6 tips for writing a killer non-fiction literary proposal

Sheila Chandra - Thursday, January 11, 2018

Most authors will tell you – writing the proposal is harder than writing the book! Few of us like to have to sell ourselves in writing, or have very much experience doing so. So here are six killer tips to writing a successful non-fiction literary proposal. If you bear these in mind, it won’t seem that hard!

  1. Use the standard format and length – You’re not going to get any points for originality here. These should be a title page, concept  section (outline of the book) synopsis (summary of chapters), target market, promotional channels, how the author will help sales, competition (a summary of the top six competing books and why yours will serve your audience better – without trashing the books you name), production details, author profile sections, plus photo and contact information. Make your proposal no longer than 10 pages if at all possible, and type it in Times New Roman. Don’t forget to include a copyright symbol by your name at the very bottom.
  2. Include your unique angle – so if you’re writing a book on clutter (as I did) what is the thing that makes your book different to every other of the hundreds of books on clutter? And will your reader care? Your concept section should be written with this in mind. It’s not enough to describe the book. What you really need to do is tell the prospective publisher exactly how this book will meet a need in your audience.
  3. Include facts and figures – A proposal is a marketing document. You won’t get marks for great prose, only for your business case. So do some research. Find some decent surveys or figures that prove that readers will be interested in what you’re writing. Include changes in the law which might increase your target audience. While it’s good to define specific types of readers you think your book will appeal to, it’s not enough to say that that particular demographic exists, e.g. there are 2 million fishermen in the UK. You’ve got to prove they’re actually looking for the kind of solution you’re going to provide.
  4. Prove you have a platform (and/or credentials) - and if you don’t have one, get one! This is the most important element of your proposal as publishers want to feel there’s a ready market you can reach. It’s not enough to say you’ll blog on the subject. Prove you have a loyal following on various social media platforms – again include figures such as hits on your website. Quote reviews and sales figures of previous books or projects that are in some way related, or which prove you have a profile. List your relevant qualifications or previous jobs e.g. head of the stock exchange for a book on investing. Outline the size of audiences you pull in at speaking engagements – or endorsements you can produce. Don’t use tentative language. Give the prospective publisher hard facts and figures on the promotion you’ll deliver. You should be working on this long before you put pen to paper on your book or your proposal.
  5. Consider writing the book first - This is immensely helpful if you’re a first time writer. It’ll help you shape the proposal, confident that things won’t change that much. Whereas, if you’re inexperienced and you get commissioned, you may find that, when you get down to the nitty-gritty, you can’t write the book you’ve pitched at all! Another reason to write the book first, is that publishers want proof that you can write. Even if you’re on a second or third book they may ask to see sample chapters (usually the first 30 pages i.e. the hardest to write! Although it can be the ‘meatiest’ chapter instead – but you maybe won’t know that that is until you’ve written it…) so having a full manuscript up your sleeve will definitely give you confidence.
  6. Angle each section to the appropriate department – Sales will be looking at the competition. If there is none, they might think there’s no market for the topic. If your book is too similar to competing titles, they won’t want to commission. The PR department want to know which promotional channels they should target when trying to reach your audience. The editor wants to know exactly why readers will care about this book and how it will benefit the reader. The accounts department want to know how long it is and how much physically producing the book will cost. So if it has to be hardback and full of photos, bear in mind that not everyone will be willing to take the risk of a high cost first run.

Bear all these points in mind and it’ll make your proposal much stronger. Of course it should be nicely written and checked for typos, but no publisher is looking for a work of beauty in a proposal. Concentrate on the selling, on building your case that you’ll sell books with ease – and you won’t go far wrong.

If you're working on a book and need help with your proposal, get in touch! I offer a free 30 minute consultation so you can discover if I'm the right coach for you.


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