If you are planning to write a nonfiction book, and you’re planning to seek a publishing deal, the first thing you need is a book proposal. This is what literary agents and publishers want to see first—not a full manuscript.
Your proposal is like the DNA of your book. If you are successful and land a deal with a publisher, your proposal will be the basis of the company’s understanding of your book. It will help the editor, the publicist, the sales force, and the cover designer to know what your book is, even before they read it (and some of those people will never read the full text of your book). Your book will go through various incarnations and stages of production on the way to reaching the bookstore, but the DNA remains constant.
The best book proposals are created through a solid, thoughtful process consisting of six stages: concept, testing, competitive analysis, platform, path, and distillation.
Remember that the process of writing a book proposal is different from the components of a book proposal.
There are some actions, thinking, and ideas required that will never directly appear in the finished document you send out to literary agents, but they are 100% essential to its success.
It’s like a fighter who spends hours in the gym lifting weights, even though they’ll never actually move barbells around once they’re in the ring facing an opponent. All that time spent on weightlifting, cardio, and improving strength and technique beforehand is essential in building the muscle, strategy, and endurance they need to win the fight.
The same model applies to writing a book proposal. If you want to create a proposal that will get multiple offers from leading publishers, it is imperative to go through a strategic process of development before you begin writing.
If you have taken these 6 steps, congratulations! You’re ready to write a book proposal.
Step 1. Develop your book concept.
What will your book do for its readers—what benefits, what problems solved, what changes in thinking or behavior?
You know you’ve clinched this when you can describe the unique features or the offering of your book in one or two clear, explanatory sentences.
Step 2. Test your concept.
Test it by writing articles; blogging; podcasting; running a course or workshop.
If you get good responses, and you’re able to report on your findings in detail (either anecdotal feedback or data on comments/reads for online content), you know you’ve nailed this part of the process.
Step 3. Know your competition.
List 5-10 comp titles to your book and describe their strengths, weaknesses, and how they demonstrate the need for your book.
By knowing your competition, you can be confident that you have something unique to offer that your readers are not getting from any other author.
Step 4. Build your platform.
This is about boosting your credentials as an author. You want to reach a point where complete strangers (not best friends or blood relatives!) ask, “Are you writing a book? When can I buy it?”
For this stage, the proof is in the data: having strong numbers or a marked increase in your blog followers, social media engagement, articles published, or workshops booked.
Step 5. Choose your publishing path.
Many authors hanker after a book deal with one of the major publishing houses (HarperCollins, Penguin Random House etc.). But it’s not the only solution.
Weigh up the pros and cons of the majors and their mid-level brethren; small presses; assisted and hybrid publishers; and independent or self-publishing.
You know you’ve got this covered when you can explain clearly which publishing path is right for you.
Step 6. Map out your book proposal.
If you’ve decided to pursue a traditional publishing deal, you need to write a book proposal.
It distills all your findings and achievements from the previous stages (your business case, including your concept, your audience, your competition, and your profile as an author) with a chapter outline and sample chapters from your book.
This is the persuasive document you will submit to agents and editors. It gives them a snapshot of your message, your credentials, your audience, and your writing chops.
Learn more about the components of a book proposal and how to write them in my free guide “6 Steps to Writing a Book Proposal That Sells.” Just click on the image below and scroll down to the "free download" panel.
Coming in 2022: my new online course on writing book proposals! In the meantime, check out my current offerings:
How to Write a Successful Nonfiction Book (self-paced course)
Build Your Author Platform (self-paced course)
How to Write a Book Proposal for Your Memoir (live webinar)