Nonfiction & Fiction Book Proposals (YES! FICTION!)

This year I completed my first nonfiction book proposal, and I realized how intimidating the process might be for someone who is not familiar with the components that go into such a proposal. Heather Shumaker is an author I have long admired for her savvy in the publishing world. She has authored three nonfiction books, and her children's novel will be out in just a few months! I was so pleased that she agreed to give us insight into writing one. I had no idea how helpful a book proposal could also be for selling fiction--but it makes so much sense!! 


WRITING A BOOK PROPOSAL FOR NONFICTION AND (YES!) FICTION - by Heather ShumakerHeather Shumaker - Book Proposals Aren't Just for Nonfiction - How to write a book proposal

My head is in fiction these days, since my first children’s novel is due to come out this spring, but Valerie asked me to write about nonfiction book proposals. Book proposals are the primary tool authors use to sell a nonfiction book in traditional publishing. So if you’re writing a nonfiction book and hope to catch an agent’s or editor’s eye, you need one. But guess what? Book proposals are also being used these days for fiction. More on that below.

What is a book proposal?

If you’re writing a novel, you need to complete the manuscript and make it as polished and perfect as you can before sending it out. But nonfiction books work differently. With a nonfiction book, you don’t write the book first at all. You sell the book idea to the publisher based on a book proposal. They buy your proposal. Then you write the book.

What’s in a book proposal?

Book proposals are often hefty documents, maybe 30-75 pages long. They’re basically marketing documents explaining your book idea, showcasing your writing style, and laying out the audience, competing titles, and promotion plan.

Formats vary, but they often contain:

1) A compelling overview (think executive summary, but one that really grabs you. Share all the best parts right up front.

2) Author bio, including any speaking experience you have, relevant professional platform, etc.

3) Audience and competition (you research recent titles that are similar to yours and have been successful, then show how your book will be unique in the field)

4) Marketing and promotion plan

5) Chapter outline (this is a biggie) and

6) One or two sample chapters.

Whew. When you’re done, you feel as if you’ve written the entire book. Because you have - you’ve outlined the entire book’s concept, divided it into chapters, come up with chapter titles and word counts, explained which images or graphics will be in each chapter, shared what readers will learn in each chapter, and made it all compelling, readable and irresistible. Each chapter description in the chapter outline may well be three pages long and filled with facts, hooks and anecdotes. The chapter outline is like a mini version of the book itself.

If you don’t know where you’re going with the book when you start out writing the book proposal, you’ll certainly know when you’ve finished.

How do I write a book proposal?

There are many books, blogs and classes out there that will get you started. I recommend working one-on-one with a writing class instructor or fellow author at some point to get specific critique of your proposal. Also don’t be afraid to share your proposal with your writing critique group. It can take months to put together a winning proposal, and many eyes will help you polish it.

Yes, book proposals for fiction!

After three nonfiction books, I was a little surprised when my agent suggested I write a book proposal for my novel. But now I would always write one. A fiction book proposal helps editors make the pitch to their marketing team. You position the book in the market, explain your plot and characters, do research on competing titles, and explain your promotion plan. No book should venture forth without one.

Need to know more?

I’ll be leading master classes on writing book proposals in Madison at the Writers’ Institute in April and the Write-by-the-Lake retreat in June 2019. Come join us!

Heather Shumaker has successfully sold four books using book proposals, teaches classes on book proposals and coaches authors on personal book projects. Her newest book, The Griffins of Castle Cary, a middle grade novel for children ages 8-12, was sold to Simon & Schuster using a fiction book proposal. Her nonfiction titles include: It’s OK Not to Share, It’s OK to Go Up the Slide, and Saving Arcadia. Visit her at

If you have a young reader, you might like to preorder this lovely story!

ABOUT THE BOOK: A charming, adventure-filled debut novel that’s perfect for fans of The Penderwicks series. Siblings Meg, Will, and Ariel Griffin are off on an adventure! They can’t wait to spend a week vising their eccentric aunt and her giant, tongue-drooling Newfoundland dog in England. But when they finally arrive, they’re faced with a few local secrets that stir up more than a little trouble. Add in some very peculiar lights, strange new friends, a police chase and some stampeding sheep, and the Griffin kids are in over their heads—literally. Apparently this town has a ghost problem and the three children must race to solve the mystery before the ghosts take something that doesn’t belong to them.

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