Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Moira Allen
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Publishers are in the business of making money. If you can't convince them that your book will sell, they won't publish it. However, a nonfiction book doesn't need an audience of millions to be a "seller" -- in fact, the average nonfiction title may sell only a few thousand copies. The question, therefore, is whether you can convince the publisher that there are somewhere between 2000 and 7500 people who will want to read your book!
A Question of Value
The best way to answer this question is to look at the value your book offers to the reader, including what sets it apart from other books on the same (or similar) topic. Readers buy books that offer them something -- something of value, something to take away, something that will improve their lives. It may be educational value (an opportunity to learn more about a subject); it may be "entertainment" value; or it may be instructional value. But your book must have an implicit benefit to the reader -- a reason for that reader to select your book out of the thousands of others in the store. Or, perhaps more accurately, your book must offer the reader a reason to select it instead of the two or five or ten or fifty other books on the same subject.
Sometimes the value of a book is easy for the author to define. Often, we write a book because we have observed a lack of information on a topic we consider important. One author, for example, wrote a book on caring for a parent with Alzheimer's because she was unable to find much useful information on that subject when she needed it. Another wrote a book on rheumatoid arthritis because, in the course of dealing with this disease, she had learned of alternative treatments that were not commonly known. I wrote my book on pet loss because, at the time, the only books available on the topic were aimed at therapists rather than the average pet owner. One of the most powerful motivations to write a nonfiction book in the first place is the realization that we have information that is needed by thousands of people "like us."
Here are ten other reasons why your book may have value to the reader:
Note that most of these "values" point back to a single issue: Your book fills a need in the market. Most of us don't set out to write a book that has already been written. What motivates us is the recognition of a gap that needs to be filled -- and the recognition that we have the information needed to fill that gap.
Who Needs to Know?
The next step you'll need to take before developing your proposal is to identify, as precisely as possible, who will want to read your book. Avoid overly broad, generic terms like "everyone" or "every woman" or "every parent." No book, no matter how good or useful, appeals to "everyone," and publishers know this. Instead, look for solid numbers and statistics to support your claim.
For example, if your book is about canine health, try to get statistics on the number of dog owners in the US (One author, for example, pointed out in her proposal that 40 percent of US households keep dogs and 38 percent keep cats.) If your book is about Alzheimer's, try to find out how many individuals are diagnosed with Alzheimer's every year. If it's about depression, your publisher might be impressed by the information that a major health organization estimates that one woman in four suffers from depression every year. And so forth.
To find these numbers, look for organizations that relate to your topic. For pet statistics, for example, try pet magazines, national pet or humane organizations, or pet trade organizations. Keep in mind that companies that sell products to your target audience often keep statistics on that audience. Your reference librarian can point you to books that list thousands of organizations and associations. You can also find much of this information online.
In addition to gathering statistics on your target readership, try to find out more about them. Look for information that can help your publisher reach that audience. Find out what magazines they read, or where they buy books or products that relate to your topic. For example, would your target reader be most likely to buy your book through a bookstore -- or through a specialty store, magazine, or specialized book club?
Besides numbers, you also need a "definition" of your audience. A good way to define your niche is to start thinking about "people who..." For example, a book on holistic animal health is going to appeal to "people who love pets and who have an interest in natural health and healing." A book on creative child-rearing techniques might be of interest to "parents who seek ways to nurture their child's individuality in a world that seems to focus increasingly on conformity and materialism."
While some books appeal to a single market niche, others may have several different audiences. For example, I know of a writer who is working on the history of his ancestor, a former slave who served an officer during the Civil War and later became a Buffalo Soldier. Such a book might target not only the "black history" market, but also audiences interested in the Civil War, American frontier history, and American military history.
Another way to look at your niche is to determine whether there is a particular audience for a book at a particular time. For example, as Valentine's Day approaches, the bookshelves at most major bookstores become filled with books on relationships, dating, romancing one's spouse, and so forth. If you're writing a book on how to strengthen a relationship or marriage, consider pegging it not just to a specific audience, but to a season: Convince your publisher that this is an ideal Valentine's Day or "June wedding season" release.
