Ask the Book Doctor: About Agents and Publishers

Saturday, January 27, 2024

By Bobbie Christmas
Q: I just received an encouraging response from an agent I queried regarding my fiction manuscript. The agent requested a description (approximately one-page summary) and a synopsis (approximately two- to five-page-summary).
What do you think the agent is looking for in the description? Do you think it’s supposed to be just a more condensed version of the synopsis?
A: Congratulations on getting an encouraging response from an agent—a rarity!
As I understand the difference, a description describes the book and can include teasers. It talks about the book, rather than just the story in the book. It might start this way:
“What happens when a forty-seven-year-old woman finds herself divorced and destitute in Chicago? In 1962 Mary Devine, rather than become homeless, turns her abode into a house of ill repute. In 80,000 words The Escapades of Madam Devine, a quirky contemporary novel, covers Devine’s adventures, challenges, setbacks, and triumphs with a few hilarious twists.”
The description might go on to compare the book to one by John Irving or some other humorous writer.
A synopsis, on the other hand, has no teasers. It covers the entire plot from beginning to end. The synopsis never talks about the book, only about the story. It never asks questions, compares the book to other books, or teases the reader the way a description can.
Q: I’ve been submitting my manuscript to several publishers and agents. One publisher gave lots of praise for the submission but said it didn’t accept unagented manuscripts. One agent said he “saw the talent,” but said he’d had problems placing similar proposals recently. Do these niceties mean anything, or are they just letting me down gently?
A: Most agents and publishers have little time to let people down gently. While rejections used to be sent by preprinted letters, boilerplate emails, or rubber-stamped rejection notices, today most agents and publishers simply don’t respond at all if they aren’t interested. Agents and publishers have nothing to gain by taking extra time to write a nice note. A personal comment of any kind is rare, and when a comment is complimentary, frame it! You have the rarest form of rejection, and it means you are getting close.
Keep revising and submitting your work. Keep creating more. Ponder the point that similar proposals have been difficult to place. Think how you might revise your proposal or book to make it more marketable. Look at bestseller lists to see what’s selling. Keep going, and take pride in any “good” rejection.
Q: Do you have a suggestion for a book I have produced in Canada? I have sold 4,000 copies in Canada and am considering submitting it to a US publisher, but I haven’t a clue as to who publishes history books in America.
A: It’s the author’s job to perform the research. Go to bookstores or check online for books in your category and see who published it. Buy Writer’s Market (about $21 for the Kindle version) and make a list of publishers that publish history and don’t require an agent. Also use the book to look for agents who handle books on history.
Some publishers won’t take pre-published work, but because yours has a strong sales record and great reviews, if you’re willing to speak and promote it, you may be able find a publisher in America.
Send your questions to Bobbie Christmas, book editor, author of Write In Style: Use Your Computer to Improve Your Writing, and owner of Zebra Communications. or Read Bobbie’s Zebra Communications blog at


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