Writing a Proposal for Your Non-Fiction Book

When I started writing Marines in the Garden of Eden, my goal was to have it published by a traditional publishing house and stocked in every major bookstore in the United States. I signed a publishing contract with Berkley Publishing Group, part of the Putnam/Penguin global publishing giant. Marines in the Garden of Eden appeared on bookshelves throughout the U.S. on June 6th, 2006.

I was very lucky to team up with Berkley, but I must say that I worked very hard to find an agent and publisher. I thought it might be helpful to other aspiring authors to provide a brief discussion of how I made my dream a reality.

In order to become a successful author you must, first, get your attitude in the proper zone. You must believe that you are an author. You must think, eat, and drink as an author. You must believe that you will be successful; for if you do not believe in yourself, you won’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell of convincing anyone else. Once you believe that you are a writer, you must start building your team.

I could never have done this on my own. The first professional you need to recruit to your team is an agent. Acquiring an agent takes preparation and hard work. Literary agents make a living representing good authors. They are the gatekeepers of the literary domain. So, what can you do to attract a good agent?

Good agents receive queries, proposals, letters, manuscripts and just plain gimmicks by the truckload. There are not enough minutes in the day for agents to read all the crap they receive, so most of it is pitched. If I were an agent, I would pull out each one-page query for review and discard the rest.

There is a science to writing queries. They must be clean, crisp and concise. They must convince the agent that he or she needs to look further into your work and they must do it in a paragraph or two. I am not going to attempt to tell you how to write your query, suffice it to say brevity will get you everywhere. I will provide an additional piece of wisdom – convince the agent that you can make them money by selling your book.

Once you have written the perfect agent query, you need to decide whom you will send it to. I simply Googled “Literary agent list,” and more hits popped up than I could have ever looked at. The first website alone had contact information for hundreds of agents. Here is where you need to become restrictive. I used several factors to narrow down my personal agent query list.

  1. I only picked agents who were in New York City. I reasoned that NYC is the center of the publishing universe. I also believed that the publishing world works like all other businesses. People do business through their personal connections. It is much more likely that an agent in New York City will know the right editor at the right publishing house for you, than an agent in Dallas, Texas. So I focused on the Big Apple.
  2. Only select an agent who belongs to a major trade organization: Association of Authors Representatives (US) or the Association of Authors Agents (UK). Agents in these professional organizations adhere to strict ethical standards.
  3. Never deal with an agent who asks for a reading fee. Legitimate literary agents earn their fees through commissions.

Those are my three hard and fast rules. Also, it might be helpful to select an agency that deals in your genre. If you are writing a gardening book, don’t pick a military history agent. You may also think of creative ways to narrow down your own list.

Send your queries out all at once. I used email and snail mail. Some agents love their computers and others avoid them like the plague. So, it is wise to query everyone on your list with a letter and an email.

Then wait. Rest assured, if an agent is interested, he or she will contact you. There is no need for repeated follow-ups. A single follow up telephone call after about two weeks could be helpful. Ask if they have received your query and be prepared to deliver the query over the telephone. If the agent remembers your query and politely rejects your work, ask for constructive feedback.


Stop writing and direct all your attention to your query and proposal.

I found Guerrilla Marketing for Writers to be a great resource. It has a section on queries and proposals and much, much more. Let me try to excerpt it and add in a few other hints I have learned along the way.

First, and foremost – Publishers want to make money.

You need to convince them that your book WILL make money. Here is how you can start. (The authors of Guerrilla Marketing actually suggest that you do these first few steps before you ever start writing. I waited until I was half finished before I did these things and they still helped me)

1. Identify your audience – FIRST. I actually have many audiences but my primary audience is family members of the men and women who have served in Iraq.

2.  Write a hook for your book. Mine is:

Marines in the Garden of Eden tells the story of America’s sons and daughters who fought, bled and died in a dusty desert town on the banks of the Euphrates River.

See how my hook is directed at my audience. The hook should be used in your query and again in your proposal. I am finding myriad uses for my hook during the marketing of the book as well. Keep your message integrated.

