How to write a good non-fiction book proposal for submission

Christian Jennings, who is currently writing a book about the last year of WWII in northern Italy, entitled ‘If I Live to See the Dawn – At War on the Gothic Line 1944-’45.’, explains how to write a good non-fiction proposal for submission.

The acronym of the seven Ps, whose etymology is probably military, goes like this: Prior Preparation and Proper Planning Prevent Poor Performance. It could have been invented for aspiring authors who have a non-fiction story to tell, and want to write the best possible submissions proposal for it. This article explains a little about how to best present such a proposal, and is aimed at improving its chances in the very competitive publishing marketplace.

Here some simple mathematics may be of help. By his own estimation, Andrew Lownie looks at some 20,000 unsolicited submissions a year. After his initial assessment, he sends some eight of these per week to a reader – that’s about four hundred per year. A dozen authors per annum might then be taken on by the agency. Eight of these might see their books then published. Thus anything that can help aspiring non-fiction authors improve the content and presentation of their proposals can only be of help. But this article is also designed to be of assistance to authors who might already be published, and want to polish up their proposal before submitting it.

On his website Andrew specifies that non-fiction submissions proposals be submitted in the following format. Each section of it will be examined and explained subsequently.

A. 1 page mini-synopsis highlighting with bullet points what makes the book new and special with proposed word count and delivery date B. 1 page on qualifications to write the book C. 1 page with a few lines on the five most recent competing and comparable books giving author, title, publisher and date of publication together with a note on how the books relate to the author’s own book D. 1 page on sources used E. 1 page on any specialist marketing outlets such as websites, organisations or magazines F. A sample chapter

The Synopsis. This summarises what your story is, and says what’s new and special about it. You have one side of A4, so start with your title and sub-title. Titles are fantastically important. Remember all those great ones? From Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, The Beautiful and the Damned, Even Cowgirls get the Blues, The Things they Carried, We were Soldiers Once and Young to Zero Dark Thirty, The Day of the Jackal and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? A title is the first thing readers, editors and agents see. Use it to be colourful and imaginative and allusive, and then explain the book’s subject in a short, clear sub-title.

Then in one paragraph – eight lines perhaps – tell us what your book is about and why it’s new. What is it? A biography of Henry VIII’s secret eighth wife? An autobiography of your time as a doctor working for an embattled aid agency inside Syria? Recipes from a lost stately home? A history of tax? A reappraisal of Charles Darwin’s theories set against the history of DNA? The tale of one special forces and intelligence mission? One woman’s story of being fostered by orang utans in Borneo? Or a simple travelogue of fishing, of how to catch big Carp in ten countries across Europe?

Whatever the story is, the second paragraph is used to tell us a bit more about it, its author, its sources, and the most important points in the book. The best way to learn how to do this is to look at how other published authors have done it. Look at the ‘blurbs,’ as they are called, on the backs of books that have caught your eye in bookshops. Look at how other authors on Andrew’s website do it. One good example is the British biographer Clare Mulley – you can find her under ‘M’ on the Author/Book list. Look at how she summarises her basic theme in the blurb of The Women who Flew for Hitler. This is only twelve lines, yet it tells the potential agent, reader or publisher everything they need to know about the story and its subjects. And it does it engagingly, authoritatively and colourfully.

It has a punchy title, and a clear and explanatory sub-title. So why not take the same approach? Start with deciding your title, then a clear sub-title, then write out your story’s synopsis in no more than 300 words. If you can’t work out your title, nor briefly summarise your book’s central theme, it means you are probably unclear what or whom your proposed book is about. Do the synopsis again and again until it reads clearly, and includes mention of every aspect of the story that you think is exclusive, interesting, and marketable. Then summarise these in four or five clear, consecutive bullet points, which come after the synopsis paragraphs. A fictitious example might have them reading thus:

• The inside story of a British surgeon working secretly in Syria; • Told by a British aid doctor who’s been inside the country for three years; • Provides a first-hand account of the humanitarian and human rights disaster; • Tells how the lack of foreign intervention has left thousands of people in crisis;
• The author has also worked in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.

