For the benefit of those of you joining us mid-series, I’ve been spending the last week or so going over (and over, and over) the ins and outs of that most dreaded of query- and submission-packet candy, the humble synopsis. No one can say that I haven’t been thorough about it this time around: we’ve covered what a synopsis is and isn’t (9/14-15) and how it should be formatted (9/25-17), as well as how to make it as brief as a single page (9/15-18) or as long as 5 (9/18-9/22).
I know: all of you are completely shocked that I’m going over all this exhaustively, explaining the logic behind the choices, rather than just handing you a single-page of barked generic directions. Totally out of character, this is.
Although many of the principles covered earlier in this series will apply to either a fiction or nonfiction synopsis — or to a memoir synopsis, which is stylistically sort of a combination of both — last time, I began talking about the specialized problems facing nonfiction synopsizers. (Hey, if it isn’t a word, it should be; I’ve been using it enough in the past week.)
Last time, if you will recall, we established that a nonfiction synopsis has five goals — that’s one more than we discussed last year, for those of you keeping track; the market’s continually evolving — and that those aims are different from the primary goals of a novel synopsis. To recap, a NF synopsis should:
(1) to present the problem or question the book will address in a way that makes it seem fascinating even to those not intimately familiar with the subject matter;
(2) to demonstrate why readers should care enough about the problem or question to want to read about it;
(3) to give some indication of how you intend to prove your case, showing the argument in some detail;
(4) to demonstrate why the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile, and
(5) to show beyond any reasonable question that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book.
I ended yesterday’s post with a cliffhanger: no matter how large the prospective market for your book is, I told wide-eyed readers gathered around the virtual campfire, you can’t legitimately assume that an agent or editor will be aware of just how many potential readers inhabit it. Thus, when you are crafting a synopsis — or query letter, or book proposal — it’s prudent to assume that they will underestimate it.
And thus the market appeal of any nonfiction book. Unless it’s a tell-all by a celebrity fresh out of rehab or somebody who used to work at the White House.
Do I already hear some impatient huffing out there? “This doesn’t seem right to me, Anne?” a few nonfiction writers protest. “While I understand why I am forced to descend to the sordid mention of market conditions and readership in my book proposal, my query letter, and my pitch, the synopsis is supposed to be a summary of what the book is about. Therefore, it must be entirely about content, a pristine run down of just the facts, ma’am. Kindly mend your ways accordingly, miss.”
You’re partially right, impatient huffers: a fiction synopsis should indeed concern itself entirely with its book’s subject matter, rather than marketing concerns. A professional nonfiction synopsis, on the other hand, is mostly about content, but as we discussed yesterday, often is effectively a micro-proposal as well.
Or, to put it a bit more bluntly: if you want to query or pitch nonfiction to the pros, there’s no way to avoid discussing marketing issues. It’s the price a nonfiction writer pays for not having to write the entire book before selling it.
I hate to break anyone’s bubble about the marriage of art and business, but marketability typically plays a far, far more important role in whether an agent, editor, or even contest judge will be interested in a NF project than in novel; nonfiction, after all, is usually sold on a book proposal, not the entire manuscript, and proposals, for the benefit of those of you who have not yet written one, are made up almost exclusively of marketing material.
Why? Well, most of the time, nonfiction sells better.
Don’t believe me, fiction-readers? Okay, try this little experiment: talk into the nearest large chain bookstore and take a good, long look around. Are most of the books fiction or nonfiction? Assuming it is the latter (as is the case in most non-specialist bookstores), how are the bookstore’s nonfiction sections arranged?
99.99% of the time, it will be by subject matter — unlike the fiction, which is usually arranged by author’s last name, with perhaps separate sections for the better-selling genres.
Which means, at the querying and submission stages, that a nonfiction synopsis that acts like a fiction synopsis — that is, sticking to the story and nothing but the story — is typically a less effective marketing tool than one that gives some indication of what kinds of readers are in desperate need of this particular book and why.
Hey, I didn’t set up this system; I just attempt to render it a trifle less opaque for newcomers.
