Cover image for The fast-track course on how to write a nonfiction book proposal
The fast-track course on how to write a nonfiction book proposal
Mettee, Stephen Blake, 1947-
Publication Information:
Clovis, Calif. : Quill Driver Books, [2002]

Physical Description:
117 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PN161 .M485 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
PN161 .M485 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



The hard, cold fact about getting a book published is that -- without something close to divine intervention -- an author is going to have to write a sales piece, called a book proposal, that will attract the attention of an editor or an agent. In fact, at most publishers, this sales piece is going to have to hold up under the scrutiny of a committee made up of a bevy of editors and a pod of sales and marketing people.With The Fast-Track Course on How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal, Mettee, a seasoned book editor and publisher, cuts to the chase and provides simple, detailed instruction that allows anyone to write a professional book proposal and hear an editor say Yes!According to Mettee, the first rule is: Do no harm. Too many authors don't pay enough attention to the small things like spelling and grammar and manuscript format that are needed to make their book proposals appear professional. They may have a great idea for a book -- and be eminently qualified to write it -- but they schmuck it up with slovenly disregard for the easy stuff.The last rule is: Be persistent. If you quit after your first rejection slip or after the thirteenth or the thirtieth, you'll never get published. Many books that are rejected scores of times go on to be best-sellers. You're not defeated until you give up.

Author Notes

Stephen Blake Mettee is president and publisher, Quill Driver Books/Word Dancer Press, Inc.



Chapter One First Things     Tens of thousands of ordinary people, people just like you and me, will have their nonfiction books published this year. For many of them, this will be their first time to be published.     Hundreds of these men and women will write their books with lofty dreams of fame and fortune, expecting, or at least hoping, their books will become international best-sellers--don't laugh, it does happen. Yet most of us write with more modest goals in mind: * Many write to further their careers--published authors stand out as leaders in their respective fields. * Some write to tell their life stories--well-written memoirs have been a hot genre since Mary Karr's best-selling The Liars' Club was published in 1995. * Some write to further a cause--Roman Catholic nun Helen Prejean wrote Dead Man Walking to call attention to the cruelties of the death penalty. * Others want to record local history before it is forgotten--Catherine Morison Rehart has attracted national attention due to the success of her series of regional (Central California) history books, The Valley's Legends & Legacies . * Others write because they have a bit of esoteric knowledge they want to share-- Been There, Should've Done That: 505 Tips for Making the Most of College , by Suzette Tyler, has sold 60,000-plus copies to date. * Some write to entertain--Tim Nyberg and Jim Berg combined to write the highly successful The Duct Tape Book a humorous look at an everyday item. * Some write to instruct-- Nasty People: How to Stop Being Hurt by Them Without Becoming One of Them , by Jay Carter, has enjoyed sales of 250,000-plus copies. * Some simply have a passion for their subject-- Chili Madness , by Jane Butel, has sold 312,000 copies. * Still others write just to fulfill a need their inner muse causes to rise up in them.     Whatever your motivation, if you have the desire, the tenacity, and a modicum of writing skills, you too can join the ranks of published nonfiction book authors.     Your first step is to choose a topic.     Your second is to write a book proposal. Sell your book to a publisher before you write it     Most nonfiction books are sold to a publishing house on the basis of a book proposal, usually before the book has been completely written--including books from first time authors. This means you don't even have to write the book until you have in hand a contract and, in most cases, an advance against royalties. A word about editors and agents     "Editor" is a title given to many people with various duties at a publishing house. The "managing editor's" duties, for instance, may have more to do with the day-to-day running of the business than reading and editing manuscripts. The editor in charge of acquiring manuscripts to publish, often bears the title "acquisitions editor." In many houses the lines between editorial duties are somewhat blurred with editors sharing duties to one extent or another.     Literary agents function as the go-between for author and publisher. Two of the main functions of an agent are to sell a publisher on the idea of publishing an author's manuscript and to negotiate the best deal for the author. (You approach a literary agent exactly the same way you approach an editor. As such, in order to make this book more readable, instead of writing "agent or editor" in each reference, I have simply used the term "editor." For this same reason I have dispensed with dual pronoun usages such as "his or hers.") What is a book proposal?     