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Top 5 Book Proposal Tips

If you’re working on a book proposal to entice an agent to represent your nonfiction book (or to attract a publisher) then you know all about writing the overview, the competitive analysis, the chapter summaries, and all of the rest of the parts. But there are a few less obvious points to consider.

1. Write the proposal in the same voice you’ll use to write the book. If the book is funny, the proposal should at least show some sense of humor. Yes, the proposal is a business document but part of what it’s selling is your ability to deliver on what you promise. Don’t just tell readers of your proposal that your book will be funny—show them!

2. Make each part sell your book and you as the author. Don’t add a link to your LinkedIn profile and think that’s good enough for the about the author material. It should show why you should write this book, because of your particular experience, training, credentials.

3. Don’t be afraid of using coauthors, experts, and sources. You may be the guru of your subject matter, but a broader perspective can often help sell your book and convince editors and agents that there’s an audience out there.

4. The book proposal isn’t the book. It’s a sales tool. You’re asking the agent and the publisher to be a partner in the business of making your book a reality. Don’t forget. It’s not about you, it’s about what they are looking for.

5. Keep it simple. It’s a proposal for a book, not a pitch for a movie or for $25 million in funding to build a new law library on campus. It doesn’t need to be a multimedia product. If you want to link to a podcast, feel free. But don’t think a podcast is a proposal.

The next session of my Write Your Book Proposal Class starts May 4! For more information and to sign up, click here.

New books for writers!

I just finished two small books for writers. Both are based on popular classes I’ve taught. The first is Finish Your Book, a short guide (about 25 pages) that offers tips and guidance for overcoming the stumbling blocks that keep you from finishing that novel you started last year. The other is Write Your Book Proposal, a slightly longer piece (about 35 pages) on putting together a proposal for a nonfiction book. Both links will lead you to the Kindle edition. Both also have paperback versions, here and here. It always takes Amazon a while to link the two together.

Hope you find these helpful!

Give Agents and Editors a Taste

Nonfiction books are sold by proposal, not complete manuscript. But an editor needs to be confident that you (or your coauthor) will write it well. You’ll want to impress the editor with sample chapters that convey your book’s message in a friendly, entertaining way.

  • Don’t use the introduction as the sample chapter. Write a chapter with real meat.
  • Pick a chapter that best showcases the message of your book.
  • Do all the necessary research and interviews to make it a fabulous chapter.
  • Don’t forget all the extras that will make the chapter valuable to readers – exercises, tip boxes, success stories.
  • Include subheads to break up the text and help the reader stay on track.
  • Use a friendly, conversational style – as if you were telling the story to an interested listener. Don’t think you have to be “writerly” or use long words to get your point across. Friendly and accessible, that’s the ticket!
  • Write, polish, and edit until the sample chapter is as close to perfect as you’re able to accomplish. Don’t send a draft and think it’s good enough.

Show Your Idea Is Newsworthy

To bolster your proposal, add research that shows your topic is popular, reference articles that you’ve been interviewed for or that have been written about you to show you’re in the public eye, and include news items that show the importance and relevance of your subject matter. Testimonials and reviews from clients and fans also add a little spice to the recipe!

  • Keep an eye on the major papers – and on the minor ones, too! Sometimes that’s where the most interesting news is to be found.
  • Sign up for Google News Alert ( and PR Newswire ( to get information related to your subject matter delivered directly to your email inbox.
  • Ask friends to alert you to stories about your subject matter in their local papers and favorite magazines.
  • Don’t forget to get your name out there, too. If you’re quoted in a story, even in a small local newspaper, copy the article and include it in your proposal.
  • Take a poll! Even a fun, unofficial poll can get an editor’s attention. Invite people to respond to a questionnaire on your website or to send you an e-mail with their answers.

Outline Your Promotion Plan

If you’re writing a nonfiction book, you’ve got to know how to get your message out there, and in the marketing/promotion plan section of your book proposal, you’ll show the editor how you will sell tons of books. Just as important, you’ll give yourself an action plan for promoting your book.

  • Offer ideas and strategies for ways to promote your book (and yourself) effectively and efficiently, without wasting time and money.
  • Build on your current business and career. If you’re a consultant, explain how that will help you market the book to your clients. If you’re a writer, you can write articles about your book.
  • Be creative and use what’s available. Are you already teaching classes? Can you tie in the message of your book to your teaching?
  • Brainstorm with marketing pros, business people and readers – not just other writers – to come up with good ideas for promoting your book.
  • Only include what you will do. Even better if you’re already doing it! Editors have seen too many empty promises. They want to see that you’re already out there doing what you can to develop a following.

Whet a Reader's Appetite

Get the attention of an editor – and readers – by using chapter titles that pique their interest. Don’t just call them “Chapter One” and “Chapter Two.” Make your chapter titles inviting and descriptive. Come up with titles that succinctly communicate a point – while also being fun, eye-catching, or pithy.

  • Avoid dull narrative chapter titles like, “How to Get Started Buying Real Estate for Profit.” Try, “Make the Mortgage Lender Pay You!”
  • Don’t confuse the reader. “Beam Me Up, Scotty,” in a book on real-estate transactions won’t make sense even if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Trekkie.
  • Use subtitles to clarify points.