Yes, the quality of the writing does make a difference in any query or submission, but the fact is, while novels can — and do — sell on the writing alone, even the best-written nonfiction is seldom marketed primarily upon the quality of the writing. In fact, that it’s not at all unusual for an author to be able to sell a nonfiction book, even if it’s a memoir, based on only a single chapter and a book proposal.
More huffing? Okay, go ahead and ask: “But Anne, I’ve seen agency websites/listings in agency guides/heard one agent make an offhand comment at a conference and took it as an indicator of how every agent in North America feels insisting that they will ONLY look at memoirs that are already 100% written. So I guess you just misspoke about memoirs being sold by proposal, right?”
Well, I could see where a reader might think that as a memoirist who sold her book via proposal, my view might be a trifle skewed, but no: the vast majority of memoirs sold every year to U.S. publishers come in proposal form, not as finished manuscript. There’s a pretty good reason for that — not only are proposals significantly quicker for Millicent the agency screener and her cousin Maury the editorial assistant to read; it’s commonplace for publishers to ask for content change in a nonfiction book.
Yes, even in memoirs. The writer may have lived the life, but ultimately, the editor is the one who decides what parts of that life are and are not included in the published book.
So why would an agency stipulate that a memoir that’s probably going to undergo significant revision be completed before the writer queries? Well, a couple of reasons. Topping the list: memoir can be emotionally devastating to write; I know plenty of perfectly wonderful memoirists who went through years of angst about whether they would be able to commit their lives to paper at all. An agency that doesn’t accept partially-written projects may be relatively certain that the writer can deliver the goods.
Also — and again, I don’t want to send any of you memoirists out there spinning into shock, but better you hear this in advance — it’s not unheard-of for agencies with this requirement to expect memoirists to construct a book proposal for the already-completed manuscript after they’re signed to a representation contract. Since a book proposal must talk about the storyline as if the book were already completed, it’s quite a bit easier to write with a manuscript already in hand.
Translation: working with an agency with this requirement does not necessarily equal a get-out-of-writing-a-proposal pass.
Given the prevailing expectation that a nonfiction query packet is leading to asking for a proposal, you’ll be better off if you make it pellucidly clear in the synopsis who your target market is, why your book will appeal to them, how and why your subject matter is interesting — and, if you’ll pardon my committing the sacrilege, why a non-expert in the field might find it fascinating.
And before anyone asks: no, “Because I spent two years writing it!” is not a sufficient answer to any or all of the last four questions on that list. In the throes of writing, revising, and querying a book, it can be hard to remember that.
Remember, too, that for the synopsis to whet an agent, editor, or contest judge’s appetite for reading the proposal — the essential task of every syllable of a query packet, right? — the book’s content needs to come across as not merely intriguing to its target readership, but to industry types as well. So if you ever find yourself saying, “Well, that’s a trifle unclear, but my end readers will get it,” take it as a sign from the heavens that you should be rushing to revise that particular piece.
As with a fiction synopsis, you’re going to want to show why the book is appealing, rather than merely saying so — and the trick to that, often, lies in eschewing generalities in favor of juicy, intriguing specifics.
In this spirit, I reiterate: when writing a synopsis, it’s merely prudent to assume that professional readers will underestimate the size of your target audience…and thus the market appeal of your book.
This is particularly true if you are pushing a book about anything that ever occurred west of, say, Albany to a NYC-based agent or editor, or any story set north of Santa Barbara or east of Los Vegas to an LA-based one.
Should I have warned you to sit down before that one? It tends to come as a shock to writers living outside the Amtrak corridor: let’s just say that the news media are not the only folks who think that little that happens to anyone outside of their own city limits is worth reporting, alas. If those of us who lived outside of the major urban centers thought this way about, say, New York City or London, we would be called provincial.
I know, I know: this attitude seems rather silly in the age of lightning-fast electronic communication and swift travel across time zones, but regional prejudices still run strong enough that you might actually find yourself explaining to a charming, urbane agent with an MA in American Literature from Columbia or a law degree from Yale that yes, the inhabitants of Seattle CAN support a symphony, and indeed have for many years.
