How to write a non-fiction book proposal?

A non-fiction proposal is the author’s opportunity to showcase the importance, impact and argument of their manuscript to the publisher and ultimately convince them to publish it. This is why you need to write a non-fiction book proposal that is compelling and well-structured. It should start with identifying the target publisher and evaluating their catalogue. Next, the proposal should cover the following aspects: comparable or competitive title analysis, target audience, author bio, book overview, blurb, chapter outline and/or table of contents and sample chapter(s).

This post opens the series of posts celebrating Non-fiction November, an annual initiative challenging book lovers to read more non-fiction, and Academic Writing Month, a month-long academic write-a-thon. This is an excellent opportunity to shout out to and support non-fiction writers. The series starts with the following guide for non-fiction authors (academic and non-narrative non-fiction writers will find it most useful) about how to prepare to write a book proposal and what it should include when you finally sit down to it.

How to prepare to write a non-fiction book proposal?

Before you write a book proposal, there are a few steps to complete. You need to identify the target publishers and evaluate their portfolio, marketing and code of conduct. Then, gather details of the commissioning editors whose acquisitions might be aligning with your manuscript’s subject matter. Here are some more details on how to prepare to write a non-fiction book proposal:

  • Identify your target publisher. Compile a list of similar recently published books and note the publishers and presses with the highest number of books. You will also find this list useful later as a part of the proposal.
  • Evaluate the target publisher. Balancing the answers to the following questions can help you narrow down the most fitting publisher based on what is most important for you as an author. If you are an academic writer, you could also ask your colleagues about the presses specialising in your field. Consider these questions:
    • Do the publisher’s books seem well designed, appealing to the readers and with attractive covers?
    • Is it easy to find information online about the publisher’s books, such as synopses, endorsements, and tables of contents?
    • Do the publisher’s books have a reasonable price point?
    • Does the press seem to actively promote its books and authors?
    • Would it be fulfilling for you to be associated with this publisher if they were to publish your book?
    • Does the publisher show commitment to publishing and promoting authors from historically underrepresented groups?
    • Does the publisher have a public code of conduct or mission statement on their website that indicates its commitment to treating authors with respect?
  • Gather contact details. Note names and emails of potential acquisitions editors and series editors and reasons why your book would be a good fit for their catalogues.

What does a non-fiction book proposal consist of?

Publishing houses and presses usually provide book proposal templates, which may vary but usually consist of the following sections:

Comparable or competitive title analysis

First, list a few books that would sit naturally next to yours on the bookshop’s shelf, including title, author and year. Furthermore, include a brief evaluation of the competing books consisting of a broad description and how your work would complement or offer an alternative argument or approach. You can use the following questions as a start.

Title
Author
Year
Publisher
A broad description of the (other) book’s topic and approach
How does your book complement/counter-argue the (other) book?

It is a mistake to assume that your book has no competition or exclude niche publications. The acquisitions editors, who are used to reading proposals representing specific areas of knowledge, probably have seen many times the same ‘big names’ that authors commonly use. On the contrary, including publications that did not reach the ‘top ten’ or are otherwise lesser known will demonstrate your familiarity with the field’s publishing landscape.

It could help to begin this section with a paragraph introducing the publishing landscape and current trends, what is popular and over-represented and, on the other hand, what the gaps are.

Target audience

Next, this section aims to demonstrate your critical insight into the intended readership, which should not be an afterthought. Avoid stating that your book is ‘for everyone’ because if it is for everyone, then it is really for no one. Instead, focus on the most likely or primary readership you envision would buy your book.

Additionally, if your writing (articles, blog or earlier books) has already received some exposure, this a good place to list:

  • conferences where you presented your research
  • publications and media outlets that quoted you or featured your work
  • publications you contributed to or edited

Author bio

This section shows the credibility/authority you have as a writer to discuss the topic. This is not a place to tell your story or include details not relevant to your writing expertise. Moreover, you could attach a CV with the book proposal, which is a common requirement with academic presses, but remember to make it concise and relevant. Your ‘author bio’ could include these:

  • PhD institution
  • current and relevant previous positions
  • previous books, articles, or blogs published or contributed to
  • relevant awards won
  • relevant media appearances or recognition of your research

Book overview

This part of the book proposal is a high-level pitch for your book. Start with the title; it could be a working title. Describe the situation, environment or problem currently and urgently experienced by society/culture (and/or your ideal reader), then introduce your book as the solution or compelling exploration that people want or need on the topic. Show how your book explores new ideas or new research or introduces arguments that feel surprising or make us question what we think we know.

