So. You’ve decided to go the traditional publishing route, your non-fiction book idea has been validated by an agent, and now you’re ready to start your proposal.

But where the hell do you start?

First, let’s talk about the pieces you’ll need, Then we’ll describe each of those pieces, and then we’ll cover how you can arrange them to suit your needs and your style.

What goes into a proposal?

No matter how you decide to arrange it, your proposal will include the following:

1. Overview: The most engaging part of your proposal, the overview should nail the premise and the promise of your book and explain why this book is necessary right now.
2. Author Bio: Who are YOU to write this oh-so-of-the-moment book.
3. Market Analysis: Includes your audience demographic(s) and main competing book titles.
4. Marketing plan: Describes your current platform, including your email list size, social media followers, customers/clients, etc. Also describes what you’re going to do to build your platform AND sell your book.
5. Table of Contents: What you’ll be writing in your book to share with your readers.
6. Summary of Chapters: Three to four sentences describing each chapter, relevant stories, and what the reader will learn.
7. Sample Chapters: two to four sample chapters that will help publishers understand your voice and style, the kind of information you’ll be sharing, and demonstrate your ability to write.

Optional pages

  • Advanced praise: Having an advanced praise page works when you have a considerable amount of notable influencers in your network who will or have already spoken highly of you. For example, if you’re an entrepreneur and you have a blurb from Tim Ferriss that says you’re the bomb, you might want to consider adding that to an advanced praise section.
  • Breakdown of previous books and how they were marketed: If you’re an author who is going from self-publishing to traditional, you might want to include a brief description of the previous book you wrote and how you marketed it, as well as its success on the market (assuming it was successful).

Overview

This is the part where you make your potential publisher salivate over your idea. You’re sharing the premise and the promise: the major argument of your book and the promise you’re making to your readers. This is also the hardest part to get right, which is why understanding how to write copy comes in handy here.

In short, you need to:

  • Present the problem your audience is facing. What keeps them up at night? What do they lack? What have they been searching for? Why is this still a problem now? Hopefully, this is an obvious/widespread problem that the audience will easily identify with. And describing the problem as it affects your audience will help the publisher understand that you know your audience through and through, and you know how to reach them.
  • Describe your audience. Who is this book specifically for? As we’ve discussed previously, your book is not for everyone – it has a defined, specific audience with characteristics that you can pinpoint. It might have several audiences, but “everyone” should never be your answer.
  • Present the solution. What is the answer? And how is your book going to provide the solution to everyone’s problem? Is this solution wide-range enough to appeal to the majority of your audience members? How does this solution differ from every other solution offered to this problem before?
  • Briefly explain why you’re the one to write this book. You’ll go into depth in your bio, but you’ll want to give your two-line introduction here, something that shows why you are the perfect person to talk about this problem. What about your personality, background, personal history, experience, career will give you the credibility your audience will need to be able to trust your advice? What makes you uniquely qualified to reach this particular audience?

Author Bio and Photo

This is where you sing your own praises. While this is no time to be modest, it is a time to describe yourself fully and professionally (for example, describing yourself as a genius is probably a bad idea – leave it to them to decide that you’re a genius). Present your relevant background and accomplishments that will strengthen a publisher’s belief that you are the right person to write this book, and you’re the right person to market and sell this book. Lest you wax a little too poetic, keep in mind that the bio should be about a page or two. If you’re running over two pages, you need to consider whether everything you’ve included is relevant to the book.

As for your photo, this should be a recent headshot of you that is professionally done. Don’t use the selfie that you took in your car last week when you were having a great hair day.

Market Analysis

This section will be made up of two parts: audience analysis and competitive books.

Audience Analysis: This is where you will go into further detail about your audience. This is where you describe where they are and how you will reach them, as well as how you are already reaching them. The publisher wants to know that you already have an ongoing relationship with that audience and that you have a ready made audience to sell to.

