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A book proposal is the primary selling tool for nonfiction…

Unlike fiction, you don’t need to have a completed manuscript to contact an agent.

What you do need is a concisely written document that conveys to the agent exactly what your nonfiction book is about, why you are qualified to write it, and who will buy it.

This is not something you can slap together in a day. You need to spend the same care in crafting your proposal as you would in writing the actual book. If your book proposal isn’t fully fleshed out and accurately researched, you may never get the opportunity to write the book—at least not subsidized by an advance from a publisher.

There have been writers who have written their entire nonfiction book before contacting an agent. However, the primary problem with that is if the publisher wants you to take the book in a different direction or slant your material for a particular market, you may find yourself having to do a complete rewrite—starting at page one, all over again.

The main function of a nonfiction book proposal is to convince the agent that your book will sell…

It is the same tool that the agent will use to attract the interest of an editor at a publishing company. So, it is in your best interest to craft a solid proposal to showcase you and your nonfiction book idea.

When it comes time to write the actual book, the process of researching and writing your book proposal will have helped you define your direction with where you want to go, the tone you want to capture, and the audience you want to reach.

Can you jump the first and highest hurdle?

Platform. It’s an industry buzzword that asks: where have you presented your topic? Much like the platform on which you would stand to give a speech, building your platform consists of establishing an audience base and being recognized as an expert on your topic.

This is arguably the most important element in securing a position from which to negotiate. If you can show a substantial following, you are more likely to have your nonfiction book idea considered by agents and publishers.

Having a platform firmly in place tells them you know your audience and you’ve already made yourself known to them. To the agent and publisher, it means you and your book idea come complete with loyal readers. With that alone, you have the potential to win the publishing deal and matching Barbie Corvette.

What if you don't have a platform?

Develop one. Immediately.

There are several ways you can begin to establish your platform and your topic knowledge credibility:

Speak on your topic.

Take the opportunity to speak in front of your local service and social clubs: Toastmasters, Rotary, Lion’s Club, Ladies Auxiliary Club, VFW, etc.

They are great places to practice your presentation and build your speaking resume. In most cases, you will not be paid for speaking at these venues, but the experience is priceless.

When you’ve worked out the kinks in your presentation, contact organizations/clubs/groups whose members would benefit most by receiving your topic information. Target groups who are made up of the same demographic as your book buying audience.

Consider contacting your local community college and city recreation programs to offer your presentation as a class for local residents.

Another great way to get your message out there and begin establishing yourself as an expert is to utilize the internet—create your own podcasts or offer to do interviews with the hosts of online radio shows that cater to your target demographic.

When you’ve established a strong speaking resume and honed your speaking skills, you can climb out of your small pond and begin contacting bigger media fish for radio and television interviews.

When your book is published, you’ll know exactly how and where to market it, and you’ll already have established the audience who will buy it.

Publish articles about your topic.

This is essentially the same process as what you did to speak on your topic, but the focus on this step is the written word—which for some writers will be a much more comfortable path to take.

Find websites and webzines that cater to your target demographic and/or focus on your topic. Approach them to offer articles, tip sheets, etc. Your goal is to convince them that your information will be a benefit to their readers.

In many cases, you may not be paid for your articles; however, at the initial stage of establishing credibility, you need the “clips.” It used to be that online publications didn’t carry the same weight as having clips from your work being published in a tangible format—printed magazines and newspapers.

Those times have changed. Visibility on high traffic sites that are frequented by your target demographic—the readers who are seeking your information—can put your name and your message in front of more people than a subscription magazine or newspaper.

With so many people looking to the Internet to find topic specific information, the more of a presence you can establish, the more you will be considered the “go to” person and expert on your topic.

There are other ways to get your name and message out there:

  • Create and maintain a topic specific blog.
  • Develop and distribute your own topic specific newsletter.
  • Join and participate in topic specific discussion groups.

Once you’ve successfully painted your platform and hung out your expertise shingle, you can approach the book proposal process with confidence.

The necessary components of a book proposal:

1. Overview
2. Competition
3. Target Market
4. Publicity/Media
5. Author Bio
6. Chapter Outline
7. Sample Chapter
Page Count
8-10 (depending on book length)

The page counts are standard approximations.

NOTE:  If you are writing a memoir, this does not apply. Because of its narrative nature, a memoir needs to be submitted as a completed manuscript, as if you were presenting a novel.  Although, I have heard of an instance when an agent requested both: a proposal and a completed manuscript for a memoir.

#1  The Overview:

This section of your proposal is where you will be the most general. It should be an entertaining glimpse of what will be explained in more detail within the specific sections of the proposal.

