How To Write A Non-Fiction Book Proposal With Alison Jones

What makes a non-fiction book stand out from the crowd? What are the essential elements of a non-fiction book proposal if you want to pitch agents and/or publishers, or if you want to prepare for effective self-publishing?

In this interview, Alison Jones goes into detail on these things and how the publishing industry has changed due to the pandemic.

how to write a non fiction book proposal

In the intro, how audiobook authors and narrators are paid by Audible-ACX – we think – ALLi blog; iOS14 possible impact on Facebook ads [Facebook]; Taylor Swift and intellectual property rights [The Guardian]; Publishers Weekly backlist titles.

Plus, thoughts on a decade of fiction; How to Make a Living with your Writing Third Edition is up for pre-order; and Your Author Business Plan and Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, and Virtual Worlds are both available everywhere as an audiobook – links to all my books in audio here, or just search your favorite audio app.

ingramsparkToday’s show is sponsored by IngramSpark, who I use to print and distribute my print-on-demand books to 39,000 retailers including independent bookstores, schools and universities, libraries and more. It’s your content – do more with it through

Alison Jones is the CEO of Practical Inspiration Publishing and the author of This Book Means Business, as well as the host of The Extraordinary Business Book Club podcast.

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.

Show Notes

  • Changes in publishing accelerating as a result of the pandemic
  • What makes an extraordinary non-fiction book?
  • Why write a proposal for a non-fiction book?
  • The elements of a non-fiction proposal
  • The importance of having a fair contract for your intellectual property
  • What makes a book attractive for foreign rights licensing?

You can find Alison Jones at and on Twitter @bookstothesky. Alison also has a 10 Day Book Proposal Challenge.

Transcript of Interview with Alison Jones

Joanna: Alison Jones is the CEO of Practical Inspiration Publishing and the author of This Book Means Business, as well as the host of The Extraordinary Business Book Club podcast. Welcome back to the show, Alison.

Alison: Hello, Joanna. It’s nice to be back.

Joanna: For those who haven’t heard of you before, tell us a bit about you and your background in publishing.

Alison: I am a career publisher, I guess I’ve been in publishing all my life, straight out of university. In traditional publishing, I was at Chambers and then at Oxford University Press. And most recently at Macmillan, I was director of innovation strategy until I left in 2014. Macmillan moved to London, I decided I didn’t want to.

Also, I decided publishing was really broken. So I was going to jump ship because the whole paying for content thing was clearly just a disaster. I was going to start a completely new business as a business coach, and facilitator, and trainer, and so on. Then everybody started asking me about publishing. So I came back full circle. And now I am a publishing partner for businesses.

Joanna: Which is brilliant. And it’s so interesting because you said that publishing was broken. And did you say 2014, you started the business?

Alison: That’s right.

Joanna: I think I met you around then. Didn’t I?

Alison: I was going to say so, but I think it was the month after I left Macmillan. I met you, I think.

Joanna: There we go. You’ve obviously done incredibly well working with business books, specifically, which is a great niche.

I wanted to first ask you, as someone who has been a career publisher, and as you mentioned publishing being broken. In the last year, we’ve seen this massive shift in business models. Publishers have finally realized that online is the place to be, especially in a pandemic.

What changes have you seen in publishing over the last year?

Alison: It’s so funny, isn’t it? I think, across every industry, what’s happening is just this massive acceleration of stuff that was already happening.

There’s the basic stuff like everywhere, that suddenly, oh, it turns out people can work from home, who knew? So we can’t unlearn that, so that’s good. And I think actually, that will help with publishing’s awful inclusion statistics. They’re trying really hard, but still, it’s a very London-based, low paid thing.

One of the side effects of that is you tend to end up with people with a private income doing those low paid or unpaid internships, which means it’s just a really, really unrepresentative industry. But I think that now people are all over the place and working remotely, I’m hoping that we will be able to get a more diverse publishing body, which will mean more diverse books, which is good for everybody. So that’s one interesting thing.

I think more broadly in the publishing world, in the whole book industry, that the big story, obviously, has been the impact on bookshops, which is the life blood of the book trade. So many independent booksellers closing down, it’s just awful.

