So You Want to Write a Book, Part I: The Proposal

So in the previous post I updated you all on Nature’s Poisons and the forthcoming book, you can check it out here: Nature’s Poisons, the Book!

There’s a saying “everyone has a book in them.” I don’t know if that’s true, or if everyone should let that book monster out, but if it’s something you aspire to do, then this post’s for you!

My goal here, today, is to walk you through this process. I know there is information online, but it’s still daunting, and I thought I’d tackle it from the point-of-view from the writer, not those of an agent or publisher. All of this is to say, I’m not a publishing expert. These are things I thought about and did that helped me on my journey. If something is useful to you, throw it in your bag and carry it with you. If it’s not helpful, leave it on the trail for someone else.

First, a bit of housekeeping. If you want to self-publish, my experience won’t help you much. By all means, please read it, but there are better shepherds for you out there. This is also about traditionally published NON-FICTION, which is a different beast than FICTION. The steps are a bit different.

For fiction, you: write the book, edit the crap out of it, get an agent, then sell it to a publisher.

In non-fiction you: write a proposal for your book idea, get an agent, sell it to a publisher, then you write the book and edit the crap out of it. If you’ve made it this far, the takeaway is don’t write the non-fiction book yet! (I don’t know, historically, why you get paid an advance before you write a non-fiction book. I suspect it has to do with upfronting money to research the book or travel, whatever expenses are needed to write the thing.)

So let’s get started, shall we? Obviously you want to write a book. Non-fiction, remember? You may have a lot of reasons for wanting to do this and it’s not up to me to decide if they’re good or not, but I want you to think about a few things: is it a good idea, is there a need or market for it, and are you the best person to write it? Do this now, because I guarantee you 100% that agents and publishers are asking the same thing. You can save yourself a lot of time and heartache.

Is it a good idea? Do people constantly say “you should write a book” or “this thing you do is so cool, you should totally write a book about it?” I know this is vague, but if you’re really into raw meat smoothies and have a collection of 100 recipes, are people in awe or in eww? In general, are people interested in it? Maybe it’s very timely and topical or maybe it’s a new way of looking at an old thing. Figuring out who will buy the book is a good metric for whether it’s a good idea or not, which leads us to…

Is there a market for it? There is no market for meat smoothies. Yes, people make them. Yes, you can find recipes online, but seriously, how many people would buy that book? Think about whether your book is a niche market or has wider appeal. The wider the audience, the easier it is to get an agent and sell it to a publisher, but don’t let that detract you. Niche books are great too, especially if they haven’t been written about before. For example, you want to write about the secret history of the coin operated Pac-Man video game and the people behind it. Yeah, it’s niche, but it appeals to people in the video game business, people interested in history, and nostalgic Gen-Xers. For the other extreme, lets take the US Civil War. There are thousands of books on it already. Do we need another one? No, not if it’s a regurgitation of what everyone already knows. But if it’s something new and unique? Like you have a great-great-grandmother that dressed as a man and fought for the Union, and you have all the daily letters she sent back home to her lover? I want to read that story.

Are you the best person to write it? You obviously have to have the knowledge to write the book, but sometimes knowledge isn’t enough. Like our Civil War example, can you write the book if you’re just a collector and stumbled across the letters? Yes, but it’s more impactful if you’re related to the person, and can tap into your family and the stories they’ve heard and told. I do a lot of Thai cooking. I could probably write a Thai cookbook, but I’m not a chef, I don’t have a Thai restaurant, I’ve never been to Thailand, and I’m not Thai. Bare minimum, you probably need at least one of those things. Is it possible for me to write a cookbook as well as someone else? Of course, but why would a buyer pick my cookbook off the shelf? A plain dude with no connections to Thai cooking or culture.

So you’ve decided that you have a good idea, you think people would want to read it, and you have the expertise or credentials to write this book? Great! You’re ready to take the plunge: THE BOOK PROPOSAL!

A non-fiction book proposal is like the business plan for your book – the goal is to get an agent, and eventually a publisher, to buy into the project. It not only goes through the idea, but details who the market for the book is, why you’re the one that should write it, other books that are similar to it, and what your marketing plan is. Publishing is a business, after all, and selling the book to readers is the driver for nearly every decision. Harsh, but true.

I’m fortunate to have a friend that is a excellent non-fiction science writer that has gone through the process, and I was able to use her proposal as a guide. You may not have a person like that in your life, which is why I’m here to help you. I’m just trying to pay it forward the best I can.

