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Saturday, February 22, 2020

What Makes a Winning Nonfiction Proposal?

By Stacey Graham


You have the idea, you’ve got the chops, and you’re ready to write a nonfiction book that blows their socks off—but where do you start on a proposal for an agent or editor that will make your idea stand out? Like all good adventures, we begin with a plan.

A nonfiction proposal is essentially a business roadmap. It details what the book is about, why you’re the best person to write it, shows that you’re cognizant of what goes into marketing and promotion, and can discuss comparative titles. By giving this information to an agent, and later an editor, you’re helping your book to advance to the next round in what I like to call Thunderdome—the acquisitions board meetings. The more information an editor has, the better prepared they are to fight for your book to become one of their titles that year.

So, let’s break down the format.
  • First page: Title: 20 pt Arial | Your name: 16 pt Arial
  • Font: Arial, 12 pt in body of proposal/sample chapters
  • Heading 3 for sections: Overview, About the Author, Marketing, Promotion, Competition, and Chapter Summaries

1. Overview: Write a 1-2-page overview of your book and how it is needed in the marketplace. Why is this book needed now, who will read it, and why is it relevant? Write tight. This area is where you convince the agent or editor to keep reading and we have very short attention spans. 

2. Author bio: A 1-page bio of why you're the best person to write this book. Include publishing credentials and sales figures, your involvement in this subject, and what organizations you are involved in that are relevant to your book.  
  • Include a recent headshot.
  • Keep it professional. Family may be mentioned but it can’t be a focal point.
  • Flaunt your platform. How many people come to your website a month? Twitter followers? School visits? Guest posts? Podcast guest? Academic papers? Is your work related to this topic? Professional organizations you’ve been involved with surrounding that subject?
  • If you do not have extensive professional experience in this subject, what made this project perfect for you? What research have you done that makes you the right person at the right time for this book? 

3. Marketing: Include ideas on how you plan to reach them, then list how you plan to do it by using your established platform. Mention website hits, speaking engagements, appearances on radio or television, social media followers if substantial—give them solid numbers to back up why you're the best person for this project. If writing for children, include why your book is important for them to read. If targeting an adult market, how do you reach those readers? 
  
  • Include gift-giving, specialty groups, etc. Think outside of the norm for whom your book will reach.
  • Who will buy this book? Break it down into groups. Get specific.
  • How will they get it? Gifts? Park bench? Impulse buy?
  • Once your target market has bought the book, think of who they will recommend it to or give as a gift.

4. Format of the book for nonfiction: How long (word count) will it be? When is the estimated completion date after signing the contract? (Usually 3-6 months.)

5. Promotion: Include website, trailers (I'd love to see more trailers for nonfiction), upcoming conferences or conventions, plus other ways you'll promote your work. Make it conversational, not a list of things you’re planning to do.

  • Add conferences that you have been to/will be planning to attend. National conferences add heft to your proposal so if you’re going, be sure to include which ones, especially if you’ll be presenting or having a table.
  • Contests, social media (add links), how your website (add link) will promote the book.
  • Which podcasters/media contacts/ television/radio/bloggers will you reach out to for promotional opportunities? Have you been on their programs before?
  • What bookstores will you be approaching for signings? Include national and regional chains as well as indie stores. Don’t restrict yourself to a 100-mile radius. Local stores are a fantastic resource but publishers would like to see that you’re willing to do the footwork often needed in promotion as well.
  • Are you able to be a part of local author events or festivals? There are festivals for everything out there, get involved and be a part of their community!
  • Don’t forget to look at conferences or conventions that don’t immediately spring to mind. Go outside your comfort zone when looking for locales to promote your work.
  • Dig a little. Get creative!

6. Competition: Include 3-4 recently published (within five years) books that compare with your project. List the title, author, year it was published, and publisher. Write a brief summary of the book and how yours would be different. Include a book cover with each comp title.

7. Chapter outline: List the chapters with titles and a short description of each.

8. Sample chapters: Introduction plus two chapters. Present as a separate document, formatted with title page and then chapters to follow.

Tips
  • Please edit thoroughly for grammar, links, flow, and substance.
  • Add page numbers (not first page).
  • Use page breaks between sections to prevent overflow.
  • Agents and editors often read on e-readers or their phone so test your proposal in those formats to make sure they are easy to read.



