When selling nonfiction, you don’t have to write the entire book: in fact, it’s often preferable not to, since that way the editor and publisher can put their own “spin” on the project, provide their own input to make it as marketable as possible to the audience that they (and you) intend to target. Instead of the book, then, you write a “proposal” – a business plan that tells the publisher how you propose to write the book. We’re not talking about a long document – anywhere from 10 to 60 pages – but it’s a crucial one.
Keep the following issues in mind when you’re actually sitting down to write:
- Sales Tool. A proposal is a sales tool that the agent uses to sell the book to the editor – and that the editor uses to sell the book to the publisher and other editors, to the marketing people, possibly to booksellers and other publishers (for foreign sales), and so forth. You can’t be subtle and can’t be modest: if you are, at least half the people reading your proposal just won’t get it.
- Accessibility. In most cases, editors and publishers (the publisher is the business person who runs the publishing house – s/he’s the editor’s boss) are often very young, often in their 20′s or 30′s. So you need to try to make the proposal as accessible as possible. This means that you should consider using charts, side bars, graphics, tests, and so forth to make the proposal as interactive as possible, as well as to make it look interesting on the page: remember that you’re giving this to somebody who was raised on TV, so s/he may have a very short attention span. Of course, the extent of the “look” of your proposal really depends on the subject matter – so if you’re dealing with very serious subject matter, and we’ll be targeting an academic or very serious house, you need less of the “look”; but a more commercial house may require more bells and whistles.
- Complete & Concrete. Although the proposal is not supposed to be complete, you should also keep in mind that some editors are not that great at “connecting the dots” – meaning that you should try to make the proposal as complete, and concrete, as possible. Even if your vision of the book changes over time, you still want the editor to feel comfortable and confident that you know what you’re doing, that you can write the book, and you know how you’re going to do it. This comfort level is very important, and the more ways you’re able to demonstrate it, the better (for example, in your Chapter Outline (see below), you could estimate the number of pages per chapter – even if you really don’t have a clue how long the chapter will be, since you haven’t written it yet).
OK, now you hopefully have some general idea on what the proposal will do; here are the issues that every proposal should cover (you can use the sections as we’ve outlined them here, or modify them as you see fit):
- The Hook. 1 Page; often optional. Depending on the material, it often helps to have something to immediately make the proposal accessible. For example, if you’re writing a book on who needs health insurance, maybe start with a test for the reader, on whether s/he needs health insurance; a proposal for disturbed kids may begin, “Does Your Child Need Help?”. Similarly, if the book relies heavily on your writing style, perhaps a brief single page excerpt might do it. Whatever you choose, you want something to immediately grab the reader and pull her in. Some editors say that they like to learn three or four things in the first couple of pages (especially in prescriptive nonfiction), so that’s another way of approaching this.
- Overview. 1-3 Pages. Sidebars often helpful here. I like the editor to be able to find all the information right in the Overview. This is exactly like the “Executive Summary” of a business plan, if you’ve ever written one. Here, as clearly and briefly as possible, set out the highlights of the book: what it’s about, why it’s an important subject, who will be reading it, who the author is, what will set it apart on the bookshelf. Editors, when they’re interested in a book, fill out a so-called “Tip Sheet” that they pass around in Editorial Meetings. The Tip Sheet will include the following information:
- Title and subtitle;
- “Sales handle” or “log line” – a single-sentence description describing the proposal in a clever nutshell;
- Production specs including estimated word count, approximate delivery date, and the need/availability for photographs, graphics, or illustrations;
- A paragraph-length positioning “memo”, describing where the book will fit in the publishing world;
- The most relevant comparative titles;
- Other relevant marketing information;
- A brief description of the author and the author’s credentials, including the author’s previous book sale history.
