A Business Plan For Your Book: Architecture Of The Nonfiction Proposal

by Christina Katz

January 2014

A proposal is the equivalent of a business plan for your book, and if you want to be a traditional author someday, you need to start thinking of your book as a business first, and an artful inspiration later — after you sign the contract.

I know how writers resist this idea. Therefore I repeat: business proposal first, artful inspiration later.

And please don’t be discouraged when I tell you that a book proposal is more work than you probably expect. Writing a full-length book is an enormous undertaking, one that often takes a year or longer to complete. Therefore writing a book proposal will be a micro-run of this same type of focus and commitment. Nothing excites agents and publishers the way a fully fleshed-out and ready-to-submit book proposal does. So don’t expect them to accept substitutes.

How long will a book proposal take you to write? If you do it thoroughly, and you get lots of helpful input from folks in the know along the way to a polished product, it will likely take you about a month. Keep in mind that anything less is probably not your most conscientious effort.

In most cases, it’s not a bad idea to start with a mini-proposal, in order to test-drive your idea and see if it is saleable in the first place. To my mind, a mini-proposal is a full proposal without sample chapters. A mini-proposal is a good candidate for a writing conference, where you can pitch your mini-proposal concept to agents and editors and get their input before you start drafting. If they light up after your pitch, start drafting chapters. If they don’t, refocus your proposal first.

Here are the proposal sections in the order they should appear. Don’t write your proposal in this order, necessarily. There is a number at the end of each tip indicating a suggested order for drafting your proposal that will make your job easier and your results more compelling. This advice comes from years of proposal writing experience, and will make your proposal writing process faster and your pitch more coherent.

Proposal overview. This is a summary of what is included in your proposal. Write this almost last, once your proposal or mini-proposal is essentially done. It gives the reader a peek into the gist of your proposal at a glance and may determine whether or not your idea gets further consideration. So write this section in a tight, compelling manner, designed to close the sale. (9)

Book specifications. Write this later, especially if you do not yet have a full grasp of the depth and scope of your topic and audience. You may make discoveries during the proposal writing process that will affect your ideas about the size and shape of your product. Besides, your future publisher will likely have ideas to contribute. (7)

Market analysis. Write this first. This is where the business skills that agents and publishers need kick in. If you don’t want to “dirty your hands” with marketing, then there is no point in proceeding further with proposal writing. You are either all-in, or you are not. All-in means you are going to show up for the whole authoring process, including self-promotion. (1)

Promotion plan. Do this once you nail the meat of the proposal. This is not a list of what you might do, or what you think you might do, or even just what you heard sounds good in a promotion plan. Your promotion section is a promise of what you intend to do. You may need to educate yourself about self-promotion possibilities before you proceed. Your best bet is to talk to authors of similar types of books. (6)

Competitive analysis. Write this second. What other popular books are already out there that your book will both compete with and trump in every way? That’s what you will describe in this section. Pick five related books, then compare and contrast. Don’t compare to non-similar books unless you have a point to make. You are not competing with non-similar books and your sales likely won’t compare either. (2)

About the author. On this page describe yourself as a professional writer in a couple of graphs with an accompanying professional-quality headshot. This should not go longer than a page if you hit your most compelling expertise. I suggest a thorough understanding of platform before tackling this seemingly simple portion of your proposal. The better you can align your past experience and knowledge with your goals for this book, the better you present yourself as the best person to write the book. Doing a poor job in this section may convince an editor or agent of the opposite. So make sure you offer your most timely, up-to-date credits. (4)

One-pager platform summary. This page should immediately follow your “about the author” page, summarizing your key platform accomplishments and describing your overall reach in numbers and via your most impressive partnerships. I teach this technique in my 24-day platform challenge, Platform Bingo: Level One, that helps you flesh this list out. Write this before the bio summary. (3)

Table of contents. This refers to your book’s TOC, not your proposal’s TOC. You need to deliver here on all the ways you said your book would be better than the competition. You will be amazed at how many times you end up tweaking this list of chapters. It will also likely evolve during the book-drafting process. Even so, do the best you can up front, if you want full agent and publisher consideration. (5)

Sample chapters. Thanks to my agent, Rita Rosenkranz, for teaching me what agents prefer, which is two chapters that are not the introduction. If you supply three chapters, then one can be the introduction. From my experience I can explain why this makes good sense — introductions to books are typically written last, after the whole book is fully drafted. Therefore it makes no sense whatsoever to try to write your book intro first. (10)

Seek a celebrity foreword. This is another way of showing an agent and publisher how committed you are to the process. Keep in mind that some writers expect a payment for this service. Foreword writing is a big job and a lot to ask of another busy writer, so when you approach, formality is key. You can commit to getting a celebrity foreword in your proposal, and then offer a list of the folks you are willing to approach later. The degrees of separation between you and your dream foreword-writer may start to disappear as you work on a proposal in their niche. (8)

I used to advise writers to do what I did with my first book and pitch the idea without a proposal. But now that there are so many options for self-publishing, writing a book proposal first and pitching it is your wisest bet. If you don’t sell your proposed book within six months, you can always produce it yourself in e-book format first and then, later, in paperback. If the book is really needed, why not write it?

In the meantime, avoid trying to skip steps, get your butt in the chair and get your proposal into shape, so you will be ready to pitch it or submit it to any interested agents with authority and professionalism. You will learn a ton in the process.


Christina Katz is the author of The Writer’s WorkoutGet Known Before the Book Deal, and Writer Mama. She also wrote Write For Regional Parenting Publications For Fun & ProfitAuthor Mama, and Discover Your Platform Potential. She teaches writers to prosper by building solid, saleable, life-long career skills via classes and training groups that work even in a rapidly evolving publishing marketplace. Learn more at ChristinaKatz.com

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