Last updated on Apr 23, 2021
How to Publish a Nonfiction Book: Land a Book Deal in 5 Steps
Publishing a book is a lifelong dream for many people. But just because you have a great idea for a nonfiction book, that doesn’t mean you know how to publish a nonfiction book.
Those familiar with the ins and outs of publishing novels will be surprised at the difference in how fiction and nonfiction get pitched and acquired by publishing houses. If you’d like to learn about how to publish a book yourself instead, hop on over to our guide to self-publishing. In this post, however, we'll walk you through a 5-step approach to selling your book to a traditional publisher. Let's dive in!
Step 1: Don’t write your whole book first
As counter-intuitive as it seems, the first step toward selling a nonfiction book is not to write a great nonfiction book. Or, to clarify, publishers in nonfiction acquire a book based on the pitch (the idea of the book), rather than the book itself.
Why? Nonfiction publishers work a lot more closely with their writers than those on the fiction side of things. Where fiction might be more of an art, writing non-fiction is more of a science. You can't throw chemicals around the lab without the other scientists' permission — there are procedures in place for a reason. So if your goal is to traditionally publish your nonfiction book, focus on really getting a handle on what your book will be — and who it's for.
Step 2: Research your category and validate your idea
When considering nonfiction authors, the gatekeepers are always on the lookout for people who understand their category. They not only want you to know which books are doing well in your particular type of nonfiction, but they want you to tell them about the marketing potential.
By the time you pitch your book to somebody, you want to know exactly what you’re up against, and that you have an actual opportunity to sell books in your category.
To start your research:
- Head to Amazon and find out if similar books have already been published.
- Get an estimate of those books’ daily sales by running their Amazon ranks through an Amazon calculator.
- Go into big-box and local bookstores and see how well your category "represents" on the shelves.
If you’re struggling to find similar books, it could mean that you’ve struck gold with an original idea. More often than not, though, it probably means that there’s no market for it (at least not yet).
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Step 3: Refine your book's commercial potential
Fiction fans read for pleasure and often seek books that are similar to the ones they already love. For that reason, the market can handle publishing novels that are "more of the same." Nonfiction, on the other hand, can be a lot more competitive.
Nonfiction readers commonly look to books to solve a problem. How can they get better at playing the guitar? How can they learn to code Python? If there’s already a seminal book out there that offers the exact same thing as yours, you might be in trouble.
What is special about you and your book?
Once again, put yourself into the shoes of an industrious publisher who wants to shift some copies: what would compel them to buy your book? Here are a few ways to answer that question:
- “There’s an interest in the topic I’m writing about.” Are there already books in the same ballpark as yours that are selling well?
- “My book has a unique selling point.” There must be something compelling about your idea that separates it from the current successful titles on the market.
- “I’m uniquely qualified to write about this.” Unlike in fiction, where it really doesn’t matter who the author is, you need to justify why you are the person that’s best to put together this book. A book about air disasters written by an accountant is not as compelling as one written by a 30-year veteran of the FAA.
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Step 4: Write a book proposal
As we've said, most nonfiction authors don't write books before they’ve sold them. Instead, they need to create a book proposal — which is more of a business proposal than an artistic document.
If you’ve seen Shark Tank (or Dragon’s Den, or any of its international variants), you know that all investors want to know certain things before they partner with you. Your proposal should answer the main questions an agent or publisher will have — especially the points we covered above.
The proposal will need to touch on:
- your book’s target audience;
- your bona fides in the topic;
- a potential marketing plan, and
- competitive titles.
Your proposal should also include a detailed chapter outline for your nonfiction book and a few sample chapters.
Additional resource: How to Write a Book Proposal (guide and template)
Book Proposal Template
Craft a professional pitch for your nonfiction book with our handy template.
How much does it cost to publish a nonfiction book?
If your book is acquired by a traditional publisher, they’ll pay the production costs. Of course, it never hurts to enlist the help of a book proposal specialist to help you land that deal, but you should only ever pay for publishing if you're self-publishing — beware of scam "publishers" who tell you differently.
Step 5: Query an agent or submit directly to publishers
With your proposal (and pitch) in hand, you're ready to sell your book. As a general rule, if you’re writing general nonfiction — think history books and biographies — or if you want to pitch to a major publisher, then you will probably need an agent.
Luckily, we have just the resource to help you out: this directory of 500+ nonfiction literary agents who are currently accepting submissions! Start browsing today to find your dream agent and get your book published ASAP.
That said, for educational books, and with small- and medium-sized presses (like a lot of cookbook publishers), you might be able to get away without an agent. If you choose to submit your proposal directly, be sure to do your research before you approach a publisher. Ask:
- Does this publisher have a history and interest in my topic?
- Does my book complement what’s already on their backlist?
- Do they accept unsolicited manuscripts?
Additional resource: How to Submit a Book Proposal (guide)
Hopefully soon you'll get a response from an interested party and be signing that sweet contract.
Every publisher will have a different set of expectations based on each project they acquire, but it’s safe to say you’ll be in this for the long haul. Writing a book takes time, and publishers understand this. Between drafting it, finding an editor, and the actual book production process, don’t expect your nonfiction book to hit the shelf for at least a year or two after your land your deal. Still, with perseverance and the right idea, we know you can one day see your work in print!
It always helps to stand out when you're pitching to publishers. Sign up for our free course on building an author platform or check out our post on author platforms to give your book a boost before you even submit your proposal!