What to Disclose in the Synopsis: Reader Reactions to Surprises

Guest Post by Irene Watson

A reviewer wrote me:

I was concerned that the book synopsis did not mention the part of the story that the author is dealing with his homosexuality. I read the book and am not reviewing it.

Every so often I get emails from reviewers indicating the synopsis didn’t specify adverse, to them, content.  In some cases the synopsis even looked like it was written by someone that didn’t read the book because it didn’t reflect what was inside the covers. This could be a huge issue for the readers, especially if they aren’t expecting something that turns them off.

There are a number of topics that must be disclosed in the synopsis and my suggestions are:

*profanity/expletives – even though our society is very lax in this department many are still turned off
*homosexuality – either your own experience (as above) or any homosexual encounters
*sexual orientation – anything to do with BLGT themes
*politics – especially if you are slam-blasting a party/establishment or pushing your own views
*religion – especially if you have a strong point of view on a specific religion and denounce others
*erotic sexual scenes – anything that would be censored or for adult reading only
*necrophilia – many readers would consider this as objectionable or inappropriate
*kinky sex – BDSM, menage, and such – stuff to be done behind closed doors
*horror – blood/guts/beheadings – yikes! – need I say more?
*paranormal – many don’t believe in this and could be upset if it comes up unexpectedly
* and basically, anything that could be go against a person’s beliefs

This list comes from my own experience with reviewers as well as reading reviews by others that gave negative reviews.  Non-disclosure could certainly be grounds for a negative review.

If you can’t quite fit the disclosure into a synopsis then I believe a warning would be just as effective.  I have seen some authors place this just below the synopsis:

Warning:  Contains expletives

The specific reviewer that I quoted above refused to write a review but I’ve had reviewers that chose to write a review and mention the adverse content in the review.  Both are in their own right.  Some reviewers feel they need to warn potential readers so they wouldn’t be surprised or turned off the same as they are, or some just refuse to even participate in giving what turns them off any energy and writing a review.

The interesting part is I tried to find something online about what to disclose in a synopsis and couldn’t.  There are thousands of articles on how to write a synopsis but doing a cursory look none of them addressed disclosure. This topic IS an issue so it surprises me there isn’t more buzz about it. 

So…what turns you off in a book but it wasn’t disclosed in the synopsis?  Do you have any others to add to the list above?

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews  of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity  and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books. 


Posted on September 11, 2011, in Publicity & Writing, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. All you have mentioned are valid especially if a book can easily fall into the hands of a minor in the reviewers household. Why would an author submit a book for review without disclosure? That only leaves the author open to bad reviews or outright rejection.While I am not adverse to reading subjects listed above, I would like forewarning that it just might 'curl my hair' without a visit to my stylist.

  2. Irene, I read your post in a state of shock. Call me naive. Almost a year ago I published my first book, Promised Valley Rebellion. It's received some surprisingly favorable reviews, including one from Reader Views, and won some awards. Now I learn that almost all of my synopses have flagrantly omitted the second and third items on your list of what must be disclosed in any synopsis. Some of the main characters in my novel are gay and lesbian. I didn't think that needed to be disclosed because they live in a prehistoric, alternate-history society that takes advantage of their not having their own children to care for and welcomes them. Their peoples would find the inclusion of the second and third items on your list extremely difficult to explain. In any event, I think as a practical matter, for the time in which we live, and for both the "straight" and LGBTQ readers of my four Promised Valley novels, I will henceforth disclose that some of the characters moving the stories forward are openly gay and lesbian. It might be amusing to use your "warning" exception to your rule: "Warning: contains openly LGBTQ main characters."

  3. Irene, this is a slippery slope. There are items on your list at which I wouldn't blink (e.g., sexual orientation), and yet, I can understand how some readers might, for example, find profanity offputting. Politics? Give me a break. Paranormal…I think that one could be seen coming from a mile away, even if the synopsis is mediocre. The above notwithstanding, writers should be sensitive to how different readers might respond to their work. At the least, authors should discuss the issues you raised with their editor(s) and informal reviewers (e.g., family members) before deciding what actions, if any, to take. It was through such discussions that I finally (though somewhat reluctantly) decided to add the warning "Adult Language" to all publicity related to my forthcoming novel "House of Cards: Dead Men Tell No Tales."

