When you seek traditional publishing for your nonfiction book, you don’t just write the book and send it off.
Instead, you craft what’s called a book proposal—an essential business document expected by publishing professionals like agents and editors.
With this document, you’re hoping to attract the attention and interest of industry gatekeepers so they’ll partner with you to publish your book.
Before the Book, the Book Proposal
If you’re seeking traditional publishing for your nonfiction book, you do eventually have to write an entire manuscript.
But before that, you have to land a book deal.
To land a book deal, you need to attract agents and publishers to your project with a pitch that convinces them to request your proposal for review.
A convincing pitch followed by a polished, professional book proposal will do the work of “selling” your book to these decision-makers. Its job is to convince these agents and publishers you have what they’re looking for.
That’s why you craft a compelling proposal. In it, you’ll describe your project, of course. But as you do, your proposal has to pull off three big things.
What a Winning Proposal Needs to Convey
Let’s cover the three things your proposal must convey to attract the attention of industry gatekeepers like agents and Acquisitions Editors (AEs).
1. A Concept That Pops
When someone’s reviewing a stack of proposals—whether that’s a literal stack on their desk or a list of virtual files on a computer—you want yours to stand out. The way to do that is to have a book concept that pops out from all the others.
These agents and acquisitions editors are flipping through maybe 20 or more proposals a day. They’ve seen the same types of projects over and over; writers pitch similar topics time after time.
But these industry professionals keep reading and reviewing proposals because they’re hoping to discover promising new books. They’re on the lookout for an author who brings a fresh angle.
Develop a concept that proves you know your audience’s problems, struggles, and issues.
In the proposal, show them you have a book that offers a promise—and delivers on that promise.
Demonstrate you’ll contribute something valuable to the broader conversation on this topic.
Do all that, and the agent will stop and say, “Wow, this is different—and it looks like it could sell. I’d better dive in and take a closer look.”
When you nail your concept and convey it clearly in the proposal, you’re on your way to attracting an agent or editor.
But when you land on a concept that pops, it’s not enough.
2. Writing That Sings
The second thing this project needs in order to attract decision-makers is captivating, quality writing—writing that sings.
The agent or editor reviewing your proposal will hear hints of your writing voice in the various elements of the proposal—but where you’ll shine is in the sample chapters.
They can tell if you’ve landed on an appropriate voice for the project and its intended readers. They want to see if you know what your reader responds to. After all, the tone and style of writing you’d use for a leadership book for CEOs will differ from the tone and style meant to engage a stay-at-home mom of preschoolers.
You don’t have to write like Annie Dillard to land a book deal, but editors appreciate solid, clear writing appropriate for that project. And be sure your proposal is error-free so decision-makers feel confident you’re a professional writer who handles words well.
With a concept that pops and writing that sings, you have two out of three things in place for your proposal. Decision-makers who see that ingenious concept and sense your compelling prose will flip through your proposal, excited to find out something else.
They’re hoping you have in place one more major element.
3. Personal Brand & Platform
In this proposal, you’re trying to prove that you are the ideal person to write this book.
One way to create a convincing case that you’re the ideal author of this book, is to highlight your credentials, your life experience, and your personal story.
But imagine this: if agents searched your name, would they easily find you?
If so, what would they learn about you as a writer? Have you created content related to this book you’re proposing? Will they see evidence your target audience views you as someone known for the topic of this book?
Whether you realize it or not—whether you intentionally worked on it or not—you have a personal or author brand.
Tim Ferriss has said that at its most basic, your brand is what people think of when they hear your name. That’s been building over time even if you haven’t consciously tried to steer readers toward connecting you to a topic or subject area.
I hope people hear Ann Kroeker and think Writing Coach. That’s the brand I’ve intentionally built over time. My skills, training, education, previous jobs, online content, social media presence, speaking events—it all contributes to my personal brand.
Your brand can flow from your background, experience, education, published work, speaking engagements, and social media influence to offer evidence in your About the Author section and persuade people that you’re the obvious author to pen this book.
Your author brand has a corresponding platform.
Platform boils down to all the ways you—as your author brand—reach and retain ideal readers.
In that online search a publishing professional conducts on you, would they see:
- how to sign up for your email list?
- relevant content they can read on your website?
- numbers of people already following you on social media?
- podcast interviews?
- speaking appearances?
These are all examples of platform. Each is either a way you’re actively reaching out to people interested in your ideas (and resources) or a way you’re deepening relationships with those already following you.
If you did a search on my name, they’d see that as a writing coach (my brand), I host a podcast and YouTube channel, I stay active on social media, and I’ve been invited to speak at various events. Those are all platform activities that help me support the people who are meeting me and, in some cases, following me on social media or requesting my emails.
Hopefully the author brand would combine with evidence of platform to persuade a decision-maker that I’m the ideal person to write a book about writing.
When you intentionally create content that helps listeners or readers, you’re reaching and serving those people. It creates visibility for both your brand and your platform.
Look for ways to establish and expand your platform, helping people associate you with a topic or subject (brand) so they turn to you for advice, input, stories and solutions (platform).
Why Publishers Care About a Growing Platform
Publishers look at your platform because it represents people who might purchase this book you’re proposing. Your platform, amplified by the publisher’s platform, represents the potential sales they can calculate when considering your project.
To be honest, lack of platform is the number one reason agents and publishers turn down projects, so you need a growing platform—and not just to sell this book.
Why You Can Benefit from a Growing Platform
When you can reach readers, you have opportunities to test out your ideas—to vet and validate them. The results of those efforts can provide appealing evidence to include in your proposal.
More importantly, reaching people feels rewarding because you’re helping people—pouring into people—right here and now, long before your book launches.
Isn’t that why you want to write in the first place? To help people?
Agents will often say if you have two out of the three elements in your proposal, you can garner interest. But if you have all three, you’re well situated to pitch your project.
If you have an impressive author brand & platform, writing that sings, and a concept that pops, you have the three elements that combine to create a compelling, irresistible project that attracts interest from publishing professionals.
- 7 Steps to a Clear Book Idea, a course designed to help you find the clarify you crave and the validation you need for your nonfiction book
- Why You Need a Book Proposal If You Want to Write a Nonfiction Book, a free, on-demand webinar that elaborates on the three key things presented in this post
- Your Platform Matters, a membership program for writers learning to create content and community to establish and expand their author brand
Join us in Your Platform Matters (YPM)
YPM is a warm and welcoming membership community committed to creative, meaningful ways we can grow our platform and reach readers—check us out!
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