Tuesday, July 21, 2009

How to Write a Non-Fiction Proposal

Ha ha!! It's not really that bad, I promise ;-D

Quote of the Day:
A book proposal is to publishing what the resume is to the job search...At its best, the proposal can function as a sophisticated sales brochure...The more impressive it is...the higher your advance is likely to be. That alone should be incentive enough for you to create the very best proposal you can...The proposal process must be taken seriously; it's the price of admission to being a published author.
~Jeff Herman, in the introduction to Write the Perfect Proposal: 10 Proposals that Sold and Why

I have had non-fiction book ideas for years, but one of the things that always stopped me from pursuing those ideas was the fact that I had to write a proposal in order to sell my idea. The non-fiction proposal scared me, intimidated me, had me cowering in the corner with my hands over my eyes.

I’d seen a few…they were huge! Like sixty-some pages long (with the sample chapters). They include sections on markets and platforms and competition and a bunch of other stuff that I had no clue how to even begin to write. I Googled a lot, but all the posts I had seen on writing these monstrosities confused me to no end. Even the ones that had clearly defined lists of the information I needed to include. I knew what I needed to do, theoretically, but actually putting that into action threw me into a vortex of confusion, despair, and terror.

So, I convinced myself I’d never be able to write a decent proposal. I occasionally worked on material for a non-fiction book that I knew would never see the light of day, but I let the idea of the proposal keep me from going after something I am really pretty good at doing.

And then a friend of mine, Carolyn, and I were talking one day. She is a soon-to-be published non-fiction author (who also writes fiction), and she encouraged me to quit letting the proposal beat me down and go for it. She recommended an awesome book, Jeff Herman’s Write the Perfect Proposal: 10 Proposals That Sold and Why, and sent me her own proposal as an example.

I was still scared to death and fairly sure I’d never make it out alive, but I looked over her proposal, read through the book many times, taking notes along the way, and finally sat down to draft my own proposal. It wasn’t easy; it is a ton of work…hard work. But, once I got into it, I realized that it wasn’t as scary as I had thought. It was doable. You just have to take it slowly, one section at a time.

While the Overview should be first, the rest of these sections can be moved around a bit. If you have an awesome platform, you could put the About the Author section first, etc. I've just listed them in the order I had them in my proposal.

Section One: Overview

This is your hook. In this section, you briefly describe what your book is about. Make it good, interesting, catchy. It shouldn’t be too long (the overviews I have seen were mostly less than two pages, in some cases only a couple paragraphs. Mine was about two and a half pages, double-spaced).

Ask yourself these questions:

What is my book about?
What makes it different from the other books out there? (be brief, you can go into more detail on this in the section on competition)
Why does the world need my book?
Who will read it? (you don’t need to go into detail here, save that for the market section – but in general, who will the audience be).

In my case, my book is a handbook for writing essays, papers, and poetry. Well, there are a lot of books out there that do this. So, I was sure to mention why my book was different.

My first paragraph introduced the issue at hand…writing assignments such as these can be difficult. If I could have found them, I probably would have listed a statistic or two on how many students fail their Language Arts classes. Good, solid facts and statistics are a nice addition, but not totally necessary.

This also depends on your book, though. Carolyn’s upcoming book is a guide to help writers include realistic information on psychology in their work. She had several sources that cited good percentages, statistics, and quotations describing how often this type of information is used in books, film, and television and how often it is inaccurate. In her proposal, the statistics worked well. In mine, everyone knows that there are a lot of students in our country and a lot of them need help in English class…statistics aren’t really necessary to help prove that.

My second paragraph went into further detail…I mentioned that in my experience, people who are already confused become more so when confronted with guidebooks that are so technically written they do nothing more than make a bad situation worse.

My third paragraph described why my book solved this problem by describing what my book is about and going into a little detail about the tone and format of my book. And then I added in a bulleted list illustrating exactly why my book is the perfect writing guide and what a reader will get out of it. Remember, be confident! An agent or editor won’t have confidence in your work if you don’t! And remember, keep it brief. You can expound on most of this stuff in later sections.

