How To Write Nonfiction Book Proposal

By SUE COLETTA

Remember my last post, entitled Why Waiting is Difficult? Well, I’m happy to report that my wait is over!!! And now, I can share my good news.

In May, Globe Pequot (Rowman & Littlefield) reached out to me about writing a true crime novel about female serial killers of New England who were active prior to 1950.

Some of you may have read the story on my blog, so I won’t bore you by repeating all the details here. Suffice it to say, Pretty Evil, New England: Female Serial Killer’s of the Region’s Past is anticipated to hit stores Fall 2020. Yay!!!

For those of you who missed the announcement on my blog, the acquisitions editor gave me two weeks to send her a book proposal. And like any professional writer, I assured her that a two-week deadline would not be a problem. When I hung up, panic set in.

What did I know about writing a nonfiction book proposal? Not a darn thing!

Plus, I now had mountains of research into historical female serial killers. I’ve written true crime stories on my blog many times, but never a novel-length true crime book. This was a huge opportunity, with a well-respected publisher in a new-to-me genre. All I kept thinking was, if you blow this chance you’ll regret it forever.

Once I managed to get my breathing somewhat regulated, I contacted my dear friend, Larry Brooks. You probably know this from his time on TKZ, but it bears repeating — he is amazing! Not only did he assure me that the editor didn’t contact the wrong author for the job, he explained in detail what she was looking for in the proposal. Most importantly, he told me why she’d asked for certain things, from a nonfiction publisher’s point of view. Knowing “the why” helped me focus on what to include. Incidentally, Jordan was also a godsend through the entire process.

See why it’s important to befriend other writers?

On TKZ, we’ve talk a lot about the business side of writing. In nonfiction, it’s important to show how and why the proposed book will be profitable for the publisher. My situation was a little different, since they came to me, but I still followed the same format as if I’d cold queried. After all, the acquisitions editor still needed the board to approve the project before offering a contract.

So, today, I’d like to share the proper format for a nonfiction book proposal. If you find yourself in a similar situation, perhaps this post will save you some agony.

Each heading should start a fresh page.

Title Page

Title

Subtitle

Author’s Name

If you’re cold querying an agent and/or publisher, then also include your address, website, phone number, blog address, and agent contact info, if applicable.

Table of Contents for the Book Proposal

Keep this basic format and chapter headings unless the publisher/agent guidelines asks for something different. Next, I’ll break down each chapter to show what to include.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Overview …………………………………………………………………………   (page #)

Target Market …………………………………………………………………….   (page #)

Competitive Titles …………………………………………………………………   (page #)

Author Bio …………………………………………………………………………   (page #)

Marketing Plan …………………………………………………………………….   (page #)

Length & Special Features …………………………………………………………  (page #)

Chapter Outline …………………………………………………………………….  (page #)

Sample Chapter …………………………………………………………………….  (page #)

Overview

You need to hook the agent/editor with a strong opener and establish why the subject of the book is of interest to a definable audience and what your book offers to this market. A sales representative has an average of 14 seconds to sell a title to a bookstore buyer, and the editor in a publishing board meeting has only a few minutes to convince colleagues of the potential of a book.

A few questions to consider …

What’s the book about? What’s your pitch? Does the book fill a need? Why are you the right author to write this book? Are you passionate about the subject matter?

Target Market

You cannot say “this book will appeal to men and women from 18-80,” because it won’t. Instead, you need to provide an actual target audience with real figures to back it up.

Where do we gather these statistics? Social media is a great place to start. Search for Facebook groups about the subject of your book. For example, I included Serial Killer groups, True Crime groups, Historical groups, and groups related to New England, like the New England Historical Society. For each group, I listed the subscribers and, where available, a breakdown of the members’ gender, age group, etc. Next, I went to YouTube and searched for podcasts related to my subject matter. I also included a brief psychological study of why true crime attracts women.

See what I’m saying? Think outside the box to find your audience.

What if you’re proposing a cookbook? You can still use social media as a jumping off point, but I’d also search for culinary classes. Are your readers likely to subscribe to certain magazines? List the circulation numbers. Is your book geared toward college students? Call the universities.

