Ken Whyte’s tips for selling your non-fiction manuscript to a publisher
There is no single correct way to pitch a book idea to a publisher.
What works for fiction will be different than what works for cookbooks or narrative non-fiction. My expertise is in the latter, so what follows is an approach to pitching narrative non-fiction (defined as a true story with a beginning, middle, and end, intended for a general audience). The method was taught to me by a couple of top-flight agents who have landed thousands of books with the best publishers in New York and Toronto.
A pitch is not a single document but a package of documents including an introduction, a sample chapter, a chapter outline, an author biography, and a marketing sketch.
Let’s start with the easy part, the author biography. This is neither a curriculum vitae or a cradle-to-grave biography. It is a few hundred words designed to give a publisher confidence that you can execute what you are proposing. Include relevant literary experience, expertise pertaining to your proposed subject, previous publications, institutional affiliations (magazines, say, or universities), awards or other marks of distinction, praise from credible sources.
The purpose of the marketing sketch, which can be a couple of paragraphs appended to the author biography or a separate document of a few hundred words, is to alert the publisher to anything you might be able to do to help sell your book. Do you have a strong social media profile, or regular print or broadcast outlets? Do you do a lot of public speaking? Can you point to comparable books that suggest an audience for what you’re proposing? Do you have any useful connections who will blurb or otherwise endorse or promote your work?
The purpose of the sample chapter is to demonstrate your ability to write. Pick a chapter that will get a publisher interested in your subject, one that gives you an opportunity to show a command of style and narrative. It might be as short as ten or fifteen pages, or as long as thirty or forty. It might be front the start of the book or the finish. It might be the only chapter you’ve written. What matters is that it is compelling.
The purpose of the chapter outline is to demonstrate that you have more than one chapter in you — that you and your subject can carry a book of whatever length you are proposing. One solid paragraph per chapter should do it, although I’ve know writers to do a little more. The paragraph should give the reader an idea of both the content of the chapter and how it fits in the larger story. Collectively, the chapter outline should tease out the principal characters, incidents, and themes of the book.
I should add here that it is not necessary at the pitch stage to be certain about every character, incident, and theme you will treat in the book. Minds change and new information turns up in the course of research and writing. It is nevertheless helpful to project a strong sense of direction for your project. It may change as you do the work but projects that start off aimlessly tend to end that way.
Finally, the introduction. Its purpose is to grab a publisher by the lapels and convince him or her to buy this book on this subject by this person (you) right now. Why is the story interesting, important, original, topical? If it is not most of those things, you might consider another subject. This document need only be two or three pages long but it must sing and convince, and you should probably pay more attention to it than to any other part of the package. If a reader is not captivated by the introduction, the rest of the package might not matter.
New writers often ask how much work they should do before pitching a project. A benefit of the above approach is that it answers that question for you. If you can write a strong sample chapter, a thorough chapter outline, and a compelling introduction, you are probably deep enough into the project to know if it is real and worthwhile.