One of the reasons my overview was a bit longer than normal was because I also included a few quotations from educators and school psychologists who had read my sample chapters and gave me their endorsement. These could have been included in another section in the proposal (in fact, my agent is having me include an entire endorsement section in my proposal for when we submit it to publishers), but for the initial querying to agents, I included them right up front in the overview.

Section Two: Market

Here is where you go into detail about your audience. This is one of the sections that intimidated me the most, but ended up being one of the easiest to write. Maybe it is the title…MARKET…it just sounds scary :D But really, all you are doing here is listing who would be interested in reading your book. And you already know this because you probably had an audience in mind when you wrote the book. Brainstorm every possible market for your book, then list them in order of importance or size.

For my book, my main, or primary, market is educational. The largest audience for my book will be students, from junior high through college. I added some statistics here about how many learning disabled students there are in the United States because this is not common knowledge and my book will be very helpful for the learning disabled.

My secondary market is another division of educational – homeschooling parents. There are a lot of parents who homeschool their children (I added a statistic here to show exactly how many), and these parents need books to educate their children.

I also listed a possible third market – it’s more of a long shot, but it is a possibility, so I put it in there. This would be writers. Freelance bloggers, writers, etc could find my book useful if they wanted to make sure the articles they were writing were technically sound, or beginning poets could use it to get all the rules right.

I added statistics here to show how many freelance writers there are in the United States, how that job group has grown in the last few years and mentioned the projected growth.

Section Three: Competition

There will almost always be competition for your book and there is no point trying to pretend otherwise. Editors and agents are fully aware there are other books out there that will be competing with yours, so you might as well do your homework.

This section is where you can help illustrate why your book is different from those already on the shelves. I started my section by saying, “Though there are many handbooks and textbooks available that teach essay, paper, and poetry writing skills, many prove inadequate to the task.” I briefly described why and listed a few books in the same category as my book and pointed out why mine was better.

For example, you could say, “This title by so and so is good in that it does this or that. However, it does not do this, this, and this. My book does.”

I did this for a couple titles and then just made a list of several titles (there are a lot in my category, so I just picked a few). List the title, the author, the publisher, the year published, and the current selling price for each competitive title.

Section Four: About the Author

This is where you talk yourself up, toot your own horn, list everything and anything that illustrates how wonderful you are and why you are the best person to write your book. This is where you talk about your platform, how you can help sell your book. Do you have degrees, personal experience, professional experience? Do you give workshops, speeches, or classes on your subject? Have you been previously published? If so, list your books, their publication date, and your publisher, along with any other pertinent information like if your books were bestsellers or won any awards. Do you have access to radio shows, blogs, websites, conferences, etc, where you can promote your book? Are you related to the President of the United States, sister of Bill Gates, best friends with Brad Pitt or someone else that will be able to help you get this book out in the world?

This was another section that intimidated me, because my platform is pretty weak. I have the degrees and the personal experience necessary to make me an expert on my subject. But I don’t have the professional experience. I am not a teacher, I don’t speak at conferences or conventions, I have not been previously published (well, in a few Chicken Soup for the Soul books, but not in anything that would help me out in this arena).

But that is okay. Yes, it helps tremendously if you have a strong platform. To give you the honest truth, a lot of agents or editors may reject you if your platform isn’t strong enough. They like to publish books when the author has a guaranteed way of making a lot of sales. That is why celebrities can publish whatever kind of crap they want – because they have a built-in audience guaranteed to buy the book.

Definitely do what you can to build your platform before and after you write your book – but if you don’t have a large platform, don’t let it stop you. There are things you can do to help with that. And if you have an awesome book, it will sell itself.

Despite my weak platform, I knew I had a great book idea, I knew I could pull it off, and I knew if someone would just read what I had written, they’d love it. And I was right, they did. But, because my platform is so weak, I am finishing my manuscript before submitting to publishers and am including that endorsement section in my proposal (quotes from people who DO have the right background who are willing to stand behind my book), where with someone with a solid platform might be able to submit their book right away.

