Okay, so there are a few things to get out of the way, before we dig into all this.
First, this is an overview of the proposal Sam Slaughter and I worked on together to sell his debut cocktail book ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK RUM?: and Other Cocktails for ’90s Kids. Soon to be published by Andrews McMeel, it’s a fun pop-culture-infused book full of hilarious, pun-filled drink recipes. So while a lot of the lessons in here are certainly applicable to other non-fiction proposals, this one skews a little heavier towards the cookbook world.
If you find this helpful, PLEASE consider pre-ordering it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local indie bookseller. I love posting client queries and advice, but this stuff does take a bit of work, and some serious vulnerability (thank you Sam!) on the client side of things. Say thank you by buying his book.
Second, remember how subjective this all is. What works for me, might not work for someone else. There are some great additional proposal guides written up by Jane Friedman, Brian Klems at Writer’s Digest, and Nathan Brandsford. Learn as much as you can.
And third, read agency guidelines before sending anything. An agent might want something ENTIRELY DIFFERENT from a non-fiction proposal / query. But I imagine a lot of what we are going to dig into here, such as author platform, proposed contents, sample pages, etc… will be across the board for everyone.
Alright. Let’s dig in.
When it comes to crafting a really great non-fiction book proposal, there are a few sections you should have in every single one. In my opinion, the breakdown should look a little something like this, and we’ll dig into each of these in a minute:
About the Book: Exactly what it sounds like. What’s the jacket copy look like?
Meet the Author: Let’s get to know you.
Author Publicity & Platform: It’s time to name drop. What’s your platform like, where do you write, who will support your book, what are your numbers?
Comparative Titles: What books would yours sit with in bookstores? What book would fans of your book, also potentially like?
Potential Media Relevance: Covering a topic that gets dug into in the media? Shows us a bit about that, if possible.
Manuscript Overview & Proposed Contents: What you’ve got so far, and where you see the work going. Word count? Well, that can vary greatly. We’ll dig into that too.
Now, there are some cookbook specific sections in this one, such as Meet the Photographer and sample photography, that you might not have if you are writing say, a memoir or a pop-culture history book (which hi, I’ve also worked on, please look up George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue and Alex Ruben’s 8-Bit Apocalypse).
Keep that in mind as we dig ahead. That’s something you should absolutely have in your cookbook proposal.
Now, let’s break down these sections a bit more. I’ll include summaries of what we discussed in the proposal as well as some screenshots, which I hope will give you a helpful overview of what goes into one of these.
ABOUT THE BOOK
You know that query letter you’ve been polishing up? With your jacket-copy-esque writing that describes the book you’ve spent all these many months / years on? Well, this is yet another place to let that writing shine.
For ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK RUM? Sam opened up the ‘About the Book’ section be describing one of the unique drinks he was planning to have in the book, and then immediately dug into light-hearted and fun jacket copy that described the book.
The ‘About the Book’ section for this proposal was only two pages. Yes, this is a bit longer than what you usually write in a query letter, but this is a proposal. There’s a little more room to dig into what the book is going to be about.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Whenever I talk about query letters, I like to quote other agents who say it’s all about the “hook, book, cook.” The marketing blip that snags you in, the jacket-esque description of the book, and the cook, aka, you! The chef behind the pages.
This, is your author bio.
For Sam’s bio, we had a solid three pages digging into who he is as a writer. We didn’t dive too much into platform here, because that’s a whole separate, major section of the proposal.
Sam’s bio talked about his current experience working as the spirits editor for The Manual, some places he’s been published, and a bit about his experience in the service industry. It was important not to just showcase Sam as this ‘brand’ who could write this particular book, but as a person. We spent some time talking about his literary chops in addition to his cocktail slinging ones, showcasing the breadth of his creativity and talent.
Your bio should be enticing and interesting. It should make a reader want to spend time with you, and spend time with your book.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
This is a section that was a bit cookbook specific. We introduced editors to Sam’s photographer for the project, Amy Ellis. We dished a brief, one page bio about her and where her work has been featured, who some of her bigger clients have been, and wrapped it up with a link to the website.
We included some of her photography work at the end of the proposal, in addition to the pictures included with the sample recipes.
Also I cannot stress this enough, hire Amy for your projects. She’s brilliant and her work is gorgeous.
PUBLICITY AND PLATFORM
Ah yes, the dreaded platform blip.
First, let’s talk about this for a second. Because when I speak at conferences about platform for non-fiction authors, all too often I see writers visibly deflate when I mention having a platform.
It is never too late to start building a platform.
I can’t stress this enough. While it might be hard to build up a large social media following to support you as platform these days, it isn’t hard to pitch media outlets. Writing a collection of essays? A memoir? Great. There are so many places you can potentially pitch pieces to. Me, I regularly read websites like Catapult, Lit Hub, Electric Literature, Guernica, and more. If you’re trying to build your platform as a writer in that space, pitch your work around. Look up where your favorite essayists and memoirists have been (and are regularly) publishing. It’ll help.
Publication counts as platform.
If you look at Sam’s social media following, he has a little under 3,000 Twitter followers. This isn’t to talk smack about that, but to point out that his platform exists in a big way in publication.
In Sam’s platform section for Are You Afraid…, we dug into the places he writes and regularly publishes, including The Manual and other outlets that have featured his writing, including Maxim, Bloomberg, Chilled, Southern Kitchen, Thirsty, and included notes to his literary writing as well (you can see a full list of where his stories and essays are on his website).
