Writing a Memoir? You’ll Need a Book Proposal

with Susanne Dunlap

If you’re hoping to get a traditional publishing contract for the memoir you’ve been working on for years, the one thing that can help you stand out above the legions of memoirists submitting to agents is to create a polished, professional book proposal.

Wait, what?

You probably know that nonfiction books—self-help, instructional, motivational, etc.—are sold on proposal, before the whole manuscript is written. Fiction, on the other hand, requires a completed and polished manuscript and no proposal, just a good query letter and a synopsis.

Narrative memoir–memoir that tells a compelling story of some aspect of your life–is closer to fiction in its essence than to nonfiction. You, the author, take the place of the protagonist and have to go through an arc of change. You must tell the story in memorable, beautiful prose that makes a reader follow you on your journey, live your life vicariously. But you know that. No doubt you’ve already spent years pouring your heart onto the page and editing and polishing and doing everything you can to make sure your manuscript makes a fabulous read.

Unfortunately, that may not be enough to grab the attention of an agent. That’s because agents probably get more memoir submissions than anything else. So what will you do to make sure yours stands out from the vast majority of them?

More and more, memoirists are going through the process of creating a comprehensive book proposal to submit to agents, rather than simply submitting chapters from the manuscript. They’re combining the pitch requirements of both fiction and nonfiction, even though that means not only do they have the hard work of completing a manuscript, but they have to spend weeks—or even months—crafting a proposal that will probably end up being forty pages long or more. Why?

The simple answer is that doing the research, proving that you understand what will make your memoir appeal to readers and potentially reach a broad audience, demonstrates a level of commitment that goes above and beyond. Showing the agent that you are willing to contribute your energy to spreading the word about your memoir, that you are hooked into networks of readers who will embrace your story, that you understand where your memoir fits in the market—will make an agent sit up and take notice.

Of course, a polished proposal will never make up for a sub-par manuscript. But it can give a good memoir a leg up in the highly competitive traditional publishing world.

In my workshop, Introduction to the Nonfiction Book Proposal, we’ll discuss the different elements of a proposal and the purpose for each one, look at a few examples, and talk about some strategies for identifying which agents or publishers to pitch. We’ll address the dreaded author platform and how to make the most of whatever you have. If there’s time, we’ll do a little work writing the first paragraph of your proposal overview. You’ll leave the workshop with a clearer understanding of how to give your nonfiction book or narrative memoir a better chance in the market by crafting a solid, professional book proposal. It’s worth the effort, I promise!

Susanne’s Intro to the Nonfiction Book Proposal workshop will take place on Saturday, December 12.  Register here

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