Deb Rachel Breaks Down a Book Proposal

2012 Debutante Rachel BertscheThanks to everyone who entered our Query Critique Contest! The contest is now over, but stay tuned each day this week to see who our winners are (remember-we said we were giving away 5 critiques!). Today’s winner is Evonne Lack! Congratulations, Evonne! We’ll get in touch with you soon, but in the interim, get polishing that query!

Despite what my dear, sweet Deb Molly has to say, I am not here to say “pitch first! Write second!” Although, she’s right. It would be typical of li’l ol’ non-fiction me. And it’s true, with nonfiction you can often pitch first, write second.

But not really.

It’s more like: Write first, pitch second, write third. Because while, yes, you can sell a non-fiction book on a proposal rather than a full manuscript, that proposal needs to show your skill as a writer. It needs to communicate exactly what your book will be (and also how you will market it, why you should write it, what titles are just like it, who will buy it, etc). It needs to make editors totally understand what this book (which hasn’t even been written yet!) will be.

It’s no easy feat.

Book proposals are mysterious and confusing and I hear all the time from writers who have no idea where to start. So I’m here to break it down for you.

What follows is a breakdown of a typical book proposal. Let me be clear, though, that no two book proposals are alike and while this is a guideline, there is no one way. That said, most non-fiction book proposals should include the following sections:

Overview: This is where you introduce the reader to your story and also explain the big picture of what the book will be. Here’s how one agent explained it to me: “Most people start with the overview, which will typically start with a scene that perfectly illustrates what the book is about and why it’s important. You bring us into the scene first, and then you pull back and give us  the back story. Then you go back to the scene and wrap it up. Then you can launch into more back story, research, where you’re coming from in telling your story, etc. This whole section will essentially be the introduction to your book. At some point you’ll want to break (have a few lines of white space) and give us your thesis: ‘This book will be about…’ or ‘This book is…’ Wow us with everything the book will do for the reader, why it is absolutely crucial that we publish this book now, why you are exactly the right person to write it, etc.”

About the Author: This is where you brag! Tell the reader everything about you that might be relevant to your book–who you are, what your background is, where (if anywhere) you’ve been published before, what your credentials are, etc.

Marketing: Now it’s time for….(you knew it was coming)… platform! What do you bring to the table in terms of readership? How will you get your book out to the masses? Do you have a blog with a million followers? Do you give lectures across the country? Are you a regular expert on 60 Minutes? Is Ellen Degeneres’ mailman’s cousin your BFF and she has absolutely promised to have you on her show? Has Oprah agreed to write the forward to your book? You probably don’t have Oprah or Ellen in your corner yet (and if you do, you should have sent in your proposal yesterday), but this is where you explain how you will get your book into the hands of readers, and also why those readers want this book. If you know there’s a market for your book because the Sunday Styles section just did a piece on the very same thing and it got an outrageously huge response, make note of that. When your book is published, you will be counted on to help market it. Might as well start now.

Competitive Titles: Don’t even think of saying “there’s no book out there like mine!” Publishers want there to be a book out there at least sort of like yours, because they need to know that there are people who buy your type of book. So if there’s a bestseller out there with a topic similar to your book, mention it. And then mention why yours is different and why it will stand out.

Chapter Summaries: You may not have to write the whole book, but you need to outline it. From that agent: “Each chapter should start like you are actually starting the chapter (usually with a scene) and then you’ll break and have the thesis for that chapter (‘This chapter will do x, y and z.’—make x, y and z very exciting!) At least one of these chapters {see: Sample Chapters below} should be fairly extensive, but the others can be shorter, maybe a page and a half.”

Sample Chapters: Write the first chapter or two of your book. Sample chapter does not  mean “this is a sample of what the chapters will be like.” No. These are the actual chapters, finished and ready for publication,  as far as you can tell. They are samples because you haven’t written the others, they aren’t sample as in “the chapters will sorta be like this.”

There you go. You’ve got a book proposal! Easy, peazy, right? Get crackin’!

6 Replies to “Deb Rachel Breaks Down a Book Proposal”

  1. Oh, my gosh! See, this why I’m in total awe of nonfiction writers. You have to be so organized–you can’t write the book by the seat of your pants. As a dedicated “pantser,” I’d never manage it.

    But I’m sure glad writers like you do, because I love reading great nonfiction like MWF Seeks BFF. 🙂

    1. Awww thank you Linda! That is so sweet. And you could totally do it. I’m not all that organized, but the proposal did help me make sure to get in certain aspects that I might have otherwise forgotten…

  2. Excellent description! Thank you! As you know, I’m reading your book. (I’m not getting a lot of reading time this week because the girls are on spring break.) I love how your book progresses and how you tie research in to your thoughts and perspectives on friendships. I’m just curious how long it took you to put the entire idea together?

    1. Hi Missy — Thanks so much, again, for reading! I’m so glad you are enjoying it. Hmm.. this was one of those ideas that was a slow build. It sort of haunted me for a while before I figured out how to actually structure it and eventually turn in into a book. The actual proposal–the sitting down and writing it — took about two weeks. Two weeks where I spent pretty much every free moment working on it. Plus the two years of thinking about how hard it was to make friends, plus another year to write it! So the proposal itself didn’t take too long… but the entire book affair was a process. Good luck with your proposal!

  3. What a great post!!

    I love that you broke this down like this, Rachel, because I think it’s so helpful to share our process with one another–and the fact is that we can all glean tips no matter if we share genre or not–because, let’s face it, good organizational skills know not the bounds of genre!!!

  4. Very interesting to see how this comes together, Rachel. And I am also in awe–I’m not sure I could ever do this in a way where people would actually take me seriously. That’s a lot of work (and to me, the fun work is in the writing, so yeah, this doesn’t look like much fun at all).

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