How To Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal

You have decided to write a book. You have an idea. You are excited about it. You even have a title … or at least a tentative one. You pull up a blank Word document on your screen and type the title and your name. Your first sentence tumbles onto the page. It’s a heady moment. What comes next may range from words pouring forth to utter blankness as you wait for inspiration to hit. You may fill a binder with prose, or you may come to a screeching halt.

What’s wrong with this picture? If you’re writing away, you may say, “Nothing is wrong. This is perfect; I’m on a roll.” If you’re stuck, you may know something is wrong but be unsure of what it is. The answer is, whether you are living your dream or your nightmare, you have gone too far, too soon. Everything that follows “typing your title and your name” should be deleted.

There are several steps in writing a nonfiction book, and the first one is not writing; it is planning. It may sound like a cliché; but, just as you wouldn’t set out on a road trip without a map, you don’t start a book without a plan. This is where many first-time authors go wrong. Perhaps you have the romantic idea that one begins a book by sitting down at the computer and just “letting it flow.” The truth is that, by the time you reach the point of actually writing, you should have done a whole lot of thinking, answering tough questions, and carefully constructing the answers. If you haven’t, you are going to run into problems. If you have, you are well on your way to writing a dynamite book proposal.

You must be able to answer these questions before you write

  • What is this book about? You should be able to describe your subject in one sentence. “My book is about…”
  • Why are you writing it? What is your purpose?
  • Why is this the right time to publish it? What is the big picture — socially, economically, politically? Why is this an appropriate and timely topic?
  • Who is the audience — your ideal reader?
  • What other books are out there on this topic? ­How is your book unique, special, or important?
  • How will readers benefit? What’s in it for the reader to buy this book and read it?
  • What are the main points you want to cover?
  • What void in the market will book fill? What problem does it solve?
  • How are you uniquely qualified to write this book?
  • What kind of help will you need from other professionals to complete your book?
  • What do you envision the published book to look like?
  • How to you intend to have it published?
  • What steps will you take to promote it? How will you reach your readers?

Why should you take the time to answer these questions before you write? How can all this advance work help you write a better book? The first reason is simply that you need to know these things. Let’s look at a few of the most important questions:

  1. If you can’t explain your books subject matter in a single sentence — say, between two floors in an elevator — you don’t really know what it’s about. How can you write a book when you can’t articulate its subject?
  2. If you don’t know who your audience is, your book will more like a shotgun than a rifle. You are unlikely to hit the right reader. If you are writing a business book, for example, are you speaking to senior management, middle management, first-line supervisors, rank-and-file employees, or industry competitors? What you say and how you say it will be determined by the exact audience you are trying to reach.
  3. If you don’t know what other books are available on your topic, you cannot decide how to slant your material, how to make your book stand out from the competition, or how to convince a publisher (if you choose to submit it to a publisher) that it hasn’t already been done many times over?
  4. If you don’t know how your credentials give you the authority and credibility to write on your subject, how can you expect readers to take the content seriously? For example, if you are writing about how to turn a failing business into a successful one, you must be able to prove that you’ve been there, done that. If you writing a book on how to write a book, it would help if you have a few published books to your credit.

When you look at each of these questions, you will understand why you need to consider them carefully. Worst-case scenario: you may find that you don’t really have a viable book concept. On the other hand, wouldn’t you rather know that on the front end than after you wrote it?

Best-case scenario: you answer every question to the best of your ability and find that every single answer will become part of your content, your publishing decisions, or your book promotion strategies. Not one minute or word will have been wasted. In fact, you will have a strong foundation on which to build a successful book.

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