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8 Top Nonfiction Book Proposal Mistakes (& How to Fix Them)

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Nonfiction book proposal mistakes can get your proposal tossed into the circular file before the agent or publisher even gets past page one. Agents and acquisitions editors are some of the busiest people I know. They’re looking for reasons to move on, as much as they are looking for the next book they want to represent or publish.

Your job in writing a book proposal is twofold: a) hook agents and publishers with exactly what they want to see and b) avoid the red flags that would make them move on.

8 Top Nonfiction Book Proposal Mistakes I See

miracle of writing a book
The opposite of a tired title! This title makes a promise!

A Tired Title

Nonfiction Book Proposal Mistake 1: Your title doesn’t sell the book. Granted, your publisher may well change your title. Still, you can’t afford to lead with a tired, confusing, misleading or otherwise not-amazing title. Your title should be catchy. It should sound fresh and relevant. For prescriptive nonfiction, your title needs to make it clear what problem you’re solving, who the book’s for and what results or benefits readers can expect. Generally, negative doesn’t sell. While there are exceptions, it’s almost always best to lead with an inspiring title when it comes to prescriptive nonfiction.

Blah Blah Blah

Nonfiction Book Proposal Mistake 2: Starting with generalities: “People are so stressed nowadays”: Begin with something captivating: a shocking statistic that demonstrates market size and desperation for what your book offers, a counterintuitive statement that makes the reader curious and attentive, an especially powerful story, or something that indicates the huge numbers of people (in your target market) you reach in a year.

Here’s what I told one author who had begun his Overview with a series of questions: “Given the power of your case studies, maybe the most compelling way to start the Overview would be with a story.” Do you have a good story to tell? Groundbreaking research to share? A fresh voice? Start with your strongest suit(s).

A to Z (Don’t Teach in a Nonfiction Book Proposal)

book cover become your childs sleep coach
This author kept her system simple in the proposal. She didn’t try to teach all the details in the proposal.

Nonfiction Book Proposal Mistake 3: Trying to teach your system to the agent/acquisitions editor/acquisitions board member who is reading your proposal. Yes, agents and acquisitions editors need to understand you have a system, but don’t lose them in the details.

Here’s what I told that same author in example 2: “Trying to explain the techniques in such detail and give so much information about the book’s format has us too much in the details and not enough with the big picture experience of the power of the tools/system and the emotional connection to what’s possible, and the sense of what makes the work fresh. A powerful story draws us in and demonstrates the dramatic promise of this book, what it can do for readers.”

Buried Treasure (Don’t Hide Your Platform)

Nonfiction Book Proposal Mistake 4: Minimizing the importance of platform: I once heard an agent say that if the author’s platform wasn’t highlighted in the first paragraph, she lost interest! While this may sound extreme, for a prescriptive (self-help, how-to or business) book, platform is almost always key to getting a book deal; often even more important than the content of the book.
Get your platform in place before querying agents or publishers. Are there shortcuts? There are some strategies that can help you build a case for selling large numbers of books, yes. I’ll be sharing them in my upcoming book proposal class that starts in October.

Format Fumbles

Nonfiction Book Proposal Mistake 5: Make yourself familiar with the format that publishers want to see. Double space your book proposal in twelve point font. Use normal margins. Indent the first line of each paragraph by 5. Do not add extra spacing between paragraphs. Using the correct format shows publishers that you will be easy to work with. You follow directions. You’re looking to make their job easy. It’s one of the very first things publishers will notice.
Have you made any of these 8 mistakes in your nonfiction book proposal? Here’s how to fix them! Have you made any of these 8 mistakes in your nonfiction book proposal? Here's how to fix them! Click To Tweet

Number Anemia 

While this author had a very short, one page, markets section, his markets were to the point and included research data and census data to back up claims and prove market size.

Nonfiction Book Proposal Mistake 6: Omitting sizes of primary and secondary markets. It’s not enough to include your primary and secondary markets. Be sure to include their size. How do you find those numbers? This is another area we’ll explore in my upcoming book proposal course.

A Focus on Pedigree

Nonfiction Book Proposal Mistake 7: Sure, mention you graduated from MIT and got your MD at Yale. But don’t go crazy listing every place you studied, interned, etc. Start out with what you’re known for and is related to the book’s subject. You’re an internationally recognized expert on x. Quickly back that up with your creds as a thought leader: where do you get invited to speak? Where have you been interviewed? Focus on platform because platform sells books; credentials does not, on its own, sell books. You can circle back to more about your credentials but keep them focused on those that relate to the book (or to marketing and selling a book).

Old Comps

Nonfiction Book Proposal Mistake 8: Old books as comps. I made this mistake myself. Publishers want you to compare your book to books that are on the market now. Not a classic from 20 years ago!

What to focus on in your Nonfiction Book Proposal, to Avoid Additional Mistakes

Your turn to write a successful nonfiction book proposal!

Your goal of the proposal is for the agent/publisher/acquisitions editor and acquisitions board to represent/publish the book. You want them to read the proposal and be convinced:

a) This is compelling and powerful, something people will buy. It fills a need in the marketplace.
b) This is fresh.
c) You have the platform to sell tens of thousands of books (for a large publisher) or at least quite a few thousand for a small, niche publisher.

How to Write a Book Proposal

Interested in writing the best book you possibly can? Consider joining Fast Track Your Book Proposal. I offer this program once a year.
You will learn how to write a book proposal, receive the accountability and support needed to get it done, and get my input on your book concept and other aspects of your book. In addition, the silver and gold plans include my feedback and editing on your entire book proposal.
Email me to explore whether your book idea is a good fit for this book proposal course before signing up, or fill out an application here.

Lisa Tener

Lisa Tener is an award-winning book writing coach who assists writers in all aspects of the writing process—from writing a book proposal and getting published to finding one’s creative voice. Her clients have appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Early Show, The Montel Williams Show, CNN, Fox News, New Morning and much more. They blog on sites like The Huffington Post, Psychology Today and WebMD.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Mary Jane Gandour, PhD says

    Hi Lisa,
    I so appreciate all you do to empower and assist writers. I wish I had known about you years ago!
    I have already self published a nonfiction book, Heart Work: A Family Pilgrimage Inspired by Sibling Grief, and feel like so many of the people I wanted to read it have indeed done just that. I have received a lot of positive feedback, but sales haven’t been particularly impressive. I realize that my audience is limited given the topic. However, many readers have told me that there is a universality in the themes of Heart Work.
    Do you ever do consults for authors like me who have written and self published books but want to reach a wider audience than they have to date? Are you able to give me a few ideas for promoting Heart Work and reaching more readers?
    I feel right between letting go and rolling my sleeves up.

    • Lisa Tener says

      Hi Mary Jane,
      At times I do, but right now, I am gearing up for my book proposal class and my hard drive died, so I am restoring – a several day process! Perhaps we can explore in a few weeks or I can recommend someone> just else email me after Thursday. And feel free to remind me if you don’t hear back.
      You can come to the Wednesday Q&A call and I can give you a few tips on the call.

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