Seven Tough Questions for Useful Proposals

Many people have great ideas for nonfiction books that help change the world politically or socially or that help individuals grow in spirit and purpose. That said, keep these seven questions in mind when formulating your book proposal:

1. Is the book really needed?
Authors often write books that they feel people need to read, but that fact does not mean people will read them. More and more people are getting cancer, recovering from mental illness, overcoming addictions, or getting sick of the economy every year, but there are already 1,001 books on these subjects. Why is yours different? What makes your book especially compelling? If you have teenage children or nieces and nephews, pitch your book to them and gauge their interest level -- you'll receive the same response from the marketplace.

2. Is your book tightly focused?
Too many people want to write a “world as I see it and how it should be” type of book where they comment on all aspects of a particular subject. These sprawling works hold little appeal for most book buyers. Readers don’t want a grand vision or blueprint for a new government or economy or behavioral model (unless you are an influential world leader who has the clout to make these changes happen). Exhaustive books are just that –- exhausting. If you can’t sum up your book's core premise in two sentences, it’s too scattered.

3. Who is the audience for your book?
Don’t look for overly general markets and say that your book is "for everyone concerned about the environment," "about democracy," "about spirituality.” In nonfiction, there is no such thing as a general reader. Be specific and carve out a niche for which a sizable yet specific audience exists. No one walks into a bookstore and asks for a book about "something that could be for everyone."

4. Are your qualifications, background, and knowledge directly related to your subject? There are doctors who write about politics, politicians who write about economics, and economists who write about spirituality. The problem is that these people lack the qualifications and professional consulting and speaking experience in the subject they are writing about. Are professional qualifications the only measure of authority on a subject? No, but consider this scenario: if you needed surgery, would you go with (1) someone who has conducted a lot of independent research and learned a lot about medicine, or (2) a board-certified surgeon? Keep in mind that you can disregard everything stated above if you are a celebrity, a fact that explains why Tori Spelling can write a New York Times bestseller about parenting.

5. What are the competing titles?
This question is related to question number 1. Who else has written on this subject and what other books are already out there? How does your book differ (again, in a compelling way) from those? Be realistic and don’t list books by Elizabeth Gilbert, Deepak Chopra, Thomas Friedman, and Malcolm Gladwell as competitive titles, unless you are as famous as they are. Then again, if you're famous, you can write about anything you want.

6. What will the length be and how will the layout look?
Be aware of certain parameters that affect your book. Books are getting shorter, so you will run up against more reservations once you pass the 200-page mark. Color photographs and other graphic elements increase the costs for most publishers, so they will have to price the book higher to recoup costs. Inserts such as CDs or other materials also drive up costs. Just be mindful of factors like these.

7. How will you actively market and support the book?
Remember, books don’t launch movements; movements launch books. In the same vein, a book doesn't launch an author's career and visibility; an author's career and visibility are what launch a book (i.e., don't expect a book to kick-start your career). Don't tell the publisher that you are available to write articles, speak at events, and engage in other promotional efforts. You should already be writing, speaking, and consulting. Have a ready audience before you start your book so you have a base that you can market and sell the work to.

And finally, be careful when making assumptions about publishers and how publishing works. Publishing is an industry unlike any other, and the rules that govern business elsewhere don’t apply here. Learn the lesson that Borders recently learned. The company's last five CEOs did not have a publishing background and tried to run the company like the ones they used to run. What could have worked wonders in other arenas drove a great store to bankruptcy.

Alright, now get back to work.



  1. This post is great: to the point, interesting, and only as long as it needs to be (as all good writing should be?). Thanks!

  2. This is so important, especially for memoir writers. And very interesting observation about Borders' CEOs. I think the same thing is true of marketers who try to sell books as if they were widgets.

    Janet Reid sent me over. Glad to have found your blog.

  3. Thank you. I'm rewriting now and was wondering about the length.

  4. Very important things to keep in mind!

  5. Thank you all for your kind words. Feel free to contact me directly (jsiva[at]bkpub.com) with any questions.