Special Edition: So You Want To Write A Textbook

By Jennie Jarvis

I’ve been teaching a workshop entitled Crafting the Character Arc for about five years now. In this workshop, I teach a step-by-step process for creating a goal-based character arc for the protagonist and supporting characters of a narrative written in any genre. Whether my attendees were writing film, comics, novels or even fan fiction, they always seemed to benefit from the information that I shared.

Since I’ve been giving this workshop for so many years, you can imagine that the idea of my writing a textbook on the subject matter has come up more than a few times. Finally, I decided that the time was right for me to move forward with one. But I had no idea where to start. When you write a textbook, do you write the entire thing like a novel? Or do you just create an outline? I really wasn’t sure.

Fortunately, one of the senior agents at the agency that represents me, The Corvisiero Literary Agency, specializes in selling non-fiction books, including textbooks. According to her, if you want to write a textbook, you don’t need to write the entire thing. You just need to create a proposal for that textbook, similar to when you want to sell a creative non-fiction book.

I created my proposal and sent it to my agent, so fingers crossed that it will get sold. Below, I’ve given you the step-by-step proposal outline that I was given. The completed proposal can be as short as fifteen pages or as long as one hundred, but they must all have the following components:

Textbook Proposal Outline

I. Overview

In 2-3 paragraphs (think 500 words or less), describe what the book will be about. Think of this as the blurb that you might seen in a catalog or online when you are deciding whether or not to buy the book. Avoid any kind of emotional language (such as “This is an excellent book” or “once you read this, you’ll never know how you got by without it”). You aren’t marketing the book, you are explaining what it’s about and what makes it unique.

II. Target Audience

Who do you see buying your textbook? Don’t say “everyone”. Be specific. Think of ages, interests and groups. If you target audience is too niche, this might hurt your chances of selling, so try to include as many categories of readership as possible.

III. About the Author

Aside from a writer’s bio, make sure that you include all of your writer platform information. The most important thing here is to promote yourself as an expert in the subject matter on which you want to write. If you are going to write a textbook on making costumes for theater productions, then include all of your theater experience. If you are going to write a textbook on how to fix a car, then explain why you are qualified there. Make yourself an expert here so that you can write a book that will, in turn, make you an expert everywhere.

IV. Competitive Titles

As much as we all love to think of our books as the most original idea to hit the market, this isn’t always a good thing. You want to be able to point out other books on the market that are similar to what you want to write but that aren’t exactly the same thing. Obviously, it’s a great idea to point out books that are selling well. If you only mention books that aren’t selling well, then all you are doing is saying that your book is sure to be a failure. If another book exists that is exactly like yours, then why should yours be published? What kind of hole in the market are you filling?

V. Marketing and Promotion

This can be a really tricky section because you need to take off your writer hat and put on your business person hat. In this section, you need to create a comprehensive plan to market your book. Don’t expect the publisher to market it for you. Imagine that you have to completely market this book yourself. How would you do it?

What are your plans to get the word of your book out? Will you create mailing lists? Will you send marketing materials to universities? Will you travel to conferences or appear on television? Don’t use pie-in-the-sky thinking and say that you will be on Good Morning, America or The Today Show. Unless you know someone that works there who can get you booked as a guest, this isn’t a guarantee. What kinds of connections can you use to help you? Be realistic.

This is also a great place to mention any possible serialization of your textbook. Can you make a part two or an update to your textbook? The success of the first book will act as marketing for your second book, so make sure that you discuss how you can capitalize on the book here.

VI. Annotated Table of Contents

Include a full table of contents that details what is going to be covered in each chapter. I recommend limiting your summary to about one paragraph per chapter, but if you are covering a lot of information than this can be really tricky. Depending on how complex your book is, this section alone could get pretty lengthy.

VII. Sample Chapters

Here is the chance for you to prove your writing ability and to sell the style of the book. It’s really important that you give the publishers the real meat and potatoes of your book. Don’t give an introduction or a chapter that is just ramping up to the main idea of the book. While it’s great to give chapters two and three (or other early chapters), the key is to give a few really solid chapters. If you are directly submitting to a publishing company than you can ask them if they have a preference for number of chapters, otherwise, check with your agent to see if they agree that you are giving the best chapters for your proposal.

Good luck!


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