How To Write a Non-Fiction Book Proposal

photo_michael_larsenInterview with Agent Michael Larsen: How to Write A  Non-Fiction Book Proposal That Will Sell Your Book

Michael Larsen co-founded Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents in San Francisco in 1972 with his partner Elizabeth Pomada. Members of AAR (the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.), Michael  and Elizabeth have sold hundreds of books to more than 100 publishers and imprints.

Mary: Welcome to my People Who Make Books Happen Interview Series, Michael. Could you please start by telling us why a writer needs a proposal to sell a nonfiction book?

Michael: A proposal is a business plan that has to convince publishers to invest in a book.

Mary: Why not just send an agent or publisher a brief cover letter and the completed manuscript?

Michael: A cover letter won’t provide all of the information publishers need, and unless it’s a memoir, they don’t need or want to see a whole manuscript. They just want to see enough to feel excited about the writer’s ability to turn in a salable manuscript and promote the book.

Mary: Do you need to write a proposal to self-publish a nonfiction book? What would be the point of doing that?

Michael: Writers are free to write and publish their books any way they want. They don’t have to write a proposal if they are going to self-publish. But doing a proposal enables writers to test their commitment to writing and promoting the book. It also helps them align their literary and publishing goals: what they want to write and how successful they want their book to be. Getting feedback from knowledgeable readers will help them make sure they’re on the right track. If writers want to write a memoir for their families, they don’t need a proposal. If they have ambitious goals, a proposal is proof of concept and a commitment test.

Mary: As an agent, are you willing to consider nonfiction book ideas that come to you without a proposal?

Michael: The only time to approach agents or editors is when a writer has something ready to sell. Once a proposal for a promotion-driven book is ready, I ask for just the author’s platform–the writer’s continuing visibility online and off, on the subject with potential buyers- and a promotion plan. They will tell me whether I can excite a New York house about a book. For a prose-driven book, it’s all about the read, how well writers can tell a story. But platform and promotion will still be important to big publishers

Mary: Again, in your role as an agent, how do you use a proposal when you are selling a nonfiction book to publishers?

Michael: After we find out if editors are interested, I do a multiple submission to the best editors at the best houses for the book and the author.

Mary: How long should a nonfiction book proposal be?

Michael: Proposals usually range from 35 to 50 pages.

Mary: What are the major parts of a nonfiction book proposal?  For example, should it have a title page?

Michael: A proposal begins with a title page followed by a table of contents page listing the parts of the proposal and the pages on which they begin. The three parts of a proposal are the Overview, The Outline, and the Sample Chapter. Narrative, prose-driven books will need two or more chapters.

Mary: Let’s take those parts of a nonfiction book proposal one by one. First, what’s the aim of the Overview?

Mary: The goals of the Overview are to prove you have a salable idea and the ability to write and promote it. I list the parts of the Overview in a particular order, but they are building blocks that writers can arrange in whatever order that will help them sell their book most effectively.

Mary: Could you give us a list of the essential things that should be in the Overview and tell us what order they should be  in?

Michael: Here’s my list of essentials:

•    The opening hook–ideally a paragraph that will most excite editors about the subject: a fact, anecdote, opening paragraph, or a recommendation by someone who will impress editors.

•    The book hook:  
    * The title and selling handle, up to fifteen words of selling copy about the book.
    (Optional) If credentials will significantly help sell the book, before the title, add an introductory phrase describing them. For example: “Based on an article in x / y years of research / y years as a z, [title of book]…”
    * The book(s) or author(s) the writer is using as a model for the book
    * The estimated (or actual) length of the manuscript and when the writer will deliver it
    * The book’s benefits (optional)
    * Special features: e.g. illustrations, design elements, back matter (optional)
    * Information about a self-published edition (optional)

•    Markets: List the kinds of readers and retailers, organizations, or institutions that will be interested in the book. Include the size of each group and other information to show the writers knows the audience and how to write the book for those readers. Other possible markets: schools, businesses, and subsidiary-rights markets such as film and foreign rights.

