When we receive letters or emails from authors enclosing details of their novels, they often include what they consider to be a “synopsis”. Almost without exception, these synopses are more like blurbs or teasers. When we write back to them and tell them that publishers don’t want that kind of thing, but want something more like a dry plot summary, their reaction is often one of surprise and they comply rather grudgingly.
It’s easy to understand. They want to “sell” their cherished work, and feel that the plot summary doesn’t make it seem attractive enough.
Well, here is a direct quotation on the issue from a publisher’s website:
“When submitting fiction, including children’s fiction, please post a hard copy of the first three chapters or equivalent and a synopsis of the work. The synopsis should not be a pitch or a blurb or a cover-style ‘teaser’ but a simplified explanation of the plot in one or two sides, listing the theme, setting and characters of your book, from the first to final chapter.”
Here’s a quote from Nicola Monaghan, writing in the 2009 Writer’s Handbook on the subject of trusting your agent:
“Once you’ve established a relationship, there are no guarantees. I remember my agent telling me that things might not work out, despite the fact he was prepared to help and advise me as I wrote the novel; and I appreciated his honesty. Here is where there’s a difficult line to tread. Your agent may well want various changes to the manuscript you submitted and you might not agree with all of them. Do you roll over and play dead, changing anything that’s suggested to you as you strive for publication? Well, of course not. You need to keep your artistic integrity, remember what your work is about and make your own decision about changes. But I would urge the beginning writer to listen very hard to anything the agent suggests. She has years of experience in the publishing industry and understands how books work, and what sells. You do not know better! In my experience I have made one change in my entire career at the suggestion of an agent that I have regretted. These people are professionals and are almost always right!”
Ours is not a big-time agency, but when we give advice we do so in the writer’s interest. I remember a writer who came to us with a novel which I knew was very, very commercial. We were prepared to push it hard at targeted publishing houses, but I advised the writer that it was essential that someone went through it and put right the punctuation, grammar, and so on. The writer did nothing, and the result was we couldn’t go ahead with the project. A pity – the story was great, and would have sold. It would have made a superb film too!
The following advice to aspiring authors comes from Barry Turner, editor of The Writer’s Handbook, and is taken from his editorial in what was regrettably the final edition of the book.
“…Wherever you decide to start your bid for recognition be business-like. When corresponding with a publisher, you are dealing with someone who has not much time to spare. He neither has the energy nor the optimism to wade through a weighty manuscript which just may turn out to be the blockbuster of the century but more probably will not.
All that is needed at the approach stage is a synopsis, a sample chapter, and a letter of introduction saying who you are and what there is in your life that makes you peculiarly qualified to write this particular book. Previous publications should be mentioned but not, please not, compliments on your literary skills from friends (however influential) and family. Equally irritating to the recipient are those anticipations of sharp practice such as the bold © at the end of a submission specifying ‘First British rights only’.
The synopsis should begin with a line or two of what marketing people call the ‘unique selling point’ (USP). Who is likely to buy this book and why? It is not enough to claim that the author will reach out to the general reader. We all like to think that a mass audience is waiting for us but the reality is that each book has a core appeal on which sales potential will be judged.
Having settled on a snappy justification, the synopsis can be used to describe the book in some detail. It is impossible to specify length – where a single page may suffice for a beginner’s guide to beekeeping, a closely argued case got energy conservation might require several thousand words. An idea for a novel has sparked interest on the strength of one paragraph. What is essential is for the synopsis to be a clear and logical description of the book.
It should end with a few pertinent details. What is the intended size of the book? This has an important bearing on production costs and thus on the sales forecast. The best estimate of size is the number of words, with the average book falling within the 80,000 – 100,000 bracket…
Submissions should be typewritten (with double-spacing for the manuscript) and free of messy corrections. Publishers, being human, are liable to be put off by a grubby file of foolscap patched together with sellotape…”