NONFICTION PROPOSAL GUIDELINES
This guide is intended for prospective clients intending to write a proposal for a literary nonfiction book project—literary memoirs, personal essays, literary journalism, interviews, literary criticism, social and cultural criticism, cultural studies, film and TV writing, art writing, nature and environment writing, place and travel writing, food narratives, and hybrid forms.
In the simplest of terms, a nonfiction book proposal is a formal, structured, and methodically presented outline of your book project. Perhaps the most important reason for writing a book proposal is to show publishers your grasp of the business side of publishing. It helps a great deal, in fact, to see your proposal as a business plan for your nonfiction book.
If you want to publish a nonfiction book with a major publishing house, mainstream or independent, a completed manuscript isn’t necessarily required. Virtually all nonfiction books—including those that fall under the literary nonfiction banner—are sold on proposal. Your ability to get a book deal is totally dependent on your book proposal.
The job of a proposal is threefold. Firstly, to make the case to publishers that your book is needed in the marketplace. To do this, a proposal must effectively outline what the book is about, state why anyone would be interested in reading it, identify who has written other books like your book, and show how your book is similar to, yet distinct from, competing titles. The burden is on you to prove that your book is needed.
Secondly, to convince publishers that your book can actually sell. Many nonfiction books do not earn out their advance. So before publishers decide to invest resources and time in your book, they are going to probe hard to determine whether or not they can recoup their investment at the very least. Again, the burden is on you to prove that your book can sell.
Thirdly, to demonstrate to publishers that you have the qualifications and background required to write the book. The publishing industry typically talks about your qualifications and background as part of the broader author platform. Although the term tends to scare authors it really shouldn’t. What the author platform boils down to is simple: that you have the means at your disposal to help get the word about your book out to a lot of people and give it a good start. A website can be a key part of your platform and so can social media tools like Twitter, personal appearances in traditional media, guest posting or writing features for newspapers or magazines, blogging, and podcasting.
Assuming you have the requisite sample chapters ready to go, a carefully detailed proposal will take considerable time to write—up to 2 weeks for background research, anywhere between 2 to 4 weeks to write a first draft, and another 2 weeks or more for revision and polishing. Rushing through the research, writing, and revision process will inevitably result in a weak proposal.
Revise, proofread, and go over your proposal and sample chapters with a fine-tooth comb to be sure it is in the best form it can be. Do not come across as an amateur. We recommend getting a professional editor to proofread your documents to ensure that any spelling, grammar, syntax, and punctuation errors are eliminated.