a hybrid author, she also has published 17 books independently. She is a nonfiction book editor and doctor, proposal consultant, and an Author Coach and Trainer as well as a Book and Blog Coach. Some of her clients have sold 320,000+ copies of their books and been published by major publishing houses. Nina also is an award winning blogger and journalist, international speaker and founder of National Nonfiction Writing Month, also known as the Write Nonfiction in November Challenge, and the Nonfiction Writers’ University. Also a Certified High Performance Coach, Nina strives to help creative people Achieve More Inspired Results personally and professionally.

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