Your audience analysis doesn’t need to be pages long unless it’s totally necessary, but you do want to impress them with their ability to understand and reach your people.

Competitive Books: This is where you will list five (give or take) of the competitive books in your space.

There are a number of ways to go about this, but at the very least you need to share the title, author, and year it was initially published. If it was reprinted because of the number of books sold, you can include those too (it helps to show there is a high demand for the topic). In the past, I’ve included the number of copies sold and whether the book made a best seller list when it was relevant.

You can also include a small description of each comparable book. This doesn’t need to be exhaustive, but if you’re dealing with a topic that’s a little more obscure, it can help the publisher understand what this comparative book is about. You don’t need to have read every book to describe it – just go to Amazon, search for the topic, and find the books you need to use as your comparison. Then use their already-written descriptions (it’s a good idea to edit them down).

Having a small description of the book also helps when you then contrast this successful competitor with details of how your book will differ. This part is crucial. Here are a few examples of comparable books we used in a proposal selling a book about managing your social networks:

Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz. Published in 2005 and revised in 2014. Over 400,000 copies sold. Ferrazzi teaches about the power of relationships, and while Ferrazzi’s book is fantastic for in-person interactions, this book will offer complimentary ideas on how to incorporate the use of current-day tools available online. Furthermore, while full of practical advice, Never Eat Alone lacks specific strategy for implementation.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Published in 1937. Over 15 million copies sold. This book is a perennial classic and will continue to be so for decades to come. Carnegie writes about the nuts and bolts of human relationships and how to treat people kindly – the essence of the Golden Rule. However, there are no practical tips for navigating the online world and using electronic tools for boosting relationships; neither is there a formulaic strategy to make it easy for readers to implement.

Permission Marketing by Seth Godin. Published in 1999. NYT best-seller. Godin offers the personal counterpoint to the previous two books: he proposes an approach to marketing products and services to customers – namely, foregoing the interruption marketing techniques so commonly used. Permission Marketing covers the best practices businesses need to understand how to reach their customers the way they want to be reached. While this is a book which every business owner needs to read, it lacks the personal touch of the concepts outlined in Success Is In Your Sphere. Godin’s approach discusses how a business can reach large demographics rather than depicting how to create a personal connection with a selected group of influencers.

The Go Giver by Bob Burg and John David Mann. Published in 2007 and revised in 2015. Over 650,000 copies sold. Using the power of narrative story, the authors lay out the fundamental principle of business as they see it: giving unconditionally. Success Is In Your Sphere includes the idea that one must give and contribute value to grow your relationships. But it takes more than good intentions and a good story to be “Go Givers.” This book will offer the strategy and habit-building approach to make “go-giving” easy.

Let’s notice a few things. First, we give the title, authors, date published, and number of copies. Then we describe the book in two to three sentences. Then we explain the shortcomings of the comparable book in context with the book we’re proposing to write. We basically explain how the new book will contrast with the established title, and how it will expand on areas that the old book does not cover.

As you can see, we’re not knocking down the classic book in this genre; we’re explaining how it is that we’ll fill in the gap of knowledge not covered by the comparable book.

If you’re anything like me, researching your competition might do your head in a little. I don’t know about you, but reading all about the incredible authors who have written books in my genre makes me feel incredibly intimidated, as if I have nothing at all to offer. However, it can be exciting if you can keep in mind that there is plenty of ground that hasn’t already been covered. Look for the holes, and you can be that unique voice to provide the missing link and build on the work of the great writers who have come before you.

Marketing Plan

Your marketing plan will describe your current platform, what you plan to do to grow it while you’re writing your book, and how you plan to sell your book when it’s published.