Structuring Your Proposal
Once you've decided on the perfect pitch for your book, it's time to present that pitch in a professional-looking proposal. Most nonfiction proposals follow a specific format that includes the following elements:
Content: This section explains what your book is about, usually in one page or less. (A more expanded discussion of your content will appear in the chapter-by-chapter outline.) Don't go into excessive detail; instead, try to convey the general focus and purpose of your book, including the benefits it will offer to readers. For example, my proposal for Writing.com: Creative Internet Solutions to Advance Your Writing Career begins with a series of questions readers are likely to ask, followed by the promise that:
Rationale: This is the place to include the information you've put together regarding the value of your book -- why it will benefit readers -- and your target audience. Tell the publisher who will read your book, and why, and where those readers can be found. Give numbers and statistics. Explain the information gap that your book will fill. Explain why your book is timely -- why it is needed now. For example, when I first proposed Writing.com, there were no books, and very little online information, on how writers could benefit from the Internet. (I actually spoke to a publisher of writing books who felt that writers weren't going to be very interested in the Internet!) Today, there are dozens of websites and resources on this topic, so such a book would no longer be timely or "new."
Competition: Your proposal must also address the competition that exists for your book. That means researching the competition; you don't want to reinvent the wheel! Your discussion of the competition should list specific titles (including author, publisher, and publication date). It should then explain how your book differs from those titles: How it improves, differs from, or goes beyond what has been written before. For example, my pitch for "The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals" explained that while there were books on how to write queries and books on how to write proposals, there was no single book that brought together different types of pitches and proposals in one place. Don't "slam" the competition -- just show how your book meets a need that the competition doesn't.
What if you can't identify any competition for your book? This is not necessarily a good thing! As Shojai notes, "If nobody has done the topic before, the publisher/editor will figure there's a reason -- probably because it's not a saleable idea. You want books on your topic to be out there and successful; that means you have a ready-made market. Then it's a matter of making your book different enough, bringing something new to the table, to make the idea viable."
Format: This section of your proposal will explain any necessary details about how your book will be presented. It should include the book's title and subtitle, the number of words you anticipate, and any other information that will be relevant to the production of the book, such as the use of charts, illustrations, photos or other graphics, and so forth. Let the publisher know if you plan to include appendices or a glossary or sidebars.
Market: While your rationale discussed the type of audience your book is likely to attract, this section gives you an opportunity to discuss how to reach that audience. This is the place to list the publications your target audience typically reads (including circulation figures), organizations and associations that might be interested in your book, schools or universities that might consider your book for a text, specialty stores or catalogs where your book might be sold, and so forth.
Chapter-by-Chapter Summary: This is simply a list of planned chapters, with a one- to two-paragraph overview of each. Keep in mind that your summary is not set in stone; you can always change it later. Some publishers prefer that you simply provide a list of chapter titles; others prefer summaries; still others prefer that you provide this information after the initial proposal has been reviewed.
Credentials: No matter how convincing the rest of your proposal may be, the publisher's "make or break" question will still be, "why are you qualified to write it?" This is your chance to prove that you know what you are talking about. Your bio should be no longer than a single page, and written in third-person narrative format (e.g., "John Smith is an award-winning decoy carver who has practiced and taught the craft for more than twenty years"). Typically, a publisher will expect your credentials to fall into one or more of the following areas: Educational background (including academic degrees); professional background or expertise (including memberships in appropriate professional organizations); personal experience; and/or previous writing credits. Different publishers will place different weights on each of these areas, so be sure you know what type of credentials are expected by the publisher you're targeting!
Sample Chapters: In the past, a nonfiction book proposal typically consisted of an outline and three sample chapters. Today, however, many publishers no longer wish to see sample chapters with your initial proposal, so be sure to check the publisher's guidelines before sending them! If you are asked to submit sample chapters, keep in mind that these can often be "representative" rather than "sequential" -- i.e., you can send the best chapters of your book rather than the first three chapters. If you haven't begun to write the book yet, but do have published articles on the topic, you may be able to submit those in lieu of sample chapters.
A good book proposal tells a publisher the things he most needs to know: What your book is about, why it's important, whom it's important to. Perhaps the best way to approach your proposal is to ask those questions of yourself -- not as a writer, but as a reader. What would persuade you to pick this book up from the shelf? What would make you want to buy it? The answers just might be the arguments you need to make a sale!
This article originally appeared in The Writer.
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.