3. Then, write a one-page synopsis that links your hook (promise to the reader) to your plot/story.

Keep the hook and synopsis close at hand and make sure you don’t wander too far from your audience. Make sure you deliver on your promise to the reader (the hook).

4. Write a one, or two page analysis of the market and your competition. This will take some research but the time spent will pay large dividends. Find out rankings of similar books and try to find out the number of copies they have sold. Ask your local bookstore if the sales have been good/bad on not just specific books but on your subject matter as well. Understand the market and let the potential publishers know that you do understand the market. Be brief. REMEMBER – publishers want to make money. Show them that your kind of book is profitable.

5. Write a one-page bio. Again, they want to know how YOU can sell books and make money for them. My bio is the weakest part of the proposal because I have a hard time talking about myself. I feel like I am bragging, but you must brag.

6. Write the table of Contents – This was like my master outline, or twelve bullets to keep me moving in the right direction.

7. Then find one of your best chapters, it doesn’t matter if it is the first chapter or the fifth chapter. Spend enough time on that chapter to make it perfect in every way. Make it your best effort. I personally did not pick the last chapter because I didn’t want anyone to know how I would end the book. Make that single chapter part of your proposal.

This will be the only writing sample the prospective publishers will see. They will base their decision on it, so it better be good.

8. Add in additional materials you might think they would be interested in, like photos, recommendations, etc.

Now, when you put it all together, you must remember that the editors and the people that will see your proposal get hundreds of these things a week. You want to make it as easy for them as possible. I placed mine in a red three ring paper binder, the kind you would use for a term paper. The cover was clear so that the title page could be read without opening the binder.

Then, I tried to suck the reader in. My hook was on the first page and was only a short paragraph. My hope was that the reader would be “hooked” and turn the page. THAT IS THE ONLY PURPOSE OF THE HOOK, to get the reader to turn the page. They see so many of these things that the vast majority are set aside before page two.

My second page was a single-page synopsis of the book. During the final polishing, my agent suggested that I add a proposal table of contents just to make it easier for the reader to find things. I really don’t think that was necessary.

I think that the synopsis is even more important than the hook. Here, again, in a single page, you must show how you are going to deliver on your promise; you must describe your book. The sole purpose of the synopsis is to get the reader to turn the page – again. Lots more proposals end up in the circular file after the synopsis is read.

Okay, now you have the reader hooked on your story. You have also shown him/her that you can captivate a reader and that you know how to write a “page turner.” If the editor goes on, you have already scored big points – in just two short pages.

Now they want to know – Will the book make money? So tell them who your audience is, specifically, and also who your competition is. Make them see dollar signs.

Then, take one page to tell them about yourself. By now, your idea has been sold; the editors are looking for more ammunition to support their decision to publish you.

I included the book’s table of contents and outline next to give the reader an overall guide to the entire book and next was my perfect chapter.

I also thought it would be helpful to provide my extensive bibliography and some photos.

In short, I put together a plan and I executed my plan. I wrote the best agent query letter I could, I wrote the best proposal I could and I wrote the best book I could.

I found an agent. I found a publisher (Penguin Group USA) and now I am working at finding readers for Marines in the Garden of Eden.

I hope this helps. Please provide feedback on this article by contacting me through my website at www.MarinesintheGardenofEden.com.

Richard S. Lowry is an internationally recognized military historian and author. His latest book, New Dawn, the battles for Fallujah, will be released by Savas Beatie LLC in May, 2010. Richard has previously published Marines in the Garden of Eden (Berkley Caliber, 2006), The Gulf War Chronicles (iUniverse, 2003 and iUniverse Star, 2008), and US Marine in Iraq: Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2003 (Osprey, 2006). Additionally, he contributed to Small Unit Actions (United States Marine Corps History Division, 2008).


  1. Grace Howard de Castillo says

    This is a great advise for me or anybody. I consider myself a realist artist and a writer, and I want publish a book. You have inspired me with your information.
    God bless you! and wish you ALL the BEST!!

    Thank you.