Back in the days of paper submissions, every publisher and agency had specific requirements laid out, i.e., query letter, first 10 pages, 5-page synopsis and SASE. Or whatever.
In these days of email or webform submissions, I did a spot-check of agencies listed on RWA’s website, and a handful of publishing houses, and discovered that is no longer the case. Not one of the agencies I looked at specified a length for the synopsis. With publishing houses it was even harder to find anything about submissions at all; of those few that did, only Harlequin specified a length, and just to confuse things more, they asked for 350 words (so not even pages!). Granted this was just a spot-check; I didn’t do a thorough research (I’ll be doing that after I finish this manuscript, hopefully by the end of this weekend). If you go by contests, most of those I’ve entered or judged permitted (or required) a 5-page synopsis; Golden Heart says no more than 15 pages.
This is not a change for the better. It is, moreover, frustrating as a writer. When querying an agent or editor, naturally we want to give it our very best shot, to increase the chance they’ll at least look at it. And that means giving them exactly what they are expecting to get… which we can’t do unless they tell us. Without specifics, we’re left either guessing or assuming. Not a good thing. If there’s an “industry standard” now, I sure couldn’t find it, and if there was one, I wish it was announced in big red letters everywhere! Researching this on the various writing advice, tips and blog sites is totally At Your Own Risk… for every site that says 2-3 pages there’s one that says 5 pages, or 1 page single-spaced, or 10 pages, or even the formulary 1 page per 25 manuscript pages (or 35… or…).
Editors and agents have to be aware of this huge grey area regarding synopsis length. They’re almost bound to have a preference for what they want to see, so why don’t they state it, so that’s what they get? Or do they really want to see whatever it is that we send? Which is fine too, but I’d like to know that’s their take on it… rather than send a 10-page synopsis, only to hear back that they wanted a 2-page one, or send a 2-page one and hear back that they wanted 10 pages. Why not just have it in the submissions guideline section? That’s what it’s for, after all.
My personal advice to writers is to have at least three versions of your synopsis for each manuscript: 2 pages, 5 pages and 10 pages. It’s better to have it written and not need it, than need it and have to go back to the drawing board. But it still comes back to the same vexed question: If they don’t tell us what they want, how do we know which to send?