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Barry Watts  
NON-FICTION BOOK PROPOSALS


by Barry

When writing fiction, most publishers (or agents) want brief outlines or synopses ... but submitting a non-fiction manuscript is very different.

In Australia, you can - if you are prepared to put in a lot of work completing the manuscript without any guarantee of publication - simply submit the completed ms to a publishing house and hope for the best. The best that can happen is that it will take them a long time to get around to looking at it (completed manuscripts are usually thrown into the too-hard basket while book proposals are looked at fairly quickly) ... the worst that can happen is that they never get around to looking at it, or they do and they reject it, and all that work has been wasted.

The goal of a book proposal is to persuasively demonstrate the merit of your idea to a publisher in as few words as possible, to allow you to generate enthusiasm for the idea, to demonstrate your writing style and ability, and to show you have a good understanding of your market and grasp of your subject.

Book proposals are submitted before the manuscript is completed and may lead to a publisher commissioning your work, accepting it for publication and paying an advance, and/or suggesting amendments or further areas to be incorporated before they commit themselves.

Book proposals can range from 20 to 50 pages, need to be professionally presented, and should contain all (or as much as possible) of the following (not necessarily -- with the exception of number 1, and possibly number 2 - in this order):

  1. Cover Sheet: with book title and full author details

  2. Concept outline: summarise topic in a page or two.

  3. Specifications: indicate expected length, number of chapters, whether illustrations or diagrams or photos will be included.

  4. Statistics: substantiate extent of potential market, and WIIFM (What's In It For Me - meaning what value will this book be, and for whom? Who is the potential audience? Is it (the audience) sufficiently large to justify publishing this idea? What walks of life, careers, age range, countries, interests would such people have?)

  5. Promotions: suggest a myriad of promotional ideas. Would you be personally available to promote this book? Would you be willing to travel, appear on TV and radio, do shopping-centre autographing? How else could this book be promoted - are there any special interest groups you could arrange to talk to? etc)

  6. Competitors: supply a list of competitive works, with their strengths and weaknesses. Mention those that sold well - why is your idea better, why will yours sell as much or more than that one or those? Which ones failed? Why did they fail? What will you do to make yours better, more interesting, more saleable than those?

  7. Biographical data: what are your credits and qualifications for writing this book? Do you have expert or specialised knowledge or experience, lifetime passion, the ability to get your ideas across? Substantiate this - provide examples. What else have you written? Have you been published? How did it sell?

  8. Chapter outlines: provide chapter outlines (not lengthy - perhaps half to one page for each chapter).

  9. Include two chapters - not necessarily the first two.

All this may seem horrific, but if you haven't thought it all through really carefully before starting on the actual writing, you will discover that this process will actually clarify your idea to you and help you to know where it is going and how it is going to get there! It not only provides the potential publisher with an outline, it gives you a working outline, helps you stay on track during the writing. And you might be (and probably will be) surprised at how the original idea changes from what you thought it was going to be, to what you discover it wants to be.

The final step is to do a couple of copies, then choose who to send it to - this is a vital step that many don't take sufficient time thinking about. In Australia we rarely use agents, so we advise students to spend a few hours in a large bookshop looking at the books in the area they want to write in, and checking out who is publishing those books and those topics.

In America, publishers rarely accept unsolicited manuscripts, so this might be a little more difficult. You need to find a good agent who is experienced, doesn't charge the earth (including a reading fee - which is a definite no-no) and has the right contacts at the publishing houses you are aiming at. Perhaps even a call to the publishers you are interested in and asking them who they would recommend might be worthwhile. Or it may pay to contact authors of similar books (many will have a home page on the web) and ask them for advice re agents.

 
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