The Road to Publication: The Nonfiction Book Proposal

road to publication nonfiction book proposal2011 has proven to be a humbling year for me in many ways, especially with regards to my writing career. In 2010, I set a goal for myself: within the next year, I’ll be on the path to becoming a published author. Well, with a little luck from the stars above along with an incredible audience (“platform” in publishing speak) to back me up, it’s happened. I signed my first two book deals this year and both manuscripts are well on their way to being bound versions of the proposals I wrote well over a year ago.

After fielding lots of questions about what I did to get published, I thought I’d create a blog series that demystifies the process for those interested in writing nonfiction. I’m asked frequently whether I’ll ever write fiction, and given that real life throws incomprehensible shit my way every day, making things up just seems like too much work. So I’ll stick with long form nonfiction and leave the fiction to short stories every now and then. If you’re interested, you can check out “Throw Pillow” (a Writer’s Digest finalist), and “First and Blend.” If you’re not, fine. Let’s talk nonfiction and getting that shit published.

It All Starts With the Book Proposal

First and foremost, those interested in writing nonfiction do not have to complete a manuscript (unlike fiction authors) prior to heading out on a search for an agent and/or publisher. What you need to create is a proposal, which is exactly what I did for both of my books. I used the book called Putting Your Passion Into Print by Arielle Eckstut and David Sterry. The book is, quite honestly, the shit when it comes to walking you through the components of a nonfiction book proposal. I used it to craft both of my proposals and was told, in both cases, that the agent and publishers had never seen such concise and complete proposals. If you’d like to review the book proposal for my co-authored book The Insider’s Guide to Egg Donation, you can view it here as a reference.

How Long Should I Budget to Write the Book Proposal?

Three months, minimum. I won’t lie and say it can’t and hasn’t (cough cough) been done in less time, but give yourself some breathing room. It has to be beyond good as the competition for publishing slots these days is fierce.

Here’s what you need to remember about your book proposal:

  • First impression/last impression: Whether sending it to an agent or directly querying with a publisher, your proposal is your first and last chance to make an impression. A pass is a pass. The proposal better be fucking brilliant.
  • Think of it as ammo: Here’s something I didn’t know before this year’s foray into nonfiction publishing – your book proposal is ammo for both your agent and the acquiring editor.
    • What’s an acquiring editor? They’re salespeople, pure and simple. An acquiring editor’s job is to find book titles to include in the publisher’s next catalog. They negotiate the deals, sign the authors, and get paid based on the deals they write. This is the person to whom your agent, should you choose to work with one, will be pitching your book proposal.
    • How does a book proposal act as ammo for an acquiring editor? In publishing houses, there are multiple acquiring editors vying for a limited number of book slots available in the upcoming catalog. That means that they have to pitch your manuscript to a table filled with people who want your project to fuck off and die so that their project can hit the catalog. The better your proposal, the better ammo an acquiring editor has to shoot down his or her colleagues’ lackluster projects and get your book that coveted place in the next season’s catalog.
  • It’s time to testify: Your book proposal is your chance to pitch your book to people who can help you get published. Help them help you. They have no damn idea who you are or that you’re super important in Peoria, Illinois. When you follow the guidelines outlined in the book I mentioned above, you’re giving these publishing professionals the chance to meet you (while they may never meet you) and make a decision as to why they should spend their valuable time on your project. Don’t waste their time. If you were going to court, you wouldn’t tell the judge to bugger off or the bailiff to get bent. Make your case, respect their time, and explain why you’re a good risk to take in the grand scheme of their limited time.

That Doesn’t Sound Like Fun

Really? Because I guarantee that writing the proposal will be a metric shit ton more fun than writing the actual book! We’re talking twenty to thirty pages versus 60,000 to 70,000 words, my friends!

Something else that’s worth keeping in mind is how you’ll market your book, as the reality is that unless you’re a huge name (which I’m not – even if I write it in a massive font), your publisher is going to do very little outside of get your book into major retailers. So if you’re not up for marketing, promoting your own book, publishing probably isn’t for you, no matter what route you choose (mainstream publisher or self-published).

Tips for Making A Bombass Book Proposal

And yes, “bombass” is a publishing industry term.

  • Get out of your echo chamber: No matter what you do for a living or your area of expertise, you work in an echo chamber. You’re surrounded by people who get what you do, what you say, and how you say it. Break out of it. Your book proposal will be read by agents and acquiring editors who have less than a frog’s fine ass hair’s worth of a clue about what you’re talking about. If they don’t understand your material, your book is a pass. Find people who are your book’s target demographic and have them read your book proposal. They’ll tell you what’s clear and what needs more explanation. Parents are (honestly) great for this.
  • Hire a copyeditor: Nothing is more annoying to people who read things for a living than to get a proposal riddled with grammar and usage errors. I have two editors: David Pennington and Amelia Hipps. Ping them – they’re very reasonable and the best money you’ll spend so you don’t look like an ass.
  • Don’t get cutesy: Skip the exotic fonts and stick with Times New Roman – it’s the publishing industry standard. No one cares about the font. Believe me. This was the first comment my agent made.
  • Suck in, suck out: If the proposal sucks, the book will suck. Agents and editors know this. When you take the time to refine your book proposal so that it’s the best it can be, you’re telling agents and acquiring editors, “Hey – I respect your time and thanks so much for looking at my project. I know you read a lot of shit throughout your days, and that’s why I didn’t send you even more shit. I took the time to draft, refine, and edit this so that you’d have a clear picture of where I fit in your world and how you can sell me. I make you money, and I wrote this so that it’s as easy as possible for you to make money.”