A nonfiction proposal is an excellent tool to help writers focus on the bigger picture for their book as well as broadening a readership you may not have thought of at first glance. Get creative, think out of the box for your marketing and promotional ideas, and have fun!



About the Author


Stacey Graham is an agent with Red Sofa Literary, specializing in middle grade, romance, and nonfiction (though usually not all at the same time). She loves to read about weird kids and even weirder nonfiction. Please visit her website at www.agenstaceygraham.com or on Twitter: @staceyigraham. 

Leave one comment below about what struck you in the post.

You’re eligible for prizes if you’re a registered NF Fest participant and you have contributed one comment below.
 

138 comments:

  1. I am so impressed by what an author needs to do and have already done to get a book published. It’s more than a little daunting. Thanks for this insight.

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  2. An awful lot goes into a nonfiction proposal! It is my understanding that proposals are not really used for picture books-is that correct? Or is it the length of the work and not the age range that determines whether a proposal is submitted rather than a manuscript? -Sara Ackerman

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    1. Hi Sara!
      At Red Sofa Literary, we do proposals for every (fiction and nonfiction) project, including picture books. The manuscript for the picture book is included in the final package that is sent to editors. For my author/illustrators, that also usually includes a dummy so the editor can get a sense of their artwork as well so it can end up a pretty hefty package, but I like to give editors as much information as possible for them to see my author as prepared and ready to go as soon as the contract is signed.

      Thanks for writing!
      Stacey

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  3. Oh, wow. Bing, bang, bam -- EXCELLENT INFO! My question: I've been told that for a first-time mg writer, I need to write the entire MS; I can't sell it from a proposal alone. Is that so?

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    1. Hi Emily,
      For nonfiction, a book proposal is fine, but for fiction most agents prefer to see a finished and polished manuscript. Thanks for writing! :)
      Stacey

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  4. Excellent guide for writing a book proposal. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

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  5. Thank you so much for the specifics in this post! This is really helpful!

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  6. Stacey, thank you for including so many details about good proposals, especially about marketing and promotion, and the difference between the two. I'll return to my notes on your post over and over.

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  7. Hi Stacey, thank you so much for this extensive list, and all the detail you put into it for us. I’m going to have to print this out and bookmark it!

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  8. Yes, this is an excellent and detailed list of exactly what's needed for a proposal--thanks!

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  9. Thank you for a detailed and specific outline for a n-f proposal. It's a lot of work but very doable with this clear roadmap.

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  10. This is really amazing step by step advice! Thank you so much!!

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  11. Thank you for your information by breaking it down into specific sections,chunks of assignments, and laying in out there for us to see what you need and want.

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  12. Thank you for this detailed outline. I'll be putting together a proposal soon, so this is very helpful.

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  13. Thanks! Great tips on some of the smaller, overlooked pieces of a proposal.

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  14. This is great! Wonderful tips for elevating a proposal! Thanks, Stacey!

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  15. What a great, step-by-step look at proposals. Thank you so much for this!

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  16. Thanks for the detailed list of tips for a NF proposal. I also want to know like Sara Ackerman, that proposals are not really used for picture books.

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  17. I've been taking handwritten notes from these wonderful NFFest posts... I think I just copied yours word for word! Thank you for such a detailed roadmap of how to give our babies the best possible shot at getting an agent/editor's attention!

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  18. This is a really detailed outline that will be very useful in the future. Thank you for sharing.
    -Ashley Congdon

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  19. Thank you so much, Stacey, for your detailed road map to writing a great nonfiction proposal. It's so hard to find information on proposals for children's books, so this was extremely helpful.

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  20. I pledge to call every acquisitions meeting "Thunderdome" from this moment forward! And thanks for the incredible inside tips!

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  21. Thx for the 411 on the proposals, esp the promotional aspect of things. It's not enough now to have done the research & write the work, but we also have to be appropriately prepared to market ourselves. Tall order! :)

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  22. Thank you, Stacey, for explaining a book proposal. I had no idea so much information was needed in one.

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  23. Wow, I didn't know any of this. Is this also for PB NF? Good to see the targeted marketing ideas as well
    Thanks so much!

