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#1 mwsinclair

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Posted 07 November 2010 - 11:52 AM

We all know that there are differences between fiction and nonfiction -- beyond the obvious, I mean. I thought it might help to make it a bit clearer to those of us on AQC who are taking their first steps into the world of nonfiction queries and proposals.

Let's face it, we tend to focus on queries here (at AgentQueryConnect, query is our middle name!), but before you write your nonfiction query, you should already have at least thought about your nonfiction proposal. Why? Because you may not even have a book idea worth querying.

A book proposal has several elements to it, but the over-riding theme of it should be research. As in, do your research, know what you're talking about, and be able to show why you have an idea worth a publisher's time.

I've been re-researching this topic for the past few weeks in order to get into this, so I want to give appropriate credit to Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write, which at this point is a rather old book (published by Blue Heron Publishing in 1995), but it's very accessible. It needs to be updated; the Web was a nascent entity at that point and conducting research has changed enormously in the past 15 years. But I believe the following is still valid.

Parts of a book proposal:
Concept statement/Overview
About the book
About the author
About the competition
About promotion
Table of contents
Chapter summaries
Sample chapters
Appendix

Over the next several weeks I hope to flesh out the details of these various elements. But if you're in the midst of writing or have recently written, or have frequently written book proposals, feel free to jump in. Start a thread. Keep discussion going, disagree with me, do whatever you think will help other writers here become more knowledgeable about the nonfiction process.

One other note I'd say now: Your first step should not be the first one listed here. Before you write your book, before you write your query, before you put together your concept statement, you should know your competition. Because if your book has already been written, you need to know or you're going to waste your time. And if your book hasn't been written and there doesn't appear to be any books similar to what you're thinking of proposing, it's probably because no one wants it in the first place. For example, its audience may be too small a market to make it worth a publisher's time.

#2 Brendacarre

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Posted 07 November 2010 - 02:57 PM

Wow. Thanks for doing this. I'm really looking forward to learning more about promoting and marketing non fiction and how this differs from the fiction market. MW, you rock. :biggrin:

#3 jrmcclarren

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Posted 07 November 2010 - 04:10 PM

Yes, Candycane, Jeff does rock, regardless of what everyone says about him. Thanks for the input Jeff, and, yes, I think we do need to continue this thread. There are a number of things that should be cleared up as much as possible with the subject of nonfiction. There are a lot of myths that should be "debunked", as the Ghost Hunters might put it. One that began troubling me several years ago concerned several contradicting statements that I had read about nonfiction works not needing to be completed before querying. After researching that little quandry for a while, I finally came to the conclusion that, if the author has had several successful works published, and he/she comes up with a new idea for a book, it would not be unusual for that person to query his old agent or even a new one about that idea, before he had even begun to write the ms. That author automatically has a strong platform. If, on the other hand, that author has never experienced the world of publishing (unpublished) or is not a celebrity, it would never be a good idea to query before completion of the project. Who on earth would ever want to take such a chance? The agent would be a fool to attempt such uncharted waters. All of the comments you made, Jeff, were very valuable.

I have completed two book proposals; one for my nonfiction military work - IF ALL ELSE FAILS, THERE'S ALWAYS CIVILIAN LIFE, and the other is for my memoir - ZERO TO SIXTY-FIVE (CAUTION: HAIRPIN CURVES AHEAD). I am unable to say with certainty how effective either is, as I have not found an agent or publisher yet who wants to tackle either one of them. I have all the essential ingredients, and I think they are both pretty good. If anyone has any questions, would like further guidance or would like to see any portions of mine for examples, I would be more than happy to provide what I can.

Just one more item that still is confusing to me, and I would not mind anyone giving a view on this. The subject is table of contents, either in a proposal or submitted ms. I wish I could remembe the last name of a prominant blogging agent whose first name is Mini, but one of the things that she emphasized was that you should never include the table of contents, because, in so doing, you have given the agent or publisher the opportunity to just go to the chapters that they think are most interesting to them, and skip over what might be your most effective writing. Mini said that you want them to read all of what you have sent, not just the parts that might interest them. If they show genuine interest, you can then send along the table of contents. I can see drawbacks to this also. I can see some agents saying, "Well, that idiot forgot to include the table of contents. Can I really trust him in representation?" Just some thoughts.

#4 mwsinclair

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Posted 07 November 2010 - 04:30 PM

John, everything I've read about this says include the table of contents. One of the reasons is they want to get a sense of what is included and what hasn't been. I intend to go into further detail about each area, but I have no problem discussing these things in this thread. Look at the TOC of a lot of how-to books, you'll notice a surprising amount of consistency in the number of chapters. There tend to be 12-15 chapters, and books -- especially those by non-household-name authors will be in the 200-250 page range. This is not gospel, so I don't mean to be restrictive on that point.

As for whether a manuscript needs to be completed, I know what you're saying, but I would still err on the side of not finishing the book. You'll notice that a typical book proposal calls for sample chapters. So something needs to be written. But if an agent or an editor likes the project but think you need to readjust some of the topics to make it more marketable, then you would probably be happy that you hadn't spent that time on writing chapters that are left on the editing room floor.

