Book marketing 101: the query synopsis vs. the submission synopsis

Yesterday, in the midst of a discussion about how to banish annoyance about having to summarize your beautifully complex plotline or subtly nuanced argument in just a few pages from your synopsis — because nothing frames resentment better than a synopsis, unless it’s a query letter or pitch — I suggested working out your (completely legitimate) aggressions in other, more constructive manners. Like screaming at your imaginary friend or jousting with the end of your couch.

Don’t keep it inside, festering in your guts, but for heaven’s sake, don’t loose it on an agent or editor until after you’ve signed a contract with ’em.

Instead, show that you are professional enough to approach the synopsis as the marketing necessity it is. Remember, agents do NOT ask writers for synopses because they are too lazy to read entire books: they ask for synopses because they receive so many submissions that, even with the best of wills, they could never possibly read them all.

The synopsis, then, is your chance to make your work jump up and down and scream: “Me! Me! I’m the one out of 10,000 that you actually want to read, the one written by an author who is willing to work with you, instead of sulking over the way the industry runs!”

Mind you, I’m not saying that you SHOULDN’T sulk over the often arbitrary and unfair way the industry runs: actually, it would be merely Pollyannaish NOT to do that from time to time. Vent as often as you please.

But it simply is not prudent to vent anywhere near an agent or editor whom you want to take on your work — and certainly not in the tone of the synopsis. The synopsis’ tone should match the book’s, and unless you happen to be writing about deeply resentful characters, it’s just not appropriate to sound clipped and disgruntled.

Sorry. As I believe I have mentioned before, if I ran the universe, not only would manuscripts be judged purely upon the quality of their writing by book-loving souls who would read every submission in full, but there would be free merry-go-rounds in every schoolyard, college tuition would cost nothing, lions and tigers would want nothing more than to cuddle up to humans and purr — and my schedule would permit me to post before the wee hours of the morning.

However, as a glance at the clock clearly tells me, I do not, in fact, run the universe. Unfortunate.

After you have thrown a well-deserved tantrum or two at how difficult it is to catch an agent’s attention, remind yourself that that maddening-to-prepare synopsis DOES serve a couple of legitimate purposes.

However — and I hate to be the one to tell you this, but how else are you going to find out? — a synopsis that a writer might choose to send with a query letter actually serves a slightly different purpose than one that an agent asks you to send along with your first 50 pages. You might want to come up with different versions to suit the different occasions.

Take some nice, deep breaths, and that dizzy feeling will pass in a few seconds.

If a query letter is a verbal hallway pitch, the synopsis destined to be tucked into a query envelope is the surrogate for the book itself, enabling you to lay out the plot at greater length than a paragraph in a query letter permits. Its primary purpose is to prompt the agent or editor to ask to see the first 50 pages — or, if you’re lucky, the entire manuscript.

Let me repeat that, because it’s important: the purpose of the query synopsis is to garner a request for pages, not to cause the agency screener to set it down with a sigh and say, “What a beautiful story. Now I don’t need to read the book.”

As with any good seduction, you’re going to want to leave a little to the imagination — but PLEASE don’t make the very common mistake of not explaining how the plot is resolved.

A synopsis is the place to show off what a clever plotter or argument-monger you are, not to tease with vague hint about what might happen. This is not the time to conceal your favorite plot twist, as a delightful surprise for when the agent requests the entire book. Revealing it now will SUBSTANTIALLY increase the probability that the rest of the book will get read, in fact.

Why? Well, agents and editors tend not to be very fond of guessing games — or, as they like to call them, “those damned writer tricks that waste my time.”

So ending your synopsis on a cliffhanger on the theory that they will be DYING to read the rest of the book to find out how it all ends seldom works. Remember, agency screeners are suspicious people: if you don’t show how the plot works itself to a conclusion, they may well conclude that you just haven’t written the ending yet.


And realistically, there tends to be a fairly large time gap between when an agent or screener reads a query synopsis and when our Millicent can expect to be holding the manuscript in her hot little hands to find out what’s going to happen next. It’s not a profession that attracts the type of person who automatically skips to the last page of a murder mystery to find out who dunnit, after all.

Even if it did, trust me, anyone who is going to be reading a synopsis in an agency is going to be aware of the probable time lag before the suspense can possibly be relieved. If she scans the mail eagerly every day and pounces upon the submission the instant it appears, it’s still bound to be at least a few weeks.

Tell me, cliffhanger-lovers: when’s the last time that you set a book down at an exciting point and walked away for a month?

It doesn’t really work that way. In a query synopsis, you will want to make the book sound well-rounded and satisfying, providing enough detail to pique Millicent’s interest, but not so much that the screener begins to wonder if you’ve sent the synopsis or the first few pages of the book. When in doubt, stick to the strongest dramatic arc.

Within your submission packet, on the other hand, a requested synopsis serves a different function: from the requesting agent’s POV, it is the substitute for the rest of the book.

Repeat that last sentence like a mantra while you are constructing your synopsis. In a packet of requested materials, the synopsis has a different goal than the query synopsis: to convince the agent or editor that the rest of the book is every bit as interesting and action-packed as your first 50 pp.