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    1. Hi Megan,

      These steps can be used for fiction or nonfiction PBs as well. Good luck! :)

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  24. Interesting to read how many things need to go into a stand-out non-fiction book proposal! Thanks for breaking it down so clearly!

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  25. Wow, very helpful and couldn't have come at a better time! I'm just getting ready to start my MG NF proposal and these are great tips and insights!

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  26. 'Like all good adventures, we begin with a plan.'

    That's how I'm going to look at each new idea/manuscript!

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  27. Thank you, Stacey! We've been talking about nf proposals in my crit group. This is great info.

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  28. Thank you for this! I'm about to write my first NF proposal so this is very helpful.

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  29. This was incredibly helpful! I've had 13 nonfiction books published, but none with a proposal. I'm hoping to sell the next middle grade nonfiction on proposal, but have felt a little perplexed. Thanks for laying it out so clearly. I feel like I can try querying #14 via proposal with this information. Thank you very much!

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  30. Thanks, Stacey for this helpful post on proposals!

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  31. What a super helpful resource! Thanks so much:)

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  32. Thanks for your info Stacey. If I had a book idea, I could start writing my proposal now!

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  33. Thanks for your detailed advice--very helpful!

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  34. If and when I have a nonfiction proposal, these are essential guidelines. Thank you so much.

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  35. Thank you! I see I need to up my game in the proposal department.

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  36. I can't adequately express my gratitude for this in-depth blog post. What a wealth of information shared today! I took a ton of great notes. Thanks for sharing proposal tips with us today. Especially testing out your work on a tablet. That was an excellent takeaway from your post.

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  37. Wow, lots of helpful info! Much more to it than I realized. Thank you!

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  38. Stacey,
    Love how you spelled out each step. Thank you.

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  39. Definitely bookmarking this post so I can refer to it later when I'm in the throes of writing a nonfiction book proposal.

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  40. Thanks Stacey for such a clear and concise post about crafting proposals.

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  41. Stacy this is such a detail list for any writer when comes to publicity and marketing. Ty for this map to creating a solid proposal.

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  42. Thanks for that in-depth business roadmap--most useful. And Thunderdome--I'll say!

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  43. Lots of great info in this post. Is this different from a query? Would a proposal be submitted after a query?

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    1. Hi Sue,

      Proposals are different from queries, but I suggest having the proposal finished before reaching out to agents or editors. Each agent is different in when she'd like to receive the proposal (I like mine only after I request it and not included with the query) so check her submission guidelines. :)

      Good luck!
      Stacey

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  44. Writing is only part of the process. It begins with a passion for something but selling that passion to an editor takes plenty of work as Stacey points out. Her information is succinct...if overwhelming!

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  45. Thank you for all the specifics related to a nonfiction book proposal. A business roadmap is a helpful analogy.

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  46. So much good information. Thank you❤️

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  47. Thanks for this information. One question: can you suggest a way to access sales figures (multiple books; different publishers) without having to pay subscriptions? There are royalty statements, but I'm particularly interested in past work-for-hire books. I have written to the publishers but they generally don't reply. Thank you. (I'll ask this on the FB NFFest site too.)

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  48. The best advice came right at the end, which is examine how your proposal looks on a mobile device. Of course we all work on our phone these days, but I write on my computer so didn't consider how that might complicate things. Thank you for that insight.

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  49. Thanks for your invaluable insights on writing a nonfiction proposal. You have made a daunting task much more manageable with your "plan." I appreciated all the step by step details you provided and also the great tips you shared.

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  50. This information is specific, clear, and helpful. Thank you, Stacey!

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  51. Your post was super-helpful, laying out in detail the various elements to a successful nonfiction proposal. Thanks for your insight.

    Celia Viramontes

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  52. Thank you, Stacey! You've posted such crucial info explaining the nonfiction proposal. Your insight is greatly appreciated.

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  53. This is very helpful advice for planning! Good to have a critical eye on the big picture early on to help with focus. Love your clear and concise steps and suggestions. Thank you - Priscilla

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  54. Wow, thank you for your detailed description of a non-fiction proposal!

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  55. Wow! This is an insanely great road map to have on hand. For those of us with an idea but no clue how to proceed - thank you!

