The Seven Vital Elements of a Successful Nonfiction Book Proposal


© 1996 Mary Embree

Whether you have already written a nonfiction book or are contemplating writing one you will need to know what it takes to sell it. A book proposal can be prepared no matter what stage of writing you are currently in. In fact, the preparation of a book proposal is recommended even before you start writing because it can become a guide to the process, an outline for your book and a checklist of what your book should contain in order to have a chance for success.

There are seven major factors that make for a best-selling nonfiction book. There are also seven major parts to a book proposal. If you address all of these issues carefully and your book meets most of the following criteria, your chances of getting published will be greatly improved. Even if you are planning to self-publish, your book will sell better if it is well organized and has a professional appearance. Your standards must be as high as any other publisher.

What Makes a Nonfiction Book Successful?

  1. The subject is timely and/or timeless, it is unique or presented in a unique way, it is interesting and appeals to a wide audience.
  2. It has a title that is descriptive, invites inquiry, shocks or soothes or in some way attracts attention.
  3. It is well-written and carefully edited with attention paid to spelling, grammar and sentence structure. It avoids scientific or technical terminology unfamiliar to the layperson. It does not contain slang expressions as they tend to date the work. It is easy to read.
  4. The author is a professional in the field about which he/she is writing, is considered an expert on the subject or has done extensive research on it.
  5. The material is well-organized.
  6. The presentation is attractive, appealing and professional-looking.
  7. It has been diligently promoted and marketed.

Prepare your Book Proposal with all of the above factors in mind. The headings and the format that are shown here are representative of several books which have been written on book proposals, information from agents and publishers and my own personal experience. The format may differ somewhat according to the publisher or agent to whom you will be presenting your proposal. For instance, some publishers require one sample chapter, some three or even more. Some agents may ask that you put your name on every page and others may ask you not to. It’s a good idea to modify your book proposal according to the wishes of the person or company with whom you are dealing. Above all, before you send it off, write and rewrite until you have it right and edit, edit, edit!

The Query Letter

Although this is not usually considered part of the book proposal, a cover letter should accompany every submission. Some agents or publishers will ask you to query before you send them your book proposal; others want a book proposal with a cover letter on first contact. Either way, this letter must be only one page with at least one-inch margins. As it is the first thing that is read, it is important that it be interesting and informative. The first paragraph should tell what your book is about and contain the “hook”¾your sales point. In the body of your letter, show that you know your subject well and are qualified to write about it. Also explain why you think your book will be a big seller; include demographics or statistics if applicable. In the last paragraph, ask for what you want, representation, an invitation to send a book proposal (if this does not accompany a book proposal) or a publishing contract. It is recommended that you write this letter after you have completed the book proposal because you will have a better idea of what the cover or query letter should contain.

The Book Proposal

NOTE: The entire proposal should be double-spaced with the exception of the Synopsis which should be single-spaced. On each page, place the book proposal item number, subject and the title of your book on the upper right-hand corner; for example: II. Synopsis: Challenges.

A. Title and Basic Sales Point (Title Page)

  1. Your title should be provocative and succinct. One or two-word titles are usually preferred by publishers and are easier for potential readers to remember. Although there are some exceptions, such as Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, it’s best to stick to a short title whenever you can. If your book is to be published by someone other than you, the title will probably be changed anyway before your book goes to print.
  2. Study the subject guide to Books in Print and note whether the subject has been updated within the past few years. Check Forthcoming Books which details the books publishers currently have in the works. Both are published by R..R. Bowker Co. Book stores and public libraries usually have these lists on computer.
  3. Choose a title that has not been used before. If there are several books on the subject you have chosen, be sure that yours is different in some important way.
  4. On the Title Page, put your title and your name as the author. Below that write a brief description of your book and how it is different from all the others. This is your primary sales pitch. Make it short and intriguing.
  5. List the number of words you expect to write or have written. Most nonfiction books are between 170 and 300 pages. If your book will have fewer or more pages than these, be sure that there is a good reason for it. If there are fewer pages, don’t pad. Every word should have a reason to be there. If there are more than 300 pages, be sure that you have not repeated yourself and that it requires that many pages to make your points.

B. Synopsis
The Synopsis should be no more than two pages, single-spaced, and preferably about one- and-a-half pages. This is an overview of the book Read book reviews, especially those on a similar subject as yours, and study book jackets as guides in developing the tone of the synopsis. Estimate the time needed to complete the book once the contract is signed.

C. Author’s Background and Promotional Skills

Also called Biographical Information, this is a narrative statement of your qualifications, experience and reasons for writing the book. Do not send a resume or curriculum vitae. List other books you have written and explain your promotional skills such as public speaking, television or radio appearances or seminars you have conducted on the subject. Suggest the names of prominent figures or authorities who may endorse your book. If you already have contacted them and they have reacted favorably be sure to mention it.

D. Market Potential

Research the demographics and statistics of potential readers. For example: “The number of women living with children whose father was absent was over 10 million as of spring of 1996.” This number will be significant if your book is about how a single mother can help her child feel secure, excel in school and make positive choices. These single mothers are all potential readers. If your book is about motorcycles, you would want to have statistics on how many people own motorcycles. You would also want to tell how many motorcycle clubs and dealers there are because they are also potential readers.

E. Competitive Works

Research other books on the same subject; this is your competition. Borrow or buy books which may be similar to yours and read them. Choose four or five and list each by title, author, publisher, the year published, the number of pages and the price. Write a brief synopsis of each one and explain how yours is different.

F. Table of Contents and Chapter Outline

  1. Prepare a Table of Contents with chapter titles (but no page numbers). Under each chapter title write a paragraph or two explaining what it is about. This indicates that you have a clear grasp of your subject and have planned exactly how and in what order you will present your information.
  2. Describe other materials which will be included such as charts and graphs, photographs or illustrations. Enclose a sample graphic if it is a key part of your book.

G. Sample Chapters

Send three completed chapters. Always send the first chapter because publishers usually want to know how you get into your subject. The first ten pages of your book are crucial. If you don’t grab the reader right away, your book may not have a chance. Study the opening sentences of best-selling books for ideas. The other two chapters should be the ones you believe are the most important or most interesting. Don’t worry about giving away the ending; this isn’t a mystery novel. If you have a dynamite closing chapter, let the agent and/or publisher know. Your goal, remember, is to sell your book.
Again, and this cannot be stressed enough, be sure that your work is professionally edited. Check references of those who claim to be editors and have a meeting with them to determine whether they are the right editor for you and your book. No editor should change the voice of the writer. If you cannot find an experienced book editor, get the services of an English teacher. They will check the spelling, correct the grammar and improve sentence structure. A good editor will enhance the writing and give it a professional polish.

LITERARY MARKET PLACE, published by R.R. Bowker & Co.

BOOKS IN PRINT and FORTHCOMING BOOKS, published by R.R. Bowker & Co.

WRITER’S MARKET, Where & How to Sell What You Write, published by Writer’s Digest Books each year. Always get the most recent edition. New in 1997: Writer’s Market on CD-ROM.


WRITER’S DIGEST monthly magazine

WRITE THE PERFECT BOOK PROPOSAL; 10 Proposals that Sold and Why by Jeff Herman and Deborah M. Adams; published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL by Michael Larsen; published by Writer’s Digest Books © Mary Embree, 1996

NOTE: Mary Embree is a free-lance writer, ghostwriter and editor. As the author of a published nonfiction book, network television scripts, magazine articles and educational material, she is familiar with various genres. Many of her client’s books and magazine articles have been published by major publishers. She has also edited a number of self-published books. If you have any questions about book proposals, you may contact her through her Email address:


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