I’ve been on three sides of nonfiction book publishing—as an author of books published by traditional publishers, the author of a self-published book, and a reviewer for Foreword Reviews. The common thread across the first two is a book proposal. For the nonfiction books I review, I can easily identify those for which no proposal was written.
The book proposal is really the “secret sauce” of nonfiction books. Standard practice for nonfiction book authors, a proposal is basically the book’s business plan. It includes a description of the book’s concept and primary benefits, a detailed outline, a discussion of the audience for the book, competitive titles and how the proposed book is different, and a sample chapter or two.
I learned about the book proposal when I wrote my first nonfiction book over fifteen years ago. Silly me—I thought you just came up with a good idea and sold it to a publisher. Well, a good idea is part of it, of course, but the book proposal is the substance and the selling document. It is the proposal that helps the author flesh out the idea for the book and determine if there is a market for it. Actually, it does more than that—the proposal forces the author to discern whether a dream can be turned into a reality. In a way, the proposal is also a safety net: It can prevent an author from pursuing an ill-founded concept and slaving over a manuscript in the first place.
As for my first nonfiction book, the time I put into the book proposal paid off. By writing the proposal, I found out that there was little else formally written about my subject, “business-to-business Internet marketing.” I also found out why—because at the time, this form of Internet marketing was just emerging. As a result, I had to do quite a bit of research to even come up with an outline for the book, much less write a manuscript. However, when I completed the proposal, I had a good feeling about the potential for a publishable book. I sent the proposal to several publishers, two of which expressed an interest. I chose a publisher, the book was published, and it became a business best-seller.
Other published nonfiction books followed, each of them preceded by a researched, detailed proposal. The book proposal always served me well. Still, I wrote a few book proposals that did not result in published books. I didn’t regret it, however, because it saved me the work of creating manuscripts not worthy of publication.
Do You Need a Proposal if You Self-Publish?
More recently, because of the seismic shifts in the publishing business, I wanted to try my hand at self-publishing a non-fiction book. I decided to create a publishing imprint so there would be a company behind my work. I also decided to write a proposal for my book before publishing it.
This may sound odd to you. After all, why would I write a book proposal for a book I was self-publishing? Simple, really: Now, I was acting as both author and publisher. As the author, I wanted to have confidence in my book idea, believe that it had an audience, and be satisfied that I had the content I needed to write a complete book. As the publisher, I wanted to know the book idea could be turned into a manuscript that had sales potential. Only a book proposal could inform both author and publisher whether this particular book should be published.
When I finished the proposal, I was convinced that the book was a good idea. I ended up submitting it to a few publishers just to gauge their reaction. One publisher did want to publish it, but their business model required a fee to be paid by the author. No thanks.
This didn’t discourage me; on the contrary, my proposal demonstrated there was interest on the part of the publishing community. It just reaffirmed my commitment to self-publishing. I believed in the book, so I proceeded to turn the book proposal into a manuscript. Having the outline from the proposal made the writing process that much easier.
I titled the book, Let’s Make Money, Honey: The Couple’s Guide to Starting a Service Business. The book is based on a service business I started together with my wife in our mid-fifties. My research suggested that there were few if any books on the market that discussed exactly how a couple could start a service business together. The book was recently published and has received excellent reviews from credible sources.
A Proposal Makes All the Difference
If you think you have a nonfiction book in you, do yourself a favor: Write a book proposal before you write the book. Here are the components:
Overview: An overview of the book, including its primary attributes and benefits for readers.
Detailed Outline: Lists all of the chapters and briefly describes the content of each.
Audience: Discusses the book’s audience that includes audience statistics and demographics.
Competition: A listing of competitive titles with brief commentary on how your book compares to each title.
Marketing: An overview of the marketing activities you would recommend in support of the book.
Author: An author biography that supports your expertise to write the book.
Details: Length of manuscript, proposed photos or illustrations if any, and anticipated delivery date.
Sample Chapters: One or two sample chapters.
These requirements may vary somewhat based on specific publishers, but the content will basically be the same. Whether you choose a traditional publisher or you want to self-publish, writing a book proposal first will improve your chance of success.
As a reviewer of nonfiction books for Foreword Reviews, I always wonder if the authors took the time to write a book proposal, especially if the books are self-published. I have to believe that authors of the excellent books I review have, at the very least, obtained a deep understanding of their audience and have crafted solid outlines before they start writing. I’m also willing to bet that authors of the lower quality nonfiction books I review do not write book proposals; rather, they just dive into writing manuscripts and see what comes out.
I’ve learned a valuable lesson from my experience, and it’s something that applies broadly to all non-fiction books as well as to business in general. To run a successful business, you need a business plan. To write a successful non-fiction book, you need a book proposal.
Barry Silverstein is a business writer, author, and marketing consultant. You can follow him on Twitter @bdsilv.