Proposing Prose

Writing Magazine – August 2020

Securing a non-fiction book contract means having a business plan. Simon Whaley reveals what to put into your next book proposal

Do you have an idea for a great non-fiction book and want to secure a traditional publishing deal? Then what you need is a business plan. 

It’s more commonly called a non-fiction book proposal. However, when it comes to the business of writing, it is, effectively, a business plan you’re creating.

The beauty of writing a non-fiction book is that you don’t need to write the whole book first. Unlike a novel (where a complete manuscript is needed before you approach publishers or agents), a traditionally-published non-fiction book contract often results from a proposal. Sell the idea first, then write the book.

This makes perfect business sense. It reduces risk. Why waste a lot of time and effort writing a book that may not secure a publisher? Not only that, but you could also incur research costs and other expenditure while producing the book, and still not find a publisher.

Therefore, time spent developing a business plan demonstrating to a traditional publisher why they should publish your book is rarely time wasted. And it may even secure an advance to help out with some of those research costs.

When creating your non-fiction book business plan, make sure you consider the following points:

Project, Scope, Intention

Begin with a short section summing up what the book is about, what it will cover (and what it won’t), as well as what you’re hoping readers will achieve after reading your book.

Consider three keywords: project, scope and intention.

The project refers to the subject matter. What will the book discuss? 

The scope identifies how much of your subject matter your book will cover, and, just as importantly, what it won’t discuss. Some subject matters are better dealt with at a beginner, intermediary or professional level. So, will your idea best suit beginners? In which case, you’ll omit the more professional-level information. Alternatively, will your book target the intermediary level? If so, there’s no need for you to cover the basics.

The intention explains how you hope readers will benefit from this knowledge that you’ll be giving them.

Target Market

Next, think about your key readers. Who are you writing this book for?

All business plans have numbers in them, and a book proposal is no different. Quantifying your potential market helps publishers do their own number crunching.

When they’re considering a non-fiction book idea, they know how much it costs to print and produce a book. They also know what the recommended retail price should be and, therefore, how many copies they’ll need to sell to make a profit from it. That’s the riskier element of the equation. How big is the potential market?

Any realistic numbers you can quote here will help publishers make their decision. For example, when I proposed my book Fundraising for a Community Project I researched the National Lottery grant scheme and discovered that during one three-month period they received grant applications from over 54,000 community projects across the UK. And that was just one funder!

Similarly, when I pitched my Best Walks in the Welsh Borders walking guide, I mentioned the 250,000 tourists who each year visit some of the beauty spots I included in my book.

When a friend of mine pitched One Hundred Ways For A Chicken To Train Its Human she quoted the circulation figures of Practical Poultry magazine.

Now, just because you can quote these numbers, that doesn’t mean this is the size of your market. But it hints at the potential size. At the time, Practical Poultry had a circulation of about 20,000 readers. That didn’t mean 20,000 people would buy her book. But if a publisher knows they need to sell 500 copies to cover their costs, knowing there are 20,000 people out there who buy a magazine about keeping chickens every month, helps to minimise the risks.

Use several different sources of information if you can, to help the publisher build up a realistic picture. Are there any specialised clubs or societies that may be interested in your book? How many members do they have?

Counting Competition

Yes, mention competing books in your business plan! Every business needs to know who its competitors are, including authors.

Not only does it show the publisher that you’ve done your research, but it also demonstrates that other publishers have determined there’s a market for a book on this subject matter. And if one publisher has a book on that subject matter, then other publishers may want their slice of that market.

More importantly, explain how your book differs from the competition. When I pitched Photography for Writers to a publisher, there was already a book out called Successful Photography for Writers. But it had been published in 2005 and discussed how to send 35mm slides to magazines. It mentioned nothing about digital photography … because it hadn’t taken off when that book was published. So I was offering a book for today’s market, which focussed on digital photography. That was the difference.

Look at the reviews of any existing and competing books. Sometimes, readers of these books will help you sell your idea. When I pitched my Fundraising for a Community Project book, I found only one potential competing book. The reviews on Amazon made interesting reading: “Clear and concise, but very ‘Americanised’” said one, while the other said, “We could do with a book like this written with English connections in.” Kerching! There was my difference.

If readers find something lacking in other books, perhaps your book will be the one that fills that gap.

And remember your scope. Perhaps a competing book is brilliant for beginners, but there’s nothing out there for intermediaries. You may find the publisher of the beginner book will be interested in your book for intermediaries. They already know the size of the market. Why sell a reader one book, when they could sell them two?

Sell Yourself

Why are you the best person to write this particular book? Sell yourself! I told publishers I was the best person to write Fundraising for a Community Project because I’d spent six years working for a Community Development department in local authority explaining to community groups how to go about completing grant applications.

I was the best person to write Best Walks in the Welsh Borders because I live in the Welsh Borders, regularly go walking there, and write walking route descriptions for magazines like Country Walking and BBC Countryfile.

When it comes to selling yourself, what you’re really selling is your expertise. If you’ve just spent the past year travelling the canals of Britain on a narrowboat then you’re best-placed to write a book about the British Canal System. If you’ve spent the past thirty years working as a nurse in the NHS, you’re the best person to write a book about how to deal with minor injuries in the home.

A business plan should give your business partner confidence in you. They’ll use your experience and expertise to help sell your book to readers.

Book Length and Delivery

Explain in your proposal what your book’s estimated word count will be. Will it be 30,000, 50,000 or 120,000 words? (Suffice to say the 120,000-word book will go into four times as much detail as the 30,000-word version.) Check out the length of books your target publisher produces. Offer a length similar to those of its other books. Better still, twist your idea to fit an existing series, or format.

Best Walks in the Welsh Borders was designed to fit the publisher’s existing Best Walks inseries. Each book was 50,000 words, had 35 routes of various lengths with maps and photos. So, I pitched a 50,000-word book with 35 routes of various lengths and maps and photos.

Many of the books published by How To Books, whom I approached with Fundraising for a Community Project were 50,000 words. I pitched a 50,000-word book.

Be realistic with delivery timescales. If you’re offered a contract, how long after that will it take to deliver the book? For Best Walks in the Welsh Borders, I said a year, to give me time to walk all of those 35 different routes and sort out maps and photos. For Fundraising for a Community Project, I was able to devote the next six months to the project.

Don’t forget to allow sufficient time to undertake all the necessary research, as well as write the book.

Why This Publisher?

Flatter them, but don’t go over the top. Mention how your book may complement an existing book. If they sell one for beginners, then your book targeting intermediaries would complement their existing catalogue.

If you’ve identified a series, then explain why your book idea best fits their series format.

Chapter Plan

Next, provide a chapter plan, with a paragraph summarising the content of each chapter. Not only does this show how you’ll tackle your subject matter, but it also confirms the scope of your project.

First Chapter

While you don’t need to write the whole book now, you do need to write the first chapter. This shows the publisher your writing style and how you convey information. Spend time on this, because it needs to be engaging, grammatically correct and error-free. This is the standard the publisher will expect of the rest of your book, should they commission.

Then, when you’re ready, send it off. And if it comes back rejected, all you need to do is tweak your business plan to make it appropriate for the next publisher on your list.

One non-fiction book project can lead to another, as well as other opportunities, such as speaking at conferences, tutoring, after-dinner speaking, or even audiobook options.

All great business relationships begin with a great business plan. Get your facts and figures right and you could secure a traditional publishing contract and a long-lasting business relationship with the publisher.


(c) Simon Whaley