New writers of full-length nonfiction are often unaware that they don’t need to write the manuscript before taking their book to market. Apart from memoir, if you’re working on a book of nonfiction—history/politics/current affairs, technology, business, design, science, sociology, etc.—what you need at the outset is a 30-ish page proposal and one or preferably two sample chapters. For novelists and memoirists, the burden of work and risk falls to them right away; they absolutely have to invest the time and effort it takes to write their novel before approaching an agent or editor.
While writing a nonfiction proposal seems a smaller feat than writing the full manuscript, it’s no cakewalk. A proposal is something like a business plan designed to enlist shrewd investors. First, you need to convince your dream agent to invest a good deal of time and attention in you and in your book on spec. In order for a book to make good business sense for agents, they not only need to be passionate about it, they also need to see your proposal describe a big, bold book idea they believe will sell well on the trade market and may even have a chance of hitting a bestseller list. Tall order!
Literary agents are looking for that tall order because editors will only make an offer of an advance if they’re passionate about the project, excited about the prospect of working with you as an author, and are fully convinced your idea for a book is worth the cost and efforts their publishing team will engage in if they commit. An editor and his or her team must invest in reading, editing, copyediting, performing a legal-read (if necessary, which requires the cost of their legal counsel), designing the book, designing the cover, selling the idea in to book buyers across all territories they have rights to sell in, producing, printing, distributing to booksellers and, finally, publicizing and marketing. Shew! So, you see what I mean. There's a lot riding on your proposal!
While the burden of risk in terms of work falls to novelists and memoirists right away, a more elaborate burden of risk for a nonfiction book falls chiefly to editors and their publishing houses at the outset. They have to really believe in you before you’ve even written the book. So, while writing a thirty-page document may seem like a breeze in lieu of writing the full, the persuasive task that little document needs to perform is no small feat.
A nonfiction proposal has specific components. The overview starts it off, which is a kind of introductory summary that frames the book and the need for it today. In your about the author section, you describe your background, your writing credentials, why you’re THE go-to person to write THIS book. Next, you describe what you’ll do in terms of marketing your book. Editors love a savvy marketer with rubber-meets-the road reach. Following that, you’ll talk about your specific audience (which usually includes an audience which is both specific—a primary audience—and broad—the layperson, the every-reader). After this, you’ll mention relevant folks who will vouch for your writing and your book—that is: recognizable names in your field or associated with your subject who will write endorsements for your book jacket. Next is a list of well-selling comparative titles, called the competition where you’ll say why your book is similar to those titles while being different and a clearly necessary book amidst them. A one-liner details the book's expected length and delivery date. The all-important chapter outline comes next—which will, chapter-by-chapter, detail the propulsive through-line of your narrative. And finally, the proposal concludes with one or preferably two dazzling sample chapters.