The Three Keys to Selling a Nonfiction Book Proposal

The Three Keys to Selling a Nonfiction Book Proposal

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The Three Keys to Selling a Nonfiction Book Proposal1Don’t skip the footnotes. Lots of good stuff here.

By Stephen S. Power, Executive Editor at Kevin Anderson & Associates and former Big-5 executive editor with 500+ titles

There are plenty of books and websites that tell you what key elements a nonfiction book proposal2Fiction is rarely sold based on a formal proposal. Instead, the query letter has to do all the work, plus the appeal is different. While comparative titles and author credentials are important, you must capture a reader with a simple, straightforward hook, a tight synopsis, and a writing sample that in as little as 5-10 pages makes the person reading it demand to see more. should have: a stellar title, a compelling overview, comparable titles, etc. 

But let me tell you the three keys to selling a proposal based on my having read, accepted, and rejected thousands of them during my 30+ years as a New York book editor. 

Key #1: Know What a Proposal Must Be

It starts with you understanding that a book proposal isn’t an info dump about your book. Nor is it the book itself condensed in a different form. And the proposal is certainly not about you, the author. Instead, you should view it as a tool to sell your book; essentially, a business model for it.

So when preparing a proposal, you have to stop thinking of yourself as an author pitching a product and start seeing yourself as an entrepreneur who needs three specific people to invest in your business. If you can do this, your proposal will have a big advantage over the many thousands of other proposals also under submission.3 So many authors, even business authors, have trouble with this pivot for two reasons. One, they think of publishing as printing books and making them available for sale, when in fact it’s the marketing, publicizing, and selling of books. And, two, as authors, either they fear the emotional distress of not selling so they don’t want to think about it; or they feel that publishers are a charity, a cultural service, not a real business—or both.

Key #2: Know What a Proposal Must Do

First, your proposal needs to engage a literary agent and convince them that your project is worth spending their time, energy, and sometimes money4What, you thought you were done writing? Oh no, no, no, no. You’ve only just begun. They will have notes for you and may hire (or have you hire) an editor to get the proposal into better shape. on before they spend professional capital5No agent wants to be known as someone who sends lousy projects, wasting editors’ time and thus getting future submissions sent straight to the reject pile. trying to engage and sell the proposal to an acquisitions editor. 

The proposal then has to convince that editor it’s worth spending their time6All editors are busier than they used to be because publishers are thinning the ranks of assistants, who are also way busier than they used to be. And they are likely to be the first reader of any project, sending only the most promising ones up to their boss and energy developing the proposal further before they spend professional capital.7No editor wants to be known as someone who brings up lousy projects at their editorial meeting, wasting their colleagues’ time and eliciting room-wide groans whenever it’s their turn to present. trying to engage their boss, the publisher. 

Finally, the proposal has to convince that publisher it’s worth spending company money on (for your advance, in-house salaries, production costs, etc.) as well as paying the opportunity cost of doing your book instead of someone else’s—because they have to then engage all the other departments in the publishing house8When a book is presented at a seasonal launch meeting, no publisher wants to hear their entire staff silently condemn it by thinking, “What moron signed off on this dog?” to sell your book to your target readers. 

To appeal to each of these three people, the proposal can’t argue why the book should be published9Academics often fall into this trap. or, worse, why you need to publish it10Memoirists often fall into this one.. Instead, it must clearly define who that target reader is, quantify as best as possible the number of those readers, demonstrate how they can be reached (especially by yourself11Blessed are the marketers and publicists at publishing houses, who do so much with so few resources and even fewer outlets for marketing and publicizing books nowadays. So if you can reach your readers directly and inspire them to buy, you will be a more appealing partner, and they will happily support your efforts.), and then indicate throughout the proposal why that target reader will care enough about your book to spend $25-30 on it. 

Key #3: Know What a Proposal Must Say

Again, remember that a book proposal is a selling tool. As such, anything that won’t help a publisher project sales12Despite the mercenary nature of my advice, I believe that anyone who refers to a book as a “unit” should be torn into little bitsy pieces and buried alive. should be excised or revised. Credentials and experiences that don’t emphasize why you’re the ideal author for the book? Cut. Pleasant stories about your background unrelated to your topic? Cut. Promotional plans that are unlikely to pan out or which won’t move gobs of books? Cut and cut. Your opinions about the genre? Not essential. 

Because the secret to selling a book proposal is: 

Show an agent, editor, and publisher

why thousands, if not tens of thousands of readers

will buy your book.

Our own proposal template has been designed by industry veterans to do just this. Every section sells publishing personnel on why the book will sell to consumers, from our innovative project overview section, which mimics a publisher’s own tool for selling a book in-house and to retailers; to our competitive titles section, which calls out similarities and strengths; to our expansive marketing and publicity section, which shows publishers how you’ll make their job easier. Overall, it takes the guesswork out of a publisher’s decision-making by answering all their questions about a book’s marketability and, thus, convincing them to take it on. Which is the only thing that matters.  

And which would be depressing but for an open secret that authors often overlook: The Big 5 publishers put out around 100,000 books a year13Number of books published per year. Having worked at Macmillan, the other member of the Big 5, I can fill in that blank.. Other publishers in the U.S. put out a couple hundred thousand more collectively.14The stats on how many books are published in the U.S. each year are all over the place, so I’ve given a lowball estimate. And I’m not counting self-publishing because you don’t need a proposal for that. You need an actual business model. They all need books. They all want books. They all love books. They usually overpay too!15Ask the Agent: What if my book doesn’t earn out? And they all will consider putting out your book too so long as you show them there’s a waiting audience.

We’d be happy to help you do so, whatever stage your proposal is in, from fuzzy idea to fully-written. You can reach us at:

Kevin Anderson & Associates
Phone: 1-844-997-4837
Contact form:

Stephen S. Power is a 30-year publishing veteran who has acquired and edited more than 500 books, including many New York Times bestsellers. At Kevin Anderson, he builds books from the ground up: strategizing marketable ideas, developing outlines, editing manuscripts, and writing book proposals for placement with agents or publishers. Several of his proposals have sold for six-figure advances, and several of the books he’s worked on have become New York Times bestsellers, including Welcome to Dunder Mifflin by Brian Baumgartner and Ben Silverman, Baby Steps Millionaires by Dave Ramsey. Four other books have become Wall Street Journal bestsellers, such as Jeff Lerner’s  Unlock Your Potential, which hit #1 on that list and #1 on Publishers Weekly nonfiction list. He also brings in new authors as clients and new writers to work with them, creates alliances with agents, publishers and other organizations to bring in new authors, and develops major new services, such as the Cultural Accuracy Reading Service.

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