Take your time with this section. It’s vitally important to prove there’s an audience for your book. Publishing board meetings sound more like product development meetings. By providing accurate, measurable data, you’re helping the acquisitions editor convince the board to approve your project.

Competitive Titles

Search bookstores, Amazon, barnesandnoble.com, Books in Print, and libraries. You want to show at least five title that would be considered competitive or at least somewhat related to the subject of your book. For each competitive title, provide author’s name, title, price, publisher, publication date, ISBN, any known sales figures, rankings, or other indications of the book’s success.

I also used this section to show why I chose to focus on five serial killers instead of ten (as proposed by the editor), with titles that proved my theory.

Author Bio or “About the Author”

Unless you’re proposing a memoir, write your bio in third person. Include why you’re qualified to write this book, as well as previous publishing credits and accolades. If you’re short on publishing credits, then include tidbits about yourself that show your passion and/or expertise in the subject matter.

Marketing Plan

How do you plan to market this book? Does your blog get lots of traffic? List how many hits per month. Also include the number of email subscribers, social media followers, etc. List speaking engagements. For example, I included a list of venues I appear at every year (all in New England).

If you’re writing a how-to, do you teach courses? Workshops? Have media exposure?

Length & Special Features

Here, you include word count, photographs, or other special features of the book. I can’t divulge the special features for my book, but again, I thought outside the box to make the book unique.

Table of Contents

There is no pantsing in nonfiction. You’ll have to outline each chapter, with eye-catching headlines, and list them here. To give you some idea of the work, I had 50 chapters in my book proposal, each chapter meticulously plotted. Will they change once I complete my research? Maybe, but the publisher expects you to stick fairly close to the original. After all, that’s the book you sold.

Sample Chapter(s)

Follow the agent/publisher guidelines on length, etc. They’re looking for writing style, tone, and voice. Now that the business side is completed, this is your chance to shine!

And that’s about it, folks.

Nonfiction writers, did I miss anything? Please share your tips.

Fiction writers, have you considered writing nonfiction? If so, which subject/genre are you interested in?

 

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About Sue Coletta

Member of MWA, Sisters in Crime, and ITW, Sue Coletta is an award-winning, bestselling crime writer of psychological thrillers. She also writes true crime: PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND is anticipated to hit stores in Fall 2020, published by Globe Pequot (Rowman & Littlefield). In 2017, 2018, and 2019, Feedspot awarded her Murder Blog as one of the Top 100 Crime Blogs on the Net (Murder Blog sits at #5). Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

29 thoughts on “How To Write Nonfiction Book Proposal

  1. Sue, I like your idea of identifying interest groups–including Facebook groups, which I wouldn’t have thought of, since I avoid FB as much as possible. I can use that strategy when I get around to marketing my novel. I can also use it to increase exposure for my wife’s non-fiction book, Spiritual Connection in Daily Life: 16 Little Questions That Can Make a Big Difference (no murders there).

    • Excellent point, Eric. Facebook gathers so much information on its users (as we’ve discussed here on TKZ) that we may as well use that information to our advantage. Makes no difference if we’re querying for fiction or nonfiction. We still need to find our target audience.

      Your wife’s book sounds awesome!

  2. Congratulations, Sue! Well deserved! Your vast research, expertise, and large following make you a natural to write this book. In only two weeks, you put together a kick-butt proposal plus you shared how to do it with all of us in this post. Globe-Pequot definitely chose the best author.

  3. I’m so proud of you and I can’t wait to read this one. They definitely picked the right author.

    Great post. I’ve never considered what goes into a non-fiction proposal but your advice is spot on. As Eric said, there are tips to enhance fiction promo too. Good job. Thanks for sharing your hard work.

    This could be a new opportunity in a new genre for you. Plus it can only enhance your fiction writing. Smart.

    • My pleasure, Jordan! And thanks again for all your help while I was freakin’ out. You were my rock. <3

      Right? I'm really loving the work, too. True crime feels right to me. So much so, I'm keeping my eyes peeled for my next book. I have an inside source for something that's going down in New Hampshire, only minutes from where I live. If it turns out like I think it will, the story could make national headlines. So far, the authorities are keeping it on the DL, which I hope they continue to do until after Feb. 1st (my deadline for Pretty Evil).