This is by no means the definitive way of organizing a book proposal – one doesn’t exist – but it worked for me, and you’ll have to have these sections somewhere. In addition to the front page with the title of your book and your name, phone number, address, email, etc, you’ll need these sections:

  1. Overview
  2. Biography
  3. Audience and Market
  4. Format
  5. Competitive and Comparative Titles
  6. Promotion
  7. Chapter Summaries
  8. Sample Chapter
  1. Overview: This should be what the book is about, but you need to hook the agent and publisher right off the bat, so keep it brief. Think about a book at the bookstore. You pick it up and what do you do? You flip it over and read the blurb on the back. Write that blurb, 50-100 words. Here was mine:

From plants and animals, from fungi to food, poisons surround us. In a format that will educate and entertain both general audiences and seasoned experts alike, Nature’s Poisons looks at the toxins that kill, maim, injure, and sicken. Interwoven with the science and history of these poisons are stories of true crime and real-life intoxications, making for a compelling, and sometimes humorous, journey into nature’s most vicious creations.

Short, sweet, to the point. It either interests you or it doesn’t. I followed that up with a specific poison and two tales of poisoning, one of historical importance and one recent and devious. The point here was to showcase a bit of writing, so people could see that I could write (or at least write well enough that their editing could fix it!). I ended with another 100 words about the book in general: The goal of the book, how many words, and how long it would take to write. You have to hook the agent here! Make them interested enough that they say “Damn, I wish there was more, this is really cool.” If you don’t hook them here there’s nothing in sections 2-8 that will help you because they’ll stop reading.

2. Biography: All about you. What is special about you that makes you the best person to write this book? For me, I’m a forensic toxicologist with a blog. If you’re writing The Secret History of Pac-Man it helps if you’re in video game development. It’s easier to sell a book if you worked for Bandei Namco Entertainment (the company behind Pac-Man) as their Chief Historian for 20 years. People believe that you’re an expert in this field and can accurately write this book.

One thing everyone dreads, and I see this online a lot, is PLATFORM. The idea is you have to be famous or have a large social media presence to sell a book. That’s not entirely true. Yes, it helps if you’re a social media darling with 100 million followers. You could literally write that meat smoothie book if you wanted to. But if you’re not, that’s OK, but at least have some presence. Twitter, a blog, something. Having a minimal built-in audience for your book is great, but not the be-all-end-all. Besides, you’ll want that social media presence when it comes time to market your book.

So for me, this section was about my education and work background, why I’m interested in poisons, a bit about the blog and the number of views it gets, and Twitter following. Most everyone that follows the blog and me on Twitter likes science, plants, or poisons, so there’s a built-in audience for the book, but it’s not a massive audience, and that’s OK.

3. Audience and Market: Who is the book written for and who will buy it? I dropped a couple of titles in there, “If you liked XYZ, you’ll like Nature’s Poisons” to give the agent or editor a sense of what we’re going after. Then who would be interested in it? For me it was people that are excited about:

  • Natural history and botany
  • Chemistry and biology
  • Medicine and pharmacology
  • True crime and poisonings
  • Forensic sciences

For each of those sub-heading I included recent titles of popular books. So if people like science and true crime, and love Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook, they’ll like my book, too.

But think outside the box, too. I discovered my blog and topic was popular with teachers and writers, so I included them as well. Not to foreshadow too much, but Nature’s Poisons will help a lot of crime writers.

4. Format: How many chapters, how many words, photos, illustrations? How long will it take to complete? Be as accurate and realistic as you can. And bigger isn’t always better. No one wants to read 200,000 words on Pac-Man. And don’t over promise. Don’t say you’ll write 200,000 words on Pac-Man in 3 months. That’s just not going to happen, especially if you have a full-time job. Publishers would rather have a well-crafted 75,000 word book in 12 months, than one hastily written in 6 months. Unless it’s something super topical and timely, that 6 months shouldn’t make or break a deal. For me, I suggested 80,000 words in 15 months, and no one batted an eye.

5. Competitive and Comparative Titles: These are the recent titles (no more than ~3-years old) that are similar to yours, often just called “comps.” Don’t be afraid if there’s a book already out there, especially if it’s doing well. It’s a good thing! Would I have been able to sell Nature’s Poisons if Deborah Blum hadn’t written The Poisoner’s Handbook or Amy Stewart hadn’t written Wicked Plants? Probably not. So even though my book is similar in nature to Wicked Plants, it sold extremely well, and I could point out how my book is different. Similar enough to attract the same readers, yet different enough to not be a clone of it.

How do you know how popular a competitive title is? Look up the book on Amazon. Scroll down to the “Product Details” and you’ll see their BSR, their “Best Sellers Rank” based on how many copies are selling right now and how the book is categorized. There are BSRs for both print copy and e-copy (Kindle). A BSR of 2,000, the 2,oooth most popular book on Amazon, is huge. It means both the print and e-copies are selling at around 100 copies per day each! Here’s a hard copy example, the book is doing very well!

