I wrote a long note on reddit today (mostly to stop myself from tearing apart the book description of a self-published author who hadn’t asked to have his book description torn apart, ha). It’s potentially useful info, so I thought I’d cross-post here. Saving for posterity, so to speak!
My background: I worked as a senior acquisitions editor for a division of Pearson for ten years, during which time I wrote the marketing copy for the majority of the titles I acquired. I’ve written the marketing and back cover copy for probably close to two hundred books. Recently, I’ve seen several book descriptions from self-published authors that make my fingers itch to pull out the red pencil. I mostly keep my fingers still, since nobody asked for my opinion, but in an effort to relieve the frustration, I decided to share some tips for writing book descriptions for those who are interested. If your book description is perfect, feel free to stop reading now. 🙂
1) Your book description is not a synopsis. It should not be the same content that you would include in a query letter to an agent or an editor. Your goal is to entice the reader into opening up the book and looking inside, not to summarize. If your description reveals the ending of the book (“an epic journey to save the world”), there’s no reason for the reader to read it.
2) Your book description is a commercial. You’ve got thirty seconds to sell your product and that’s about it. If you don’t catch the reader/buyer in those thirty seconds, your opportunity is gone. As a consumer, you already know what makes for good and bad commercials. Laundry lists – this soap will whiten your clothes and smell wonderful and rinse off easily and get your brights brighter and make your day better – don’t work. Over-the-top hyperbole – best thing since sliced bread! – doesn’t work.
Stories work. And value propositions work.
3) Your marketing copy is the most important few hundred words of your book. If you’re paying to have your manuscript edited, ask to include the marketing copy. It’s vital to get that text right.
4) Whether or not you’re paying for an editor, run the copy through prowritingaid.com and a grammar checker. Look for the same issues that you should be looking for in your writing: over-use of adverbs and adjectives, repetitions, clichés and redundancies. Fix them. Writing a book description that includes lines like – “time after time,” “things go from bad to worse,” “fate has other plans,” is like writing, “generic average book here, try me.”
5) Less is more. Amazon allows 4000 characters in their description field, but you don’t have to use them all. A compelling fiction description either raises questions in the reader’s mind or reveals characters that the reader might want to spend time with. A compelling non-fiction description offers a clear value proposition and tells the reader, “you should spend time with this book, because you will get X, Y, Z out of it.” If you can accomplish that in 500 characters, you rock and your description will be the better for it.
6) Your description should match your content in terms of tone and style. If you’ve written a light, fun caper comedy, don’t write a description that puts the emphasis on the evil villain and bloody deaths, and vice versa. If your book is dark humor, make sure the description shows both. And not by saying, “this book is darkly funny,” but by writing that is both dark and funny.
7) Read the descriptions of best-selling books in your categories. Those books are best-sellers because people read the description and bought the book. What do the descriptions have in common? What are those authors doing right? If every book description in your category includes a character’s name with background, then readers in that category are looking for that. Give it to them. That doesn’t mean your description shouldn’t be original, but the sweet spot is a description that looks different, but not too different.
8) Authors are in the classic can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees when it comes to our own work. I’ve self-published two novels and a short story and I’m still not satisfied with all of my own marketing copy. So ask your beta readers for help. Find out how they would describe the book. If they were suggesting someone else read the book, what would they want to tell them about it?
And once you’ve written a draft, ask for feedback. Send it to your beta readers or critique group and ask what they think. Post the blurb and invite criticism. But you don’t want to write by committee—if people start making lots of suggestions for additions, it probably means you should start over from scratch. As Neil Gaiman said, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
9) Do not ever start your description with “This book is…” or “In this story…” Really, just don’t.