Sell Your Book: Top 12 Most Common Non-Fiction Book Proposal Mistakes

Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of first-time authors on their book proposals, and I’ve seen the same missteps over and over.

Proposals aren’t easy to write, especially if you’ve never written one before! So, as you work on your own proposal, guard against these common mistakes:

1. Not understanding that the audience for the proposal is different from the book’s audience. The proposal is a sales document that is not written for the reader of your book, but for literary agents and editors at publishing houses. The focus of the proposal should be: What would make an editor want to publish your book? What’s unique about your book, and why do you think it will sell well?

2. Writing an Overview section that’s either too short or too long. I’ve seen Overview sections that were shorter than one page and others that were ten pages long. I find that most non-fiction Overviews work best at 2-5 pages. If they’re too short, no one will get a real sense of your book. If they’re too long, you’ll appear to be trying too hard, which indicates a lack of confidence in your message.

3. Including superlatives. This is a sure-fire way to get rejected, so leave the grandiosity in the trash bin. Never say that your book will be a bestseller, that it will sell “hundreds of millions of copies,” or that it will become a movie. Don’t over-sell the book or yourself as the author. Try to strike a balance between confidence and humility.

4. Resorting to clichés. Read your proposal carefully, and look for common expressions. If you’ve heard it on a movie trailer, don’t use it! I once edited a proposal that started, “In a world where… ” Trust me, if I had let her turn that into an agent, we would’ve been able to hear the eyes rolling.

5. Writing a dry, boring bio. Make your “About the Author” section interesting and entertaining. Yes, your credentials are important, and you don’t want to include a lot of personal stuff. But do provide some idea of who you are.

6. Thinking your book is for everyone. No one’s book is for all readers. In your proposal’s Target Market section, you simply must narrow down the readers you expect to reach. If it helps, you can paint a portrait of your ideal reader in this section.

7. Putting down other books in the Competitive Analysis section. When you compare your book to others already on the market, guard against saying negative things about them or their authors. Just note how yours will provide readers with something different.

8. Including self-published or very old books in the Competitive Analysis section. Only compare your books with the following: (1) Books released by reputable publishing houses within the last five years and/or (2) books that were published more than five years ago but still sell well and are considered definitive titles on the subject.

9. Thinking you can count on your publisher for publicity. These days, publishers do very little to market their authors’ books, so the Marketing Plan section of your proposal should say nothing about what the publisher might do for you. Convince the publisher that you can and will get the word out about your book on your own. If they do offer marketing assistance, it will be in addition to your own efforts.

10. Not having clearly defined chapter summaries. While you don’t have to know exactly what you’re going to put in each chapter of your book, vague chapter summaries give agents and editors an instant reason to reject your proposal. Make sure that your summaries are concise, but specific enough that it sounds like you can deliver what you promise.

11. Referencing too many other books in the chapter summaries. Remember that a book isn’t a research paper. If you plan to reference other books, you’ll run into two potential problems: (1) copyright issues and (2) not including enough of your own original ideas. Keep references to the work of others to a minimum, especially in your proposal’s chapter summaries.

12. Choosing a title that’s more clever than clear. Clever titles work well for fiction and memoirs, but if you’re writing a non-fiction book that teaches, your readers should be able to tell from the title what they’re going to learn. Otherwise, they’re likely to pass by your book in the stores or scroll past it online.

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