- Author. 1-5 Pages; C.V. and previous publications can go in an Appendix. Who are you, and why are you the best person in the whole world to write this book? That’s the biggest question that a publisher will ask – these credentials can quite easily make or break a book sale. This is no time to be modest: include other books you’ve written on the subject; your advanced degrees; your media interviews; your lecture schedule (regionally, nationally, and/or internationally), your great personal marketing contacts (e.g., “I was Oprah’s Love Slave for years”); whatever – include them here. Your credentials may be nothing more than a passionate interest in the subject, which is also fine – but tell us.
- Annotated Chapter Outline. Varies on the proposal, but plan on spending 1/2 to 3/4 of a page per chapter, assuming that an “average” book chapter will be 20 pages long, when complete. As clearly and concisely as you can, set out what each chapter will do, and how the book will be organized. Write it as interestingly as possible (so try to avoid “this chapter will discuss…”, which adds extra verbiage), in a style that mirrors the book itself (using the same tense, perspective, and so forth), but at the same time make clear to the editor that this is only a summary – that there’s a lot more material that you haven’t been able to cover.
- Sample Chapter. 15-30 pages; may include several sample chapters, but that may not be necessary. Other than the Author’s Credentials, this is the most important part of the proposal. Show that you can write well, communicate effectively, organize your material efficiently, and keep the reader’s interest. Obviously what chapter you choose to use will depend on what material you already have available, but you want this chapter to be a representative (i.e., “sample”) chapter of the book – not an introduction, or summary. For narrative nonfiction (by way of example), you should show the editor how you address the following types of issues:
- How characters are introduced and developed;
- How facts and medical/expert jargon are dealt with;
- How a scene is set;
- The kind of momentum/pacing the book will have;
- How dialogue and other “novelistic” elements are handled.
- Positioning. 1-2 pages, maybe less. Fit your book into the greater world of publishing. Find several wildly successful books on whatever subject – it doesn’t have to be at all similar to yours – with authors who have credentials similar to yours, with marketing contacts similar to yours, and explain how your book “will be the next” wildly successful book because it has a lot of “package” similarities. Be reasonable and realistic: find books by authors whose credentials really are similar to yours, with a writing style or world view or angle that is somehow similar to yours. “This is the Longitude for dog lovers”, and so forth.
- Market. 2-8 pages; may include letters of support from celebrities, sponsoring organizations, etc. Who are your readers, and how will you reach them? Do you give lectures and seminars? Have a great web site? Any great publicity tools already in your pocket? (e.g., Dateline wants to do a special on you.) This tends to be a hard section to write, but it really helps if you’ve gone out and gotten information to give the publisher on how many, and what kind, of people will be interested in purchasing your book – it shows you’re a “go-getter” and will be effective at selling your book even without the publisher’s support. FYI – never rely on a publisher’s plans for publicity – authors always complain that publishers don’t do enough to get the book into the public eye, so you need to be your own best advocate. Show it here.
- Competing Works. 1-4 pages. Go to your local bookstore and determine where your book will fit on the shelves – and then find the titles that are your book’s closest competitors. Show that the book has a niche – that the bookseller will know where to put it, so it doesn’t get lost and remain unsold. On the other hand, the book can’t get lost among dozens of other similar titles – so explain what sets your book apart from the others, why the reader will buy yours and not theirs. How you do this depends on the books, but you should never disparage another book (after all, it may have the same publisher/editor who will be looking at your proposal) – you should just explain why yours is different (meaning “better”). Complete the following sentence: “My book is the first book that…”
You’ve now dealt with the “personal”, most important aspects of the proposal; now you need to concentrate on the supplemental information to really sell this. In order to do this effectively, the basic premise to keep in mind is that you need to fit your book in with the rest of the publishing world. My break-down into three sections here is fairly arbitrary, but all the issues need to be addressed somehow.
So that’s it. We know it seems like a lot, but when everything’s said and done, you’re writing one chapter, putting together an outline, and then putting on a lot of ribbons and bows to make this into an effective sales tool. Good luck!