A good nonfiction book proposal will contain:
* a good title (and probably an effective subtitle too – consider your genre).
* an overview of the work: two or three snappy paragraphs (maybe more, but probably under a page) that capture the essence of the book and how it might be distinctive or unique.
* a synopsis, probably in the form of a breakdown of the book chapter by chapter – good chapter titles will help, along with pithy summaries of each chapter’s content (probably just a few lines for each one) and a sense of how it might put forward something new or interesting to carry the story or the argument further along.
* a description of the market/readership, including the demographics of likely readers.
* a comparison with similar or competing works, which includes a sense of how this book might complement others and/or be different, or better (though avoid bragging or slagging off). Do the work: visit a library or bookshop, chat with booksellers, look up titles on Amazon, gather information about what’s already out there with a mind to showing how you are doing something different (or similar). You might also consider how you can adapt models or structures in other genres for your own content or field. This will not only show your authority on writing in this area, but also bring some editorial clarity and focus to your intention.
* biographical information, profile and platform, showing why you are the person to write this book. Explain how you are qualified, and give a sense of your likely capacity to promote and sell the book. Such material includes:
~ experience relevant to the subject of the book and a sense of your reputation in the area of the book’s content.
~ previous publications, either books or articles, and especially ones related to this subject (if expanding a successful article into a book-length treatment, it is likely that a copy of the original article will be included).
~ uses of social media: facts and figures on how you’re reaching potential readers via blogging, Twitter, and other avenues (though don’t worry too much about this if you’re, e.g., not an active Tweeter: just be irresistible some other way …).
~ reviews for previous works (either extracts from reviews or copies of entire reviews gathered together tidily).
~ endorsements from names in the field or anyone else you can approach for a blurb or a testimonial, or even to write a foreword.
* credible possibilities for publicity, promotion, and sales, e.g., ranging from specific media contacts and sales outlets where you are known, to public events and anniversaries related to the book’s content, to relevant opportunities for rights sales (e.g., translation, audio, digital).
* perhaps most importantly, a sample of writing, e.g., a couple of representative chapters of your best and most sparkling prose – it can make sense to include an introduction, as well as a sample chapter or two from the body of the work. Yes, when it comes to writing the book the introduction is often written last, when you know more fully what you’re introducing, so for the purpose of a proposal simply introduce your subject, perhaps establishing any personal connections; you might even wish to adapt this into an intelligent introduction to your synopsis – to you – rather than the sort of introduction you’ll have in the book.
* manuscript status and book format: likely word count and delivery date, plus an indication of possible design and production needs, e.g., number of photographs, artwork, maps.
Length and format of proposals
Proposals vary in length – some are a hundred pages long, while some books are sold for great sums on a couple of pages or just an idea, though these tend to be for well-established names in a field. It’s a good idea to aim for five to ten pages for the proposal itself (in addition to the sample material), and maybe up to fifteen or twenty pages if there’s more to say. Beyond that, you might start to seem long-winded.
The proposal itself can be single-spaced, especially if it’s broken up with lots of headings, but sample material should be double- or 1.5-spaced, as the final manuscript would be. I have a preference for serif faces such as Times or Georgia over sans serif faces such as Arial. (The idea: make it easy to read. Agents and editors get strained eyes.)
Sending out your proposal
Research where to send your material. Feel confident that your book will sit easily alongside other titles in the agent’s portfolio or on the publisher’s list. Your research on competing books might help with this. Use industry guides such as this year’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (UK) or Writer’s Market (US). Find out who represents or edits similar writers, e.g., by looking at the acknowledgements sections in similar books, or simply by Googling ‘Who is the agent for XX YY?’. Attend conventions or festivals where you can network, meet possible interested parties, and develop a stronger instinct for what will make your book succeed.
Tailor your proposal according to specific guidelines given by the agents or publishers you select (e.g., some might want to see more sample material than others). Also follow any preferences for how to submit. Some agents and editors want hard copies, while others prefer emailed attachments.
None of the above is set in stone. There are no right answers, other than those you create for yourself and your idea, and each field has different requirements, so understand what they are. Use your common sense.
Be prepared for your writing to evolve; you don’t necessarily have to treat your original proposal as a hard and fast outline for your book. Some chapters may be merged or dropped, and other material may be added as your research takes you down new and exciting avenues. Editors know that books may shape up differently in the writing, but they will expect the author to deliver on a book’s promise. Any significant changes should be discussed with your editor, who will have signed up your book based on particular expectations. Be sure they are not disappointed.
Most of all, be passionate yet professional. Enthuse about your subject, know what you’re talking about, and convey that you are a writer whom an editor will want to work with, and whose writing will excite readers.
And then be that writer.