In other words, it is a marketing tool, intended to get the agent or editor to ask to see the rest of the book. Since the agent already has your partial in hand, however, your submission query can gloss over the premise much more quickly than in a query synopsis.

I hear some of you out there grumbling. “But Anne,” you cry, “isn’t it the job of the first 50 pp. to inspire such interest in the reader that she wants — nay, longs — to read the rest of the book?”

In a word, yes, but not alone.

Usually, agents (and their screeners; remember, even if an agent asks you to send pages, she is usually not the first person in the building to read them, even if she REALLY liked you in a pitch meeting) will read the requested chapter(s) first, to see if they like the authorial voice, THEN turn to the synopsis.

Thus, it is relatively safe to assume that Millicent doesn’t need you to spend a page of the synopsis setting up the premise and introducing the protagonist: remember, her eyes, like most agents’ and editors’, have been trained to spot and regard repetition as one of the seven deadly sins.

It’s right up there with Boring, Incorrectly Formatted, Rude, Confusing, Been Done, and Vague.

The synopsis is where you demonstrate to their hyper-critical eyes that you are not merely a writer who can hold them in thrall for a few isolated pages: you have the vision and tenacity to take the compelling characters you have begun to reveal in your first chapter through an interesting story to a satisfying conclusion.

The synopsis, in short, is where you show that you can plot out a BOOK.

For this reason, it is imperative that your synopsis makes it very, very clear how the first 50 pp. you are submitting fits into the overall arc of the book, regardless of whether you are submitting fiction or nonfiction. But don’t forget to make the rest of the book sound interesting, too.

If your head is whirling from all of this, or if it’s starting to sound as though your synopsis will need to be longer than the book in order to achieve its goals, don’t worry. Tomorrow — or actually, my clock tells me, later today, I shall cover some tips on how to avoid the most common synopsis bugbears, as well as how to slim it down if it becomes overlong.

Keep up the good work!

6 Replies to “Book marketing 101: the query synopsis vs. the submission synopsis”

  1. Anne,

    I think somewhere you might have mentioned whether or not you could use some of the same text in a query and a proposal. But I can’t find it. When you summarize your book in the query, can you use the same information, only expanded, in the proposal? In other words, some of the sentences or phrases may be identical. Will that redundancy aggravate the fire out of an agent? Thanks!

    1. You’re probably remembering something I said about not using identical phraseology in two different documents simultaneously submitted to a single set of eyes, Moo. I have a vague recollection of bringing it up earlier in this contest series, because so many entrants will lift entire sentences (or entire paragraphs) from a chapter to insert into a synopsis, or vice-versa. Since in a contest entry, the two will be read back-to-back, that’s not the best strategy.

      Ditto for a query letter and a synopsis that are being sent together to an agency or publishing house, or a synopsis and a set of requested pages. Basically, the rule of thumb is not to repeat phraseology for a single reader at a single sitting.

      But you can reuse phraseology from the query letter in a proposal, though, since there’s usually a fair time gap — and often a personnel change — between the receipt of that and the requested proposal. A query screener goes through too many letters to remember specific phraseology in one from a few weeks before, usually.

      However, I would advise against using the same sentence (or more) in both the proposal proper (i.e., the marketing part) and the sample chapter. First-time book proposers fall into this trap very often, and it seldom serves them.

      Hope this helps!

      1. Okay, I will watch out for that. Thanks! Can a cover letter be pretty brief since the query letter and proposal itself are “selling” the book? It seems like beating the recipient over the head if the cover letter, too, is pushing the book. I’m thinking it should just say, “Thank you for requesting my proposal….” and a few other sincerely polite comments or information about the attachment. Is this right? Thanks again.

        1. I’m a little confused about what you’re asking here, Moo: the query letter and the cover letter would never be submitted in the same packet, since the latter goes with the proposal. But no, the cover letter should not be trying to sell the book.

          Since I have already written a fairly extensive post on the subject of the cover letter, I’m not going to go over it again here, for the sake of precedent. (It’s not all that uncommon for readers to perform a search when they are in a hurry, then abandon it if the post they need does not turn up in the first page of results. I get a lot of repeat questions, consequently.)

          I have been making a serious effort to try to make the category list at right easier for those up against a deadline to use, however, so I’m going to add a category about cover letters for submission. PLEASE do not limit yourself to reading the ones I place there tonight, however: there is a heck of a lot of information about submission packets on this site.

          Including — and this is where I would advise anybody else in a pre-submission frenzy starting — all of the posts in the SUBMISSION PACKET category. The REQUESTED MATERIALS section might prove helpful as well. The two of these should cover most of the basic questions about submission packets — and, if you want to ask follow-up questions, they will be the logical places for future readers to look for them, rather than at the end of a post that does not deal with cover letters or submission packets specifically.

          1. Thanks! No, I wasn’t sending the cover letter in the same packet with the query letter. I guess exhaustion is showing through here. I do use the search feature and have read quite a bit about the submission process but somehow missed the sections on cover letters. So sorry! I will be more diligent in the future. Indeed, I am in a panic.

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