How to get a traditional publishing deal for your nonfiction book

by Ameesha Green and Anna Kiousi

If you’ve done some research on how getting a book deal typically works, you may have come across guidance that you just need to write a query letter (essentially a cover letter but for your book) and have your fully written manuscript at the ready. However, this guidance only applies to fiction. So, how do you go about getting a publishing deal for your nonfiction book? We’ve broken it down for you in an easy-to-understand guide.

Here’s what you need

As we just hinted, your book doesn’t need to be complete to get a publishing deal when you’re writing nonfiction. Instead, you need:

  • a query letter
  • a book proposal
  • and a few sample chapters

The way it works is if you get your publishing deal, you usually get paid an “advance” (generally starting at £5k) and will have plenty of time to finish writing your book. So, if you’re worried that you need to present a complete and perfectly polished manuscript, don’t be. Instead, you should put your focus on perfecting a strong book proposal.

Book Proposal 101

A book proposal is essentially a business plan for the book and is around 10-15 pages long. It’s a very commercial document that goes in-depth on:

  • What the book is about
  • Who it’s specifically for
  • Why they would read it
  • What the book’s unique selling point (USP) is
  • Who you are
  • What your marketing plan is
  • How the book is structured (i.e. an outline)

Your book proposal should prove that there is a clear and specific target market for the book, as well as a clear and specific problem that the book is solving for that audience. You’ll also need to provide some evidence that the audience actually wants a book like this, such as keyword research and other quantifiable data.

Bearing in mind how much it costs to produce a book and that publishing is meant to be a profitable business, what publishers are after is strong evidence that your book will not only give them a return on their investment but actually make them a profit. As such, the book proposal has to demonstrate commercial viability and potential profitability.

Who to contact about a publishing deal

Another confusing aspect of book proposals is simply who to talk to. If you want to land a big traditional publisher (like one of the Big 5), then you need a literary agent. This is because big publishers don’t accept “unsolicited manuscripts”, meaning sent directly from the author. If you manage to secure an agent, they will pitch the proposal to publishers on your behalf and hopefully land you a deal.

Importantly, the agent doesn’t get paid unless they get you a deal. But if they do, they will take a cut of around 10-15%. So, they will only represent books that they believe a publisher will take on. If they believe that your manuscript has merit, they will be your biggest cheerleader and try to get you the best deal, negotiating on your behalf and understanding the publishing contract and what it entails.

Alternatively, smaller and more niche independent publishers do accept direct submissions, and authors can often pitch directly via their website. This cuts out the middleman of the agent. However, smaller publishers don’t always offer the same amount of value. For example, there may be no advance payment or it may be  smaller, they may not offer all the production services so you may need to hire your own editor, and they may not offer as much support with marketing or distribution such as getting your book into physical retailers.

That said, it’s worth noting that all publishers expect authors to do at least some of their own marketing. You can read more about how to market your book here.

Do you need an editor’s help to prepare your book deal?

This is the next most asked question. And the answer is ideally yes.

You’ll usually want an editor or book coach who is experienced in pitching books to help you write your book proposal because they know what an agent or publisher is looking for. This way, they’ll guide you through the commercial aspects and suggest research resources to provide data for the proposal. Your editor or book coach will also make sure your proposal is worded in a compelling way to massively increase your chances of landing a deal.

An estimated 99.9% of submissions to agents and publishers are rejected, so it’s not an easy process and having someone on your side who knows how to pitch makes a big difference. Also, the editor/coach will often be honest with you if they believe there’s very little chance of you landing a deal. This might mean that the idea just isn’t commercial enough, or they may be able to help you to reframe it into something that is more commercial.

Bearing all of this in mind, the best course of action is usually working with an editor to get your proposal and query letter ready and get your sample chapters edited. While you won’t need to provide a full manuscript, the sample chapters show the agent or publisher your writing skills, ability to structure a chapter, and how great your content is. Your outline shows them your ability to structure the reader’s journey through the book.

What if you don’t get a deal?

Finally, if you don’t get offered a deal, or you don’t want to go through the traditional book proposal process, you can choose to self-publish. Any efforts you’ve made on the book proposal aren’t wasted because this work informs your actions when self-publishing, helps you focus on your target audience, and gives you ideas to build a marketing plan.

At The Book Shelf, we offer a service for pitching nonfiction (book proposal, query letter, sample chapter check, and guidance on pitching) and have helped writers get publishing offers from Penguin Random House, Hay House, and other publishers. 

If you’re interested, feel free to chat with us about your manuscript idea here.