Of these people who really deeply cared about books and curated their collections and had their relationships with their buyers, a lot of them have been hugely creative. And they put an awful lot of stuff online and has helped that’s giving a lifeline to a lot of publishers, small book shops as well.

But an awful lot of them were operating on wafer-thin margins, and they’ve just gone and again, that was something that was happening. It’s been accelerated. It is disheartening, really, that the big winner is, as always Amazon, which is just not good for the wider book trading competition. And just that sense of people who passionately care about books, which frankly, Amazon doesn’t particularly.

Joanna: I’m in Bath, we’ve got some great independent booksellers…

Aliso: You’ve got Toppings, I mean, they’re brilliant.

Joanna: Yes, we’ve got Toppings and Mr. B’s, which won bookseller of the year and stuff. And obviously, we’ve got a Waterstones, which is still I think an independent store. They’re a chain, but…

Alison: Yes, they’re a big chain. Obviously, they’re less independent than they used to be.

Joanna: But it’s interesting because I try and spread my money around, but Toppings has an event business model, and now gone to Zoom events. And Mr. B’s also has a micro-publisher, which is quite interesting.

How much do you think publishers have discovered or invested more in print-on-demand over print runs?

Because it seems to me that the traditional publishing normal route into bookstores is to do a big print run, put books out into stores, there are returns and etc. But the online selling business model of print-on-demand is much more efficient and cost-effective. Do you think that that has shifted? And certainly, is that something that you focus on?

Alison: It has been part of the mix for a little while, I’d say again, it’s accelerated and actually talking to people in Ingram, I know it’s accelerated. I know people who haven’t really invested particularly in print-on-demand are now doing it. Because as you say, it’s so much more flexible in terms of inventory, which was always the case.

I don’t quite know why it took so long.

But I think we probably started off exclusively print-on-demand because of those barriers to entry. The warehousing and the rep team and all that kind of stuff. We’ve gone the other way, we are swimming against the tide of history. And we now do do initial print runs, which get warehoused and so on. And it’s really to do with the traditional book trade because they are wary about buying print-on-demand books because they can’t return them so easily.

I guess there’s still some sort of snobbery, the sense that print-on-demand books range from completely unedited books that people are just putting themselves to absolute top-end traditionally published books as well. And it’s very hard for a bookseller to know.

So they look at the supplier as a kind of proxy for quality. And if they are buying it from a warehouse through the reps that they know, there’s a comfort level with that and an easiness of, it’s a shorthand for, ‘Yes, okay, this is a book that I can return if it doesn’t sell, and I know where it’s from, and there’s some provenance there.’

I think print-on-demand has suffered a little bit from the traditional book trade, just not quite having the wherewithal to be able to grade books effectively. And I don’t know if there is a really easy way around that. But the ecosystem hasn’t quite caught up to enable that. So that’s why we do traditional print runs.

But we supplement that with print-on-demand. And that means we backfill the warehouse from that, so we never go out of print, we never miss a sale. And when you use the two together like that, it’s really, really powerful.

But yes, certainly, that that mix of print-on-demand along with traditional printing, or indeed instead of it for for backlist, and for some publishers, I think has accelerated.

Joanna: And then what about marketing because again, a lot of publishers focused on physical marketing in stores, and book tours, and things like that. Obviously, you’ve got your ‘Extraordinary Business Book Club’ podcast, and digital marketing.

Do you think marketing has also shifted in the last year?

Alison: Definitely. And yes, we were absolutely ahead of the curve here, obviously! It was something that was already happening.

Penguin actually have a really, really good direct, tailored, customized newsletter to their people. More and more publishers were building out direct to consumer, it took them a long time, but they had understood that this was important.

They were using influencers more, they were much more savvy about digital marketing, all of that has accelerated. And I think that’s really helpful, actually, because having that direct relationship with your readers…In the old days, we never knew that booksellers were our customers. And we had no idea who was actually buying the books.

I remember actually going out with the reps and talking to booksellers and seeing people in the shop. I actually started as a bookseller, so I had had more of an idea than most, but having the ability to get instant feedback from people and seeing what resonates when you run a campaign, that’s gold.

Joanna: Did you go to the online Future Book?

Alison: I didn’t go to Future Book this year. No, I have in the past so I didn’t go this year.

