By Ali Shaw, Executive Editor

Image courtesy of Unsplash

In publishing, we talk about book proposals. These are typically for nonfiction books and are basically project proposals that we write in order to pitch the idea to agents and publishers. They help the publishers evaluate the book idea, the author’s credentials, and the market readiness for this book. A book proposal is an incredibly valuable business tool.

The industry standard is that we only write book proposals for nonfiction. To that, I say poo-poo.

Proposals are not just for nonfiction. And proposals are not just for publishers.

No matter your book idea, your genre, or your publishing path, write a book proposal for YOU.


A book proposal is essentially a business plan. And a book—if you want it to sell and meet its readers—is essentially a business. So plan it like a business. A book proposal helps you do that.

Here are the main components of a book proposal, no matter whom you’re writing it for:


If you’re in an elevator with somebody for, say, two floors and they ask you what your book is about, how do you describe it? How do you hook them so they want to buy your book as soon as they get off the elevator?

About the Book

Here, you can expand on your elevator pitch with a full book description. Think of this like the back cover description. Include the premise, characters, and plot points for fiction, and for nonfiction, include the problem (or question) and the basics of your unique method for solving it.

About the Author

Why are you the best person to write this book? Describe your writing credentials. If you’re a nonfiction writer, how are you an expert on the topic you’re writing about? What professional accolades do you have? For fiction and memoir, what makes you an expert in your genre? Include any relevant writing and publishing experience that you have.

Let’s pause here for just a second. You are the best person to write this book. You believed it in all those hours you brainstormed it while commuting. You believed it every (or almost every) time you sat down to write it. If thinking of writing this section has you doubting that you’re the best person to write this book, that’s your imposter syndrome talking. Tell it I said to go to timeout. When it’s good and quiet, give yourself a treat and write this section.

About the Audience

Here, go into detail about your target readers. Who are they? What are they concerned with? Are they reading this to escape, to help themselves, to learn something new, or another reason? Are they members of any particular organizations (for example, readers of a book on rockhounding are probably members of geology clubs)?

About the Competition

In the biz, we call these comps—comparable or competitive titles. Find three to five books that are similar to yours. They can be on the same subject, but don’t limit yourself to this. Maybe the similarity is more in writing style or type of character.

For each book, include: title, author, publisher, publication year, formats (and ISBNs), markers of success (sales data from Bookscan, if available, or awards or bestseller lists), one to two sentences about this book, and one to two sentences about why your book is different and better.

The goal of this section is twofold: to prove that there’s an interest in books like yours (so the more successful the comp in recent years, the better) and to prove that there’s still space in the market for your unique take on the topic.

Initial Marketing Plan

Oh, marketing. This subject can feel overwhelming for many authors, and I hear all the time, “But I hate social media, so I don’t want to market!”

It’s okay. You don’t have to use platforms you’re uncomfortable with for your marketing.

In this section of the proposal, we just need to get a starting idea of potential directions your marketing plan could go. I like to include three to five types of media, with three to ten specific names of media within that type. Here’s an example for a book on publishing:

Print: Pitch industry articles to Publishers Weekly, Independent magazine (IBPA), and Poets & Writers. The articles will be relevant industry news, and my bio will include that I am the author of Brand-New Book.

Podcasts/Radio: Pitch a unique angle to be a guest on podcasts and radio shows like Between the Covers on KBOO Radio, The Creative Nonfiction Podcast, and The Creative Penn podcast.

Classes: Host writing and publishing workshops at bookstores around my region. Some favorites include: Broadway Books, Beach Books, and Two Rivers Bookstore. These can include Brand-New Book in the price of the class, at the bookstore’s discretion.

Note: For an agent or publisher, you’ll want to err on the side of more listings here rather than fewer, and you’ll also want to expand each publication or store with information such as mission statement or other info that shows it’s a good fit, location, contact name, website, and circulation reach, if possible.

Table of Contents

Share your book’s table of contents. For nonfiction, this is one of the first pieces potential readers look at to see if your book will cover the aspects of the topic they’re interested in. If your novel or memoir chapters have titles, include those here. If your chapter titles are just “Chapter 1,” maybe just skip this part and spend those extra two minutes eating chocolate.

Chapter Summaries

Take the table of contents you put in the previous section, paste it here, and then expand each one with a three-sentence chapter description.

Sample Chapters

Most agents or publishers will ask to see your first three chapters so they can get a feel for your writing style, your story’s hook in fiction or memoir, your understanding of the issue in nonfiction, and how well you build an arc of tension and fulfillment in each chapter. Do this for your own proposal too. Analyze this sample. Share it with your writing group. Get feedback on the pace, syntax, flow, balance of show and tell, and more. Revise as needed.

That’s it! With that little bit of organization and research (okay, I know it’s more than a little, but it’s probably less than you feared, right?), you suddenly have a very clear picture of how your book fits into the rest of the book world, what its selling points are, what your selling points as an author are, and a starting plan for how to market it. Keep your book proposal on hand to guide your vision through the publishing and marketing process, and keep growing your book business!

For more resources, check out Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write by Elizabeth Lyon, The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman, and Write Book (Check). Now What? by, well, me.

Ali Shaw scours front-of-bookstore displays, looks up award winners, and writes book proposals for fun. When she’s not editing, producing audiobooks, teaching Entrepreneurship in Publishing, or, you know, reading, she’s probably playing with her dogs, planning epic road trips with her family, or gardening.