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  56. Thanks for the detailed information!

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  57. Stacey, it's great to have this spelled out in such detail--thanks so much for sharing these specifics!

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  58. This is so well set out! Great job, Stacey!

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  59. Stacey, thank you for such a wonderfully detailed explaination and roadmap for proposals. And for answering the questions in the comments. It's definitely eye-opening that it is needed for F & NF picture books. This month has been such a great wealth of information. Thanks again.

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  60. So many great ideas for promotion! Thank you!

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  61. Great information. Thank you for sharing your incite.

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  62. Thank you for including such detail. Two questions: why Arial font and what if one purposefully avoids social media? Do they have no hope of a contract?

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    1. Hello!
      Arial font is my preference but I find it easier to read across platforms. No points off if you decide on another but keep in mind that agents/editors see a lot of documents so the easier on the eye, the better.

      Social media is not a dealbreaker so not participating online won't kill your chances at publication. Having a social media presence, however, may help you reach readers in ways you haven't explored. For example, Instagram is great for picture books like my author Jamie Ball is doing for his Professor Humblebee series that I'm pitching right now. https://www.instagram.com/professorhumblebee/ . For anyone choosing to dip your toes into social media, find the platform that feels right for you so that you continue building relationships with others. If you hate it, don't stress yourself out about it. :)

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    2. Derp, I forgot to sign this ^^^

      Best wishes,
      Stacey

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    3. Thank you for your reply and help! I do use Instagram but I'm probably not using it as well as I could.

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  63. Thanks for the detailed info on creating a proposal. And the reminder to check it out on an e-reader before submitting! Readability counts!

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  64. Rocking proposal Stacey! Thank you. Be Inspired, Nicki Jacobsmeyer

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  65. Thank you for such a thorough explanation of a NF proposal.

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  66. Stacy, the detailed information you've shared is like gold, all in one place, succinct, and offerred in the generous spirit of the kidlit community. I especially appreciate your suggestion of checking how your proposal appears on mobile devices for readability. Many thanks!

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  67. Just finished a first round of proposals. It was a grind. I need to print out your suggestions and paste them in my submission journal. Thanks, you made it sound easy.

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  68. This post is very enlightening! You've laid it all out before us and I thank you for that!

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  69. This is exactly what I've been looking for. It's a perfect breakdown, yet terrifying to think about how little I'd have to include to impress an agent or editor. Thank you so much for taking the time to outline this for us! Much appreciated.

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  70. Great post, Stacey! Thank you for sharing your step by step details on what makes a good book proposal, especially those of marketing and promotion which are areas that most writers fail to consider.

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  71. Thanks for the information. I didn't realize there was so much involved in a nonfiction book proposal. Wow!

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  72. What a wealth of information! Thank you!

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  73. Great tips! They were very comprehensive.

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  74. Stacey, thank you for your level of detail in this roadmap to writing a NF book proposal. Just what I needed!

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  75. Thank you for taking the time to give us such a detailed and well organized post. I didn't know so much work went into a proposal and now have an excellent reference.

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  76. Excellent tips! Thank you for speeling them out for us.

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  77. Thank you for this excellent breakdown! So detailed and helpful.

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  78. It's very involved. Thanks for the detailed breakdown.

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  79. Wow. Incredibly detailed instructions. This month, and this post, have been such a gift.

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  80. My wheels are turning now! I'm thinking about how I can use social media for my different writing projects.

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  81. This is a great post! Write the nonfiction, then get to work. Work? The story was work... Maybe so says Stacey Graham. Now, you've got to rev your engines! And,she gives us a list of things we must do to qualify for the race! Thank you so much, Stacey.

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  82. This is a very helpful manual for pitching and proposing a project. I figure, if it also helps in picking the topic. I should already have an answer to why this subject is important to readers and why am I the best person to write it, before I invest time and effort in writing.

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  83. Thanks for this information. This is so helpful!

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  84. Hi timely...I'm in the middle of writing one...thank you!

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  85. I really appreciate the step by step post Stacey. I have a couple of NF proposal books, but you added a few tips here. I’m getting one ready now, so this is helpful. Thank you so much!

