Three Tips for Writing a Better Book Proposal

For the nonfiction writers out there, putting together a book proposal can be daunting – though of course you can always get help from places like the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference. For those who can’t make the trip to Pittsburgh for the conference, we turned our blog over to Kelli Christiansen, professional writer and editor at Bibliobibuli and Chicago Book Review. She shared her advice for writing a winning proposal.


Chicago Book Review Logoby Kelli Christiansen

Most nonfiction titles can be sold on a couple really good sample chapters that have been polished to a high gloss. Writers need not necessarily have an entire manuscript at the ready, although that can help when pitching a project to an agent, editor, or publisher. The key is to accompany those fabulous sample chapters with a thorough book proposal that captures the book’s essence and highlights what makes the book special. Here are some tips regarding some of the crucial elements to include in a winning book proposal for a nonfiction title.

A Concise and Compelling Sales Handle
The sales handle is your elevator pitch. It should be no more than two or three sentences, and should encapsulate what the book covers, what makes it special, and why readers have to have it. The sales handle should summarize the selling points of the book while tempting the reader to dig deeper. Don’t be cute or pithy here. The sales handle should be engaging and matter-of-fact, written in the same tone as, for example, catalog copy.

A Thorough and Realistic Competitive Analysis
All too often, book proposals argue either that the project in question is so fresh, so new, and so unique that it is unlike anything ever published before, or that the proposed book will appeal to everyone because it transcends genre and audience. Neither is ever true. Just about everything under the sun has been covered in one way or another by one book or another. Furthermore, as the publishing industry axiom goes, a book for everyone is a book for no one.

Another common flaw with book proposals is that the proposed book is compared to phenomenon books—i.e., the cream of the crop of bestsellers. Such books are truly rare, and it can be a mistake to compare a proposed book to one that has become an enduring bestseller with which just about every reader is familiar.

Instead, competitive analysis in a book proposal should be thorough, realistic, and targeted. Do some research to discern several books that are closely related to your proposed title, and highlight the important ways in which your book would be better and different. Include a list of recently published related books that show how you would position your book against existing titles.

An Exciting and Executable Publicity and Marketing Plan
Agents, editors, and publishers get excited when they can see that the author will drive sales. A winning book proposal includes a detailed publicity and marketing plan that speaks to the author’s platform, outlining the ways in which the author will spread the word about the book, secure endorsements and reviews, and otherwise fuel the fire that powers book sales. A winning book proposal must include solid proof that the author can deliver not only a great manuscript but also valuable marketing and publicity efforts that will result in sales.


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