Joanna: It was very interesting because a number of European publishers were talking about this direct to consumer model and saying that they are now doing that, actually selling books directly to customers through their email list and through portals on their website.

And of course, I do that at, and it’s something that can make 90% royalty on a book, which is just crazy. And it seemed to me that a lot of these publishers were really starting to look at that, as you said, we need a wider ecosystem than just Amazon.

We love Amazon, absolutely, but we would like a wide, much bigger ecosystem, a healthier ecosystem.

Do you think that British publishers or any publishers that you know more about here in the U.K. are more interested in the direct to consumer (DTC) or do you think they are just not going to be able to go that far?

Alison: I think most of them are, I’m happy to say, for a while developing their DTC stuff. We also now sell our e-books directly off the Practical Inspiration site using Glassboxx, which is a useful app that you can use, it’s kind of device-agnostic. Because obviously, e-books are so closely linked to their purchasing ecosystem.

Usually, if you have a Kindle, you buy from Amazon. If have a Nook, you buy from Barnes & Noble. This is an agnostic thing. And it’s another app to download, I’m not going to pretend it’s perfect.

But what selling direct allows us to do is to offer discounts. So our authors can buy a bulk load of free codes if they want to. We found with the pandemic a lot of the speaking engagements that our authors have done, in the past we would have done a direct bulk sale to an organization, we couldn’t do that because there’s nobody there to receive it, and everybody was watching from home.

What they can do is send out bulk codes and then people can come to the site and redeem them and download the book themselves. So being able to sell directly allows you to do that in a way that you just can’t do it if you’re not a retailer. That in itself is a really practical reason for doing it because you can do promotions and codes and so on.

Joanna: Absolutely. I use Payhip with BookFunnel, which also distributes e-books and audiobooks now to the app. And it’s so great to have more and more tools coming out that are enabling it.

I was talking with my husband about this the other day, it used to be that I just had a couple of apps that I would consume audio from, for example, and now I have about six apps on my phone that I consume audiobooks from. And that doesn’t bother me. I think my own behavior has changed to be all right, well, I bought that book there and that book there. And that means I’m more flexible than I used to be.

I think that change in behavior is what we need, isn’t it? So that people are used to and happy to buy from different sites like yours and mine, rather than just Amazon.

Alison: Yes, exactly. I have a very crude theory here, which is that when we all got our smartphones, we went crazy with the apps. And then we got three screens and then we went, ‘Oh, this is just not sustainable.’ And then we discovered that you could put them into folders.

It’s like a U-shaped curve. We went, ‘Oh, okay. So I have an audio folder and my apps are in there,’ and so suddenly, we organized our stuff better and now we have more tolerance for more apps. That’s my theory.

Joanna: Oh, that’s funny. I do actually use folders, but I have multiple screens, you used to scroll across your screen. But I agree with you. I think our behavior is starting to shift more.

Let’s get into the nonfiction stuff because you do this great proposal course. And you also have your This Book Means Business, which is fantastic. So let’s talk about nonfiction.

What makes a nonfiction book stand out rather than being just another book on the same topic?

Because we just see so many of those, right? What is an extraordinary nonfiction book?

Alison: It’s a real ‘X Factor’ question, isn’t it? There are lots of perfectly competent singers out there, but what’s the X factor? And it’s obviously, if there was a recipe for this, we’d be making millions.

Joanna: We’d all be rich!

Alison: I know. But what I can tell you is what I look for in a book, which is something distinctive, and it could be the way they framed it, a metaphor that they’ve used that you go, ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought about it like that before,’ or a framework or something that really shows that they have not just got something to say about this, but they have structured it in a way that makes it easy for people to consume, or they’re helping you…because there are no completely new ideas in the world.

Maybe there are, but there’s very few of them. And that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t buy another book on marketing, it just means that if you’re going to buy another book on marketing, it’s got to be doing something a bit different, or helping you see something in a new way, or it’s got to add to the conversation.

And I always say to that, when people are writing a book, quite often it’s crippling in the sense that you have to get everything in there and it has to be the last word on the subject. It’s never going to be the last word on the subject, you’re taking part in this conversation, but it has to be worth saying.

