Writing a Great Nonfiction Book, One Page at a Time

Message and Promise: The Two Most Critical Elements of Every Book


So what? Who cares? These are two of the questions that Jane Friedman—former publisher of Writer’s Digest, publishing industry veteran, and educator—says that you have to address in your book proposal. Less pithy industry vets say that you need to be able to explain what your book is about and why readers will care. More pithy industry vets use the terms message and promise. There’s a difference, and these two pieces, once you’ve clearly defined them, can help you avoid kitchen-sink-itis (or make difficult content decisions).

(Note: Communicating these points effectively in a book proposal requires that you understand your market competition or differentiation, and I’ll write about that soon.)


I like to start by discussing promise for the same reason I recommend doing an audience analysis as one of the first steps of building your book’s foundation: you should always have your reader in mind as you write. The promise of your book is its benefit to your reader. If your book is about leadership, your readers should become better leaders. If your book is about weight loss, your readers should be able to lose weight. But those are the same promises that all of the other books on leadership and weight loss make, right?

The promise is your opportunity to create an emotional connection.

The key to developing a compelling promise for your book—a hook that will immediately engage the reader when you include it in cover copy, your subtitle, interviews, and so on—is to make it different by reflecting the nuances of your angle on the topic, but also by reflecting what you’ve determined your reader really cares about. If you’ve done a good audience analysis, you’ve considered the specific struggles of your potential audience. Which of those struggles will your book help them overcome? This isn’t your opportunity to “should” your reader. The promise is your opportunity to create an emotional connection.


Your message is how you will fulfill the promise you’ve made to the reader. Now, message and promise are similar because you’re trying to capture the nuances of what your book is about. But think about your message as your expert perspective on how to solve a bigger problem.

Let’s look at some examples. I’m a big fan of the book Influencer by Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. Here’s an excerpt from the early pages:

“[This book] explores how to achieve profoundly better results in everything from the nuclear family to nuclear power plants by changing human habits that can be extraordinarily difficult to alter. . . . Instead, success relies on the capacity to systematically create rapid, profound, and sustainable changes in a handful of key behaviors.”

These two sentences capture the message and promise of the book fairly well. The promise is essentially the first sentence, the message is essentially the second. Now, the authors spend a few pages building on these two sentences, defining what it means to be an influencer, exploring more of the types of problems good influencers can solve, and so forth. That’s what an introduction is for. But early on in the development process, you need to begin by honing your message and promise.

Want to test your ability to spot good messages and promises in other books? Read flap or cover copy or introductions and find those few sentences that really communicate exactly what the book is about and what it will do for you, the reader.

What Promise and Message Can Do for You

Most authors suffer from kitchen-sink-itis at some point in the manuscript development process. If you have a strong promise and message, you should be able to hold any topic next to them and quickly make a decision about whether to include it or not. Does it help fulfill the promise to the reader and does it build on the message? If yes, keep it. If no (and be honest!) put it in a document for your next book or a blog article. More on this when we get to outlining.

Also I love collecting great examples of promise and message, so if you find some, post them here!

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