We can all imagine the story, but this shows how to summarise it in five points. After these, at the bottom of the first page, suggest a reasonable book length, probably between 80-100,000 words. Also estimate realistically how long it will take you to write your work of non-fiction. Think about the latter carefully, balance your estimated speed of writing, research and output with your other commitments – a day job, a family, available time. To recap: all of the above should fill one side of A4 only, including the title and sub-title at the top, then 2-3 paragraphs, five bullet points, and the book’s proposed length and delivery date.

The Author Biography / your qualifications to write the book. This can be enjoyable to do. In a colourful, concise, well written and engaging way say who you are, what you do, and what you’ve done in life. Again, it should come to no more than one page, which forms page two of the proposal. Go on to give three or four reasons why you are best placed to write a book on your chosen subject, and why you want to. Keep it simple - strive to create and maintain the image of yourself as an interesting subject expert with something new to say. Lots of different people do lots of different things in life, or find different biographical subjects interesting. What is routine to one person may, properly presented, be of great interest to many others.

Explain your experience, qualifications and knowledge of and in the specific field. Think of the most interesting, new and marketable points about yourself and your book’s subject that most people, both within the field of specialization and without, might not know. Write succinctly and clearly about any prizes, successes, awards and triumphs you may have enjoyed or been awarded in connection with your area of expertise. Have you made any public speaking appearances? Lastly, mention any newspapers, magazines, TV and radio programmes and websites in the U.K and abroad to which you have contributed, and any past books you have written. Again – spend a happy couple of hours clicking on all the names on the Andrew Lownie Agency’s list of authors, and see how they describe themselves.

Competing and Comparable Titles. Again, straightforward. It’s page three. Firstly, go to your local branch of Waterstones or another bookshop, and just see what is being sold on the topic about which you are writing. Then go onto Amazon, which will tell you very clearly all the details of other books that have been, are being and will be published on and around your subject matter. Choose the five that are most recently published, or about to be published, by the most major publishers, and see if they are coming out in the United States as well. Remember, Andrew Lownie will be trying to sell your book in the U.S, in Commonwealth Territories like Canada and Australia, as well as translation rights in major book-buying countries such as Germany, Japan, Italy and Sweden. Lay out the competing titles like this: Title & Subtitle, name of author, month and year of publication in the U.K, name of publisher, and similar details in the U.S if applicable

Sources Used. Page four. Simply make a list of everywhere from which you are and will be getting the information that you will be putting in your book. Make a detailed list of each source, as in ‘The London Imperial War Museum archive, WWI Gallipoli exhibition,’ or ‘The Bodleian Library, Oxford, Charles Darwin archives,” or ‘The National Archives,’ or ‘Information gathered from interviews with the following experts….’ The more the merrier – if you know the available sources of information on a given topic, it suggests you know your subject.

Marketing, Websites and Magazines. Page five. Again, make a list of all and any outlets, bookshops, supermarket chains, websites, publications - electronic or hard copy - TV and radio stations, marketing forums, blogs or social media outlets that you can think of, which might be interested in stocking, distributing, advertising, circulating, promoting, reviewing, featuring or mentioning your book on publication. From your local highstreet bookshop to the website of, say, a large British aid agency with parallel interests to your book’s subject, from a personal website to sympathetic bloggers to your social media profile, every mention of the book is vital.

A Sample Chapter. Self-explanatory. Keep it to 4,000 – 5,500 words maximum, double spaced, 12 point, Times New Roman. Once the book proposal has hopefully passed first muster with Andrew Lownie, he will ask for a synopsis of each chapter in the book, usually written at about half a page of A4 each, or a page maximum. Remember – you’re trying to sell a book, so it’s all in the writing.

A last piece of advice: read the other articles on Andrew Lownie’s agency website, including those written by non-fiction editors from publishers in the U.K and the U.S, where they outline what they are looking for. Be prepared to re-write your proposal several times. Read the book review pages of national and regional newspapers, to see what kind of books get reviewed, and thus bought. Before you submit your proposal to Andrew Lownie ask a few friends and contacts to read it and comment, people you know who write and read a lot themselves, both professionally and for pleasure. Be clear as to exactly what your subject is, what you want to say about it, and why you want to write about it. And most importantly, aim to enjoy writing about it, and enjoy each step of trying to get it published.