•    Platform: A list in descending order of importance of whatever will impress editors about the writer’s visibility to potential readers. Online, this may include numbers for subscribers to a blog, website visitors, your contacts on social networks, and online articles you’ve published.
    Offline, your platform may include the number of articles you’ve had published in print media, as well as the number of talks you give each year, the number of people you give them to, where you give them, and your media exposure. For promotion-driven books, a platform is essential for big and midsize houses.

•    Bio: Up to a page about yourself with information that isn’t in your platform, starting with the most impressive, relevant information. To increase the impact of your proposal, include a link to a video version, up to two minutes long, of you giving the strongest information from the proposal with as much passion as you can.  

•    Promotion: A plan that begins: “To promote the book, the author will:…” followed by a bulleted list in descending order of impressiveness of what you will do to promote your book, online and off, during its launch window and after. Start each part of the list with a verb and use impressive numbers, if possible. Publishers won’t expect big plans from novelists and memoirists, and the smaller the house you’ll be happy with, the less important your plan and platform are.

Mary: You’ve noted that including information about the book’s benefits, special features such as design elements and back matter, and information about a self-published edition are “optional.” Are there times when you should not include these three things?

Michael: Writers should include anything that will help sell the book. Nonfiction encompasses a wide range of books, so the information you provide has to make sense for the kind of book you’re writing. Memoirs don’t usually have back matter. Cite successful books you love as models for your book.

Mary: I’ve heard many publishers say than any manuscript that comes to them with an already-designed cover is the mark of an amateur.  

Michael: Not if it’s a cover worthy of a New York house. Most published books don’t have the best covers because publishers don’t have the resources to create the best possible cover for every book. A professionally done cover design can be the first page of the proposal. It will help sell a book, and even if it’s not used, it will give the publisher something to improve on. Writers will need a cover designer and feedback from knowledgeable people such as booksellers to make sure a design is worth submitting. Every word in a proposal is either helping or hurting the chances of  selling it. This is also true for a cover design.

Mary: Are you required to reveal that the book has already been self-published if you are looking for a commercial publisher?

Michael: Writers should tell publishers if their book has been published, include quotes from reviews and sales information, if they will help sell the book. If the book is good enough to sell, send it along with just the first part of the proposal.

If the book won’t impress editors or you want to change it significantly, just send the proposal and mention the self-published edition.

Mary: Should you say “this will make a great movie” if you don’t have a movie deal in the works, or does that sound like wishful thinking combined with unrealistic bragging?

Michael: The latter.

Mary: Is it true that publishers these days will not even look at work by writers who don’t have a substantial online and offline platform?  

Michael: A promotion plan shows how authors will use their platform to help sell books. Big houses want authors who can do as much as possible to promote their book; it’s not as important for small and some midsized houses. Publishers won’t expect authors of memoirs to have big platform; the success of a how-to book depends on the author’s continuing visibility, online and off.

Mary: Is there any magic number of people you need to be in contact with to make the grade?

Michael: No, but the more the better. Books are ready for the world before the world is ready for them. The challenge is to maximize the value of your book before you sell or publish it by building your platform and communities of people to help you, and test-market your book in as many ways as you can.

Mary:  You suggest a video version of your query letter. How important is this and why does it appear in the Bio section of the Overview?

Michael: It’s not essential but it can make the difference. Publishers want to know how well writers come across in the media, and how effectively they can speak about their book. If a proposal is salable, a link to an effective one-to-two minute video of an author describing his/her passion for the book gives editors another reason to say’ yes.’ The proposal should also include links to videos of the author speaking or doing interviews, if they’re available. Video is huge and using it is essential if you want to be a successful writer.

Mary: Won’t making a video cost a lot of money?

Michael: Publishers won’t expect a professional video. A phone, camera, or tablet is fine, but, like the proposal, the writing and the execution of the video must have the impact writers want for them. Writers should get feedback on the text and the presentation of it to make sure the video is worth including.

Mary: Are there things you might put in the Overview section of your proposal that are not essential—that is to say optional—but well worth considering?

Michael: If writers can get a foreword and cover quotes from people whose names and/or positions will help sell the book in fifty states two years from now, they should name them.

If writers want to write follow-up books that will help sell the book they’re proposing, they should mention up to three books in descending order of their commercial appeal. If they find an idea for a series of books that will sell each other and that they will enjoy writing and promoting, they can create a career out of it.

