Querying for fiction and querying for nonfiction are nothing alike. Even the completeness of your novel and the quality of your writing are weighed differently. The two similarities are that both fiction and nonfiction novels will end up in book form (electronic or otherwise), and it’s very challenging to secure a contract.
Perhaps the biggest differences between querying nonfiction and fiction are when you query and whether you will need to write a book proposal. We recommend writing a book proposal and querying well before you finish your nonfiction book. In fact, you should really only complete one or two chapters before crafting your book proposal and querying.
There are a few notable exceptions. Narrative nonfiction is dependent on the author’s storytelling ability, and your book will need to be complete. You’re unlikely to be asked for a book proposal, and there’s less pressure to be a certified expert in the subject (although it doesn’t hurt your chances). Memoirs may or may not need a book proposal (depending on the agent), and the book should be finished. In both of these cases, they’ll want a topic or situation that is marketable, which means it should be about something that hasn’t already been done many times over and is either intensely interesting or relatable.
While fiction agents don’t require a book proposal, their eyes may light up if you’ve completed one and it’s clear you know what you’re doing. Creating a book proposal is a great exercise that helps authors look at their book in the same light as agents and publishers: as a product.
What Is the Point of a Book Proposal?
The purpose of a nonfiction book proposal is to assure an agent or publisher that the money they invest in your book creates very little risk for their company. It’s their job to find the books with the highest earning potential, and your book proposal should convince them that your book belongs in that category.
Those who are extremely jaded say book proposals result from publishers not evolving with the times and needing a ready-made market to sell any books. A more practical view acknowledges that (1) more than one million new titles are published every year thanks to self-publishing; (2) the benefits of having connections with brick and mortar book stores have significantly declined; and (3) in an age when fewer people are reading long-form content, it’s simply easier to convince people to buy a nonfiction book if a very popular expert writes it.
Before you sit down to write a nonfiction book proposal, remember:
Your book proposal is not about your writing. Even the bits that seem like they should be about writing aren’t really about writing. The entire point is to create an argument that your book will sell.
Structure your book proposal so it’s clear that someone purchasing the rights to publish your book accepts minimal risk because sales are essentially guaranteed.
The Structure of a Book Proposal
How you write a nonfiction book proposal will remain fairly constant across agencies and publishers. You’ll always want to review an agent’s specific guidelines and tweak your proposal accordingly, but following this structure will minimize your edits. In general, you’ll need an overview, an author bio, a competitive title analysis, a marketing plan, a chapter outline, and one to three sample chapters.
Remember when we said even the parts of a nonfiction book proposal that seem like they should be about your writing really aren’t about your writing? This is certainly the case for the overview.
The overview is not a synopsis of your book. It is the business case for your book. It should be one to two pages long (double-spaced) and succinctly make an argument for why the world needs your topic presented using your unique method today. Use research and recent examples whenever possible to prove your topic is relevant and will be in high demand.
Agents aren’t looking for your life story. They’re looking for why you’re uniquely qualified to write this book. Except in the case of narrative nonfiction writers, your credentials and popularity in the field will likely be the most influential factor in deciding whether or not to publish your book.
Unless your life’s events are very interesting and relevant to your book, leave them out. Like the overview, the author bio is intended to sell the agent or acquiring editor on why you’re the person they should choose to write about this topic. Writing chops matter far less than fame, unless this is narrative nonfiction or memoir (and even then, if you’re interesting and famous enough, they’ll find you a ghostwriter).
Previous books and their performance are a good addition, but be prepared to explain why one of your books didn’t perform if sales were low.
Target audiences should be well researched and specific. Start by looking at audiences who rate and review similar titles to build your target demographics.
If your book is about a hobby, detail what kind of people participate in the hobby and how much they spend on books about the hobby. Use any statistics you can find on recent trends to show your topic is becoming more popular (if possible).
