How to Write a Synopsis and Get Your Book Published

Updated on April 21, 2018
Marisa Wright profile image

Kate Swanson wrote her first novel at 15, created her first blog in 2006 and has been writing for profit, and creating websites ever since.

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There are five main avenues to getting published. The publishers like to call themselves all kinds of fancy names (especially if they’re trying to sell you a debatable service), but fundamentally they all fall into one of the following categories: self-published ebooks, vanity presses, print on demand (POD), and mainstream publishers.

These days, many writers resort to self-publishing an ebook as the first option. However, before you do that, consider this: 99.9% of all the books you see in your High Street bookstore were published by mainstream publishers. Bookstores will not carry self-published, vanity or POD books. A self-published book is regarded as a best-seller if it sells more than 100 copies. To sell more than a thousand copies is very, very rare indeed.

Like it or not, only mainstream publishers have the money, experience and access to bookstores that can make your novel a blockbuster. If that’s your dream, the only way you’ll do it is by getting your manuscript accepted by a mainstream publisher. Period.

Don’t get sucked in by the idea that if you self-publish, it will improve your chances of being noticed by a mainstream publisher. Mainstream publishers won’t even look at a book that’s been self-published unless you can prove it’s sold 4,000 or 5,000 copies – and as I've said, that’s a massive achievement for a self-published book.

True, self-publishing first has worked for some writers, but the reason it makes news is because it’s so unusual!

Google and you’ll find lists of authors who started out by self-publishing. Check closer and you’ll find many of the names are from last century, when the publishing world was a different place and book-selling operated differently, so they’re completely irrelevant. That leaves just a handful of modern authors – rare indeed.

Why Mainstream Publishers Distrust Self-published Writers

What's even worse is that being self-published can actually count against you with a mainstream publisher!

Did you know that when a manuscript is accepted by a mainstream publisher, the author’s work is only just beginning? For weeks or even months before publication, the author works with the publisher’s editor, polishing the novel until the publisher is happy with it.

Now remember, this is a manuscript that is already so outstanding, it has managed to jump all the hurdles to being accepted by a mainstream publisher in the first place. And that includes major bestelling authors like J K Rowling and Dan Brown.

When you self-publish your book, that tells the mainstream publisher you think you’re too special to need an editor – you judged your book good enough for publication without any outside help. They worry you won’t be humble enough to take an editor’s advice, that you’ll be difficult to work with and object to their requests for changes. There are plenty of authors out there, so why should they take a risk with someone who’s going to be arrogant and difficult?

That may sound harsh, but think about it: by putting your book into print without professional editing, you’re saying “My writing is better than J K Rowling and Dan Brown”. If they needed editing, who do you think you are - Shakespeare? Mainstream publishers invest big money when they take on an author, so they don’t want to take risks. It’s a business, after all!

So How Do You Get Published?

I think all writers feel cheated when they discover that, after working so hard on honing their novel, there is no way to get it in front of a publisher. If you try sending in your manuscript - or even just a few chapters - to a publisher, it's thrown on the "slush pile" without even a glance. So how are you supposed to get your novel published?

The answer is that it depends on your genre. Publishers of some genres still accept submissions direct from authors (though many don't). Look at books in your genre and check who publishes them, then check the publisher's website. If they accept submissions, they'll say so. If you can't find a suitable publisher, then you'll need to find an agent to represent you.

Either way, it still doesn't mean you can send in your manuscript. The only thing publishers and agents will look at is a synopsis - that's a letter, and three or four measly pages summarizing your plot. Unfair, isn't it? Unfortunately, that's life and there's not a lot you can do about it, except to make that synopsis so stunning they can't help but buy the book!

How To Write A Synopsis

The synopsis is basically a summary of the whole novel. It's NOTHING like a marketing blurb, which would typically introduce the characters, build up some tension and leave the reader on a cliffhanger - because you're trying to hook your reader into buying the book to find out how the story ends. There's nothing more guaranteed to upset publishers! They want to know the whole story - beginning, middle and end with no questions unanswered, so they can judge how well the story is structured and whether the ending makes sense.

Writing the synopsis can be harder than writing the whole book! You have to convey your characters' personalities in a few carefully chosen words, and summarise the plot without losing the excitement, all within about three pages.

Your book is probably written in the first person ("I"), or in the third person (he or she) but through the eyes of one or two of the characters. If you switch into omniscient (which means you are writing as yourself, the author, watching the action from outside) you'll find it easier to summarize, because you'll be able to tell the story in strictly sequential order. That makes it easier for the publisher to understand what's going on. It also generally needs fewer words.

