If you’re pitching a non-fiction book (which includes memoir) to a literary agent, publisher or editor, you need to put together a book proposal.
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.
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.
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.
Non-fiction book proposals are much larger documents. I’ve ghost-written a couple and read many successful ones, and the emphasis is much larger on author expertise and platform. If you’re selling a non-fiction book, 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?
I’m in the process of outlining a new memoir project, and this is what I’ll be including in my 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. For more on writing your memoir synopsis, I made you a guide here.
2. Author Bio
Here I’ll give an idea of the audiences I regularly reach, my writing experience, my publications and any other relevant information that conveys my writing background as it relates to publishing this memoir.
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.
4. Sample material
Wowee, in my opinion 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 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.
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.
Writing a book proposal is a valuable exercise even if you aren’t pitching your book before completing the full manuscript. Why? It gives you an outline to how you’ll approach the project, which you can then use as a sort of a blueprint or a map every time you feel you’re getting a bit lost. It also 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.
When I sat down to write A Letter From Paris (after selling it nine months earlier on proposal), it wasn’t as frightening to sit down at the blank page as I had something to work from. It was still scary, for sure, but I had 8000 words, and an outline, which was something.
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