Nonfiction book proposals


Writing a nonfiction book proposal—a good one—requires not only sharp clarity about your idea, but also how that idea, in book form, is relevant and unique in today’s market. Some authors have a very deep knowledge of the community surrounding their topic, and understand the needs of their audience. Others do not.

Either way, you’ll have a much easier time writing your proposal if you take time to conduct market research beforehand, as well as an analysis of your existing reach to your readership.

Step 1. Explore and understand competing titles.

Searching for the titles your book will compete against is one of the easiest ways to begin your research process. Visit the bookstores in your area—the library, too. Go to the shelf where you would expect your future book to be placed. What’s there? Study the books closely and take notes.

Be in-depth about this; use this worksheet to be thorough.

After you finish combing the bookstores and libraries, check specialty retailers that might carry books on your topic (e.g., Michaels for arts and crafts books).

Finally, do an online search, beginning with Amazon; then try Google. Search any other sites that might be important to your book’s audience.

Step 2. Research the non-book landscape.

It would be a mistake to think your competition is limited to print book titles. Today, your greatest competition may be a website, online community, or well-known blogger. Do a thorough Google search for digital content and online experts serving the same audience as you. Is it easy to get needed and authoritative information? Is it free or behind a pay wall?

Don’t stop at Google. Also search YouTube, app stores, iTunes podcasts, and online communities relevant to your topic. Look for online education opportunities, if relevant.

Understand how your audience might be fulfilling its needs for information from online and multimedia sources—and also from magazines, newsletters, databases, and events/conferences!

This information may or may not end up in your proposal, but the upside is this: you’re developing an amazing map and resource of how to market your book when it’s published!

Step 3. Study the authors and influencers you’ve found.

As you go through Steps 1 and 2, you’ll uncover authors, experts, and influencers on your topic. Just as you studied the books and media, dig deep into the platform and reach of these people. How do you fit among them? How will you set yourself apart? Are there hints about how you need to develop your own platform to be competitive in the eyes of a publisher? Here’s a worksheet to help you ask the right questions.

Step 4. Pinpoint your primary market.

By this point, you will have collected a lot of valuable information about the print and online landscape related to your topic. You will probably have some notes about the type of audience or demographic being served. (If not, go back and look for clues as to who the books or digital media appear to be targeting.)

It’s a big red flag to any agent or editor to say that your book is for “everyone.” Maybe it could interest “everyone,” but there’s a specific audience that will be the most likely to buy your book. Who are those people, and how/where can you reach them? Again, Steps 1–3 have probably given you some pretty good hints. If not, try asking the following:

  • What social media outlets seem to be most important, active, or relevant for your target audience? Where does your audience gather online? Search for trend articles, or refer to a site like Quantcast, to find out the demographics of that site or social media outlet.
  • What else does your audience read? What do they watch? Who do they listen to in the media? This can get you very close to a profile of your target readership.
  • Search Google Trends for keywords related to your topic. What do you find? Are there any trend articles, statistics or research about your topic or your perceived market that are helpful in profiling your target reader?

The better you know your target reader (or primary market), the better you’ll able to build a proposal that speaks to why anyone cares about what you’re writing. Furthermore, a really intimate understanding of your audience often leads to a better book.

Step 5. Analyze how you reach readers.

This is where you look at your platform and measure how well you reach your target readership, through the following:

  • Your website/blog
  • Email newsletter
  • Social media
  • Speaking and teaching
  • Professional memberships or affiliations
  • Regular media gigs (e.g., columns)
  • Partnerships or special connections, especially those that might influence media coverage or buzz
  • Any other tools you have!

This is a good time to refer back to Step 3, and review the authors and influencers you’ll be competing and/or collaborating with. You want to look like you measure up well but also have something fresh or different to offer.

Your platform directly informs the marketing and promotion plan that’s included in your proposal. The best marketing campaigns begin with what you have in place today, not what you hope to happen (e.g., Oprah calls).

Also, being thorough in describing your platform (if only for yourself) helps you more effectively develop a marketing plan before your publication day, and collaborate with your publisher on marketing and publicity. For more help on this, download my worksheet on detailing your platform.


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