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How to Write a Non-fiction Book Proposal

(That may be the longest title I’ve ever written for a blog post.)

If you want to place your book with traditional publishers you do not just send them your manuscript. While there is a tiny possibility they will accept it directly, it is nearly impossible. Sending it directly subjects you to a high likelihood of instant rejection.

Oh the WOE of rejection, copyright Lisa McSherry

Why? Because you aren’t following the rules.

I know, I know, that sounds childish and unfair. From their point of view, however, it’s necessary. Publishers receive lots of unsolicited manuscripts, all of the time. I’ve seen references that they get as many as 20 new manuscripts a day. In an 8-hour day that means reviewing more than 2 each hour, while also attending meetings, discussions, working with contracted authors, and the administrivia of the day to day. Like all of us, they have only so much time to spend at their jobs. What ends up at the bottom of their to do pile?

Unsolicited manuscripts.

What ends up at the top? The manuscripts they asked to see . . . based on the proposals they approve. Your work may be brilliant, incisive, and world-changing, but if you don’t get them interested it may never be published.

Follow their rules: write the book proposal.

In it you will convince them that it is not only brilliant and world-changing, it will make them a ton of money. Hey, don’t turn your nose up! Their job is primarily the bottom line, modified by a genuine love of the works they publish. (They really do love the books they publish — it’s too hard a job to do without genuine love.) Your proposal must be compelling, it has to stand out. It also needs to answer their questions. Which means that the first thing you do is look for how to give them what they want to know. No publisher hides how to send them a proposal, I guarantee it. Go to their website and look it up.

Typically, they want to know why your book will be different, why it will sell, who the audience is, and what kind of writer you are. They are looking for an author with a fresh angle, one who shows that they understand a reader’s need for information. There are enough people coming to alternative spirituality new each year that “beginner” books are always looked at, great news if that’s what you’ve written. However, you’ve got to double down on the fresh with a book like that: either presenting long-known information in a completely new way, or offering a new path for newcomers to follow. No matter the topic, what makes your book different from all the rest?

Try this: In 50 words and three sentences, describe your book. Now try to get that down to 1 or 2 sentences. Remember how I told you about how many unsolicited manuscripts they get everyday? You want your to jump out at them. Taking three pages will bore them, and if they get interrupted they might lose interest, and that means you get rejected. Be clear and concise with your pitch.

Research your audience, and what other books are already published that may be like yours. My proposal for Crafting Your Practice acknowledged that there were many books already in the market that talked to beginners. Having acknowledged that “elephant,” I told them why my manuscript was different from others in clear direct language. When I submitted my proposal for Magickal Connections I was alone in offering a look at how groups come together and how to manage being in one as well as leading. My next book proposal was also about a topic I think will be a hit, and no one’s written about it yet. To my mind, finding a new market is a safer pitch than trying to prove you have a fresh take on a well-known area. In either case, you need to show them that you know your audience.

Tell them how you’ll market the book to your audience. Yes, they will support you with marketing, but you can’t do nothing. Not in the current market and times. Podcasts, conferences, articles published . . . going door to door. Whatever makes the most sense for your topic, show them you know how to reach your target audience and are making plans to do so. My support of Magickal Connections had me talking at conferences about group dynamics, creating community, and the life cycle of a magical group. For Crafting Your Practice, podcasts were my mainstay, talking about the owning our own power, creating conscious change, and first steps on the path.

This is not the time to be subtle! Publishers have a business to maintain and need to believe you will be profitable. I understand this is hard for a lot of us. Most authors will say they have the hardest time with self-promotion, even the ones who are good at it and have good sales. At this point we are selling ourselves, almost more than our manuscript. Even a published author has to submit a proposal

You want to be a fresh voice with a new way to share something valuable in the broader conversation that is happening. You’ll hint at your voice in the proposal, but it emerges in the chapters you send; choose them wisely. Your voice needs to match the writing, after all, and the samples prove you know your audience. If you pitch a book on celestial invocations as if talking to preschoolers you’ll show them how far off the mark you are. You don’t need to be Oscar Wilde, but editors appreciate clear writing appropriate for the proposed book. Send at least three, and no more than four, chapters. If you send more than that you might as well send the whole manuscript with your proposal*. Double, triple, check for errors; silly mistakes make them uneasy.

Here’s what most pagan publishers look for in a book proposal:
• Cover letter / email — this is a brief description of the title and what your package contains
• Outline and/or annotated table of contents
• Pitch Letter:
o Describe the intended market, why someone would want to buy?
o Known related titles; how is yours different?
o Brief summary of your background and credentials — why you to write this?
• Three (3) sample chapters.
• Estimated word count
• Estimated date of completion

Generally, most publishers want the sample chapters in English with 1-inch margins in 12-point type, but check that with them directly. You’ll also want to number the pages and include a table of contents. Just for reference, publishers look for a minimum of 50,000, and no more than 70,000 words.

It can take as much as 12 weeks, yes I do mean three months, for them to get back to you with an answer. Some people advise submitting to multiple publishers at the same time. Personally, I prefer to submit to my first choice and then work my way down a list.

Here are links to the best known alternative spirituality publishers and their Submissions page:

Llewellyn Worldwide

(imprints include: Midnight Ink, Flux)

Red Wheel/ Weiser

(imprints include: Hampton Roads, New Page, Rockpool [Australian])

Inner Traditions

(imprints include: Bear & Co, Park St Press, Findhorn, Earthdancer, and more)

John Hunt Publishers

(imprints include: Moon Books, O-Books and many others)

Immanion Press/ Megalithica Books

Give your manuscript the best possible chance to be published. Play by the rules to give your voice its chance. More than anything: good luck!

*Sending the entire manuscript makes sense only if you have something truly unique. In that case (which is rare, so check your ego) you may need to literally show them what you are describing in your proposal. Almost always you do not need to do this.

How to Write a Non-fiction Book Proposal

2 thoughts on “How to Write a Non-fiction Book Proposal

  1. Good information, thanks! A couple of questions, though:
    First, to your knowledge, do any publishing houses accept MSs that have already been self-published?
    And what do you do to promote your book if you can’t travel *and* your internet is crap?

    Thanks again!
    Dana Corby

    1. Most are reluctant to accept, but if you can demonstrate how this mss is different/ updated that can make it fresh.
      As for promotion, the crap internet is a problem. Local bookstores and magical purveyors are your best bet. Look to do guest blogs with like-minded/ themed authors. Have a snazzy website and do promotions through your website. Perhaps a targeted “Ask Me Anything” for a book launch or to announce your new book.
      If you can get better internet (maybe travel to a cafe or co-work location for a specific event?) then look for virtual conferences (there still are some) and do podcasts.
      Good luck!

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