For example, “86% of surveyed homeowners in Minneapolis reported they would be gardening in 2021, with 40% maintaining the same garden as 2020 and 46% adding new garden beds in 2021. While garden primers were (virtually) flying off the shelves in 2020, more gardeners will be looking for practical guides outlining when and what to plant in their region and prefer physical copies instead of eBooks. Nation-wide, Amazon lists the 2021 Farmer’s Almanac as the top seller, followed by practical how-to guides on homestead gardening. In the Midwest, we see landscaping, home garden, and plant identification books in the top 20 specific to the area.”
If you can find complaints by reviewers that authors aren’t keeping up with the most recent trends, this is another point to add in your target audience review.
A competitive title analysis should include five to ten titles with 100-200 words capturing the book’s approach to the topic and how it differs from your own. Do not badmouth writers or critique their writing style. This should be about how your topic differs and is more relevant today.
When listing competitive books, specify the title, subtitle, author, publisher, year of publication, page count, price, format, and ISBN. Don’t bother researching the book’s popularity or sales numbers. They’ll do an independent data pull on sales figures.
If you only list one to three titles or claim your book doesn’t have competition, it’s a sign your book isn’t marketable. Opt for including books that are close to your title rather than excluding all titles.
This is the part that will make or break your publishing dreams. An agent will want to know your existing marketing base, the activity you’ve been doing to date to grow your base, and activities you plan in the future to help promote your book. What you’ve accomplished so far will carry far more weight than what you plan to do.
Your existing platform will consist of monthly website visitors, social media followers, and vlog or podcast subscribers if you have them. Tens of thousands of followers is fair, hundreds of thousands of followers is good, and millions is best. Keep in mind that they’ll want to know how relevant your online presence is to what you’re writing about. If you’re an Instagram vegan fashion influencer writing about vaccine protocols for feed animals, they won’t care about your Instagram following.
Also, include what you’re doing to continue to grow your audience. For example, if you incentivize people to sign up for your email newsletter with free content and have hired a social media expert to maintain your content production, be sure to include that information.
Media & Speaking Engagements
Include major public appearances where you were paid or invited to speak in front of a large audience. National news appearances, podcast episodes, regular op-ed appearances, and television interviews all belong here. If you have an open invitation to re-appear as a guest or a regular spot on a show, make sure to call that out in this section.
List out future bookings and plans to appear on shows. Concrete bookings and past appearances will matter more than future plans unless you have a regular spot with the show/publication. For more information on pitching yourself as a podcast guest, read this article.
Do you know any famous people who would be willing to write a promotional blurb to include on your book cover, in the Amazon description, or promote your work through their channels? Has a famous friend in the field offered to write your introduction? Make sure to mention this in your marketing plan.
Outline how you’ll be actively promoting your book before and after launch. Perhaps you are a busy public speaker. Asking to sell your book after your time slot is a great way to promote your book. If you’re too busy to run your own social media account, hire an expert to keep content flowing on a regular cadence. Find reputable authors to do cross-promotional activities with.
If you have a popular vlog or podcast, you may plan on offering a promotional code to loyal listeners for a discount or coordinate a few give-aways to increase interest.
Plans can always change, but it doesn’t hurt to outline what you’ll be doing in the months leading up and after the launch (in detail) to keep sales momentum. List opportunities to offer the book at a discount or promote your work on a more national scale.
Some agents want a table of contents and a chapter outline, while others just want a chapter outline. The chapter outline should contain the title or short description of the chapter and 100 words or less on the main purpose.
The point is to show your book has a story arc and flow, not detailing what it’s about. This means keeping mentions of additional people, institutions, and content to a minimum. Focus on main concepts and how each chapter relates to the next.
The agent will specify whether they want one or more chapters. Unless they ask you to, do not include the introduction. This is your one opportunity to show off your writing skills. Your chapter should be edited and in near-final form.
Things to Consider
If you’re not a household name, don’t get too discouraged. Hiring a social media expert, extra marketing help
, and a nonfiction coach with an excellent track record are all ways to improve your odds of landing a contract. Well-known authors can secure contracts over six-figures against future royalties, so going with a big publisher may be worth the effort.
If you have an advanced degree in your topic and have always dreamed of publishing a book, take an honest look at your audience. If you only have a few dozen social media followers and aren’t willing to spend money on improving your statistics, self-publishing may be the way to go.