And schools. And indoor plumbing. I’m not entirely sure that my agent believes I don’t live in a tent with a yeti. He likes to boast that he’s never lived more than ten miles from the New York City hospital where he was born.
I’m not bringing that up just to rib him — okay, so I am a little bit — but because being aware that agents may not be hip to your market means that you, savvy marketer that you are, can compensate for it by coming right out and saying in your synopsis — and perhaps in your cover letter as well — just how big and eager your target market actually is.
What can happen if you don’t, you ask? One of the most common rejection reasons for nonfiction: it’s very, very easy for a book to be labeled as appealing to a niche market. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, niche market is industry-speak for “Well, no one I know would buy this book…”
Okay, so I’m exaggerating a trifle: technically, it means that the pros think that a book would only be marketable to what they assume to be a tiny demographic. Trout fisherfolk, for instance, or people with cerebral palsy.
Yes, yes, I know: in actuality, both of these groups are rather large, but someone unfamiliar with those demographics might not be aware of that. To be blunt about it, I’ve never seen a guesstimate that wasn’t low, sometimes by a factor of millions.
I implore you, PLEASE don’t assume that an agent, editor, or contest judge will necessarily be charmed enough by the writing in your synopsis (or book proposal — or book, for that matter) to conduct a little independent research before deciding whether to reject your query packet or submission. Screeners in agencies and publishing houses simply don’t have the time, and often, contest organizers specifically tell their judges that they may rate ONLY what’s on the page.
Which means, in practice, that Millicent is extremely unlikely to dismiss that book aimed at anglers without bothering to find out just how many people there actually ARE who habitually fish for trout.
Such as, for instance, our pal Ernest Hemingway, above. As anyone who has ever lived near a good fishing river could tell you, he had — and has — a whole lot of company. But I suspect that you’d have to run into a trout fisherperson or two before you’d see a book on trout and spontaneously cry, “By gum, there’s an immense market for this!”
The same often holds true for regional interest, alas. Due to the reality of where books get published in the United States, a story set in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or San Francisco will often be deemed of national interest, meaning that book buyers in other parts of the country (and world) might reasonably be expected to flock to the bookstores for it.
Because, obviously, readers the world over are sitting on the edges of their seats, wondering what’s going on in Brooklyn these days. Or so I surmise, from the immense number of books set there over the last hundred years. But let that same story be set in Minneapolis, Shreveport, Olympia, or Halifax, and NYC, LA, Chicago, and San Francisco-based agents and editors tend to dismiss it as appealing only to audiences in the region where it was set.
Think about it: if THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA hadn’t been set in Manhattan, do you honestly think that any major publishing house would have given it a second glance?
Which brings me to another very common piece of conference lore: over the years, I’ve heard many, many agents and editors tell writers of so-called regional works that they’d be better off submitting their nonfiction, memoirs, and even novels to regional publishers. In recent years, I’ve begun to wonder to whom they are referring. The publishing industry is not, after all, like theatre — not every major city will spontaneously see a publishing house spring up out of the ground, started by spunky youngsters in their dorm basements, if necessary.
Can’t you just picture it? “I’ve got a barn,” a would-be publisher pants breathlessly, “and you have a mimeograph machine. Let’s publish some books!”
Doesn’t happen very often, alas. It’s a lovely fantasy, though, isn’t it?
Admittedly, there are a quite a few more regional publishers than for nonfiction; that’s true of small, independent presses in general. Even for nonfiction, though, it is definitely trickier to interest agents at the big agencies in subject matter unfamiliar to denizens of the Eastern seaboard.
So it’s a stellar idea to use your marketing materials to make the case that your subject matter IS of national interest.
In the synopsis, as in the query letter and pitch, statistics can be your friend — and they needn’t be statistics about just how many people have already bought books on your subject matter, either. If you’re writing a blistering exposé of bear abuse in Montana, for instance, it would a VERY good idea to mention in your synopsis just how many visitors Yellowstone sees in a year, because chances are, Manhattanites will have no idea. (For some handy hints on how to find statistics to back up your book, please see the YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS category at right.)