Getting that balance of being clear about what you’re covering, having a really distinctive and original take on it, that’s what I look for in a book.

Joanna: And it’s interesting, you said you won’t get everything in there. Of course, you can’t. And it’s very difficult. You want to write a magnum opus, but equally the trend for shorter books that perhaps are an encapsulated idea that’s not everything you need to know, but it’s lots of smaller things.

How long should a nonfiction book be these days?

Alison: I reckon 35,000 words to around 55,000 words is the sweet spot.

Go much below 35,000 words and you’re going to find it hard to get a spine that is bulky enough to have a legible title on it. That’s a really crass reason, but actually, you want to be able to see it on a shelf. You’ve got to be able to read the title on the shelf and it has to be at least 100 pages for that.

100 pages looks a bit thin and spindly. So, books, they have a physical life, they have a life as objects, a sort of reification of books. And it matters how a book feels in your hand. I know it doesn’t matter when you’re buying online, but not everybody is buying online, and even when you get it you don’t want somebody to be like, ‘Oh, it’s much smaller than I thought.’

You can have shorter books that are more spacious in their page design, that have lots of illustrations, and that will bulk them out. But for me, 35,000 words feels, this is something that couldn’t be said in a blog post. And there are too many books out there that, frankly, should have been said in a blog post.

It’s just the one idea which is interesting, but once you’ve read that, the next five chapters are basically rehashing the idea. And that shouldn’t be a book. But if you go much above 50,000, 55,000, maybe 60,000, push 1000 words.

I remember talking to Bernadette Jiwa, who writes very short, very beautiful books. And I asked her about why she did that. And she said she went to a bookshop to do some research, competition research. And she saw people looking at books, taking it down from the shelf, and going, ‘Not got time for that,’ and putting it back.

And whether you say out loud are you just think it in your head, that’s kind of where we’re going with this, isn’t it? If you have something to say, you have to put the time and the energy into saying it as concisely as possible because that’s the value that you bring to your reader other than just waffling on for 80,000 words, and making the point that you could have made him 50,000. Nobody’s going to thank you for that.

Joanna: I totally agree. And it’s interesting, a really famous author, Tony Robbins, he has done quite a few doorstop books, but he put out a book a few years back called ‘Money, Master The Game,’ or something like that. And it really was a doorstop, and I’m a fan and I bought it. And it’s like, it was hard work anyway.

And then about 18 months later, he put out Unshakeable, which is, as you said, it’s probably about 45,000 words, and it is all the best bits from that mega-megabook in a much smaller book. And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I know exactly why he did this.’

Even with someone who is as famous as Tony Robbins, they clearly decided that really putting everything you know on this topic in one big book was useless. So I agree with you around that.

Alison: I think actually, it’s interesting, you watch really big, famous authors, and you can see it in the ‘Harry Potter’ series. The first one was really, really well edited. Because book four is just too long, it’s too long.

Joanna: Oh, let’s mention Dan Brown as well!

Alison: Yes. They get to that point where the editor doesn’t quite dare to kind of rein them in. And it’s a mistake.

Joanna: Absolutely. So in talking about a proposal:

If a nonfiction author wants a publishing deal, why should they write a proposal first and not a whole book?

Alison: This is the big difference between fiction and nonfiction. And it always boggles me that with fiction, you have to write the whole thing before you start punting it around, why does that work?

I’ve been a nonfiction girl all my life, and nonfiction, it’s about the concept and the distinctiveness, as I was saying before, it’s also about the credibility. So it’s very much about are you the right person to talk about this? Why should we believe you? Why should we listen to you?

Publishers tend to have more of a commissioning strategy with their nonfiction. Honestly, I’m saying that, and actually, I don’t know much about fiction publishing, but certainly, nonfiction publishers, they will have a sense of where the list is going, and what they want to focus on, and they’ll have a subject editor who will have a really strong vision for that list.

If you pitch a proposal to a particular commissioning editor at a nonfiction publishing house, there’s two dialogues going on. One is their engagement with the proposal that they’re reading in front of them. Is this good? Does it stack up? Is it credible? Is it clear?

The other one is how does this fit with where we’re going with this list? And it’s very rarely a perfect fit. More often, there will be this is really interesting, but what I’d really like to do is focus a bit more on this or bring in a bit more of the intersectionality with this discipline or whatever.