In any case, this is the section to say whatever wonderful things about yourself that you can – most importantly, things that will help illustrate why you are the right person to be writing your book.

Section Five: Promotion

This is where you list everything that you can do to help promote your book. Don’t list anything here unless you are sure you can do it. You can list things like:

Websites or blogs (yours or others) that will promote your book
Other avenues where you can promote it yourself such as radio shows, television shows, conferences you often speak at…if you are teacher who can pick your own textbooks and you can use your book in your class, you can mention that here
If you can create media kits, flyers, newsletters, etc or have other ways of advertising your book, list them here
If you are independently wealthy or have a grant or some other type of funding to help advertise your book, list it

Basically, this section is where you want to illustrate everything and anything you can do to advertise and promote your book.

Section Six: Chapter Outline and Synopsis

Now, I’ve seen this done a few different ways. Some people will list their Table of Contents in the Overview, or include a highly annotated Table of Contents in lieu of an outline or synopsis. Many I saw (and this is what I did) listed the Table of Contents (marking which chapters were included in the proposal as sample chapters) and then went through the chapters of the book, giving a brief overview or synopsis of each chapter.

My book has twenty-five chapters, so I was a bit hesitant to do this, but it didn’t end up being a huge production. You don’t have to go into great detail. Just briefly describe what each chapter will include. Each of my chapters includes a How To section and examples, so I stated that at the beginning of the section, and then in the chapter abstracts, I just wrote a paragraph or two on my chapters.

For example, as my book is a handbook for writing assignments, the chapters are broken down by the different types of essays and poetic forms that are out there. Chapter Four is on Critical Essays, Chapter Sixteen on Ballads, and so on. So for each chapter, I wrote a paragraph or two describing what Critical essays or ballads are (basically what I put for my intro of each chapter in the actual book), and left it at that, since I had already pointed out that each chapter would have its own How To section and specific examples.

For your own proposals, just briefly describe the content of your chapters.

Section Seven: Sample Chapters

Here is where you will include two or three of the actual chapters of your book. Now, you do not have to have the book finished in order to get signed by an agent or sell your book to a publisher. That is the fun with non-fiction books. You can sell them based on an idea.

However, you do have to have at least a couple chapters (two is the norm) so the agent or editor can get an idea of what your book will look like when it is finished.

When you are finished with your proposal, I highly suggest having at least one person look it over for basic proofreading and to see if it hooks them. A proposal is like a huge, blown-up query…you still need to hook that agent or editor into wanting your book. Even more so, because there usually isn’t a finished manuscript for them to request. They sign you or buy your book based solely (most of the time) on your proposal. But don’t let that scare you! Present your book (and yourself) in the best way you can, polish up those sample chapters, and send it out :)

And that’s it! Yes, it’s a LOT of work, and there is a lot of research involved, especially if you choose to include statistics or quotations in addition to your competition titles. And I highly recommend looking at Jeff Herman's book (or any other book you can find on writing proposals, but I like his especially because he includes annotated proposals as examples). Several agent's websites and blogs have posts on this topic and if you can get a hold of some example proposals to look at, that is always a good idea. I'm a very visual person, so looking at a finished product helps me understand how to get there myself :)

If you take it slowly, one section at a time, it really isn’t nearly as intimidating. Most of these sections are no more than a page long, some less than that. I think my largest section was two pages long…until you get to the Outline, Chapter Abstracts, and Sample Chapters of course :)

So just focus on the small chunks, complete it with a title page and Proposal Table of Contents, and before you know it, you’ll have a finished proposal ready to ship out to agents and editors :D Good luck!!


Anonymous said...

Looks familiar *wink*...thanks for helpping me with mine :D

Rita Lorraine said...

Hi Michelle,
Thanks for sharing this information! I've got at least three NF projects in various stages of completion, and I have dreaded writing the non-fiction proposal with a perfect passion. You've actually made the whole process seem manageable--and that's not easy to do. Thanks again.

Rita Lorraine