Perhaps moreso than other areas of publishing, nonfiction tends to be run by product-first publishers. There's not a lot of art in the mindset of the people who make the money decisions. As writers, we need to recognize that we're in business for ourselves and take a similar approach, at least in dealing with the decision-makers. Speak their language.

The book proposal is a sales pitch. Every element of it needs to show why this product you're proposing is viable, why it will sell, who it will sell to, and how you're going to do it. And you're not only selling the book idea, you're selling yourself as the best person to write it.

#5 Jean Oram

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Posted 07 November 2010 - 04:38 PM

Before you write your book, before you write your query, before you put together your concept statement, you should know your competition. Because if your book has already been written, you need to know or you're going to waste your time. And if your book hasn't been written and there doesn't appear to be any books similar to what you're thinking of proposing, it's probably because no one wants it in the first place. For example, its audience may be too small a market to make it worth a publisher's time.


I wholeheartedly agree. Nonfiction isn't like fiction in that it is okay to have two books that are very much alike.


...but one of the things that she emphasized was that you should never include the table of contents, because, in so doing, you have given the agent or publisher the opportunity to just go to the chapters that they think are most interesting to them, and skip over what might be your most effective writing. Mini said that you want them to read all of what you have sent, not just the parts that might interest them.


Don't skip the table of contents in your proposal. You haven't written the book yet, and this is just an outline as well as a selling feature. The agent or editor is going to know what sells a lot better than you. The T of C are what they look at to see what you think the book should encompass. It is an important element. That is where things get a bit more specific, because your overview (of your proposed book) is only a few pages long. And unless you want to bore your reader, in your overview, you are not going to dig down deep and show them what the whole book is going to encompass. The T of C is a selling feature, and I would say an important one.

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#6 mwsinclair

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Posted 07 November 2010 - 04:53 PM

Absolutely right. I'd go a step further: everything in the proposal should be a selling feature. The proposal needs to get the agent or editor (because you can, at least theoretically, pitch a proposal to either) to believe in your project, believe in you, and buy into the excitement that you're generating in the proposal.

That said, you need to be clear about who your market is, how you can sell it to them. It's not just the primary market, whatever that might be in a person's specific example, it should also include any secondary markets the agent didn't think about. For example, one might write, "as a 30-year member and past president of the NAME OF ORGANIZATION YOU ARE AFFILIATED WITH I have access to the association's 2,500 member database and will secure a vendor's
table at the annual conference, which attracts 1,000 members... A secondary market, probably, but it also helps to solidify why this person is the right writer for the project. You also need to be clear and honest about what a project isn't.

Theoretically, you might get an agent excited and she says, "I think you should focus a lot of your attention on...." but you've already done the research and know that Jo Blowski already wrote about that and did it really well, and you're not trying to write his book. That's why you pointed it out in your "about the competition" section....

#7 jrmcclarren

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Posted 08 November 2010 - 08:12 AM

Hey, I finally relocated that agent to whom I referred. Her name is Anne Mini and her blog site is Author, Author. Look her up. She has some great stuff to offer, even though she may be dead wrong about the table of contents bit. I will take your advice, however and always include my table of contents. I do agree that it would be very important to include. I always did before I read her blog. I don't think I have actually submitted anything yet with out the toc. Thanks for the feedback, Matt and Jean. I appreciate it very much.

#8 mwsinclair

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Posted 08 November 2010 - 09:23 AM

Thanks John, the blog name sounds familiar, but I certainly haven't looked at it recently. I'll check it out. And thanks for your posts here. I count you among the more active nonfiction members and I really appreciate all your contributions.

#9 JFL

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Posted 12 November 2010 - 02:05 PM

How do I post my query letter for feedback? Thank you.

#10 jrmcclarren

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Posted 12 November 2010 - 09:58 PM

Go to Forums. Then just scroll down a couple of sections to query critiques (I believe it is). Click on and paste it in and submit. That should do it.

#11 JFL

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Posted 13 November 2010 - 11:44 AM

How do I post my query for feedback, and after that, maybe a ckeck of my proposal. Thank you.

#12 mwsinclair

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Posted 15 November 2010 - 01:24 PM

JFL, go to Query Critiques. Click on "Start New Topic" and in the subject line, place the title of your manuscript. In the second box, type nonfiction or memoir, or however you'd like to describe your work.

To be honest, we've not had anyone actually post a proposal in the new site, so we're sort of in uncharted land. I have no problem with your posting the proposal through this group (same deal: click "Start new topic" and place your title, and I supose "book proposal" in the second box.)

The thing is, you may want to do it in pieces and be choosy. A complete book proposal runs can around 15-20 pages. But I don't know how much critiquing each category can really get here. The idea behind the "about the competition," for example, (which some might argue is the most important part) is that you've assessed the marketplace and found it in need of your book idea. It's unlikely any of us would know whether you've hit the right spots or not.