For instance, say part of the plot was that a girl (Mitzi) was double-crossing our Hero (Daniel). For most of the novel, he (and therefore the reader) doesn't know what she is up to, and her behaviour perplexes him. In Chapter 15, he (and the reader) has an "Aha!" moment, going back over her actions and realising her motives.

In the synopsis, writing in omniscient, you wouldn't have to keep this a secret from the publisher. When you introduce Mitzi, you would say something like "unknown to Daniel, Mitzi is double-crossing him by ...". Then there is no need to explain her subsequent actions, or waste words going back over everything when you get to Chapter 15.

When you sit down to start writing your synopsis, don't worry too much about length at first: just concentrate on getting the bones of the story down on paper. You can always cut and polish later.

The best way to learn to write synopses is (a) to try it and (b) to read other writers' synopses. You'll find several examples of synopsis writing on Google. It's well worth reading Jane Friedman's advice, too.

Be willing to devote a lot of time to the synopsis - your novel's future depends on it!

Questions & Answers

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      • Sean Dragon profile image

        Ioannis Arvanitis 4 months ago from Greece, Almyros

        I love your writing! It is helpful and exciting the same time! Exciting even in an article like this!

        I wish you the best. You deserve it!

      • Marisa Wright profile image
        Author

        Kate Swanson 4 months ago from Sydney

        It's very, very hard to get honest feedback from friends or family, even those with professional writing experience. I've also found that members of critique groups can be less than honest - it's very hard to look another writer in the eye and tell them their book isn't good enough!

        Finally, if those book editors were employed by the ebook or POD company, it was in their interests to say nice things about your book because they stood to make money from it.

        I've found CritiqueCircle.com to be the best place to get truly honest critiques.

      • B. Leekley profile image

        Brian Leekley 4 months ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        Back in 2010, my first and so far only novel was accepted and published by an ebooks and print on demand publisher. If I wanted the book in paperback, I had to buy the first 60 copies, at dealer discount, out of pocket. I had no difficulty selling those copies at a profit to relations, friends, and acquaintances. And then I bought and sold some more, a few at a time. Then I ran out of customers. I got a little royalty money from ebook sales. Then those sales dwindled to one or two or no ebooks per quarter year. I was baffled. Drafts of the novel had been edited and critiqued by book editors, relations who are professional writers, and critique writing groups. I had submitted it for publication numerous times and had revised it numerous times. Finally it was accepted by a royalty-paying publisher, albeit an ebooks and print on demand publisher. Why wasn't it selling. Closer to home, why did none of my extended network of relations, friends, and acquaintances, many of whom had praised it highly to me, write a review or, out of natural enthusiasm, praise it highly to their friends and acquaintances? Someone with little patience in a local critique writing group finally explained why—the writing is boring, with too many irrelevant details and with half the book being backstory. The publisher got bought by a publishing group, and they gave all my rights back to me and stopped listing my circa 51,000 words novel. Now I'm thinking about disassembling it and restructuring and rewriting it as a novella that is a page turner.

      • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

        Tim Truzy 5 months ago from U.S.A.

        Excellent, Marissa. You provide sound and usable advice for writers about the "business" side of writing.

        I appreciate it.

        Thanks.

      • Marisa Wright profile image
        Author

        Kate Swanson 5 months ago from Sydney

        That's a very good point, Tim, about demonstrating your ability to market yourself. One interesting point, though: I discovered that doing so in non-fiction (e.g. on HubPages) is not seen as an advantage.

      • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

        Tim Truzy 5 months ago from U.S.A.

        This is true except the attitude toward self-publishing is changing in the digital age. From speaking with various agents, I've learned agents like to see that you have a successful "platform," such as a blog, or you have published in conjunction with other writers if you have self-published. This helps with consideration of your novel because it shows you are flexible. This also assist with marketing because there is an audience ready to look at your work.

        For these reasons, I've avoided self-publishing my novels; instead, I've been working together with other writers on short-story books and poetry collections. Agents will tell you this secretly: They don't want to miss the next J.K. Rowland either just because someone has self-published.

        Thank you for your interesting and informative article. Keep up the wonderful Hubs.

      • Coffeequeeen profile image

        Louise Powles 5 months ago from Norfolk, England

        There's some really good advice there. I always read the synopsis before I buy a book so understand how important it is.

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