Defining Book Proposals, Outlines and Synopses

Q: When submitting to agents, 1) Do sample chapters need to be consecutive or should they be random? 2) What is a proposal package? 3) Why send a synopsis and bio since both are in the query letter?                          Randy L.

A: Sample chapters do not have to be sequential unless you want them to be or the agent requests this. In fact, some agents will specifically ask for your book’s first chapter, a chapter from the middle of the book, and then the last chapter. They do this to see if your writing quality is consistent throughout the first, second and third acts. Bottom line: It’s up to you.

A proposal package (or a “proposal/outline”) is a full book proposal—sent in place of a nonfiction manuscript. If you want to write a nonfiction book, you don’t have to write the manuscript before querying an agent. (Seriously.)
A novel is sold on the quality of the writing, which is why the entire book has to be completed and polished before querying an agent. Nonfiction books, on the other hand, are usually sold on 1) the book’s concept/idea, 2) its place in the market, and 3) the author’s platform and promotional abilities. With that in mind, a nonfiction book does not need to be complete when you pitch the idea.
What’s sent in place of the manuscript is a book proposal, which essentially details what the book is, why it should be written, how it will be structured, and all the means the author has to reach prospective markets/audiences. Proposals can be lengthy (say, 20-25 pages on average) and they are difficult to write, but plenty of resources exist to help you through them. The new 2008 GLA has an article on writing a proposal; also check out Bulletproof Book Proposals by Pam Brodowsky and Eric Neuhaus.

      Next, and very importantly: A synopsis is not a pitch. In your query letter, you will have 1-2 paragraphs to summarize your story for the agent. This is called “a pitch.”
A “synopsis” is a long, detailed explanation of what happens in a novel. They are anywhere from 2-12 pages usually. The synopsis allows you to take the agent/editor through the story from beginning to end, introducing all the major characters, their backgrounds and motivations, as well as the twists and turns. The ending is fully revealed and all is laid out on the table. The synopsis immediately lets an agent know what the entire story is, who the characters are, and how it ends. If that gets them intrigued, your writing will have to carry you past the finish line.
Synopses have very specific formats, so make sure you read up on them before writing one. (In the near future, I’ll post much more on how to write a book synopsis. I’m critiquing several now.)

Lastly, the bio. Although you will have some space on the query letter to write a bio, you will likely need to have a separate section within the book proposal called “About the Author,” where you detail who you are, your accomplishments, and your credentials that allow you to be the best author to propose this book. For example, in the query, you may mention that you’re an “award-winning short story writer.” In the true “bio,” you will list all your short story accolades—the publications names, the dates, the specific stories, and the exact awards.

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