A book proposal is a ten-to fifty-page document designed to give an acquisitions editor enough information about your book and enough confidence in you as a writer that he will offer to publish it. The proposal must convince him that the book will sell enough copies to make a profit in addition to returning the expense in time and money his publishing house will need to invest.     Factors an editor will consider are the book's topic and the public's interest in this topic, your qualifications to write this book, existing competition in the form of other similar books, and a host of elements that define his company's publishing program.     Since your book proposal stands the chance of being the last thing of yours an editor will read, it must be an example of your best writing. I've already written my whole book, so I don't need a book proposal, right?     Wrong, for two reasons: Editors don't have the time to read whole manuscripts to find out if they are interested in a book, and a book proposal has information in it about market potential, competition, your qualifications, and other things that an editor needs to know in order to make a decision.     But stress not, writing a book proposal is a good drill to help you impartially evaluate your book. When you're done with the book proposal, you may find yourself going back and reworking parts of your book. Writing a book proposal sounds like a lot of work. Won't the editor just see the brilliance of my idea and jump at it?     Books are sold to editors in many different ways, and a formal book proposal isn't always necessary--Dean Koontz could get a contract for a book on how to write scary stories with a phone call (Dean, if you're reading this, give me a call.) as could O.J. Simpson for his memoirs--if he decided to confess.     Sometimes an author meets an editor socially, and a deal for a book ensues. Experts or other high-profile people are occasionally contacted by an editor in need of a book on a specific subject and a contract is signed without a formal book proposal being produced.     But, for those of us with average fame and average luck, the chances of selling an editor on a book project are increased immensely with a professional, well-thought-out and well-organized book proposal. How long should a book proposal be?     As the old saw about a woman's skirt goes, your proposal should be short enough to be interesting, but long enough to cover the subject. In most instances, a well-written proposal will run between ten and fifty pages.     Unlike with your high school English teacher, longer isn't better. You won't get extra points with an editor if you make him wade through five thousand unessential words. Be sure you include all necessary material, but, as is best in any writing, search out and expunge the superfluous. Publishers as specialists     The large, primarily New York-based, publishers often publish across a spectrum of genres. But, like doctors or attorneys who specialize in one area of medicine or law, most publishers are specialists. A publisher might publish only spiritual titles, another, only large-sized art books destined for coffee tables. Still another may only publish books on California.     Independent publishers often concentrate on a tightly focused niche market, perhaps books for firefighters or books dealing with Miami-Dade County history.     Many agents also specialize, developing contacts and working only with editors interested in certain types of books. A word of caution     What looks like a publisher, acts like a publisher, and sounds like a publisher, but isn't a publisher? A vanity press.     Some businesses masquerade as publishers in an effort to fool authors into paying to have their books "published." These businesses make their money off the payment the author gives them and, contrary to what their sales pitches may say, do little or no actual marketing of your book. These businesses--called vanity presses--charge you to typeset and print a number of copies of your book and either store them for you or ship them to you.     A handful of vanity presses have now appeared on the Internet utilizing new technologies that allow them to set up your book to be printed one copy at a time (or downloaded for reading on an e-book device or for printing on a home computer).     Few, if any, copies originating from a vanity press actually find their way onto bookstore or other retailer's shelves and, while some of these books do become available through online bookstores such as, without distribution and a realistic marketing program behind each title, sales are likely to be feeble.     