Writing a non-fiction proposal

By   Hannah Bickerton 6 min read

So, you’re a writer – or at least you hope you are – and you want to write some non-fiction? There’s so much out there on writing a novel, it’s true, but there’s not a great deal to guide you in how to write non-fiction. I’d like to help.

I’m a literary agent who specialises in non-fiction writers of all stripes, academics, journalists and general authors writing in that space. Hopefully, I can help you craft your proposal for an agent’s eyes.

Non-fiction books don’t tend to be sold on the whole manuscript. Instead, they are sold on a proposal – a document that tells an editor what the subject being written about is, how it is going to be written about, and (normally) gives a sample of that writing.

But before we get into that, there’s a question you need to ask yourself.

Who are you, and what are you writing?

The first question you need to ask yourself is the most basic: is this the right thing to be writing about, and are you the right person to write it? The key argument for a non-fiction book is that it could only, really, have been written by you, and that it would make a worthy subject for a book. Are you an expert on the subject? Have you written a monthly newsletter on it, do you write about it for magazines, are you an academic studying it? Is it your life, special and unique? If so, you’re the person to write about it. If you’re a Polish dairy farmer writing about the dairy industry, with a fascinating story to boot, go mad! If you’re a Polish dairy farmer who’s watched a bit of Shakespeare and wants to write a revisionist history of the great bard, you might be out of luck… Try getting a few things published in magazines and newspapers first. Build your profile in your specialised subject before you go for a book.

Is it actually book-worthy?

This is the key pitfall to most non-fiction submissions I see. They are magazine articles, or they are too limited in scope, or too academic. Ask yourself some more questions here:

Could my entire thesis be put into a Guardian Long Read, or a 3,000-word article somewhere else? Yes? It’s a magazine article, not a book.

Do enough people care? Is your story universal, or fascinating, or wide enough to encompass more than the 300 people interested in the Polish dairy farm industry? If not, expand it. Broaden it out. Take the themes, and your experience in the Polish dairy farm industry, and use those as the basis for a broader story about dairy farming around the world, and why we should actually care. Only the Polish dairy farm industry wants an 80,000-word book on Polish dairy farming, so no one else is going to want to look at that proposal.

What to write:

So, you’re the right person to write this book, and you’re pretty sure the audience is there? Great! In that case, what do you need to include?

Non-fiction books are, as I mentioned at the start, most often sold on the basis of a proposal. A proposal is there to act as a sales tool, to help an editor and their colleagues better understand the nature of the book, and to assess its potential when it comes to sales. It is not the book. It needs to give the editor a sense of what the book will be, but also what it will feel like to read. For me, a proposal has to do two things: it has to give all the information that the editor needs, in a clear and concise way, and it must give some sense of what the final book will feel like as a reading experience.

Let me use an example: the proposal needs to be both the Wikipedia page for the movie Die Hard – where I can find out it was made for $40 million dollars and starred Bruce Willis, and read a very clear, blow-by-blow account of the story. But it should also be the 30-second trailer for the film, in which there are explosions, a funny one-liner and a tank-top-clad Bruce Willis firing a machine gun.

I repeat, a proposal is not the book itself. It serves a different function. To use the above example, the Wikipedia page and the trailer for Die Hard are quite emphatically not the movie Die Hard – their purposes are different from those of the film. Similarly, the purpose of the proposal is different from the purpose of your book. When you write a book, your audience is the reader. The audience for your proposal is an editor and her team. They want to know what will be original and interesting and great about your book.

This means you want to include a few things:

A summary of the book: think of this as a blurb-plus. An expanded version of what would go on the back of the book, showing clearly the themes and story of how the rise of Polish dairy farming influenced the rest of the world, and changed its shape forever.

About the author: See above. This showcases your writing, your expertise, who you are.

A chapter summary: A breakdown of where your book will go, and a short paragraph or two on the contents of each chapter. Think of this as the ‘how-to’ that you are giving to an editor. The colour-by-numbers approach to writing your book. No one expects you to follow this to the letter – they just need a clear sense that you have a clear sense of where the book will progress.

Some writing (preferably on-topic): This might be the intro and a chapter on Frisian cow breeding in the greater Krakow area, say. Or an article in Polish Cows Daily that you published, articulating your thesis with room for expansion.

A good agent will help you mould that proposal into shape. They will be struck by your initial idea for a book on the dairy industry around the world and will agree with the general audience it is intended for. They may give you pointers on how to expand or contract the book – incorporating the yoghurt-making industry in South Korea, say, as a way of telling a slightly different story. They will guide you through the structural side of the proposal – the Wikipedia entry – through to how to prove yourself as the best writer for the job. They will edit your sample writing and perhaps have a conversation about which of the potential chapters to write up in full, to best showcase your work. They will know the editors who may be interested in your book.

For this reason, when you approach an agent with a non-fiction idea, a thorough and complete proposal is not always entirely necessary. There is a great deal of close collaboration. A summary of what you want to do and how you want to do it, perhaps a chapter breakdown and some examples of your writing may well do the trick, as long as you prove you’re the right author. But if you want to wow the agent, write that Wiki/trailer – approach it with the care and attention you want them to take when they read your idea. There’s a lot of opportunity to write on something new. Grab it.

Max Edwards founded Apple Tree Literary in 2019, after working at the likes of United Agents, Rogers, Coleridge and White and Mulcahy Associates previously. He works across both non-fiction and fiction, but has a particular affinity for the former, where he represents a number of brilliant journalists and academics. In his (masochistic) spare time, he’s a qualified football referee and enthusiastic gin-drinker.  He doesn’t actually like cows very much. . 

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.