Nonfiction Book Proposals

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bookdoctorby Bobbie Christmas

Q: I want to sell my nonfiction book to a specific publisher that requires a proposal. How much is enough to send in a proposal?

A: How much is enough? It depends on what the publisher’s guidelines specify. If the publisher does not list guidelines, then follow the traditional route for preparing a book proposal. Because entire books are written on how to write a book proposal, one short note from me won’t be enough. That said, I found a blog that has a terse report, as well as recommendations for books on the subject of book proposals. Click here to read blog.

Q: I understand the importance of writing a sound book proposal for a nonfiction book. Have I outlined the proposal correctly? Here are the sections I have put in my proposal: Overview, Fascinating Journey, The Author & Associates, Marketing, Book Contents, Chapter Summaries, Sample Chapter, and Attachments.

A: Without seeing the actual report, I can’t comment in full. I can, however, say that book proposals have specific elements, usually the following: Overview, Resources Needed to Complete the Book (unless it is already completed), Competition, Marketing, About the Author(s), Chapter-by-Chapter Outline, and Sample Chapters.

The list you sent leaves me with many questions. How does the section called Fascinating Journey fit into the requirements of a book proposal? Publishers won’t know what it means. Use a heading that reflects the information publishers and agents require. Also, instead of The Author & Associates, title that section About the Authors, to be sure agents and publishers know the contents. Markets, marketing, and the competition can also be part of the section called Overview. Finally, if I were an agent or publisher, I would have no idea of what the attachments were and would have no impetus for opening them. Instead I may fear opening any attachment I did not request. Avoid attachments and instead put all the information in the body of the email. If you feel the need to include attachments, however, I suggest using a clear description of the attachments, such as Writing Samples.

Q: How long should each chapter summary be in a book proposal for a nonfiction book?

A: In Michael Larsen’s book titled simply How to Write a Book Proposal, he shows most chapter outlines to be about one page, double-spaced. No absolute rule applies; however, I followed that book to the letter in 2003 for my first book proposal, and as a result I sold Write In Style to a reputable New York publisher.

Q: In my book proposal, I hesitate to say “About the Authors” instead of “About the Author,” because I am the only author, except that I got a nationally famous person to write a two-page introduction for me. I feel the need to strengthen the author section, though, since I am not a well-known authority on the subject. I say on the cover sheet, “With . . .” Do you have any suggestion as to how I should handle that?

A: Absolutely. First, in the About the Author section, use the singular. You are the author of the book. On the cover sheet, use “With an introduction by [Famous Name].” You could probably also add one or two paragraphs in the author section explaining that so-and-so wrote the introduction and then give a brief summary of what makes the well-known person an expert on the subject.

Q: I received an email from a small publisher. In it he said that [name deleted] Publishing requires chapter summaries that are limited to one short paragraph for each chapter. I understood you to say one page for each chapter. He also said the contents of a book proposal varies among agents and publishers, so that may be the answer, but I would appreciate a clarification.

A: No standard exists that pleases all publishers universally. Each has differing preferences. Always look for and follow each publisher’s guidelines. If you cannot find any guidelines, use the standard approach. Although the standard is one double-spaced page for each chapter summary, if a publisher prefers one short paragraph instead, that’s what you send.
Submitting proposals and manuscripts to publishers and agents would be much simpler if all subscribed to the same guidelines, but alas, nothing about submitting for publication has been standardized.


Send your questions to Bobbie@zebraeditor.com. Bobbie Christmas, book editor and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions quickly. Read more Ask the Book Doctor questions and answers at www.zebraeditor.com.

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