If you are writing a check to a business that claims to be a publisher or calls itself a "subsidy publisher" understand that you are probably dealing with a vanity press. Conventional publishers     A conventional publisher will contract with you for certain rights to your work and pay you for these rights. These rights may include the right to publish your book in hardcover, paperback, mass-market paperback, electronic versions, or any combination thereof. If yours is a book that has movie potential, dramatic rights may be included in the agreement. The publisher also may wish to obtain the right to license spin-off products such as imprinted coffee mugs or calendars or to publish, or to license others to publish, the book in a foreign language.     Any or all these rights may be limited geographically, say North American rights or British Commonwealth rights. (See "The Author's Bundle of Rights" page 102 for a more complete explanation of rights.)     For the most part, conventional publishers are the only publishers that have open lines of distribution to the bookstores and other retailers and are the only publishers that will market your book.     Agents will only approach conventional publishers. Large corporation-owned publishers vs. smaller independent publishers     Inevitably, when I speak at writer's conferences, an author comes up and asks me if it would be better for her to look for a large publisher or a small independent.     I tell these authors I have no absolute answer to this question because each type of house has its strengths and weaknesses, as does each author and each book, and, besides, it's only with 20-20 hindsight that we will know for certain if the author chose correctly. Authors don't seem to find my reply very satisfying. Since you probably don't either, here are some things to consider: Large publishers     * Large publishers often offer bigger advances. This is important if your book doesn't sell well because it will be the only money you'll receive.     * Large publishers usually command better distribution into the bookstores than an independent. This often translates into bigger sales. It also means your Aunt Ida has a better chance of finding it in the Borders Books and Music in Trenton.     * Large publishers expect an author to do much of the book's marketing and promotion.     * Large publishers are usually part of an even larger corporate conglomerate and as such have a reputation as impersonal and bureaucratic.     * Large publishers usually have a bigger promotion budget. If any publisher is going to pay for an enormous pile of your books to be at the front door of every Barnes and Noble superstore (You didn't think each store manager just picked which books to stack out there, did you?), it'll be a large publisher.     * Large houses are notorious for dropping all promotion for a title that is slow coming out of the gate.     * Being published by a large, well-known publisher affords the author greater bragging rights at cocktail parties. Independent publishers     * Independents tend to be more successful with niche books than large publishers. This is because independents often focus on a single field, and their editors and marketing people become experts in this field. Niche magazines recognize these publishers and are anxious to review their books. Consumer begin to trust them and often loyally purchase their new titles.     * Independents have a reputation for keeping books in print longer. This gives the book a chance to find its audience. Some books don't take off until the second year or later. That a book stays in print is particularly important to an author who plans to make back-of-the-room sales of her book at seminars or other presentations over a number of years.     * Independent publishers expect an author to do much of the book's marketing and promotion.     * Barnes and Noble reports that they get most of their titles--if not most of their sales--from independents.     * Libraries, which constitute a large market for nonfiction books, are as willing to buy books published by independents as they are from the large publishers.     * Independent publishers are thought of as being more personal and caring. You often can call and talk to the owner of an independent if you have a problem. As an author, you'll probably mean more to an independent. (Of course this relative closeness can backfire for a publisher. I have one or two authors who think nothing of calling me at home on a Sunday to discuss something as urgent as the proper placement of a comma.)     * Independents often focus more heavily on nontraditional outlets for their books, such as gift shops, museums, and tourist attractions. Since these outlets tend to have a smaller, more focused selection of titles, a single title often enjoys larger sales than it would in a traditional bookstore. Another bonus is that these outlets often buy on a nonreturnable basis, whereas books sold into the traditional book market generally are sold on terms that allows their return to the publisher if the retailer doesn't sell them. (This affects the author because publishers don't pay royalties on returned books.)     * Independents will often continue to market a title that starts off with slow sales.     * Independent publishers often offer the same royalties as larger houses. This helps to counter receipt of a smaller advance, particularly if an independent keeps a book in print longer than a large publisher would have.     