So What’s Next?

Once you write your bombass book proposal and have gone through the refinement and editing process, you’re going to have to take it out to agents and/or publishers so you can begin the road to publication. In the next installment, I’ll cover the query letter process for nonfiction books, complete with my query letter for The Insider’s Guide to Egg Donation. My second book, The Power of Unpopular, was a deal made directly with John Wiley & Sons (my acquiring editor is Shannon Vargo, who knows her shit and handled every aspect of the deal with my agent top to bottom). That book had no query letter, but it did have a proposal. But I’ll share things I’ve learned throughout the publication process on both books that will help you make better decisions as a writer in future posts in this series.

What you need to know right now is that the nonfiction book proposal is JOB #1 for the nonfiction writer, and a big part of that job involves writing something bombass that respects the time of the publishing professionals who can help you get into print.

Hit me up with questions in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them. If I can’t, I’ll ping my publishing friends to see if they can chime in. Next week, we’ll talk about the query letter process for finding an agent and/or publisher and my views on the inarguable importance of representation in the publishing world. My love affair with my agent, Stephany Evans of Fine Print Literary Management, is no secret. I’m fortunate to have earned her representation and she’s educated me in more ways than you could imagine. And for the record, she’s also a kickass editor and helped refine both book proposals in addition to negotiating the best possible deal for both book contracts.

Buy that book I mentioned. Get writing. A proposal is no place to skimp, as it’s only the first step to the bookstore shelves!

14 comments
April
April

Brilliant as always!  But especially, thank you, for Throw Pillow!  Turns out, I needed that!

Killian
Killian

You have no idea how much I appreciate this.  My outline for my nonfiction book is nearly done, and I am just about ready to go to this step.  Your timing is spectacular as always.

Cofader1
Cofader1

Have dappled with the idea of writing a nonfiction for several years...how much/if any of the book should be written before traveling down the proposal road? 

Mimi
Mimi

Like Adele, you speak to me on levels I never knew I had.  "Throw Pillow" was AMAZING - and I kept wishing that it had only taken me a few hours to get off the couch after MY Phil than the weeks (but in reality probably months) that I allowed him to continue to steal from my life.  Do you (or your sources) know of a fiction equivalent to "Putting Your Passion Into Print"?  There are SO many on the market that give such differing advice.  The process is difficult enough that I don't want to find out after all is said and done that I was following the wrong 'rules.' One way or the other, thank you . . . while I understand that I am among many, I am a huge fan.

Leon Noone
Leon Noone

G'Day Erika,  All is forgiven. You may not know that a koala is not a bear. But your font of choice is Times New Roman. I have a slight preference for NewCentury Sghoolbook myself. But TNR will do just fine. Support the Serif! Regards Leon 

Elizabeth Flora Ross
Elizabeth Flora Ross

Excellent advice, and all so true! I was fortunate recently to win a blog contest, and receive a critique of my proposal from a senior editor at a major publishing house. I was excited and scared of what she might say. But her edits were relatively minor, and overall she felt it was very strong. It was invaluable to receive that insider feedback as an unpublished author. I am still seeking representation from a literary agent, but I am getting close. And, I know I have a bombass book proposal! :)

Jamaica
Jamaica

Thanks for sharing. Tonight I'm literally hopping a plane and red-eying myself across the country to work on my first co-authored nonfiction project. (Proposal is already accepted, I'm going into a word slinging lockdown:) What timing- I'm starting down the road you've just been down (I have no idea what I'm doing, yet). Thanks for all the nuggets & resources. Much obliged. Good luck.

D.T. Pennington
D.T. Pennington

The proposal also works as an early indicator as to whether or not the book should even be written. Can't get the outline together or describe what your book is ultimately about in two sentences? Then writing a book probably isn't for you.  Getting a ghost writer can help you through the process as well, especially if you haven't taken a lot of time to read books. Knowing how a book should read and be put together can save you from a world of headaches. Yes, I have worked with people who wanted to write and publish books who haven't actually bothered reading the kind of book they want to write. It's a nightmare.  

Jim Raffel
Jim Raffel

One word to describe this post - "veryuseful" (okay, I cheated)

Trackbacks

  1. […] Redhead Writing walks us through the creation of a nonfiction book proposal. […]

  2. […] Road to Publication: The Query Letter filed under Book Publishing This series began with the nonfiction book proposal and continues today with the next step – how the hell do you get someone to notice your stuff […]

  3. […] series began with the nonfiction book proposal and continues today with the next step – how the hell do you get someone to notice your stuff […]