Interesting, Different Conventions in Publishing… Synopses

DenfeldR-EnchantedUSHC Crop

I’ve been thinking a lot about some various different conventions in book publishing. Partly because I keep moving around, but also because one element of one of my jobs at a literary agency is keeping track of international editions of clients’ novels. Couple these two things with my ‘work’ on this blog, and I spend a lot of time reading publishers’ websites and catalogues. Recently, I’ve spotted a few books published in the UK and North America with quite different synopses (as well as covers), and I thought it might be interesting to take a look at a couple here. The differences aren’t massive by any means, and maybe I only picked up on them because I read so many. The differences between conventions in cover artwork are, however, much greater – I’ll put together another post about this in the future, I think.

The two novels that jumped out at me were Rene Denfeld‘s The Enchanted and Helen Giltrow‘s The Distance. I spotted them both first in Toronto, and thought they both looked really interesting (and, naturally, have bought them). Since then, I’ve seen that the novels are also published in the UK by Orion Books. With different covers and synopses, my interest in reading them only grew. To be clear, I don’t think whoever wrote the back cover text for either of these books’ North American editions did a bad job. I just think the UK synopses are a bit better, and exhibit some different conventions. Both of the novels are among my 2015 Must Reads. Let’s take the books one-by-one…


DenfeldR-EnchantedUSPBFirst up, the North American synopsis, published by Harper:

A wondrous and redemptive debut novel, set in a stark world where evil and magic coincide, The Enchantedcombines the empathy and lyricism of Alice Sebold with the dark, imaginative power of Stephen King.

“This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it, but I do.” The enchanted place is an ancient stone prison, viewed through the eyes of a death row inmate who finds escape in his books and in re-imagining life around him, weaving a fantastical story of the people he observes and the world he inhabits. Fearful and reclusive, he senses what others cannot. Though bars confine him every minute of every day, he marries visions of golden horses running beneath the prison, heat flowing like molten metal from their backs with the devastating violence of prison life.

Two outsiders venture here: a fallen priest and the Lady, an investigator who searches for buried information from prisoners’ pasts that can save those soon-to-be-executed. Digging into the background of a killer named York, she uncovers wrenching truths that challenge familiar notions of victim and criminal, innocence and guilt, honesty and corruption—ultimately revealing shocking secrets of her own.

Beautiful and transcendent, The Enchanted reminds us of how our humanity connects us all, and how beauty and love exist even amidst the most nightmarish reality.

I do really like that cover, I must say.

DenfeldR-EnchantedUKPBNow the UK synopsis (and a cover that reminded me almost immediately of Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker):

A powerful and hauntingly beautiful novel set on death row – like THE GREEN MILE or THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION written by Cormac McCarthy.

Even monsters need peace. Even monsters need a person who truly wants to listen – to hear – so that someday we might find the words that are more than boxes. Then maybe we can stop men like me from happening… 

A prisoner sits on death row in a maximum security prison. His only escape from his harsh existence is through the words he dreams about, the world he conjures around him using the power of language. For the reality of his world is brutal and stark. He is not named, nor do we know his crime.

But he listens. He listens to the story of York, the prisoner in the cell next to him whose execution date has been set. He hears the lady, an investigator who is piecing together York’s past. He watches as the lady falls in love with the priest and wonders if love is still possible here. He sees the corruption and the danger as tensions in ‘this enchanted place’ build. And he waits. For even monsters have a story…

Both of these covers are from the paperback editions. The North American hardcover was similar to the paperback, only with a deep grey instead of red (it was also nice). But I thought I’d share the UK hardcover artwork, too, as it’s both eye-catching and also uses horse imagery:


Helen Giltrow, THE DISTANCE

GiltrowH-TheDistanceNorth American synopsis, published by Doubleday:

A dark, ultra-contemporary, and relentlessly paced debut thriller about a London society woman trying to put her secret criminal past behind her, and the hit man who comes to her with an impossible job she can’t refuse.

Charlotte Alton is an elegant socialite. But behind the locked doors of her sleek, high-security apartment in London’s Docklands, she becomes Karla. Karla’s business is information. Specifically, making it disappear. She’s the unseen figure who, for a commanding price, will cover a criminal’s tracks. A perfectionist, she’s only made one slip in her career—several years ago she revealed her face to a man named Simon Johanssen, an ex-special forces sniper turned killer-for-hire. After a mob hit went horrifically wrong, Johanssen needed to disappear, and Karla helped him. He became a regular client, and then, one day, she stepped out of the shadows for reasons unclear to even herself. Now, after a long absence, Johanssen has resurfaced with a job, and he needs Karla’s help again. The job is to take out an inmate—a woman—inside an experimental prison colony. But there’s no record the target ever existed. That’s not the only problem: the criminal boss from whom Johanssen has been hiding is incarcerated there. That doesn’t stop him. It’s Karla’s job to get him out alive, and to do that she must uncover the truth. Who is this woman? Who wants her dead? Is the job a trap for Johanssen or for her? But every door she opens is a false one, and she’s getting desperate to protect a man—a killer—to whom she’s inexplicably drawn.

Written in stylish, sophisticated prose, The Distance is a tense and satisfying debut in which every character, both criminal and law-abiding, wears two faces, and everyone is playing a double game.

GiltrowH-DistanceUKPBAnd the punchier Orion synopsis:

A blistering debut thriller that introduces the coolest heroine in contemporary suspense fiction.

They don’t call her Karla anymore. She’s Charlotte Alton: she doesn’t trade in secrets, she doesn’t erase dark pasts, and she doesn’t break hit-men into prison.

Except that is exactly what she’s been asked to do.

The job is impossible: get the assassin into an experimental new prison so that he can take out a target who isn’t officially there.

It’s a suicide mission, and quite probably a set-up.

So why can’t she say no?

Again, the UK hardcover edition had a more substantial change from hardcover to paperback (above, left). The hardcover edition has, in my opinion, the better cover (and which reminds me a little of the style of the UK editions of Pierre Lemaitre’s Alex):


Which do you prefer? Do you know of any examples of one synopsis working better for you than another?

UPDATE: I wonder if the differences in synopses have something to do with the North American editions not wanting to be pigeonholed in the Crime/Thriller genre, and be presented more as general fiction? [Just had a chat with Alyssa about it, and a throw-away comment made me think of this possibility.]

2 thoughts on “Interesting, Different Conventions in Publishing… Synopses

  1. It’s fascinating to see the US and UK editions compared like this.

    Just this week the editor preparing the US paperback of THE DISTANCE sent me her first-round draft of the new cover copy, so with her permission I’m including it here. As you’ll see it’s evolved significantly since the hardback.

    Charlotte Alton is an elegant London socialite. But behind the locked doors of her sleek, high-security apartment, she becomes Karla, a fixer who specializes in creating and erasing identities, and can cover any criminal’s tracks. Only a few people in the world know her secret.

    One of them is Simon Johanssen, a killer-for-hire who resurfaces—years after she helped him to quietly disappear—with an impossible job. He needs access to a high-security, experimental prison colony in order to assassinate an inmate. The catch: there’s no record of the target’s existence, and what’s worse, the criminal boss from whom he’s been hiding is inside, too. The trap has been set, but who is the real target—Johanssen, or Karla herself?

    Liked by 1 person

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