Okay, impatient huffers, your time has once again come. Have at it: “But Anne, every time I go to a writers’ conference, all of the agents and editors keep saying that the most important thing for me to show up front is my platform. How does all of what you’ve been saying here fit in with that?”
Very well, actually — and I’m glad that you brought this up, oh huffers. In a nonfiction book synopsis, you not only need to establish the importance of the subject matter — you need to demonstrate that you are an expert in it. If “Why are you the best person to write this book?” seems secondary to the subject matter, I’m guessing that you probably haven’t pitched a nonfiction book lately.
Seriously, it’s the first question almost anyone in the industry will ask after you mention casually that you are writing a NF book. “So,” they’ll say, reserving comment about the marketability of your topic until after they hear the answer to this particular question, “what’s your platform?”
To clear the brows of those of you knitting them right now, platform is industry-speak for the background that qualifies you to write the book — the array of credentials, expertise, and life experience that qualifies you as an expert on the topic.
Put another way, platform is the industry term for why anyone should trust a nonfiction author enough to want to believe what he says in his book, as opposed to any of the other similar books on the market. The platform need not consist of educational credentials or work experience — in fact unless you write in a technical, scientific, or medical field, it generally has less to do with your educational credentials than your life experience.
But by all means, if you happen to be a former Secretary of State or NBA superstar, do mention it — but don’t be downhearted if you haven’t yet held a cabinet post in your field of expertise, however. As we discussed in the HOW TO WRITE A REALLY GOOD QUERY LETTER series, the platform is ANY reason, or collection of reasons, that you are the single best person currently residing in the universe to write this particular book.
Not books in general: this book.
It’s a great idea to devote some serious thought to your platform before you begin to market your book — and yes, that means before you sit down to write the synopsis, too. All of you nonfiction writers out there should not only be prepared to answer questions about your platform BEFORE you have ANY contact with an agent or editors — your synopsis should contain at least passing mention of your expertise.
This is true, incidentally, even if your book happens to be a memoir.
“Wait just a memory-picking minute!” I hear the memoirists out there cry. “Isn’t it pretty darned obvious that I would be the single best living authority upon my own life?”
Not necessarily, from the industry’s point of view. Out comes the broken record again: yes, it seems self-evident that a memoirist would be an expert on the story he tells, because it’s his own life. But a memoir is always about something in addition to the life story of its author, and your platform should include some reference to why you are qualified to write about that other subject matter as well.
So should your synopsis.
For instance, if your memoir is about spending your teenage years in a foreign country, invest a sentence or two of your synopsis in talking about how being an outsider gave you a unique perspective on the culture. If your memoir rips the lid off the steamy secrets of a cereal factory, you’ll be better off if you use your decade’s worth of experience filling those boxes as evidence that you are a credible expert on flakes. And if your childhood memoir deals with your love affair with trains, make sure you include the fact that you spent 17 years of your life flat on your stomach, going “woo, woo” at a dizzying array of models.
You get the picture. It’s not enough to make your subject matter sound fascinating: in your synopsis, your account needs to come across as both fascinating and credible.
For what it’s worth, novels are generally about something other than the beauty of their writing, too. They have settings; characters have professions. For instance, the novel I am writing now is set at Harvard, where I got my undergraduate degree: think that is going to make my novel more credible in the eyes of the industry? You bet.
I could feel fiction writers’ blood pressure rising throughout the last few paragraphs, but don’t panic: technically, a novelist doesn’t NEED a platform. Go back and reread that comforting earlier bit about fiction often selling on the quality of the writing alone; repeat as often as necessary until your head no longer feels as though it’s about to explode.
It’s always a nice touch, though, if a fiction writer can mention a platform plank or two in her query letter. But for fiction, keep your synopsis platform-free; self-promotion in a novel synopsis tends to be regarded as compensation for some heretofore-unsuspected weakness in the plot or the writing.
Whew, that was a lot of gut-wrenching reality to cover in a single post, wasn’t it? I’m sure all of us could use some nice down time. If only we knew someone who might take us fishing…
More wit and wisdom on the synopsis follows in the days to come. Keep up the good work!