So what's the bottom line? At least on your first book, you are probably not going to get a choice of publishers. When an offer comes, check to be certain that the publisher is reputable and that the contract is fair, and then take a leap of faith. Will I need an agent?     With most independent publishing companies and some of the bigger houses, you won't require the services of a literary agent in submitting your proposal. However, a good agent will not only have her submissions moved to the top of the editor's slush pile, she will act as your business advisor and career counselor, easily earning her 15 percent commission.     One of the valuable things an agent may do is review your book proposal with an eye to having you make it stronger before it is sent to a publisher. This alone may be worth the agent's commission, since a weak proposal is less likely to make the sale to the editor.     Agents are often reluctant to spend time submitting to independent publishers because these smaller houses share a reputation for offering modest advances and paying less in royalties. However, with the large houses paying less today, and some of the smaller ones paying more, this distinction is becoming somewhat diminished.     If you decide to use an agent, your agreement might state that she has a certain number of months to present your proposal to the larger houses, and if something isn't brewing by the end of this time period, you are free to begin submitting the proposal to the independents without incurring any obligation to the agent if you are successful.     If your genre of book is only published by independents--some topics are too esoteric to attract a large house--you might arrange for an agent to review both your book proposal and any resulting contract offers on a set fee basis.     Remember, you use the same proposal and submission process to attract an agent's interest as you do an editor's. As mentioned above, the advice in this book for approaching and working with an editor applies equally to agents. How do I find the right publisher or agent to submit to?     Since it is a waste of time to submit to publishing houses or literary agencies that would not be interested in the type of book you're writing, it is important to learn what type of material an agent or a publisher would like to see before submitting.     There are a number of good guides to publishers and agents on the market. Most can be found at a decent public library. Writer's Market is quite good and probably the best known. Literary Market Place supplies information on publishers as well as a host of other industry entities. LMP is a big, multivolume work that may be found in most public libraries. The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses has the most comprehensive listing of smaller, independent presses, which are often overlooked by authors (Read: aren't inundated each year by hundreds of book proposals).     The best of guides to publishers and agents give the name of the publisher or agent and delineate what types of material each publishes or is interested in seeing. They also give the name of the person you should submit to, how to contact this person e-mail, snail mail, with query only, or full proposal--and if he or she wishes to see multiple submissions, that is, submissions sent to more than one agent or editor at a time.     In The American Directory of Writer's Guidelines , you'll find the actual guidelines written by the editors of the publishers listed. These guidelines will help you mold your proposal to meet their specific needs.     Another way to find a publisher is to visit a large bookstore and look for books similar to the one you want to write. Publishers of similar books are good candidates to approach with your book idea. Look these publishers up in the guides mentioned above to obtain editors' names and addresses.     Editors change jobs and publishing companies move. Spend the price of a phone call to check that you are submitting to the correct person at the correct address. It is the mark of an amateur to address a query letter or proposal to an editor's predecessor. SASE     Because of the volume of submissions editors receive each year, it is customary for an author to include with a query letter or a proposal a self-addressed, stamped envelope for the editor to use when responding. Undoubtedly, an editor who is interested in your book project will contact you whether you have included an SASE or not. Thus, an SASE's primary purpose is so you'll hear from the editor if he isn't interested.     The SASE that you send with your proposal can be a #10 business envelope (in which case, the editor will trash or recycle the material you sent), but I suggest you include a large envelope with enough postage to get back everything you send. Editors have been known to make notations on rejected proposals that may prove helpful to you.     Do not send money, a check, or loose stamps in the place of an SASE. Multiple submissions: smart or taboo?     Some agents and editors ask that you don't submit your proposal to anyone else until they have had a chance to respond. They do this because they don't want to take the time to consider your proposal and then find out it is no longer available because another agency or publishing house has picked it up.     