Nonfiction Proposals: A Primer

chalkboardGood morning, class! While most of our blog posts consist of fiction-related matters, we have at least a few nonfiction authors in our midst. For that reason, I’ll occasionally devote a blog post to the issues of writing and publishing nonfiction. As the title indicates, today’s lesson will serve as a basic nonfiction primer, and I’ll break down the various parts of the nonfiction proposal—and their importance—in subsequent posts.

Be sure to take notes—there may be a pop quiz later!

Writing, representing, and selling nonfiction is much different than representing fiction in many ways, with one of the main differences being length of the project. With fiction, publishers generally require a completed (and polished!) manuscript before they’ll consider it for publication. For nonfiction, however, publishers will often buy a project based on a 50-page book proposal.

Sounds great, right? After all, throwing together a 50-page book proposal is a breeze compared to writing a full-length manuscript. Heck, maybe we should all write more nonfiction! While putting together a nonfiction proposal sounds like much less work in theory, in practice, a certain alchemy is required to bring the various parts of a nonfiction book proposal together.

If you’re unsure what information comprises a nonfiction proposal, I’ll list it here (in order of appearance):

  1. Overview
  2. Author platform/expertise
  3. Marketing plan/publicity connections
  4. Competitive title analysis
  5. Writing sample

Still sounds pretty good, right? Still sounds like a much easier gig than writing a 100,000-word manuscript, right? Before you chuck your novel for the world of nonfiction writing, consider this:

When editors read your book proposal, they are scrutinizing your author platform and competitive title section just as closely as they are looking at your writing sample. Why? Because a harsh reality of nonfiction publishing these days is that great writing sometimes isn’t enough to get a project published—or sell a finished book.

As a writer of nonfiction, you have a set of responsibilities that fiction writers do not. You must be able to establish yourself as an  “expert” or “voice” in your subject area. You must know your competitive titles inside and out, and you must be able to point out why your book is different/better than any of the books already on the bookstore shelves.

Taking care to do these things will give you a definite edge over the competition. And of course, signing with a literary agent with experience in your subject area can also help you focus your proposal in order to meet the needs of the marketplace. And in nonfiction publishing, meeting the needs of the marketplace is paramount.

Okay, class! That concludes today’s lesson on nonfiction publishing. I hope you found it useful and informative.

Now for the Q&A portion of our lesson: Post your questions about the nonfiction market here, and I’ll choose several and provide answers later this week.

Happy Monday!

  1. Is there any difference in preparing a nonfiction proposal for the adult market and the children’s market?


  2. Copied from Facebook:

    Becky Mushko
    Is memoir pitched through a proposal, or is it pitched like fiction because it’s a narrative?


  3. Thanks for the informative post, Danielle. Long ago (and far away…) non-fiction writers also had to include a complimentary book analysis (alongside the competitive analysis) in the proposal. Is that no longer required?


  4. Do you have an example proposal you can show us?


  5. Two more from Facebook:

    “From what I’m reading, a lousy writer with a PhD has a far easier time getting published then a good writer without one? That’s really sad, but I do think it’s true. As far as author platforms/expertise goes, does having a number of published clips count for anything or is it just a way to pass the time?”


    “Any brownie points earned for a web presence?”


  6. Danielle,
    I’m a published author of fiction with a good agent, but have never presented a non-fiction project to him. As a fiction writer, writing the story of someone in the mental health field (who has loads of expertise and creds), would I better serve him and the project by submitting my proposal as a ghost- or co-writer?
    Would the rules in your helpful guideline still apply?
    Thanks for your time,
    Michael McKinney


  7. ahhhhh!! but non-fiction IS fiction. nothing that has ever been written in the history of the human race is 100% non-fiction no matter how hard we try to justify it.


  8. […] This is primarily intended for the adult market, methinks. But Danielle Chiotti’s primer on the construction of a nonfiction book proposal is right on the money (I’ve sold two books in the adult market with just this approach). So, if you’re wondering how to put your NF proposal together, pop on over to the Upstart Crow blog. […]


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