How Do I Write a (Non-Fiction) Book Proposal? (Part I: The Query)

Book WhispererSo you want to write a book.

You dream of quitting your day job to haunt your local Starbucks, sipping lattes and tapping purposefully on your trusty MAC. Maybe you’ve been blogging for a year or two. Your “people” comment enthusiastically about your insight and sheer general brilliance. Or you’ve landed a few speaking gigs, and admirers come up to you after you descend from the podium to ask if you have a book. So . . . where should you begin?

Writing a proposal can be a bit like computer dating. You work up your nerve, create your profile (working title and “elevator pitch”), then start looking around to find a possible match  (either by browsing the stacks at your local bookstore or online on publishing websites). At that point, you reach out and actually test the waters (send your query).

So what goes into a proposal query? For nonfiction, it isn’t necessary to have written the whole book before you query. Most editors will appreciate the opportunity to guide the process to better meet the needs of their audience. Your initial query will include . . .

  • Your elevator pitch. (“Why this?” . . . 150 words or so on what the book is about, who the book is for, and how the book compares with other similar books on the market, preferably those that have already been published by the house you are querying). A strong working title/subtitle is important, but don’t get too attached since it often changes in development.
  • Your author credentials. (“Why you?”) This paragraph answers the question: why are you the best and most qualified person to write this particular book, at this particular time? Education, speaking platform, previous publications (with sales figures), and anything else that will demonstrate that you are able to actively participate in the marketing of your book.
  • Your market study. (“Why us?”) This should demonstrate that you are familiar with the other books published by this house, as well as market trends that suggest that your idea is both a unique and valuable edition to their imprint.

Once you have created this tantalizing query, sleuth out the name of the editor (spelling counts) and email or snail mail it to him or her. If all goes well, the editor will engage you (typically via email) a bit more about the idea, then invite you to submit a full proposal. I’ll write more about that next time.

Of course, you might not get it quite right the first time. That’s okay. Most people don’t hit it out of the park the first time — often for reasons that don’t have much to do with them. If you are fortunate enough to get something more substantive than a form letter, be happy. Tweak your query and send it out again (to a different publisher). Or you might decide to go the self-publishing route. Or you might give up altogether and get another cat. No matter what, you’ve learned something. And that’s a good thing, too.

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