  4. I’m so proud of you and I can’t wait to read this one. They definitely picked the right author.

    Great post. I’ve never considered what goes into a non-fiction proposal but your advice is spot on. As Eric said, there are tips to enhance fiction promo too. Good job. Thanks for sharing your hard work.

    This could be a new opportunity in a new genre for you. Plus it can only enhance your fiction writing. Smart.

  5. Sue, great post. I’ll share it widely. Even if you indie publish, this can be a great checklist for what you should include in your nonfiction book or whether you should even write and publish it. Kind of a propostal to yourself (as publisher).

  6. Sue, thanks for the non-fic proposal tips. I don’t know if its just me, but I find it maddening how much help there is out there for FICTION writers and how little help for non-fiction writers, so I look forward to reading your post in more detail when I get home.

    But at the beginning of the post I stumbled over one thing which means I must not be keeping up with current terminology & usage–you used the term true crime “novel”, yet the post is about non-fiction? Do you mean simply in the sense that it’s impossible to know every little detail of some event/person and some minor things have to be made up? I know in recent years a term which I don’t care for, creative non-fiction has come into use. When I say don’t care for I mean that being the suspicious type, I worry about what aspects of the material a writer is being “creative” with. 😎 😎 😎 Or perhaps I misunderstand the usage altogether.

    As I read 90-95% nonfiction vs. fiction, its important for me to understand where the non-fiction market and terms are coming from.

    Congratulations on the upcoming new book. It sounds very interesting.

    If I may throw in one bit of feedback from the researcher/history lover’s side of things: I love history but have very little time to do research and have to make my time count, therefore I’m looking for source material that is as specific as possible. Since your book focuses specifically on 1950 and prior, is there a way to reflect that in the title? Titles are hard and non-fic titles tend to be long already, but I would be more likely to skip over a book with a title of “of the past” which is vague vs. a specific time-frame. May not but worth a hoot, but my 2 cents.

    • Excellent question, BK. There are three approaches to writing true crime: novelistic, journalistic, and fictionalized. Most true crime books use a mix of novelistic and journalistic.

      Novelistic means, staying true to the facts while structuring the book like a story. The author can add a shrug or other body cue to enhance the scene, but cannot fictionalize the facts. We can say “he wore blue jeans on the day of the murder” IF we know the character wore blue jeans almost every day of the week; it’s a reasonable assumption that he also wore blue jeans on the day in question. See what I mean? Anything added to enhance the scene must be a reasonable assumption based in fact. Otherwise, we’ve slipped into fiction land.

      Journalistic true crime is more like you’d read in a newspaper. As books go, using only a journalistic approach might be too dry and bore the reader. Although, mixing journalistic with the novelistic technique adds credibility, which is why we use both.

      Fictionalized true crime is really fiction based on a real crime. Most true crime fans don’t want that. Fictionalized true crime has its own audience.

      So, when I said “novel” I used the word to show length as well as storytelling approach. Technically, it’s really a true crime book, not a novel. 😀

      • Oh, forgot to add: the publisher chose the title. I had very little say in the matter. Their PR and marketing team probably came up with it. I was told the title might change a bit, but it’ll be close to the one described. Thank you for your 2c. Makes sense! I’ll pass it along to my publisher.

  7. Thank you and Larry so much! (I agree. He’s amazing!)

    I’ve been trying to find exactly this information for some time. Thank you!

    • My pleasure, BJ! As BK mentioned, there isn’t a lot written about nonfiction. So glad you found the post useful. Good luck!!!

  8. I usually write fiction, but I’m researching a true crime that happened over a hundred years ago. A man was hanged for murder, but I don’t think he was in control of his faculties. I’ve read all the RNWMP documents surrounding the murder, and I’ve read the official trial transcript. Next project: try to find the records from the doctors who claimed he was sane.

    • I feel your pain, BJ! I’ve learned a lot about researching centuries-old cases. I’ll write a post with tips on where to find information.

  9. Editor made a good choice. I can think of no one better for this project than you, Sue.

  10. This is brilliant news, Sue!!! You will kick ass on this book.

    Non-fiction is such a different business. There’s so much advance preparation, and so much author/audience contact. Can’t wait to see you on television. Congratulations!

  11. Congratulations Sue, and thanks for taking the time to outline the steps involved in a nonfiction proposal.

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