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    1. Oh and thanks for answering the questions in the comment section 😁 helpful too!

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  86. This post is filled with helpful tips and information for writing and creating a proposal.

    Thank you, Stacey.

    Suzy Leopold

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  87. Feeling enlightened and lucky to be here. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and expertise.

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  88. It's amazing how much work is involved in just getting a proposal out the door. Thanks for these tips!

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  89. Great overview of the NF proposal proess. Thank you!

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  90. This is very helpful. Thank you for these clear tips!

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  91. Thanks! Can't wait until I am at the point of sending out m proposal!

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  92. This is very helpful. Thanks for breaking it down for us.

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  93. Thank you for the details of the nonfiction proposal.

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  94. Thank for you this thoughtful and detailed post!

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  95. This is a comprehensive guide to writing a proposal. Thank you, Stacey, for an amazing post that will be read again and again.

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  96. Wow! Thanks for sharing. This is a post I'm printing and referencing again!

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  97. Lots of detail in this post. Thank you.

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  98. Although my nonfiction manuscripts so far are picture books, the info on how you can promote your book and how your book differs from what is out there is helpful for all of us writers. Thanks.

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  99. Wow. This is a great list. Thank you so much.

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  100. It's very helpful to know what all is expected. Thanks for being so thorough.

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  101. I'm reped by Dawn at Red Sofa and can say creating proposals for nonfiction and fiction has been very valuable!

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  102. Thank you for this extremely valuable post.

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  103. Thanks so much for this helpful blueprint for writing NF proposals! Printing it out to refer back to!

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  104. Ulp. Do I need to have a website, Twitter, etc., already in place before I submit? If so, what kind of budget should be allowed for this? I am trying to apportion some money for more research, some for a conference, while still leaving some left over. Finally, what are the realistic expectations for making some of this back? My family is looking askance at me spending more, when I have already paid for an MFA, and numerous other courses, all of which were invaluable but ...

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    1. Having at least some sort of digital footprint would be a good idea. Many agents and editors look up writers they're interested in to learn more about them and get a sense of the person behind the book. For budget, that depends on the writer and what they're comfortable spending. Realistically, the payback depends on a lot of factors: genre, publisher, if it gets on lists, your work toward promotion, etc. and some of them are out of the writer's control.

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    2. Thanks for the answer. My research has turned up all kinds of fascinating details that I won't be able to use in the story. I'll set some aside to use on Twitter, Instagram, and a new website when I am ready to submit. I also want to start online mentions (positive of course!) about non-fiction books for children in general. It is becoming apparent there is not a lot of community out there for NF writers. One way or another, I will see this book through to the end.

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  105. This is so, so helpful! Thank you for sharing.

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  106. This is the query letter outline that is so needed and helpful! Thank you so much!

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  107. This is such a helpful breakdown of the business side of nonfiction. Thank you for sharing!

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  108. Thanks for breaking down the elements. Much appreciated!

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  109. Stacey, best proposal outline ever, saving it for reference. I've got to ramp up the courage to submit and this helps.

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  110. Wow! Great breakdown of the format for a nonfiction proposal. Thank you!

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  111. What an excellent and informative piece - I will be referring back to this (printing it out now) and using this in the future. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and making this daunting task a tad bit simpler.

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  112. Thank you for explaining this! It's interesting to see how important a marketing plan is to a book proposal.

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  113. I love the details and clarity of this post. I also appreciate the suggestions on how to expand marketing and promotion.

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  114. Very helpful info on a topic I know very little about- thanks!

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  115. A great deal of practical advice. Thank you so much!

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  116. As a business roadmap, a nonfiction proposal has facets that an author cannot ignore. Thank you for the detailed description and this excellent post.

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  117. Thank you for really breaking down the business of a nf proposal. Maria Johnson

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  118. Wow, this is so insightful. I had no idea this much went into a non-fiction proposal. Thank you for the detailed illuminating post.

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  119. Thank you for such an informative post. I recently did a (fiction) board book webinar with and editor and she also wanted a lot of this type of info with the sub. Really interesting intersection. Thank you again.

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  120. I am bookmarking the heck out of this post. Thank you!

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  121. So helpful...more than just chapter outlines. Thank you for this great guide.

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