That’s the conversation that you have with a nonfiction editor, they will want to work with you to shape that book to be something that they can do really well with, which will fit their commissioning. Maybe steer it slightly away from a book that they published very recently that’s on similar ground, maybe bring in something that they’re really, really keen to focus on.

And whether you like that or not is entirely up to you. So this is a conversation, you might say, ‘Well, actually, that’s not my vision for the book. So no.’ But it’s much more about a conversation of how can we work together to make a book that’s going to work for you as the author but also going to work for us as a publisher?

Nonfiction authors tend to be a bit less, I was going to say precious, I don’t mean to be at all offensive. But you know what I mean, it’s not your creative soul necessarily. Of course, it’s creative, but it isn’t your artistic vision. It’s much more.

You use nonfiction books as much as read them, and it’s got to work for the reader. So the editor has the expertise in that area.

It’s one of the reasons I love being a nonfiction editor, actually, is that you bring your professional expertise and your ambassadorship for the reader into that equation. And that’s why we do it because very often, they will say, ‘Yes, but…’ and you’ll write a very slightly different book to the one that you’d perhaps originally envisaged.

Joanna: And is that why pitching the most appropriate publisher or agent is a really important thing? You have to know what the taste or what the direction of that publisher or agent needs.

Joanna: Yes. You can’t always know what their future direction is, of course, unless you have someone in the company, but you can certainly look at what they’re putting out at the moment.

I wouldn’t look too much at anything that was published four or five years ago because it may well be a different commissioning editor with very different views now. But you can certainly look at what they’re putting out what their forward list is like, where they’re pricing things, who they’re aiming them at.

Because having a really clear target market is so important for so many nonfiction books, you want to be really clear on who you’re writing for and what problem you’re solving for them.

Joanna: And with the proposal, I mean, what I have heard is that you don’t necessarily need an agent with nonfiction proposals. There are micro-publishers and imprints that take pitches directly from authors. What are your thought on agents?

Alison: Again, it’s one of the great things about being a commissioning editor is that you don’t always rely on an agent as they do. So the Big Five, Penguin/Random House, Harper Collins, you are going to have to go through an agent, fiction or nonfiction, there’s no two ways about that.

But it’s not even a micro-publishing house, people like Bloomsbury, Kogan Page, Sage, Palgrave, Routledge, all of these will take proposals directly in their field, and the commissioning editor details are up there on the site. So you can find them, they don’t hide them away. And that’s, I think, great because you can have that conversation directly. And you don’t need an agent for that.

Now, clearly, I’m working from a business books, professional books perspective. So keep that in mind, if you’re writing a trade biography it might be different, you might be having to go through an agent for that.

But also independent publishers, they’re thriving, that there’s a bit of a gap in the middle, actually the middle sized publishers are increasingly getting acquired by the big publishers who are desperate to scale up and get as many economies of scale as they can.

Coming up at the other end, there are so many niche publishers or publishers with a real passion for a particular market or topic or way of looking at the world.

And it’s really, really worthwhile researching those because you can have a conversation directly with them.

Joanna: Would you say that the financial terms are also different with nonfiction. Obviously, you don’t need to get into details. But a lot of people have this vision of a multi-six figure deal, or whatever. Is the nonfiction space smaller because niche books are smaller in general?

Alison: I’d say there’s very few certainly, and more in the professional space, you don’t get much by way of advance. There are big nonfiction books that get advances, but they’re big trade books, they tend to be with the big trade houses.

One of the reasons that I went into the business publishing space is that for people writing business books, honestly —

The return on investment isn’t the book. It’s the business.

Using a book as part of your bigger piece so you have an online presence, you have your book, you have the products and services that you offer just makes so much sense.

Books are such low-price, low-margin items that is punishingly hard to make a good return on them. And I mean that for publishers as well as authors. I know that publishers take a lot of flack for for their terms to authors, but I can tell you that there are very, very few publishers outside the academic journal space making real serious money. This is a good reason you used to have to have a private income to do this. It’s not a high-margin business.

So yes, I’d say with nonfiction, certainly the kind of nonfiction I’ve worked with, verging on scholarly but also professional that that kind of purposeful, business-like kind of nonfiction, it’s less risky than fiction because you know you can quantify the audience quite well.

