NaNoWriMo Day #22 – Six Mistakes I Made Writing Nonfiction Book Proposals—and How You Can Learn From Them

By Chuck Sambuchino 

Whether I’m trying to sell a writing reference book or a humor book, the key selling tool for me to get my work traditionally published is a nonfiction book proposal.

A proposal is a business plan for a book. Its job is to answer 3 important questions:

1. What is the book about, and why is the book unique, interesting and timely?

2. What is its place in the market, and who will buy it?

3. Why are you an ideal author to write and market it?

I’ve written several proposals that garnered book deals. But I’ve also written plenty that have not reached the finish line. Over time, I’ve learned a lot from my mistakes—and you can too. Below I list 6 mistakes I made in the past composing nonfiction book proposals. Don’t follow in my footsteps with these errors.


Mistake 1: Not explaining why the book is timely.

Publishers don’t just want a good idea. They want a good idea that deserves publication now/soon. You have to explain that what you’re writing about is a timely topic. For example, now is a great time to write about how to live gluten-free, or Donald Trump, or the rise in video game culture—because all are timely.

Meanwhile, 2011 marked the 150-year anniversary of America’s Civil War. That was a good time to write a book about the war. You may be able to sell a book about the war now, but certainly you understand that pitching it several years ago would have been wiser. (On this note, please note that traditional publishers work 1-2 years ahead.)

For my latest book, When Clowns Attack: A Survival Guide, I was able to point out how, during the past few years, clowns were popping up in metropolitan area scaring the bejesus out of people around Halloween. Anti-clown fever was building, and I could prove that with Twitter numbers and news articles. Voila—the book was timely.


Mistake 2: Not making the sample chapters resemble the actual book.

All of my books feature sidebars heavily, and the humor books rely heavily on art and images. If I want an editor to understand what the final book chapters should look like, I need to make my sample chapters professional. That means formatted sidebars, and images. Don’t just put in a box that says, “Art will come here [TBD].”


 Mistake 3: Playing it cheap or easy.

It’s easier not to create a website for the project. It’s easy to not pay someone for illustrations for my sample chapters. It’s easy to not visit the bookstore to find more comparable titles.

Easy & quick = not good. Spend time on the proposal and your marketing plan and chapters. When I was having trouble selling my agent on a nonfiction concept I’d been developing, I paid a freelance graphic designer some money to mock up a potential cover for the book. The end result was so good that my agent became very excited about the project, and sold it to a publisher several months later.


Mistake 4: Making proposal too broad

I was once tried to sell a book on how to defend against any kind of monster. It did not sell. When venting about this to an agent, the agent pointed out that the magic of my first humor book How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack was how specific and thin it was.

When you’re trying to sell something, an instinct you may have is to offer as much as possible, like “This book will tell you how to lose weight and live healthier and be happier and [more and more].” But this is not a good pitch. It is scattershot and all over the place. Specific is better. If you just had a pitch like “The all-fruit diet will help you lose weight”—now that is easy to understand and convey.

Don’t try to sell a book all about candy and sweets and desserts. Try to sell a book on chocolate chip cookies. Don’t try to sell a book on seafood. Try to sell a book about oysters. Specific is better.


Mistake 5: Not realizing platform is king

A good idea is wonderful, but publishing is a business, and editors seek out authors who have an amazing ability to sell the book through established marketing channels and a built-in audience. (This is why celebrities sell mediocre memoirs.)

So when composing a book proposal, remember that the most key thing you’re selling is yourself—more specifically, your own proven marketing abilities. Always be thinking about slowly growing your platform.


Mistake 6: Including comparable titles that didn’t do well

Part of your proposal is presenting comparable titles in the market. But the trap here I ran into is that when I listed comparable titles that underperformed, I actually hurt my early projects with this mistake. You want to only mention titles that did OK or good.


Chuck-Sambuchino-headshot-2012Chuck Sambuchino (@chucksambuchino) of Writer’s Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing. His 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures. His latest humor book, WHEN CLOWNS ATTACK: A SURVIVAL GUIDE (Sept. 29 2015), will protect people everywhere from malicious bozos and jokers who haunt our lives. His books have been mentioned in Reader’s Digest, USA Today, the New York Times, The Huffington Post, Variety, New York Magazine, and more.


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