* Go into a local chain bookstore and browse the nonfiction section where your book will be shelved: how-to, cookbook, business, etc. Read the back cover copy of several books to get a feeling for the tone used in marketing to your genre. This is what you want to capture in your overview.

Answer the two big questions…

What does your target reader want more than anything?

How is your book going to help the reader get what she wants?

Overview Do’s and Don’ts…

Don’t write the overview like a book synopsis.

The overview is your grand opening invitation to your book idea party. It is the selling portion of your nonfiction book proposal where you convince the agent (and later, the publisher) that your book idea will fill a need for your target audience, and that you are the best person to write it.

Do keep the paragraphs short.

You want to keep the busy agent’s eyes moving down the page. Massive blocks of text create the illusion that it’s “too much to read right now.” Using subheadings can also help keep the page interesting and easy to read.

Don’t resort to hyperbole to sell your idea.

Your concept may be the greatest and the most useful invention since the how-to book for creating a wheel, but exaggerated claims won’t convince the agent that you have a good idea or that there is a market for it.

Do paint a picture using language that conveys your excitement for the topic.

You have an idea that you know will fill a need for your reader and it’s a topic on which you have extensive knowledge. How can you not be excited to share this information? Your enthusiasm can be shown through your specific word choices and also by the tone in which you write the overview.

Do write the overview in present tense.

Using present tense grounds your overview in the moment, creating a sense of immediacy for the reader. You’re offering to provide a product to fill her need—right now.

Do use a hook for your opening paragraph.

Create a strong image of your target reader stuck in a situation from which your book can help them out.


You don your son’s football helmet and snap the chinstrap. It’s time to clean out your hallway closet. As soon as you turn the doorknob, an avalanche of misplaced items buries you in a heap. Dig yourself out and go buy a copy of Controlling Your Clutter. This book will show you how to get a handle on your “stuff” and gain control of your life.

That’s an example, off the top of my head, but I’m sure you understand the point. Just make sure that your hook is in the same tone as you intend for the manuscript.

If Controlling Your Clutter is geared toward the business sector, it might be more serious in tone and focus on the needs of cubicle dwellers or busy executives. In which case, the hook should create an image of that particular target reader with those needs.

Do estimate the length of the proposed book and your writing timeline.

Provide either an estimated word or page count (at approximately 250 words per page) and project a realistic timeline for how long it would take you to finish the project.

#2  Competition

This is where your research begins…

As soon as your book idea came into your head, you should have checked to see what books are available on your subject. If you didn’t do it then, you must do it now. You will need this information to fill the Competition section of your proposal.

Analyze all of your competing titles and see what “works” in those books.

Browse the shelves of a large chain bookstore to find the most current titles. Don’t be discouraged when you see how many books are available on your subject. The fact that they are already on the shelf makes them outdated, so this is where you have a leg up.

Look through the books. Examine the formatting, sources, content, organization, and tone. Think of ways to incorporate the best features of those books into a superior book of your own that has your message.

NOTE:  This is NOT an excuse to plagiarize! Use your own words and a unique execution of your idea.

When it comes time to write your proposal…

Select between four and six currently available books that deal with your topic and directly compete for the same audience.

Choose books that are selling well.

Don’t compare your book to one that is not making any money. Your goal is to convince the agent and/or publisher that your book can sell as well, if not better than your competition.

It doesn’t do you any good to compare your book to titles that are doing poorly in the marketplace in an attempt to make yours look like the best. That only makes you the best in a pack of losers. Comparing yourself to the winners fosters the perception you want—that your book will also be a winner.

Don’t make negative comments about the competing books.

It doesn’t make your book idea or you look good to an agent when you talk down about the other books on the market, especially if they are bestsellers. Bestsellers attained that status for a reason.

Showcase why your book is better than the competition.

You need to convey why the marketplace will benefit from having your book published. What makes your book different, or unique, or better than the books currently available?

#3  Market

And your research continues…

Part of getting the green light to move forward with your project is your ability to convince the agent (and later, the publisher) that there are people who will buy your book.

Despite what you may think, not everyone will want to buy what you are selling. Your job in the market section of your proposal is to focus on the number of potential readers who would be interested in your book.

Say you’ve decided to write a book that will add another contribution to the diet market. You have a few questions you need to answer with statistics:

  • What percentage of the population is overweight?
  • How many people join weight loss programs?
  • How much money is spent annually on weight loss books?

Although it is used as an example, a new diet book will always be a hard sell because it’s such a competitive market. Like every other book project, it requires you to have a unique concept, the credentials to write it, and a firmly established platform.