To write a good book overview, you can also consider these questions:

  • What would be one takeaway with which you could leave your reader?
  • What was one thing you learned during research that most changed your thinking about the subject matter?
  • If your book has multiple arguments, which is the one that you think drives your book?
  • Why do your arguments and findings matter? And to whom?
  • How does your argument contribute to existing knowledge?

Also, include these elements:

  • completion stage — at what stage of the writing/how close to completion is your manuscript (e.g. first draft, only sample chapter, copyedited manuscript),
  • a broad description of your evidence and methods,
  • general structure and arc of the book.

Blurb

The blurb or the one-line description needs to be attention catching and make your reader want to know more about the book. It usually captures the book’s approach to its topic or the main claim your book makes. For instance, when I purchase a book, the blurb and the first few pages are what matters in my purchasing decision process.

Outline/table of contents

The chapter overview demonstrates how the book will develop and how each chapter delivers on the promise made in the proposal. This is important because the publishers commonly accept them based on the proposal rather than a manuscript. The trick to making this section convincing is not going into too much detail. Finally, this is an opportunity to show your idea is cohesive and creates a whole.

You could map out each chapter by recreating the following structure:

Working title
Topic
Argument
Methods of analysis
How does the chapter support the book’s principal argument and relate to other chapters?

Sample chapter

Finally, you should attach a sample chapter to support the promise of good writing and a novel, well-researched argument that you have now made in the proposal. It should leave the commissioning editor hungry to read more. Ideally, the sample chapter will be the most exciting of your chapters.

How to finalise your non-fiction book proposal?

When you are happy with the high-level aspects of your proposal, such as clarifying the argument and methods, make sure that the presentation and language are on point and speak to your professionalism and expertise. This may include proofreading and formatting the document to ensure it clearly and consistently conveys the overview of your book. Ultimately, you want it to be easy for the commissioning editor to follow your line of thought and excite them about the prospect of your publication. Specifically, zoom in on spelling, styling and language consistencies, punctuation issues, formatting and layout issues and word choice errors. Self-editing is hard, so you may consider engaging a professional proofreader. However, to help you finalise your book proposal, here is a detailed list of examples of issues that might help you self-edit your text:

  • switching between UK and US spelling conventions,
  • inconsistent use of capitalisation or italicising of terms and titles,
  • inconsistent use of numerals (expressed as numbers and written out),
  • switching between single and double quotation marks,
  • inconsistent use of tenses,
  • missing commas, apostrophes or periods,
  • comma splices,
  • misuse of hyphens, en dashes or em dashes,
  • quotations left without a closing quotation,
  • inconsistent indentation,
  • inconsistent use of formatting styles,
  • lack of heading hierarchy,
  • hyperlinks broken or not leading to the right web pages,
  • misuse of definite and indefinite articles,
  • misuse of prepositions,
  • misspelt words, especially homophones
  • missing initial capitalisation at the beginning of a sentence.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, writing a non-fiction book proposal requires careful planning, research and attention to detail. By following the steps outlined in this guide, you can create a compelling and well-structured proposal that showcases your manuscript’s importance, impact and argument. Remember to identify your target publisher, evaluate their portfolio, and gather contact details of potential acquisitions editors and series editors. Also, include a comparable or competitive title analysis, target audience, author bio, book overview, blurb, chapter outline and sample chapter(s) in your proposal. 

Importantly, submitting a non-fiction book proposal can be a daunting and competitive process. Therefore, it is important to be patient, persistent and professional throughout. Take the time to proofread and edit your proposal and consider seeking feedback from others to improve it. To cover anything missed during the self-editing process, consider hiring professional proofreading services to prepare your proposal for submission.

Finally, do not be discouraged by rejection — use any feedback provided to refine your proposal and manuscript. Writing a non-fiction book proposal takes time and effort, but it is ultimately a rewarding process that can lead to publishing your ideas and insights. With this guide and a well-crafted proposal, you can increase your chances of success and bring your non-fiction book to life.

If you would like a second pair of eyes to review your book proposal or manuscript, contact me for a free sample edit (and remember to use my early bird discount). For more tips for writers, follow me on MastodonTwitterFacebook and LinkedIn or sign up for my newsletter.

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Magda

I am an editor, indexer and a lifelong lover of literature with a PhD in literary history. I am an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), a student member of the Society of Indexers and a vetted partner of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).