I’ve written about platforms here, so I’ll focus on the marketing plan. Your marketing plan needs to spread wide and deep. You should include:

  • Speaking gigs over the next year. Include name of event, date of event, and size of audience. Also include ideas for how you will motivate the audience members to buy or how you will arrange for bulk sales in conjunction with the speech.
  • Speaking gigs over the previous year or two. This will show that you’re already an established authority figure on this topic (include the same demographics as above).
  • Previous and upcoming podcast episodes. Include name of podcast, audience reach, date of recording, and any special promos that you’ll do for that audience.
  • Opportunities for bulk sales. These might come primarily from speaking gigs, but you could have relationships with professional associations or clubs that might buy bulk to support you or in exchange for a speech, workshop, or consultation.
  • Relationships with influencers. Include the names of people in your industry or network who have large audiences and might be willing to promote your book, whether that’s through a mass email, social media promo, or some other avenue.
  • Publicity. Include what measures you will take to get media coverage. Will you hire a PR firm? Do you already regularly write for a major newspaper or magazine? Include any existing relationships you already have.

This might feel daunting, but it’s okay to speculate right now, particularly on the future-forward points. You can include a list of podcasts that you plan to approach if you don’t have any scheduled. You can include a long list of influencers and their reach, even if you haven’t yet asked them, and explain that these are the people you have access to and will ask to help promote the book. You can describe your relationships with the companies you hope will hire you to speak.

The point is that you need to be very wide-ranging and creative in your thinking about how you will market your book. The list above is by no means exhaustive. Think about relationships you’ve cultivated with previous clients, employers, meeting organizers, friends, colleagues, etc. and consider how you might be able to enlist their help in marketing your book.

Table of Contents, Summary of Chapters, and Sample Chapters

This is where we get heavy on the writing. If you don’t already have one, you’ll need to have at least a rough idea of your outline (although I always think having a solid outline is a better idea). You’ve seen a Table of Contents (ToC) before, so I won’t bore you with those details.

A Summary of Chapters is a brief description of each chapter, building on the ToC. Here is an example of a few chapter summaries:

Chapter 1: Understanding the Power of Relationships
Through personal anecdotes, Zvi shares how he came to understand the power of relationships, He’ll also share how he used the power of relationships to build his network and eventually, his company, Contactually. Readers will get a foreshadowing of the common problems that everyone experiences when it comes to maintaining deep relationships.

Chapter 2: People Do Business with People They Know
In this chapter, readers will learn why the common adage is true: People do business with people they know. Through research and anecdotes (from Zvi and other respected professionals), readers will learn why we’re psychologically predisposed to trust people whom we believe are safe – and why we prefer to work with them. Zvi covers the reasons why knowledge and skills are no longer effective competitive advantages in today’s world, and why our reputation is our most critical asset.

As you can see, you’ll be giving an overview of the journey the reader will take as they move through the book. You need to demonstrate how you will follow through on the premise and the promise that you outlined in your overview.

Keep in mind that as you write, your chapters and your outline will shift themselves. Publishers know that, so it’s no big deal if the chapters rearrange or change altogether in the writing process. What they want to see is that you have the ability to think clearly about how your book will flow and how you will deliver your knowledge to your reader.

Now, as for your sample chapters, you’ll need to pick two or three chapters to write out and share in your proposal. These samples will display how you will address your reader, how you share your knowledge, and the depth of your knowledge. They also want to know that you can write like a sensible person. As to the number of sample chapters, your agent can help you determine that. If you’re a first time author, I would assume you’ll be writing three chapters to be on the safe side, unless you’ve been told otherwise.

How to Arrange Your Proposal

Proposals that come in different arrangements. When I work with clients to write their proposals, I generally use the order I described at the beginning of this post, unless there is some compelling reason to deviate from the norm. However, some authors decide to start with the overview and the marketing plan. Some start with the author bio. Some start with advanced praise.

You’ll find agents who have a preferred way of organizing their proposals, so always ask your agent for their input right away. If you have a killer marketing plan that will raise the eyebrows of any editor, maybe you should start with that. If you have advanced praise from some of the most influential people in your niche, start there. It all depends on what assets you have to use to your advantage.