Memoir book proposals differ from book proposals for other types of nonfiction such as a biography, a business leadership book or something else. So if you’re wanting to sell your memoir to a literary agent, publisher or editor, you need to put together a book proposal. But you’ll need to keep a few things in mind with memoir that are different from book proposals for other types of nonfiction.
Namely – the importance of your chapter samples and what, in publishing, is referred to as the ‘Book, the Hook, The Cook’.

But first – do you need a book proposal to sell your manuscript?

A book proposal is both a sales document and a chance for you to envision the full scope of the book and outline how you will approach it. The value of writing a book proposal is that it will help you clarify a lot about your book, the way you’ll tell the story and where it sits in the marketplace. You CAN sell a memoir without a book proposal – I did, with my first memoir. But I did have a synopsis, a great query letter, and the complete (and revised) FULL memoir draft.
I sold my second memoir (A Letter From Paris) on a very short proposal. This wasn’t the standard 30+ page proposal, because the first published memoir acted as ‘proof’ of a lot of what a book proposal would prove: namely, that you as the author are a safe bet for a publisher or agent to sign. I’d proven I could write a memoir from start-to-finish, publishers and agents can look up sales for any of your previous books, so I wasn’t starting ‘from scratch’ with this second memoir proposal.

To publishers, agents and editors, the book proposal is their ‘proof’ that you’ve thought the idea through and considered all aspects involved in writing it. It also shows them a valid sample of your writing style.

It’s not enough to just say “I have a great idea for a book” and expect someone to send you some money to write it…. (YES I’ve had writers ask me why they can’t do this?!) You need to show that you’ve considered your book idea deeply, and you do this via crafting a book proposal. You also need some ‘skin in the game’ so-to-speak, and writing a book proposal is that skin.
I’m editing this post to add: YOU NEED TO WRITE SOME OR ALL OF THE MEMOIR MATERIAL TO WRITE A GOOD BOOK PROPOSAL FOR MEMOIR.

Because it’s a narrative nonfiction, your sample material will show publishers and agents that there is a CLEAR and CONSISTENT narrative thread, a strong voice, and a strong hook.

The size and scope of book proposals varies wildly, but I’ll take you through the basics of a memoir book proposal, because that’s what I’ve written and sold.

Book proposals and story pitches

When I was a freelance journalist I learnt very quickly that getting a story commissioned was all about crafting a great ‘pitch’. The book proposal is simply a longer pitch document. The stakes are higher (a 4,5 or 6 figure deal Vs a $500 or $2K story commission), but it essentially does the same thing. You’re proposing a project to a publisher, showing them how you would approach it, ‘selling’ them on why you are the best person to write it, in the hopes that they will agree and commission the work!

Non-fiction book proposals vs memoir book proposals

While non-fiction books such as health, spiritual, self-help etc typically are sold on proposal-only, a memoir is slightly different. Non-fiction book proposals are much more sales and platform-focussed, where with memoirs it’s much more about the writing style.

Many publishers like to see the full manuscript before commissioning a memoir, particularly if the author has never published a book before. But many editors and agents are happy to work with an author to shape the material, if the proposal shows enough potential. Because selling a memoir is more connected with the author’s writing style, the hook and the voice than the author’s expertise, the sample material is much more important in the memoir proposal.

 

Memoir book proposals:

If you’ve never published a book before, your proposal will need to be much meatier and extensive. You need to show the potential publishers that you have the chops and the know-how to finish this book and do it well.

Because I’d already published a memoir when I wrote the proposal for A Letter From Paris (so my first memoir did the ‘heavy lifting’ of showing the potential publishers that I could deliver a manuscript), my book proposal was a little shorter than many I’ve seen for unpublished authors.

For my literary agent to sell A Letter From Paris to potential publishers, my book proposal included:

  • Synopsis  / Overview – and this included comparative titles and a sense of where it would sit in the marketplace.
  • Author Bio  / Platform (including published works)
  • Chapter Outlines (detailed and with a paragraph for each).
  • Sample material of 10 000 words.

My agent also wrote her own pitch for the project, when she sent it out (this was a short introductory email).

Non-Fiction Proposals

Non-fiction book proposals are much larger documents. I’ve ghost-written numerous book proposals, edited and seen many successful ones, and the emphasis is much larger on author expertise and platform.
If you’re selling a non-fiction book whether or not it’s a memoir, I’d suggest getting your hands on a copy of this excellent book by Jody Rein and Michael Larsen, which breaks down each section and answers most of your common questions (eg. Where to include links etc).  There’s also plenty of book proposal workshops out and about at the moment. Before you pay for a workshop, I would suggest getting as clear as you can on your book’s genre, first, and simply finding some comparative titles.

What goes into your memoir book proposal?

Here’s a very basic rundown of what to include in your memoir book proposal:

1. Synopsis or Overview

This can be the hardest thing to write but once it’s done, it’s like your map and your guide for the rest of the proposal.

A synopsis is anywhere between 350 and 500 words outlining the story, the hook, the style, the time-span, and finishing with some comparative titles and style reference points is good.
I teach you exactly how to structure your synopsis for memoir in my signature programme, The Art of Memoir. Again, I’ll stress that you will need a draft of your memoir to pitch a memoir if this is your first book. The Art of Memoir takes you through the draft and revision process completely.

2. Author Bio

Here I’ll give an idea of the audiences I regularly reach, my writing experience, top tier publications where I’ve had bylines and any other relevant information that conveys my writing background as it relates to this specific book. This is where you ONLY include relevant and pertinent media, bylines, facts. If you have an essay coming out soon, I would omit the name of the publication until it’s actually out – I had an essay in Vogue that was held for a year after they’d paid me for it. I didn’t use Vogue in my bio until it was actually published.

 

3. Chapter Outlines

This is when you really need to start visioning your book as a whole. You simply cannot sell a book without writing a fair chunk of it, and this is often where writers slip up.
At a minimum include a paragraph for each, including titles (if they have titles), and include the word count of the entire book (or the goal word count) up the top of this section. If your memoir has a unique structure (say, it’s a collection of related essays), this needs to be clear from the Chapter Outlines. You can go really in-depth with your chapter outlines (which is tedious), so I recommend ONLY doing a detailed chapter outline summary when you have revised and polished the full manuscript draft. why? Because you’ll have to completely rewrite them!

4. Sample material

In my experience this is the hardest and most important part of a memoir book proposal. If you’re selling a memoir on proposal only, you need to show the voice AND the slice of life AND the major themes the book will cover. You need to throw the reader into the story and make the ‘road ahead’ clear from this sample. You want it to be as good as possible – potential isn’t enough. At a minimum, include three sample chapters. You want these sample chapters to be AS GOOD AS YOU CAN POSSIBLY GET THEM. So spend some time on your manuscript before you start writing the proposal. This is why, for a first memoir, I recommend drafting the manuscript first.

My sample for A Letter From Paris was around 8000 words, but I suggest doing much more (and will write much more for the next proposal). The more of the book you’ve crafted and drafted, the better shape the sample will be in. Remember that writing is re-writing! And you want it to be as close to what you’ll be delivering as the finished manuscript, too. No publisher wants to get a different book to what they commissioned.

In summary:

Writing a book proposal for your memoir is a valuable exercise even if you aren’t pitching your book before completing the full manuscript. Why? Because it helps you start to phrase and frame your work in publishing terms: eg. intergenerational memoir, medical memoir and mystery with elements of XX meets XXX.
The more you practise your pitch, the better it gets. Want to know more about pitching a memoir well? Download my pitch guide for memoir by clicking on the picture below.