And you can predict fairly accurately as a commissioning editor roughly how many copies of this book you’re going to sell. But there’s very little upside as well. So trade fiction, much more potential for massive hits, much more risk of completely losing your shirt.

Joanna: I think that obviously with my own sales, I know pretty much how many nonfiction books I can sell every month based on the certain number of people who always buy this type of books, this audience, authors and people go in and out of their interests, clearly.

But if you look at even Google search results, the same number of people are searching every month for the same type of thing, right? And you mentioned marketing books, I’m one of those people, I’m going to buy the latest marketing book by Seth Godin, or whatever, or something that I noticed that’s interesting.

I see nonfiction, for me personally as an author, is something that is pretty stable, whereas the fiction goes up and down. Right now as we’re recording this in the pandemic and lockdown three, and Bridgerton hit over Christmas. Suddenly, if you write Regency romance, your books are probably selling pretty well off the back of Bridgerton.

It’s a great genre anyway, but that has certainly picked it up. Whereas I feel like some of the darker books like that I write, people would rather have a feel good Regency romance at the moment. So the fiction does really go up and down, whereas nonfiction, it seems to be a lot more stable.

Alison: It is. And you might say, well, how dull is that? When you’re trying to build a business on it, it’s quite handy.

Joanna: Absolutely.

If we’re going to do a proposal, what are some of the important elements that go into it?

Alison: This is a nonfiction proposal I’m talking about because I am not qualified to talk about a fiction proposal.

With a nonfiction proposal, there’s nothing inessential in there, it is what they need to know distilled down to the purest form. So there’s not much fat to cut. But I would say, that’s the other great thing, you go to the publishers that I just mentioned, and you can download a submission form, you can see exactly what they need.

I would really encourage you not to send a vanilla proposal out to everybody, but actually go and have a look, how do they ask you to present it? Because that will reflect how their internal systems work. And if you couldn’t be bothered to do that, then you’re less of an attractive person to work with, frankly.

There’s no mystery here. You can go and look at the proposals, they’re all fairly standard. And the big things that I would say are, really focus on your target reader.

That’s where we start with the 10-day business book proposal challenge: who is this for? Don’t tell me it’s the general reader. And don’t tell me it’s anybody with interest in self-development.

No. Who really is it for? Who’s actually going to buy this book?

It might not be a demographic. I always think if you say, ‘Oh, it’s for women between 25 and 35,’ well, it might be but there’s very few books that really are specifically focused at women in that age group.

It’s probably less about gender and age than it is about a psychographic; what is the problem that they’re facing, the need that they have, or the itch that they want to scratch? And that doesn’t necessarily conform to a demographic, but it might.

It might be more to do with a career transition, or it might be more to do with a leader who wants to understand technology more or a small business person who wants to recruit their first employee. If you’ve got something like that, that’s great because it’s really straightforward to design a marketing campaign around that. If it is more broad, then you’ve just got to…well, actually, who…?

If I’m talking about a more general self-development book, what kind of person is going to be attracted to the approach that I am taking, if it’s a more holistic approach, or is it yoga? But just really think about who it is, and show that you have done the research that you know these people exist, but not only that they exist in sufficient quantities to purchase your book.

A persona is no good here, one person who will buy your book, and that ain’t going to make it financially viable. So persona is fabulous for you as you write, but do not put it in your target market bit, you’ve got to show that there was a big enough group of people who were likely to buy this book to make it worthwhile.

And then show not only they have that need, but that they know they have that need. Because if you know that they need this, but they don’t, they aren’t going to buy the book. So that’s really important.

Obviously, the overview, the summary, they are really, really key because that’s where you set out what’s distinctive about your book. I’d say spend a lot of time on that.

The other really, really important one is the marketing plan.

I wish I could say to you that if you write a really good book, it will be a word of mouth sensation. But frankly, if it was a choice between a brilliant book and a really rubbish marketing campaign, or a mediocre book and a fabulous marketing campaign, the second one is going to win out every time.

You can’t have a rubbish book with a brilliant marketing campaign because people will see through that very quickly. But if it’s just being mediocre, then it’s the marketing that’s going to do it.