Also, don’t hide any competitive titles, even if they sell poorly. That says a lot about you, and it’s not good, I’m afraid. Agents and publishers are book experts, you’re not going to slide anything past them. There are similar books to mine that sell/sold horribly, but I could point out how mine was different. Those other books were more like text books, whereas mine is more narrative. It’s OK, really. Be as complete as possible.

6. Promotion: How are YOU going to promote this book once it’s published? For all that is good and holy, DON’T say you’re “available for book tours, etc.” Those things are largely dead anyways, and if the publisher did provide money for one, it’s kind of expected that you’d go. This section is about what you WILL do, not what you COULD do.

Using the “secret history of Pac-Man” theme, with your contacts, which you have because you’re the best person to write this book, you will give a talk about the book at the National Video Game Museum that’s only 50 miles away from you. You will give a talk to your local gaming group. You will give a talk at the local university’s computer science department. You will promote it on social media. You will write an article about Donkey Kong for Gamer Magazine, promoting your book in the “about the author blurb.” You’ll take part in a virtual Zoom panel on video game history at a ComicCon. You’ll reach out to podcasts to be on their shows.Think outside the box on this one. The goal is to get your book in front of as many people as possible. Things you WILL do.

Who could “blurb” the book? Those are the nice quotes from other people on the book cover. You will reach out to the world record Pac-Man player, that you know well, for a blurb. You will reach out to the former president of Bandai and the head Pac-Man designer. You will ask for a blurb from the woman that wrote the best seller Donkey Kong: One Barrel at a Time.

7. Chapter Summaries: This is a list of the chapters and what will be in them. For me, each chapter is a specific poison or class of one, and I spent about 100 words describing what each chapter was about, trying to hook the reader (agent or editor) into wanting to learn more. Where the poisons are from, who got poisoned, why it’s important or cool. You want to hook people here. What is important about this chapter to make me want to read it? And invest money into it!

8. Sample Chapter: This was a mistake on my part. I didn’t include one. I thought the writing in the overview and chapter summaries would suffice. It didn’t. My agent insisted I had to have one to send out to publishers. She was 100% right and I was 100% lazy.

So you will have a sample chapter. A chapter that is interesting, intriguing, and capable of hooking the reader to want more. It doesn’t have to be Chapter 1, but it will be well-written and polished to perfection. Multiple people will have read it, commented on it, and helped edit it. It has to be as close to perfect as you can get it. The goal is to convince an agent and eventual publisher that you can string words together.

I know it seems like a lot. It is daunting. My Book proposal was 29 pages and 7200 words WITHOUT the sample chapter. The sample chapter added about 4000 more words. All of the sections are interwoven, too. Your biography obviously plays a part into how you can promote the book. With the exception of the Introduction, I don’t think one section is any more important than another, so don’t skimp on any of them. Make them as complete and as perfect as you possibly can.

Remember, the first goal of the non-fiction book proposal is to get an agent. Then you’ll work together to polish the proposal and sample chapter to send out to editors at publishing houses. The next blog post will be about how to land that agent: how to write a query letter and how to decide which agents to send the letter and book proposal to.

Now that you’ve mastered the art of the book proposal, you’ll need an agent and then sell the book, time for the next steps:

So You Want to Write a Book, Part II: The agent.

So You Want to Write a Book, Part III: The Deal.

8 thoughts on “So You Want to Write a Book, Part I: The Proposal

  1. Pingback: So You Want to Write a Book, Part I: The Proposal – All things now

  2. 12/16/20
    Justin- Your piece on writing (and actually publishing) a book was extremely well done. I’ve read books and articles galore on how to get published that weren’t as succinct and to the point as your post. You covered the salient points and didn’t whitewash to time and energy it takes just to get to first base.

    I self published just to get a topic off my chest and share with anyone who might be interested in a different approach to the subject. sold a few copies and e-books but never came close to recouping my “investment”. But I knew I wouldn’t make a profit when I decided to self publish. It was just one of those life goals I needed to achieve. The few purchasers on Amazon and Barnes & Noble who reviewed my book gave me high ratings, as did a professional reviewer (that is his job, of course) but the subject matter was narrow enough that the market for such a topic was not broad.

    Good luck to you on your book. I look forward to obtaining a copy at my local library (just kidding!). When it’s published, I assume you’ll communicate to your bloggees so we can rush out and buy a copy. I was exploring your blog for various poisons in an effort to figure out a truly realistic and non traceable poison for a possible fictional novel. Still looking, still working on the draft, so maybe something in your book will work.

    Best wishes,

    Douglas Laubach
    Florence, AZ

  3. Pingback: So You Want to Write a Book, Part II: The Agent | Nature's Poisons

  4. Pingback: So You Want to Write a Book, Part III: The Deal | Nature's Poisons

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