04 March 2020
How to write an outline, book proposal and introductory letter that shows agents and publishers what you can deliver
Unlike fiction, which is rarely accepted by agents and publishers unless a manuscript is complete, non-fiction books are usually accepted on the strength of a strong proposal and sample chapters.
The book proposal is your selling document. It’s how you pitch your project to a prospective buyer, who will be reading it to see if the book you propose will be of sufficient interest to attract potential buyers and make money. As such, a good non-fiction book proposal is a structured outline whose purpose is to explain your book, show a commercial awareness of its place in the market and demonstrate your credentials for writing it and the approach that you will take to complete it.
Whereas fiction is usually sold on the basis of a brief synopsis and a sample of a completed manuscript, a non-fiction proposal will consist of a much fuller breakdown of information about the non-fiction title, which will give prospective buyer an overview of the book and information about where it might fit in the market.
You must check individual publisher or agent submission guidelines of what to submit, but a non-fiction proposal will generally include all of the below.
What to put in your non-fiction book proposal
• Introductory letter
This is where the prospective author presents themselves, their proposed project and their credentials for writing it. In this letter, introduce your reason for writing and explain succinctly what the book that you are proposing to write is about, why the book is topical and likely to be of interest, what its target readership is likely to be and your credentials for writing it. Keep this information brief, polite and to-the point.
If you have unique or special access to your subject (eg, a previously unknown source of information, new archive material, undiscovered letters, unpublished research material, the fact that the famous recluse you’re hoping to write about happens to be your grandmother, etc), mention it in this letter.
Close the letter with a note about the documents that you are attaching to support your proposal: ie, a chapter breakdown, a market overview, an author bio and sample chapters.
• Author bio
The purpose of this document is to establish you as a suitable person to write this particular book. It should demonstrate that you’re either an expert in the subject or a professional writer with the demonstrated ability to complete relevant non-fiction projects (eg, regular related journalism, publication of similar titles).
As well as laying out your credentials for writing the proposed book, including your published works, it should contain relevant information about your public profile and your social media platform. All this will give an agent or publisher information about your profile, your target audience and how you reach them.
• Market overview
This is to provide information that demonstrates your awareness of the commercial market and where your proposed book would fit into it. It should define, precisely and specifically, what you see as your readership and how your book would appeal to it.
Back up your points with accurate data. Include examples of similar recent titles (ie, published within the last couple of years) that have sold well and suggest a potential readership for further titles in the field. If your book would fill a gap in the market, explain why and how. If your proposal concerns a well-known topic, explain what makes your treatment of it fresh and exciting.
Having demonstrated an awareness of the current market for the title you’re proposing, put forward your unique angle: how your book would stand out from the competition and be of particular interest to your target readership.
• Outline or chapter breakdown of the completed book
If you’re writing narrative non-fiction your outline will follow the format of a novel synopsis that sets out the major events in the book from beginning to end so that the agent/publisher can have an overview of the full scope of the book.
But if you’re writing non-fiction based around a particular subject, it’s more likely that you’ll provide a bullet-pointed breakdown of each chapter and what it contains. Include information about the experts you would consult and the new material/sources that you would include. The whole document should not take more than four pages of A4.
• Sample chapters
So far all the documents we’ve mentioned have been about your proposed book. The sample chapters are your opportunity to demonstrate your writing style and approach, showing what you can deliver as a writer and giving a flavour of what the finished book will be.
You may be required to submit a single chapter, which is usual, or up to three. It makes sense to submit the first chapter, and sometimes this is specified.
The first chapter in non-fiction titles generally introduces the topic to the reader and lays out what your subsequent chapters will cover. It demonstrates your focus and approach to your topic as well as the material you will be including.
As we’ve discussed, non-fiction titles are sold on a submission package consisting of a proposal and sample material. That material – your writing – is your chance to hook readers – at this point, prospective agents and publishers – with your style and approach. A strong first chapter that acts as an introduction to the proposed book requires the author to have an overview of all the material that will be involved and the way the non-fiction narrative of the book will unfold for the reader. It demonstrates the writer’s ability to engage with their subject and set it out so that it interests readers.
If an agent or publisher likes the look of the idea and the chapter breakdown, a good, engaging and well-written introductory chapter may well persuade them to take on the project.
If you were looking for information about submitting fiction proposals to publishers, check out our guide, How to write a synopsis.
And if you want to make sure your work is ready for the wider world, consult the experts with our Critique Service