So demonstrating that you can reach people that you’ve already gained a following because there’s so many tools out there for you to gain a following, why haven’t you done it yet? The book can’t just do it all for you.

And that you have a really clear sense of how you’re going to promote it, the connections, the network that you have the events, you’re going to speak at, all that kind of stuff.

They’re all important, but those are the ones that I would particularly highlight.

Joanna: I know people are going, ‘Oh, no, that sounds like loads of work.’!

Alison: I know, right? I’m so sorry. What should I say?!

Joanna: Exactly. But on that, and obviously, a lot of my listeners are indie but they’re also traditionally published, and a lot of authors now obviously go to the hybrid route and do a bit of both.

What are the benefits of working with a publisher for nonfiction if you have to do the marketing plan yourself, if you have to figure out the target market yourself?

Alison: Well, I didn’t quite say that. What I said was that this is the proposal. And I think even if you are planning to publish yourself, you should do a proposal, you should do that thinking and you’re basically, you’re pitching this.

If you are submitting it, you’re pitching it to a publisher as a business, as an investment, and you’re saying, ‘I am a good bet for you to risk on.’ But actually, your time, your energy, your resources, you have to decide, similarly, is this a good use of my scarce resources?

Doing that thinking in the book proposal will pay hugely when it comes to marketing the book because you will have had to do that, thinking about, ‘Why would somebody buy this book rather than the four most closely competing titles? And how am I going to promote it?’ And if you’ve done that thinking upfront, it’s going to really help you if you’re self-publishing.

In terms of why you would want to go with a publisher or indeed a publishing partner, more like Practical Inspiration, it’s about expertise, obviously, and working with an editor and all that kind of good stuff. But it’s also about still the traditional book supply chain, it is really hard to get your book into traditional shops, as an event republished author.

Amazon is great, but Amazon isn’t the whole story, and certainly not globally. So getting that kind of distribution. Also, there’s something about having a community of authors that I’ve spent a lot of time building up the Practical Inspiration author community and the learning that we do within that.

So it just makes it a bit less lonely, I think, and having that accountability can be really helpful as well, I found writing my own book because I was my own publisher, I was terrible as an author because I didn’t take myself seriously when I gave myself a deadline.

But I know that many of my authors will say, ‘Well, if I hadn’t been working, if you haven’t given me the timeline, which means you need to draft, the beta manuscript here for the development editor, and then we’ll need to final manuscript here and this is when we need the illustrations.’ It’s about managing that process, which is really, really helpful.

Joanna: You said there that you were terrible as an author, but you’re certainly not a terrible author. This Book Means Business is an excellent book. Just so everyone knows!

Alison: Thank you.

Joanna: It’s really useful, and I highly recommend it for people to understand this process. You’re fantastic at helping people through this process.

So you’re right, having someone to project manage and deal with all that stuff is a big reason why a lot of especially successful business people want a partner because they don’t want to do it themselves. It’s like a big part of it.

Also, do you think that in the speaking circuit, the big money speaking circuit, that having a publisher imprint, like Kogan Page, or Wiley on your spine actually makes a difference in the speaker circuit? Because I know a lot of your authors also speak.

Do you think having a recognizable brand on the spine makes a difference?

Alison: It’s an interesting one, I think certainly for academic books. For getting books onto courses, it’s definitely easy to get adoptions if the lecturer knows the brand and trusts the brand as an academic publisher. But most authors probably don’t care about that.

I think it’s much less of an issue for the speaker circuit, honestly. I think what matters is if it’s professionally produced because it’s that tangible thing that embodies the intangible, isn’t it, and if it looks shoddy, if it’s full of typos, if the page design looks as though it was set in Word, it just doesn’t give the impression that they want their brand associated with.

I think it’s got to look professionally done. And I think that’s the big difference these days, books that are professionally published or not professionally published, rather than traditionally published or self-published. But I would say, actually, quite a lot of our authors have come from traditional publishing backgrounds and just want more control, they want to be able to buy books at a reasonable rate.

They also want more control over their intellectual property because the intellectual property exists beyond the book. And publishers, of course, are entirely invested in the book and they make their money from the sale of their book.