Since Sam is involved in the spirits world, he also took the time to discuss some of the influential people in that world he could potentially share the book with. Media outlets, popular bartenders and their bars, professionals in the spirits world… dishing who can potentially lift your book up with you, is also a great thing to dig into platform-wise. There’s no guarantee, but the possibility is worth sharing.
Before you leave a comment on this post saying that your book is beyond compare, please stop. It isn’t.
When it comes to non-fiction, your comp titles should list books that your book might exist next to. In bookstores, on the shelves of readers, etc. It shouldn’t be a running list of books that are wholly similar to it, because then why are you writing a non-fiction book on a subject that’s been tackled to death?
In Sam’s case, we brought up books like The Drunken Botanist, My Drunk Kitchen, and The Geeky Chef Cookbook, all of which are humorous, pop-culture-ish, gift-ish cookbooks meant to be given as presents and discussed when you have friends over. Cookbooks that are conversations pieces. Cookbooks that are found in places like Urban Outfitters and with specialty retailers.
We also spent some time talking about cookbooks that tackle specific movies, like The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook, and how if a cookbook can exist to tie into one specific moment in pop-culture, why not a book that discusses an entire generation, like a 90’s book?
It’s less about what’s in the book, and more about who the audience is.
Now, if you’re writing memoir or essays, you’re not going to include people who tell stories exactly like yours, but instead, might dig into comps that contain similar elements. IE, your travel memoir contains the drama and life changing upheaval found in books like Wild by Cheryl Strayed , or your collection of essays finds the humor in your past like in I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley.
When you’re digging into something very pop-culture-centric, a section like this helps in a non-fiction proposal. Especially for a cocktail book like Sam’s, that is trying to convince a potential publisher, editor, reader that yes, a book full of 90’s jokes is relevant in 2019.
And guess what? It is.
In this section, we dug into how often nostalgia is revisited in the media. We talked about the appeal of shows like Fuller House, the sequel to Independence Day, the re-launch of Crystal Pepsi, and the reboot of the Power Rangers franchise (with that surprisingly good movie).
This wasn’t a huge section. We spent a little over a page digging into a few of these things, mostly focusing on the Crystal Pepsi relaunch and Power Rangers reboot, both of which happened in 2017 when we were pitching this book around. We included links to relevant stories in major news outlets like NPR, Forbes, The Atlantic, Mashable, Mic, and more.
This was to help showcase how a story surrounding the book, and pop-culture nostalgia, could essentially be positioned from a marketing and publicity angle. Remember, it’s not just an editor who has to buy into your book, but also the marketing and publicity department. Give them what they need.
MANUSCRIPT OVERVIEW + PROPOSED CONTENTS
Well, here’s the big one, my friends. When it comes to this section, I tend to break it down into a few pieces, as it’s arguably the most important. It isn’t just what you’re planning to have in the book, but samples of what will be in it.
First, a note on actual word count.
I’ve heard contracting thoughts regarding the word count here, for just how much you should have written for a proposal. Me, I like to see at least 10,000 words if you’re writing memoir, pop-history, or an essay collection. With a cookbook, it’s a bit different, because word counts for cookbooks are significantly less than other non-fiction.
I mean, think about it. Half a cookbook is usually the photos, and each page has ingredients bulleted… so sometimes it’s not really even a page of text. In the case of Sam’s proposal, we were at about 4,000 words.
Now, about those sections:
A Quick Introduction, What to Expect: I like to have one of these in my proposals, where I explain what the reader is about to see.
Hey, fun fact, Are You Afraid of the Dark Rum was originally titled Grown Up Drinks.
Anyhow. It’s just a quick paragraph or two, that states about how long the book is going to be upon completion, what will be in it (in Sam’s case, we said it would have X number of recipes, photographs, guides to stemware, and 90’s playlists). I also like to bring up the estimated time of turn around for a finished project.
Contents: In this section, there’s a detailed list of what will be in the book.
In Sam’s case, he broke down the introduction, the techniques, the cocktails, and other fun and quirky sidebar items, like drinking games and crafts. Please note, the contents section was significantly longer than this, detailing all the drinks, techniques, etc… but come on my friends, I can’t screenshot EVERYTHING. I hope this shows enough.
The Actual Sample Pages: In Sam’s proposal, we included the Introduction, which helped establish what kind of voice he would be bringing to the project, as well as six finished recipes for the potential book, four of which had gorgeous full-color photographs from his partner.
If you pick up the book (please do!), you’ll notice that the photography is different in the book, as opposed to what’s here. Those sample photos you take for your project might not be the right fit for the book. An art director and publisher will have a vision for the book. Don’t look at it as a waste though. It’s what helps get your book over that hurdle, and into the right hands.
This one is a bit cookbook specific, and likely fairly subjective. Not every person writing a cookbook is an amazing photographer. And if you’re not, that’s fine! Maybe you don’t have sample photography to include that feels like it belongs in a published book you’d see in your local indie.
But if that’s the case, see if you can’t rope in a friend to take a few sample photos of a recipe or two that you’re including. Visuals go such a long way with cookbook projects, they really do.
But in the end, it’s better to include no photos, than to include bad ones.
In the case of Sam’s book, we included some of Amy’s gorgeous work that showcased her eye and skill in a variety of settings, and also encouraged the reader of the proposal to visit her website. Speaking of, please check out Amy Ellis’ photography and hire her please. Such a talent.
And there you have it, the non-fiction proposal, as based on Sam Slaughter’s Are You Afraid of the Dark Rum?.
At the end of the day, the proposal ended up being close to 40 pages total, but I’ve seen non-fiction proposals up and around 50 to 60 pages. Dish as much as you have to, to get the point of your book, and why you are the person to write it, across.
And stay tuned! I hope to do more of these down the line.