Mary: In describing competitive books, you advise writers to use “phrases starting with a verb.” Could you please give us an example?

Michael: In balancing a competitive book’s strengths and weaknesses, you could write: “Covers x, y, and z; fails to include a, b, c.”

Mary: You’ve noted that the Mission Statement is optional. If you use a Mission Statement, should it go in the Overview?

Michael: A mission statement should be the last part of the Overview.

Mary: Do you send a cover letter as well as a proposal or is the proposal the cover letter?

Michael: First you research agents’ or publishers’ websites to find out how to contact them. Then you send them what they request. A query letter is often the first step. If agents or publishers want to see the proposal, send it along with the query letter, changed to mention that you’re sending the proposal.

Mary: Now that you’ve given us a thorough explanation of the Overview, let’s move on to the second section of a non-fiction book proposal: the Outline. Could you please describe the Outline to us and tell us what should be in it?

Michael: The outline has to prove that the author has a book’s worth of information and knows the most effective way to present it. The first page of the A page called “Table of Contents” listing the chapters and the back matter. Then one to three present-tense paragraphs about every chapter, using outline verbs like describe, explain, and discuss. For an informational book, you can use a bulleted, self-explanatory list of the information in the chapter.

Mary: Finally, we come to the last section: the Sample Chapter. How long should it be and what should it aim to do?

Michael: Editors vary but at big houses, they usually want to see about ten percent of the text. For example, a representative chapter of a how-to book—twenty to twenty-five pages–is enough.

Mary: Should you always use the first chapter as your Sample Chapter or can you include a chapter from some other part of your book? Does the Sample Chapter need to be the actual chapter as it will appear in the book, or can you shorten it, edit it, or make it more able to stand-alone?

Michael: The first chapter of a promotion-driven book should be the most exciting chapter in the book. It should be a brochure for the book, the book in a chapter, so that if all readers finish is that chapter (which happens often), they will have the essence of the book. If the first chapter excites them enough, they’ll want to keep reading.

The Overview for a how-to book will explain what the book is, so editors don’t have to read it again as a sample chapter. That’s why writers should use the strongest, representative how-to chapter they can for a sample chapter, with the illustrations for it, if the book will have them.

Prose-driven books like memoirs should read like novels. How compelling the first chapter, even the first page, is determines whether readers go on to the next chapter. Editors often want to see the first three chapters. My partner Elizabeth asks for the best three chapters. Writers should follow the guidelines on agents’ and publishers’ websites.

Every word is an audition for the next word. So writers have to:

•    Read as many competing books as possible so they’ll have at least one book and author to cite as a model for their book and their career
•    Write as many drafts as it takes to make every word count
•    Get feedback from as many knowledgeable readers as they can
That is the holy trinity of salable prose.

Now is the one of best times ever to be a writer. There are more subjects to write about, more ways to promote and profit from books, and three billion readers on the Web alone which is the next frontier for writers. English is the international language of culture and commerce, so there’s a world of readers out there who want to be enlightened and entertained.

Onward and upward!

Michael Larsen loves helping writers, and is always eager to find nonfiction writers with ideas, writing ability, a platform, and a promotion plan for books with social, esthetic, or practical value. He also has a consulting service for nonfiction writers. Besides being the co-founder of Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents, he is the author of How to Write a Book Proposal and How to Get a Literary Agent, and co-author of Guerrilla Marketing for Writers: 100 Weapons for Selling Your Work. He has also created a downloadable proposal template, which is available at He is co-director of the San Francisco Writers Conference and the San Francisco Writing for Change Conference.

Dear Readers: You are warmly invited to join this conversation about People Who Make Books Happen, ask Michael Larsen questions, or leave a comment. See the other interviews in this series for information about How To Get An Agent, How To Design A Book Cover That Sells Books,  Helping Independent Bookstores Survive and Thrive, Three Great Reasons To Still Print On Paper, Designing Websites For Writers, Best-selling author Ellen Sussman on Surviving Rejection, and more. This is where the experts hang out.

And remember to come back next month to read the another great interview in the People Who Make Books Happen  series.


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