The Internet has countless resources to help you find the statistics you’ll need. Try www.census.gov and www.fedstats.gov for the basics. For statistics not necessarily of interest to the government, type the word “statistics” into the search field at www.ask.com and you can find links to more topic specific information as you refine your search. Search engines such as Google, Yahoo!, and MSN can also turn up good results when you type in keywords related to your topic.

NOTE:  When it comes to quoting statistical data, a little goes a long way. Don’t overdo it. Include just enough information to show the agent you are aware of your potential market.

Are there any special markets, beyond the bookstore, where your book could be marketed directly to your target audience? Think of the places where your potential reader would be.

Let’s say you are proposing a book that will help mothers get an early start teaching their children proper nutrition. Your market reach could extend to pediatrician offices, teen-parenting programs, and government services programs like AFDC and WIC.

The special sales to these markets would be bulk orders, far greater than what you would see from a traditional bookstore.

Know your market and be prepared to present that knowledge in this section of your nonfiction book proposal.

#4  Publicity/Media

Insert your platform here _____...

All of the work you did to establish yourself as an expert in your field—this is the section in the proposal where you showcase it.

Make sure to include:

  • Speaking engagements
  • Workshops you’ve conducted
  • Article and/or column syndications
  • Interviews (print, radio, and television)
  • Blog tours and/or podcasts you’ve done
  • Website traffic
  • Opt-in subscriber list
  • Social networking contacts

If you have special access to any publicity avenue—Oprah is in your knitting group, you barbeque with Ellen every weekend—be sure to mention it.

However, don’t fabricate a connection where there is none. And do leave out the unnecessary details. The fact that you are in an ex-con support group with Martha Stewart is probably more information than the agent needs (unless it’s relevant to your book).

#5  Author Bio

Polish your trophies…

This is where you shine. Write this section as if you were going for a job interview with the intent to show your potential employer that you are highly qualified.

Your author biography should include:

  • Previous publishing credits
  • Education
  • Awards
  • Grants
  • Noteworthy contest placement
  • Relevant work or life experience related to your topic

Bio Do’s and Don’ts

Do keep the content relevant.

The ten consecutive years that you won blue ribbons in the Burper County Fair pie-making contest are only relevant if you are writing a dessert cookbook.

Don’t make up content.

Focus on what you do have. It’s far too easy to check on false claims. Being caught fabricating credits on your bio can ruin the credibility of your entire book proposal. 

Do write your bio as a narrative.

Save the bulleted resume for the 9 to 5 jobs. The agent (and later, the publisher) will be gauging your writing skill and your ability to present information and hold her interest from the first page of the proposal to the last.

Don’t be too casual.

Remain professional and consistent throughout the proposal. You need to grab the agent’s attention, convince her you are qualified to write the book, and persuade her to take on your project—that’s it. It’s not about being chummy and trying to make friends.

#6  Chapter Outline

It’s time to break it down…

The Chapter-by-Chapter Outline is an expanded version of your proposed Table of Contents.

This section of your proposal will give the agent an idea of the structure of your book and can also serve as the blueprint for building your book when you are ready to write.

Each chapter outline should:

  • Include the chapter title.

Even if it’s only a working title, choose something compelling and catchy, but also clear.

  • Write a brief synopsis of the content for the chapter.

Make sure each synopsis includes a problem and a solution. Focus on what your reader would want to know and how each chapter would answer her questions about the topic.

  • Keep the tone and language consistent with how the book will be written.

If you intend for the finished book to be a humorous how-to about fighting breast cancer, make sure each chapter synopsis conveys that same feeling.

NOTE:  Avoid using technical jargon or unfamiliar terminology.

#7  Sample Chapter

This is it…

You can have the most well-crafted book proposal this side of the Hudson River, but your sample chapter has to stand on its own. Your execution of your stellar idea needs to live up to the promises of your proposal.

Writing Sample Tips

  • Write the chapter that you are most passionate about.
  • Double-space.
  • Write the sample as if it were a “real” chapter in your finished book.
  • Have the sample (and the entire proposal) proofread for errors and clarity.

Now that you have a completed nonfiction book proposal…

Your next steps will be to research the proper agent for your book, and craft a succinct and compelling query letter to her. Once she agrees to consider your proposal, you’ll be another step closer to publication.

Yes, it’s a process. But if you carefully plan the journey, you will reach your destination.

Annette Fix is an author and spoken-word storyteller based in Laguna Niguel, CA. Annette’s memoir is The Break-Up Diet. This article is an excerpt from her e-book, The Hungry Writer’s Guide to Tracking and Capturing a Literary Agent. Another excerpt was featured in WOW!’s September 2006 issue.


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