Tip: With my Dojo Wisdom series, each chapter title is the name of the lesson in the book. 100 chapters = 100 titles = 100 lessons!

Building the Bones of Your Book

Once you’ve developed an overview that describes what your book is about and who’ll be interested in reading it, you’ll need to create a Table of Contents (TOC) outlining the order of the chapters and describing what those chapters will contain.

This is the backbone of your book, and it showcases the organization and scope of your material. In other words, this is not the time to be coy or mysterious – the editor or agent should be able to see clearly what you’ll be including in the book, how it will be organized, and even why it will be organized that way.

Take time to think about and divide your subject into chapters and to organize those chapters in the most descriptive, exciting way possible. The TOC should answer these questions:

  • What information will you present in the book?
  • What does the reader get out of each chapter?
  • How will you clearly present your content?
  • What information will come first and why?
  • What’s the “story” you’re telling? How does the book build from beginning to end?
  • If the book is based on modules that can be read out of order, are related topics grouped together for easy reference?
  • What materials will go in the back of the book – appendices, resource lists, etc.?

Once you’ve nailed down the organization of the chapters, you need to describe what’s in each chapter. Sum up the chapters in your book so that the editor can’t wait to read them.

  • Keep each chapter summary to one page, even one paragraph (or less), double spaced.
  • Give the title of each chapter (remember to keep it snappy!)
  • Organize each chapter summary so that the editor or agent can easily see what information the chapter will contain, what the reader will get from the chapter, how you’ll present the information and the order in which the information will appear.
  • Think “story.” Arrange chapter content so that it has a beginning, a middle and an end.
  • Include descriptions of “extras” – exercises, resources, call-out boxes, success stories, case histories and more.
  • Use action words to describe the content of each chapter.
  • Name facts, cite statistics, and give quotes to punch up each chapter summary.
  • Make the summaries easy on the eyes – create lists, bullet points and use other means to draw attention to important points. Editors are busy and may skim, so you want them to get the most essential information immediately.

Showing the Big Picture

You’ve created the big message – the one or two sentences that describe what your book is about. Now you have to show what it means and to whom. In the book proposal overview, you’ll give a brief description of the book and its audience – answering what, why, and how.

  • Tell what the book will be about
  • Include an audience description
  • Give details, such as how long the book will be, its structure, and any photographs or illustrations you plan to use (also explain where you’ll get them).
  • Create checklists and worksheets – these add a lot of perceived value to a book.
  • Include any other information that can help the editor envision the book. This is your most important opportunity to grab the editor’s attention so she’ll want to know more.
  • Describe studies and recent research that bolsters your case.
  • Mention a few sample success stories that you’ll use in the book.

I’ve seen some overviews that plunge into a description of the book without setting the scene. Don’t make this mistake! Instead of starting, “Wellness Diet includes information on whole grains, vegetarian diets, and organic farming,” give the editor the background. Try, “Ten percent of the population is vegetarian. This number grows by fifteen percent each year. Yet vegetarians have difficulty preparing foods that meet their dietary needs. Wellness Diet will solve this problem.”

Showcase Your Professional Bio

If you’re a writer working on a nonfiction book proposal, the about the author section can be the most difficult to write. Not because you don’t have any credentials, but because you don’t know how to write about them.

Remember, this is not the time to be modest! Make your credentials, experience and expert status wow the editor who reads your book proposal. Present your professional bio so that the editor knows you’re an author who commands respect and credibility.

  • Pull out the big guns. All your credentials related to your subject matter should be included. Remember that you’re trying to persuade an agent or editor (or reader, for that matter!) that you’re the right person to write this book.
  • Write a narrative – don’t give a dry recitation of facts or a bullet list of employment titles. Engage your reader by telling a story.
  • Keep the resume to yourself. A professional biography is not an employment resume!
  • Make it reflect you – if you’ve got a fun sense of humor, your bio should reveal that.
  • Use third person to write about yourself – it’s much easier and it doesn’t sound like you’re stuck on yourself.
  • Hobbies add dimension to your bio, but don’t say, “In her spare time, Julie likes to lawn bowl and skeet shoot.” Say, “A sharpshooter on the skeet-shooting range (watch out, clay pigeons!), Julie is also a threat on the lawn as the highest scoring bowler in the Binghamton Ladies’ Lawn Bowling Association.”

You, the Expert

I remember the first time someone called me a “martial arts expert” in print. I hadn’t even realized I was one! But that endorsement made a lot of difference in my career. I wasn’t just someone who had an interesting hobby. I was an expert in a specific subject matter.

For nonfiction writers, your credentials are extremely important. Make an expert name for yourself by claiming what you know and developing your experience.

  • Certify your credentials. If you teach yoga, make sure you’re recognized by a well-known yoga organization. Get a personal trainer certificate if you write about fitness. I earned a black belt before I started writing about martial arts.
  • Start your own certification program — especially if one doesn’t already exist in your subject matter. If you teach the teachers, you definitely have achieved expert status.
  • Claim your credentials. Don’t make the classic amateur mistake of calling yourself a “visionary” or the like (that’s for other people to decide) but do make your credentials clear in your book proposal and in marketing materials about your book.
  • Track your media hits and all the work you do to develop your platform. List seminars and talks you give (even the five minute speech at the local Chamber of Commerce).
  • Slant work and training experience to emphasize its connection to your book.