  4. Good article Irene. I too like to know what potentially negative lines might be in a book. I've found as my eyesight diminishes, I have less tolerance for subjects that I would never even think about discussing in my normal, everyday life and I certainly don't want to waste valuable reading time on them. I think brutality in any form is probably my biggest turn-off whether it be animals or humans subjected to it.

  5. There's nothing wrong with adding a little 'advisory': 'Contains explicit sex/violence/strong language/etc.'. This is probably the approach to use when these elements are a small part of the book, rather than the backbone of the plot. Now, If the synopsis says 'John has just come out. He meets Larry, and they begin a passionate affair', most readers will infer that there's gay sex in this book. They can read on or pass accordingly.

  6. If it matters, Irene, in my previous comment to this informative post, I misspoke.In my most recent synopses, as on the back cover of the POD version of my book, I include the following: "Promised Valley Rebellion is also the first-place winner in the Gay & Lesbian & Transgender Fiction category in the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards competition." I trust that takes care of the second and third items on your list.Thank you for bringing this matter into the open. I can see how LGBTQ persons might object to being included with a number of the other items on your list. On the other hand, I believe you're actually attempting to protect us from inadvertently getting reviewers who torpedo our books. From one who had that happen to him, I wish I'd known then what I know now, thanks to your post.

  7. If it matters, Irene, in my previous comment to this informative post, I misspoke.In my most recent synopses, as on the back cover of the POD version of my book, I include the following: "Promised Valley Rebellion is also the first-place winner in the Gay & Lesbian & Transgender Fiction category in the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards competition." I trust that takes care of the second and third items on your list.Thank you for bringing this matter into the open. I can see how LGBTQ persons might object to being included with a number of the other items on your list. On the other hand, I believe you're actually attempting to protect us from inadvertently getting reviewers who torpedo our books. From one who had that happen to him, I wish I'd known then what I know now, thanks to your post.

  8. WARNING! THIS POST CONTAINS HINTS OF PROFANITY, AND MY MOSTLY NASTY PERSONALITY; DO NOT READ OR PAY ANY ATTENTION—-OR LOCK AWAY THE KIDS AND LIVESTOCK BEFORE READING!NO, WAIT! DON'T READ IT! DON'T! I REALLY REALLY REALLY MEAN IT!!!!!Irene Watson:As usual, you are totally right on all of your points. For instance, using profanity can really, really, really p_ss off a certain class of reader, and can prompt "torpedo reviews" that can knock your rating down from five-star to three star, in an instant. It does NOT matter that "most readers will pay no attention to such reviews": most readers WILL absolutely still pay attention to the number of stars attached to the collective reviews star-total of your book.However, this is not to say these matters cannot be written about; if you have a message or point of view you want to write about—-do it, and f__k the torpedoes :)Yet, the synopsis should clearly state what your book is about or contains, in clear terms. It should be presented prominently and tastefully.

  9. I agree with you completely. Certain things in a story, such as Satanism and violence against children, can be a big turn-off to me when it comes to reviewing books. A child being slapped by a parent is something I can handle, but not where a child is brutally tortured for torture's sake. I told one author I would not review his novel because of a scene where a child, albeit a fictional child, was tricked into sexual activity. That is just wrong on so many levels. Yes, I know it's fiction, but it still troubled me. I see a story in my head as I am reading a novel, and I don't want see children in that kind of a situation. Also, one other novel had a graphic rape scene. I could not stomach such a thing and I returned the ebook telling the owner of the review site that I refused to review such a book. She was confused why this author did not note this when they sent in their book for review. A mild rape scene I can handle, but I won't review the book. But if the character says she was raped, but the rape scene itself does not play out, I will go through with the review provided the ick factor is not too high in the rest of the book.

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