Book description for Academic or non-fiction – Proposal series #3b

If you want to find a traditional publisher, whether you go through an agent or contact publishers yourself, at some point you’ll need a book proposal. In this blogpost series, I will talk you through the aspects of a book proposal so you too can get a book contract. This is the third installment in the series, in which I give you more information about the book description or summary.

If you want to get a book deal for your academic or nonfiction book, you’ll need a strong book description. The plotters among us, therefore, will have a slightly easier job than those authors whose books grow more organically. But even if you fall in the latter category, it should be possible to write a strong summary using the following four steps.

(Quick note: if you want to write a proposal for a memoir, or another type of narrative nonfiction book, this blogpost on writing a Synopsis for your Novel will probably more helpful. That one specifically deals with summarizing a narrative.) 

Step one: identify your main argument

Plotters and pantsers

Here’s where you really see the difference between what the blogosphere calls “plotters and pantsers”. Authors of the first kind plan out the entire book before they put the first word of their manuscript on paper. But if you’re a pantser (by the seat of your pants), your book will grow naturally. One thought will lead to another… And another… 

People often think that there’s something bad about taking the pantser approach. But honestly, both have their benefits! It all depends on what works for you. (Hm, that should be another blogpost in the “Musings” category, now that I think about it! See? Pantsing can work!)

Why this step is important

Now, if you’re a plotter, you’ll probably wonder why I put this down as the first step. Chances are your main argument is the backbone that you built your entire book on. And that’s great! But if you are unsure about your main line of argumentation, this step is essential. It is simply impossible to write a strong book description without identifying your one big foundational sentence.

Theme vs main argument

One thing to really keep in mind is that your main argument is not the same as your theme. Let’s make this more concrete. 

One of my favorite resources for writers is Francine Prose’s book Reading like a Writer. (You can find my blogpost about this book here.) This book is a non-fiction (genre) writing manual (type). The theme is, unsurprisingly: best writing practices. However, that’s not her main argument. Her argument is that we can learn to become better at different aspects of writing, if we look at specific authors who have mastered that specific skill. Whether it’s choosing the right words, knowing when to end your paragraph, or giving your characters gestures: people have struggled with this problem before. They have mastered it. So when we study them, we can improve.

And it is this argument, as well as her specific approach and methodology, that make her book unique. Other people have published books on “best writing practices.” But, as far as I know, not many (maybe none at all) have written a book with that underlying philosophy.

The main argument

At this point it will have become clear why the main argument is essential. If you want to convince someone that your book is worthy of being published (read: can make a publisher money), you’ll need to communicate to them what it is that your book DOES. What the one point is this book is trying to make. This one sentence, this one argument, should be the foundation of most of the book proposal elements. But it should certainly guide your academic or nonfiction synopsis. 

Step two: put your book description away, for now

The next step is something that I have personally found to be extremely useful. (However, it might seem counter intuitive.) Put your book description down and write other elements of your proposal first. This is especially true for the “competitive titles” and “Unique Selling Points” sections. The reason why this strategy can be helpful, is that it helps you identify your own strengths. If you know what other books are about, you can write your book description in such a way that it showcases the aspects that make your book different, unique and useful. 

Now, when you write these aspects, it’s very useful to have your main argument on hand. But finding out what makes you unique in the market really helps you write your summary towards that specific hole your book will fill. 

Step three: formulate your methodology

You’ve figured out what your main argument is in step one. Then, you put the summary away and wrote other elements of your proposal. And now we are back to your book description. But the next step is not yet to write your book description. First, we need to formulate your methodology. 

Now, if you’re a (social) scientist, this is a no-brainer. You can probably describe your methodology in your sleep. But for interdisciplinary scholars or nonfiction writers, this can be a bit more tricky. 

What a publisher really wants to know is how you lead people to your main argument. And, additionally, which people will be most likely to accept your argumentation and end up agreeing with you. 

Theoretical framework

  • What school of thought, or which authors, have you been inspired by?
  • Where do the assumptions you make (and believe me, you will make assumptions) come from?
  • Where do you borrow your language from?

There are all questions you can ask yourself to determine your theoretical framework. Now, if you’ve written a self-help book, and you’ve borrowed some concepts from Eckhart Tolle, that’s great! And it means that Tolle is part of your theoretical framework. Why this is significant, is that you will make assumptions (for example: about the defenition of specific words) that other people familiar with his work will be able to follow. And people who’ll feel attracted to his teachings, will also be likely to feel attracted to your book. 

Concluding thoughts on the theoretical framework

Your theoretical framework then, is part of your methodology. Because it has provided you with some tools (ideas, words, concepts, practices, understandings…) that you have built your book on. And if you are clear about this framework from the start, that will help your publisher see the book’s place in the market. It will help them understand what you mean when you use certain concepts and words. 

Methods in the more practical sense

Though the word “methods” can be interpreted in a variety of ways, you can be certain that a publisher is not interested in knowing what type of wordprocessor you have used to write your book. What I mean here is pretty specific. What methods have you used in your book to lead your reader to accepting your conclusion (your main argument)?

Getting concrete

  • Did you use personal experience to illustrate your point?
  • Did you use interviews to corroborate your statements?
  • Is part of your argument based on statistical data? If so, where did you get it?
  • And what steps did you take in your argumentation process? What are the three main supporting arguments that lead you to your main argument?

In other words: what methods do you use to convince your reader? All of these are questions you need to be able to answered before you write your synopsis. What this helps you formulate is why your reader will trust you. Why your reader will appreciate your book. And why the publisher should take your work seriously. If you figure out for yourself what your methodology is, THEN it’s time to move on to the actual writing. 

Step 4: write your book description as a stand-alone text

One thing many people forget is that a synopsis is not simply a description of a book, it’s a text of its own. A synopsis needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end. It needs to be a readable narrative. And all the aspects that make any 2-page text readable are also important here. This mini-story needs to have an underlying logic driving it. It’s not a bullet point list of main events: it is collection of paragraphs that conveys a message, just like your book.  

Much of the information you’ve gathered in the previous steps can make your synopsis stronger and more successful. But you won’t want to simply list them in a question-and-answer-format. You’ll want to integrate the most important aspects into the text itself. 

Concluding thoughts on the book book description

The book description is one of the corner stones of any book proposal. And it’s especially important when your book is a novel. No one will commit to publishing your book if they don’t understand or like what it is actually about. So make sure that you know the answer to that question yourself.

Once you’ve taken these four steps, you have a pretty solid foundation on which to build other aspects of your proposal. As I wrote in the second blogpost in this series, on the overview: both the short description and the hook can be derived from the synopsis. A strong synopsis will get you that much closer to getting that coveted book deal.

Next steps

If you enjoyed this blogpost, you might want to look at other posts in this series. You can simply click on the blocks below.

Alternatively, if all the advice on the internet has not made the process of writing your synopsis any easier, just contact me. If you tell me what you struggle with, we can figure out how I can help you to write a brilliant synopsis for your academic or nonfiction book.