Whereas the people who are writing the book that I’m working with, the business owners, the book is just one part of something bigger. So the people who’ve come from traditional publishers to work with me have done so because they were frustrated by the lack of control, the lack of ability to use their intellectual property, the author discount, which meant that actually, they were paying much more than they paid to work with me to buy back enough copies of the book to use in the business.

There are more options today than there ever used to be.

And that’s a great thing. I’m not going to say that one of them is better than another. It’s just how do you want to use this book? What do you want it to do for you? And think about your options that way.

Joanna: That is a great point. Whoever you’re going to sign a contract with, you have to have some control over the content of that intellectual property. As you say, what if you want to do a course on it? What if you want to make videos? What if you want to give stuff away for free? All of that can be impacted by a contract.

So that is really important. Now, just a final question. You and I have seen each other at many conferences, and we last saw each other at Frankfurt Book Fair, way too long ago now.

Alison: Oh, I miss it!

Joanna: Me too. I hope we can go this year, 2021. I’m definitely going if we can. And you were there in your booth when I saw you and you had the books there that looked amazing on the shelf. You were pitching for your authors to license into foreign rights in different territories.

I license my books in different territories and languages, and so do many people listening, but it’s really interesting. How do you know what’s worth pitching and you go, ‘Yep, that one’s going to do well on licensing?’

What makes a book more likely to be picked up for foreign rights licensing?

Alison: It’s a combination of things. Length, which is another good reason to write short because translators are expensive, and they’d much rather translate to 50,000 words than 80,000 words. So that’s another good reason to keep them short.

Topic, obviously, whether it’s got an attraction in a particular country. So anything that’s too U.K. specific, so legal texts, for example, it’s probably not going to get much in the way of translation stuff on that because it’s just not relevant for other territories.

The big thing is the author’s international connections. On our author form, there’s a bit for international connections. And I’m always saying, ‘I don’t care how tenuous it is, if you’ve got a connection with a non-English speaking…you put it down there.’

If you can show that that author has spoken, has worked with a client in a particular country, what you’re doing effectively is showing that there is an interest in that topic in that country and that that person is known and respected.

It comes back to that credibility piece. So building relationships, building your platform, all the stuff. Actually, one thing if you’re thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can’t do that marketing plan because I haven’t got this stuff.’ writing your book, it’s such a great time for you to start all this stuff. Because you’re doing something really interesting and creative in the space, it’s a great time to reach out to people, it’s a great time to plan your content marketing campaign around your book.

So bear that in mind as well to think beyond English language speaking and see where you can get engagement in overseas territories, and if that’s where your business is going, particularly, because that’s what makes the difference is having those connections.

Joanna: Interesting. Brilliant.

Where can people find you and your books and your podcast online?

Alison: They can find me at And there’s links to my stuff there. You can find the books that we publish, And you can find the podcast and links to the community, we’ve also got a Facebook group, at

Joanna: And you’ve got a book proposal challenge, haven’t you?

Alison: I do. Yes, I run about three times a year, ‘The 10-Day Business Book Proposal Challenge,’ which is exactly what it says. We take 10 days and we go through every field of a proposal template. And I explain, what’s the publisher looking for here? What do you think about…?

You submit your first draft and I go, ‘Yeah, but you need to do more this, and shape it, and how about if you did that,’ and by the end of it, it’s so lovely. I’ve just finished one and I put the shameless begging thread up, to get some endorsements but, ‘This has changed my life.’ And that’s quite nice, isn’t it?

Ten days to change somebody’s life is quite good. An awful lot of books have come out of that and gone on to publish in every way actually, traditionally, with Practical Inspiration as a partner, and self-published, and quite a lot of them have gone on to win awards, which is pleasing.

Joanna: That is excellent. Every year, every time I speak to you, every time I see you, I’m like, ‘I’m going to do it this year because I’ve got this idea and I know that working with you will make you better.’ And once again, I’m sitting here going so I’ve got these like three ideas. I’m like, ‘Right, I’m going to do this challenge.’ So one day you’ll see me on that. Well, thank you so much, Alison. That was great.

Alison: Good to talk to you, Joanna.

The post How To Write A Non-Fiction Book Proposal With Alison Jones first appeared on The Creative Penn.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • February 14, 2021