It's a fact of life that editors usually take one to three months--and sometimes longer--to respond to an unsolicited book proposal or query letter. It is also a fact of life that book proposals must often be presented to dozens of publishers before finding a home. You do the math. Can an author afford single submissions? Perhaps ... if she hasn't reached her seventh birthday yet.     Do you notify the editor that yours is a multiple submission? You can; it's polite. Many authors indicate this by placing "simultaneous submission" at the bottom of the last page of the query. Some even feel this is subtle pressure to get the editor to hurry and make a decision. Just remember, the easiest and quickest decision an editor can make is to say "No." Do you really want to rush him?     If you decide to multiple submit, should you submit to an editor whose listings in the guides say "No multiple submissions accepted"? Sure. In some instances the editor receiving the proposal doesn't even know the listings say that, and, of course, if it's a work he would like to publish, he's not going to decline to consider it because of a technicality. What's a query letter?     A query letter is a letter you send to an agent or an editor asking if he would like to see a full proposal on your book idea. Rarely should a query letter be longer than six to eight paragraphs. See page 25 for more information about query letters. Mettee's secret     Shhhssh! Don't tell anyone. It's a secret I reveal only at writer's conferences--it helps draw a crowd to my workshops if a rumor gets out I'm telling secrets--and even then I make the participants swear a blood oath to never tell another soul. But, since you bought this book, I'll share it with you. It's this: Always send your full book proposal with your query letter--even if the publisher's listing in the guides says "Query first only."     Pretty heady stuff, huh? Okay, well, I didn't say it was an earth-shattering secret. But if you adhere to it, you'll sell more books.     Why? Let's take a look at the options an editor has when he gets a query. First, if he hates the idea, he'll reject it immediately. On the other hand, if he loves the idea, he'll immediately request to see the full proposal.     But what if he's a fence-sitter? What if he's thinking "Well, this is a pretty good idea. Maybe I should ask for the whole proposal ... but ..."? The next thing that goes through his mind is, he's really busy and if he asks to see a proposal, he's morally obligated to remember he asked for it and to bring it to the top of the slush pile and to read it, and if he doesn't like it, to respond with more than a form rejection letter, and the author might actually call to talk about it, and does he have time for all this for a book he's not really excited about?     Or the marketing department might call looking for those prepublication blurbs he'd promised them, or his boss might come in for a short chat or to drop off those new budget figures the editor's supposed to go over--by tomorrow morning. In these instances he's too likely to do the easy thing, to pull out that little slip of paper that begins "Thank you for letting us see this ..."     But, if the sheet right beneath your query is the first page of your proposal, you have a second chance to hook him. And, do you think for a minute, if he likes it, he'll reject the proposal because you broke the rules and included it with the query? Naw. Won't happen. Not on this green earth.     But remember, it's our little secret. Don't tell anyone. Promise? How long should I wait to hear from an editor?     It must have been different in the years before World War II. The famous Scribner and Son's editor Max Perkins apparently dropped whatever his plans were on days new material arrived from then relatively unknown authors such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Unfortunately, today's acquisition editors support the leaden burden of workloads that extend well beyond reading the incoming mail.     They attend marketing meetings, budget meetings, title selection meeting, work with authors already on contract, analyze data, write reports, and, even occasionally, do some editing. An editor may not get to your proposal for six to eight weeks--or longer. And, while the majority of editors are sensitive to an author's wish for a quick response, most do not relish calls from authors checking up on a proposal's status. (Continues...) Excerpted from The Fast-Track Course on How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal by Stephen Blake Mettee. Copyright (c) 2002 by Stephen Blake Mettee. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. v
Chapter 1 First Thingsp. 1
Chapter 2 The Query Letterp. 25
Chapter 3 The Proposalp. 37
Sample Query Letterp. 61
Sample Book Proposalp. 64
Sample Agency Contractp. 81
Sample Book Contractp. 85
Nonfiction Book Proposal Checklistp. 100
Standard Manuscript Format for a Book Proposalp. 101
The Author's Bundle of rightsp. 102
Selected Booksp. 104
Glossaryp. 107
Indexp. 115
About the Authorp. 120