I'm sure we'll offer whatever advice or suggestions we can, though, so feel free to give it a go!

#13 coloradokid

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Posted 02 February 2011 - 10:44 PM

Leaving the table of conents out of a proposal would be tantamount to leaving it out of the book. It's there to assist in navigation.
For one thing, a well-crafted TOC shows that you know how to be organized. Also, as we alll know,non-fiction comes in a variety of flavors: How-To, Cookbooks, Prescriptive, narrative, etc. Each requires a proposal that suits the intended book, and each will have a different look. There are a number of books out there (SOME WRITTEN BY AGENTS!) that provide the basics, depending on your own project. THEY ALL INCLUDE A TABLE OF CONTENTS AS PART OF THE PROPOSAL! In a proposal, the TOC doesn't necessarily refer to what chapter begins on which page. It shows on which page each ELEMENT of the proposal begins. Proposals vary in length, depending, again, on the nature of the book. My narrative non-fiction proposal is over 60 pages in length, most of which is the chapter outline, which is a brief synopsis (a few paragraphs or so) about each chapter. Just for fun, I'll post my TOC -- maybe it will help clear up some confusion. Note: it is not etched in stone the sequence of the elements, bu this is typical.

Another note: cutting and pasting here obviously skews the alignment. Obviously it will be centered on the page,with the title and other info in larger type.

Also, not every proposal willl include all these elements, depending on what the agent wants. This one can be considered a full-blown formal proposal for a narrative non-fiction work. This particular one includes three chapters, because that is what one agent asked for. Some agents will want to see more or less or a certain number of pages. It's easy enough to tailor it to suit an agent's request.They are all different. Every proposal should be numbered from beginning to end, but typically the TOC page willl not be numbered.

Hope this helps.

A REVERSAL OF JUSTICE
. . . The True Story of a Throat-Slashing Murder, Corruption, and Courtroom Mayhem

by

(YOUR NAME HERE)


TABLE OF CONTENTS


Overview---------------------------------2

Endorsement and Qualifications-----------4

The Market ------------------------------7

How the Author Will Help Market----------8

Comparison to Other True Crime Books-----9

Author Biography------------------------12

Chapters 1-3----------------------------14

Chapter Outline-------------------------22

Author’s Notes--------------------------60

#14 mwsinclair

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Posted 03 February 2011 - 10:39 AM

Welcome back, Kid! And thanks so much for sharing this.

#15 Jean Oram

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Posted 04 February 2011 - 10:03 AM

Ah yes, and the table of contents (for) in your actual proposal... that's a good plan too!

Good to see you around again, Colorado.

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#16 jrmcclarren

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Posted 04 February 2011 - 12:26 PM

Hey, Colorado, yes, it's good to hear from you again. I haven't been very active lately myself. I do concede in regard to the table of contents. I was only referring to Anne Mini's blog, and a good deal of what she says is invaluable information. She has a great blog site, but may very well be dead wrong about that issue. I never actually sent a proposal forth without a table of contents, but I had considered it. Thanks for all of the comments, because I am now pretty well convinced that leaving out a TOC would not help to sell the project. I can see her point (and she is a literary agent), but I agree with all of you that it would normally be very necessary. Take care and thanks again for comments. John

#17 mabim2002

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Posted 30 June 2011 - 11:44 AM

I want to thank each of you in this Topic for providing invaluable guidelines for nonfiction queries and proposals. Specifically, the parts of a nonfiction proposal have led me to rework my book proposal. I've just posted my nonfiction query for review, GOD WITHOUT DELUSION (Nonfiction: Relgion/Spirituality) and hope to get some feedback from experienced eyes.
I take serious that this site is a community effort and will post replies to queries where I think I may have a good point to add.
Thanks!

#18 mwsinclair

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Posted 05 July 2011 - 06:18 AM

Very happy we could help. Hope we can provide additional insight or assistance!

#19 kellyann

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Posted 05 July 2011 - 09:47 AM

It's me the not fiction not non fiction guppy! Has anyone heard of an agent asking for a proposal for a memoir? I actually wrote one just to be safe but it doesn't follow the typical proposal guidelines (which I have found memoirs don't follow any guidelines) it basically focuses on my marketing strategy, focus audienceS and how my book differs from other memoirs (I made sure not to say anything negative when mentioning other authors and their books though)

Do you think that is ok - if they do ask for one?
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#20 kellyann

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Posted 05 July 2011 - 09:47 AM

It's me the not fiction not non fiction guppy! Has anyone heard of an agent asking for a proposal for a memoir? I actually wrote one just to be safe but it doesn't follow the typical proposal guidelines (which I have found memoirs don't follow any guidelines) it basically focuses on my marketing strategy, focus audienceS and how my book differs from other memoirs (I made sure not to say anything negative when mentioning other authors and their books though)

Do you think that is ok - if they do ask for one?
It’s never too late to shoot for the stars regardless of who you are- Nickelback




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