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This month we have expert advice from Lorraine Mace on how to pitch the perfect non-fiction proposal, Ten Top Tips looks at some of the more common English errors, Successes will leave you feeling ready to tackle anything and Useful Websites has an extra treat.

Submitting a non-fiction proposal

By Lorraine Mace

 

We hear so much about what to include and how to submit novels to agents and publishers, that it’s almost a case of information overload. However, for writers of non-fiction books the information on what to include and when to submit it is much harder to find.

You’d be forgiven for thinking there couldn’t be much difference between the two forms of submission, but that isn’t the case at all. If you have a non-fiction book idea, you need to forget almost everything you’ve learned to do with submitting novels and start again from scratch.

Non-fiction shouldn’t be completed in advance
Nearly all the submission requirements for a non-fiction book are completely different to a novel – but the most important difference is how much of the book to write before trying for a publishing deal. Most of us are fully aware that there is little point in submitting the opening chapters of a work of fiction unless you have already written, revised and rewritten the entire book at least twice. This is because, if you are fortunate enough to be asked for the rest of the manuscript, you need to be able to send it off immediately.

In the case of non-fiction, the opposite applies. It is better by far not to write the book before submitting a proposal, or, if you have, not to say so in your initial approach. A publisher who is interested in the basic idea may want you to deal with certain aspects in a different way to your outline. If you have already written the book, this could mean lots of wasted time and effort on your part because you’d need to take it in a different direction, but, worse still, the publisher might end up rejecting the proposal because he feels the completed work is not suitable for his list. Giving the publisher an outline of your intentions opens the door for dialogue that could well result in a publishing deal.

So what should go in your proposal?

Covering letter
You need a covering letter, as with fiction, addressed to the correct person in the publishing house. If you can’t find out who this should be from their website, it’s worth picking up the phone and asking. If you can get your proposal on the right desk from the outset, you’ve already cleared the first hurdle.

While on the phone, ask if you can submit your proposal by email – if yes, do make sure you get the correct email address. You don’t want your carefully worded submission to languish in the filing clerk’s inbox with no chance of it ever making its way to the correct computer.

The letter or email should start with a one-paragraph hook which encapsulates the essence of your idea. Next you should briefly describe the target audience, the gap in the market, and say why you are the right person to write the book. Give the working title and estimated word count. Say whether the book would be illustrated – and if yes, the form of illustrations and who would be responsible for supplying them.

If you are sending your submission by snail mail, do remember to include an addressed envelope with sufficient postage for the return of the proposal.

The actual proposal
The proposal starts with a title page, goes on to give details of what your book is all about, including any unique selling points and then states how you intend to handle the subject matter. It should also include a section covering the competitors in the marketplace, a section on marketing aims, an author’s biography, a table of contents, a chapter by chapter synopsis, and one or two sample chapters, depending on the publisher’s requirements. The sections below cover each of these items in more detail.

Title Page
This contains your contact details, the title of the work and the (estimated) completed word count. You should also include the proposed delivery date by adding a line along the lines of: Delivery within six months of signing contract, or whichever time span you feel is appropriate and, most importantly, achievable. There is no point in saying you can deliver within a set number of months if you know that isn’t going to be possible. You might well get the deal by lying, but publishers really don’t take kindly to authors who don’t deliver when they say they will.

Competition
Say which books you see as competition and why your book will fill a niche not covered by any of them. Or, if your book is along very similar lines to existing titles, state why yours is better. Never run your competitors’ work down, simply stress where you feel yours is superior or covers a gap in the market.

Marketing
Start by giving a detailed account of the prospective market and how you see your work tapping into that audience. For non-fiction work it has always been necessary for authors to be actively involved in the marketing of their title, but in the current climate it is more important than ever to let the publisher know that you are not only willing to get involved, but also that you have the contacts to get some much-needed publicity once the book is published.

You need to include details of how you will be able to help with marketing your material. Say which magazines you can write for, which organisations you can approach which are connected with your book’s subject matter, list local events you could organise or attend as a speaker, and suggest radio stations that could be approached to publicise your work as a local author.

In short, include any information which shows your willingness to self-promote your work.

Biography
An author biography is always written in the third person. Keep it fairly short, but make sure that it establishes your credibility, both as a writer, and as someone qualified on your book’s subject. Include any experience which touches on the book’s theme, as well as any writing credits.

Table of contents
The table of contents shows how you intend to organise your material. You need to give a list of all the proposed chapters, with titles and subtitles, if appropriate.

Chapter by chapter synopses
Within the table of contents you need an outline of what each chapter is going to cover. You will need to supply a brief description of each chapter, trying, where possible, to use the same tone as you have used in writing the sample chapters. In other words, if the book is humorous, make sure that comes through in the mini-synopses. If it’s going to be a weighty tome, intent on showing how to achieve world peace in a single weekend, adding humour would be totally inappropriate – unless, of course, you are covering politics from a comic angle.

As an example, the following is a small section from a non-fiction humour proposal:

... and so to France

1. “Other people just go on holiday, why can’t you?”

I’ve never yet been to a foreign destination without imagining what it would be like to live there. An idyllic trip to France proved to be no exception – four months later we were packed up and ready to move.

2. Losing the Plot

French estate agents may have sexier accents than their British counterparts, but they’ll still try to sell you something even a homeless chicken would turn its nose up at.

3. Gîte Alors!

After a two day drive and a night spent in a hotel room that bore close resemblance to a prison cell, we reached the gîte late on Sunday evening when all shops were firmly closed, only to discover a few essentials were not provided – such as towels and bed linen.

Sample chapter or chapters
Unlike fiction, with a non-fiction book proposal, it isn’t always necessary to submit the opening chapters. Unless these are specifically requested, you could send the chapters you consider the strongest. However, make sure that you only include the number of chapters the publisher requires. If this information isn’t readily available on their website, this is another question to ask when telephoning to find the editor’s name and email address.

To summarise:

  • It is better not to have written the book before submitting a proposal for a non-fiction book
  • The proposal is your sales pitch and needs to be strong
  • Give the purpose of the book and show the tone you intend to take
  • State why the book is needed • Say why you are qualified to write on the subject
  • Detail your target market
  • Name competing titles and give reasons why your book is better
  • List chapter headings
  • Give a short synopsis of each chapter
  • Unless the publisher requests opening chapters you can send the chapter or chapters you consider to be the strongest

 

The above information was adapted from The Writer’s ABC Checklist (Accent Press Jan 2010) by Lorraine Mace and Maureen Vincent-Northam.