Herbie J Pilato On How to Write a Nonfiction Book that Sells – Part 1

EDITOR’S NOTE: TVWriter™’s legendary Contributing Editor Emeritus Herbie J Pilato shares the key to his nonfiction writing success. Thanks for paying it forward, old friend!


by Herbie J Pilato

It All Begins With The Book Proposal.

The publishing industry is not what it used to be.

Today, there are maybe six or seven (if that) main publishing houses, whereas at one time there were several more. Whether it all changed due to the hands of time or fate, or somewhere or some other reason in between, the plain and simple truth is it’s a different literary world out there.

By the same token, considering the access and increase various forms of extended and evolved communication of recent, there’s probably never been an easier time in publishing history (if that’s a thing) to write and sell a book, despite the genre, category, or whether of a nonfiction or fiction nature.

There are several ways to have a book published beyond the traditional method, including the ever-expanding self-publishing path. But in either case, the best way to begin the journey is with the book proposal, specifically when it comes to nonfiction, and even more specifically when it comes to first-time-published nonfiction books.

The world of fiction, novels, novellas, etc., is a different animal altogether, especially if it’s an initial book. Here, the best chance is to have the manuscript completed before approaching an agent or publisher, while the nonfiction book, be it an inaugural work or otherwise, has the best chance of being sold by way of a proposal.

At its core, the book proposal is essentially a 20 to 40-page outline of the proposed idea, but as explained in books like How To Write A Book Proposal by Michael Larson, the proposal has to read more like a mini-version of the intended book than an outline.

However, once the book proposal is completed, realistic expectations must be in place. Many passionate writers, particularly passionate aspiring writers of any age, believe that every editor and publisher who reads their work will automatically and absolutely adore their literary idea/book proposal upon first perusal and call immediately to make an offer of purchase.

But that’s not how it works. Trust me. I’ve been there.

Even an established author like myself, who has had more than 12 nonfiction books about popular culture published over a twenty-year period still cannot assume an immediate industry-wide acceptance of any new book idea, presented either in the proposal or completed form.

The selling of my first publication, The Bewitched Book, which Dell Publishing released in the fall of 1992, transpired only after the book, in proposal or then completed manuscript form, was initially rejected over 100 times; purchased, canceled, purchased again, canceled again; finally published; canceled; revised for a new edition, which was rejected over 100 additional times; sold, canceled, and then sold again.

Remember how I said publishing is not what it used to be?

The marketing process of my first book occurred when the world of publishing was in a more welcoming state if welcoming is the right word — and it’s really kinda’-sorta’ not. It’s always been tough to get a book published, while it has become relatively less-tough today.

Multiply the amount of stress, pressure, and work connected with what I went through to have my Bewitched Book published, combine that total with the increasing competition in today’s environment of everyone seeking to be, believing and envisioning themselves as best-selling authors, and you have the summative atmosphere of the modern literary world.

Even if you have completed what you may deem the perfect or near-perfect proposal for your nonfiction book, or finished that great American novel that you’ve been envisioning since first grade, you still have to find the agent, editor and/or publisher who believes in your book/idea as much as you do.

Finding that like-minded professional in the publishing arena is half the battle. To ultimately sell and have your book see the light of day on display in bookstores around the world and everywhere books are sold online is a warhorse of a different color.

Before your literary idea becomes a full-blown published book, that perfect proposal you’re working on or completed has to be approved by a number of colleagues connected with the representing agent and/or editor-in-question.

And if even one of those colleagues doesn’t “get it” about your book, or even if they’re having a bad hair or coffee day, your book will not get sold.

It’s sad to think that way, but that’s part of the reality of the way things work in publishing, archaic as that may be.

Many books get published for all the right and wrong reasons.

Some great books may never get published because the author/agent simply could not convince the potential buying-crowd of editors at a particular house because of the negative “gut” feelings of those decision-makers in power, no matter how many facts the author has presented for the book’s intended market.

At the same time, some really not so-wonderful books get published by the author because he or she was best friends with the deciding editor’s Aunt Tilly years ago in Pacoima.

And again, sorry and sad to say, that’s just the way it some times works.

But let’s remain positive and start to tackle what it initially takes to create a proposal for a nonfiction book that will sell against all odds.

You know why? Because I’ve done it. Just keep remembering those multiple rejections and cancellations I had before I finally published my first book.

So, onward to the shaping of the proposal, which basically has five or six different core sections: The Introduction/Overview, the MarketChapter OutlinesSample Chapters, and About the Author.

Each section has to thoroughly prove just how well you know your subject and market, and just how talented a writer you are without displaying even the smallest measure of ego. (Crazy, right?)

TOMORROW: The Deets! Be here.


Writer/producer Herbie J Pilato is the host of classic TV talk show THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, now streaming on Amazon Prime, Founder and Executive Director of The Classic TV Preservation Society, and author of several classic TV companion books. He has been part of TVWriter™ for 20 years and is Contributing Editor Emeritus. Learn more about Herbie J HERE. This article first appeared in Medium.