How Book Synopses Set Reader Expectations and Why That Matters

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about book synopses, and I assume most other readers don’t either. They’re just a little blurb on the back of the book telling readers the general idea of the plot so they can decide whether or not they might like to read the book. Sometimes, if the editor is being clever, the summary might be written in the same tone or voice as the book itself (most common for picture books), but generally it’s just . . . there.

However, a book synopsis doesn’t really just tell the reader what the main premise of the book is; it often gives them an idea of what genre the story is. It is an action-packed adventure? A swoon-worthy romance? A quiet but thought-provoking story?

This is significantly more important to marketing than telling the reader “what happens” in the story. When a synopsis misrepresents the genre of a story and readers don’t get what they are expecting, they rate the book low — because they aren’t rating the book on what it is; they’re rating the book on what it’s not.

A misleading synopsis was an issue for Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus when it was released in 2011. The publisher wrote a summary for the story that led readers to believe that the focus was on a magical duel or race between the two protagonists, that the story would be a fast-paced fantasy with challenges and competitions. What readers ACTUALLY got was a somewhat slower-paced story that revels in world-building and is more concerned with immersing readers in the magic of the circus than showing them a cutthroat duel between two master magicians. Readers were upset. Many rated the story poorly. But it’s possible they would have rated it better if they had been led to expect something different.

This happens frequently. If a book is marketed as romance, but the romance is actually a small part of the story and the real focus is on a mystery, most readers don’t say, “Well, there wasn’t much romance, but as a mystery this was excellent. 5 stars.” Instead, they rate what they were told the book was. They say, “There was practically no romance in this romance novel. 2 stars.”

Editors and others in charge of writing book summaries (which is a harder task than one might think, if you are literally looking only at a manuscript and don’t have an existing summary to work off), then, need to be conscientious about what they are implying the focus of a book is. It’s important not to think, “Oh, emphasizing the romance will help the book sell” if the book isn’t actually that romantic. Focus on what the book actually has, and it will find the right audience, and readers will be more likely to give it a higher rating.

Have you ever found a book summary misleading?


17 thoughts on “How Book Synopses Set Reader Expectations and Why That Matters

  1. Books Teacup and Reviews says:

    I don’t remember which book but I found a couple of book synopsis misleading. I usually don’t pay attention to synopsis that much only to see which genre and what little I can expect in book like you said in the beginning. Mostly I forget what I read in synopsis by the time I actually start reading that usually works in my favour as I go into it semi-blind and it’s when I’m writing the review I properly read synopsis to see if I should write short summery or not.
    Synopsis is important but I wouldn’t like to read it if there was too much said or if it’s misleading. I have found I enjoy books more without much expectations.
    Great post!


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, there are actually a lot of times I start reading and can’t remember the summary or what the book is supposed to be about at all! :p I think it often makes it more interesting since sometimes the summary includes spoilers.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. femaleinferno says:

    I love a synopsis or blurb – it’s like a teaser trailer for a book! I read them all the time because I have a massive TBR and it lets me judge what book I want to read next. There have been many times where the explanation is misleading, or lacking, or far too brief. Other times it has pretty much spoiled the entire novel… I want a teaser, not a summary.
    I use a synopsis when browsing a book store or library, an online book seller. I agree there is a science to crafting a great blurb, and their are writers who specialize in these little marketing tools.
    I think it is the most important part for marketing a novel alongside the cover art. Depending on your budget and marketing team it can either enhance opportunities for reaching readers, or hinder it.
    A good blurb will introduce the reader to the main characters and setting; let them know the genre, tone, and writing style; hint at the inciting incident, and pose a question that leaves the reader wanting to find out more. And sometimes include a great tagline.
    Authors should have a few iterations of a blurb included with their pitch or submission, include them in a marketing plan. I’ve actually returned books with bad or disinteresting blurbs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Ugh, yes, there are so many books where the synopsis literally tells the reader the whole story. It’s like “When Anne discovers her pet pig is really an undercover agent and then they go on an adventure and Anne’s mother dies but Anne discovers she has magic powers, and the twist is that her mother knew the whole time…” Ok, why am I even reading the book?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Louise says:

    This is such an interesting post!

    Yes I have definitely found some to be misleading although I can’t think of which ones off the top of my head now but it really gets on my nerves when it happens.


  4. Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

    I have found a few synopses to be misleading, and it’s frustrating every time for the reasons you mentioned: I expect one thing and get something else entirely, and spend the whole book thinking “This isn’t what I signed up for”. The most egregious mis-summation I have seen was for Throne of Glass, which promises a thrilling competition starting thieves and assassins, and delivers a half-baked love triangle.


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      YES! Throne of Glass! It’s been a while since I read it, but I remember when I did that it was being hyped as being all about an assassin and she . . . doesn’t assassinate anyone or do anything remotely assassin-like the whole book! I couldn’t understand why she was some feared, highly skilled person because she didn’t do anything impressive!


  5. Siena says:

    This is a great discussion that I completely agree with! I don’t think about book synopses a lot, but they do have an effect on what I think of the book. I read What’s Mine and Yours by Naima Coster two months ago, and I rated it lower because it didn’t match the synopsis. Frankly, if the synopsis had been accurate, then I wouldn’t have picked up the book! Making sure that the book has the right audience really is key for improving the ratings of books.


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I feel as if the synopsis is something I more or less ignore, unless I realize it was completely wrong! Which makes me also think of Instant Karma, which did not mention AT ALL that the book is about saving a sea animal rescue! That’s the main premise!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. DoingDewey says:

    I’m definitely someone who has rated a book poorly because it wasn’t what I was expecting and so I wasn’t in the mood for what I got! Mostly this has been the fault of the synopsis, but I must admit that sometimes it’s because I’ve simply not paid enough attention to the synopsis.


  7. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Yeah I definitely think misleading synopses and marketing affects ratings. Personally, I try to rate the book based on the real story and not my expectations… only the big problem I find with missmarketed books is that I wouldn’t have picked it up if the blurb had been a better reflection of the actual book. It’s not that the book is necessarily bad, but that I was definitely not the right person to read it. A good example of this, for me, was Lonely Heart Hotel- which was very well written- but the problem was it was literary fiction sold as “for fans of the Night Circus”… which is a bizarre comparison and not accurate at all (aside from the genres being different, Lonely Hearts Hotel has some of the darkest themes I’ve ever read). So yeah, I definitely think that it’s important not to just focus on what will sell a book, but on finding the right readers.


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