The synopsis for a nonfiction book differs from that of a novel because it needs to be broken down into more detail. In nonfiction, even if you’re telling a story, as in a history book, you are building a case using facts that need to be aligned in logical order. The nonfiction synopsis will reflect that.
The main thing your nonfiction synopsis must include is a clear benefit to the readers, demonstrating what they will learn from reading your book. Because if you can’t articulate this, you’re not ready to pitch.
To write this synopsis, you’ll go through your book—or the outline of your book—and describe what each chapter will cover. Some call this the chapter-by-chapter summary, rather than synopsis. W. Terry Whalin, in Book Proposals that Sell, gives this element utmost priority.
This section of the book proposal is more important than the book manuscript in your search to obtain a nonfiction publishing contract.—W. Terry Whalin
Now, I think Whalin is overstating the case a bit, but his point is that with nonfiction, you’re unlikely to win the contract if you can’t describe your book thoroughly in the synopsis.
If your book will be broken into parts or sections, the synopsis will show that also. So you would give the title for part one, and then list each chapter in that section with a two- or three-sentence description of the chapter’s contents.
Chapter titles are optional in fiction, but in nonfiction they are a must. The chapter and section titles can serve as entry points, especially in books that the reader may use as a reference and read in bits, rather than front-to-back. Each chapter title should draw the reader in, much like the headline on a magazine article.
Although novelists need to have their books finished before they pitch, a nonfiction writer can pitch and write a proposal for a book that’s incomplete. A chapter-by-chapter breakdown like this, even for an incomplete book, can give a good picture of what the finished book will look like. It also provides a roadmap for the writer to complete the manuscript.
What about memoir?
Memoir is tricky, because although it’s nonfiction, it reads more like a novel. So if you’re pitching a memoir, your proposal will look less like what’s described above and more like that of a novel.
Whalin’s book describes only nonfiction proposals. For fiction proposals, see The Sell Your Novel Tool kit.
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