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Playing by different rules: non-fiction writing

I wanted to explain that the rules are different for when I decide to take on a non-fiction project than they are for fiction.

For fiction, it’s largely down to personal taste and interest, I think. In non-fiction, it’s more clear-cut to determine if there is a niche for a subject, if the market is over-saturated (as with most mind/body/spirit subjects at the moment) and if it has something new or controversial to say. 

For non-fiction you need to submit a fairly detailed proposal along with the sample writing. Most non-fiction is commissioned on the basis of a proposal as opposed to a completed manuscript. A strong proposal is both a sales tool and a business plan. It should estimate the length, competition in the marketplace, why you are the best person to write this book, as well as potential sales.

The proposal should make the reader want to know more about your project. And excite an editor to make you an offer. A proposal begins with a statement that explains the concept of the book: ideally an anecdote or a set of facts that convinces the agent/editor of your idea. Explain why your idea is unique, why it’s the right book for the moment, and why you are the best author for this book.

You'll want to have some sort of marketing section and a look at the competition your book will face in the market. Do your research. Then emphasise how your book will be different. You should also define your audience, citing statistics and special outlets which might buy or advertise your book.

Be realistic as no one is convinced by inflated numbers or wild generalisations. Include a table of contents to give a sense of how you envision the book. This could be a chapter breakdown of the contents of the book you want to write; mini essays that describe what material will be covered and how it will be handled. You want to show the depth and detail of your approach and how the themes of the book will evolve from one chapter to the next.

Your author bio should establish your credentials for writing the book you are proposing, and be written in the third person. Finally, you need to provide one or two sample chapters from your book to prove you can write. Choose chapters that will whet your reader’s appetite! Good luck.

Judy Chilcote opened her literary agency in 1990 after five years working in London with a large US marketing firm. Her focus is very commercial, so what she takes on ebbs and flows with the market. She is currently interested in popular psychology, nostalgic memoirs, historical fiction, women’s fiction (no chick lit) and crime fiction.


If you found this article useful, you might want to take a look at:

What's different about non-fiction

Tips for your specialist non-fiction proposal