Copy That: Authors CAN Write Book Descriptions to Hook Readers
PART 1 – Why It’s Important to Have a Good Book Description
Here’s an incredibly helpful, very specific set of tips on hooking readers and book buyers. Written by our guest writer, Gordon Williams of Babora Books, Canada.
Note: The print world uses the term “jacket copy” for that hundred words or so that appears on the back cover of a book. I’ll use the term “book description,” but the two terms are pretty much synonymous.
Book descriptions go everywhere: On your book, on your website, on sites where your book is for sale, and on your promotional materials. Research has shown the book description is second only to author name recognition in generating a book sale. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a well-written book description.
Before I wrote this piece I did a quick scan of the latest self-published offerings from Smashwords. Sad to say, a lot of the descriptions I read were just…plain…awful.
- Full of editing errors.
- Plots that sound like a rehash of last year’s YA best seller.
- Failing to provide a single reason why I might want to read this book.
Writing a good book description is one of the hardest things for a writer. I’m sympathetic up to a point, but I won’t excuse bad spelling, bad punctuation and incoherent sentences. That just screams “unprofessional.”
Just because I’ve read Twilight doesn’t mean I’m going to be swayed by “high school girl falls for a guy with a dark secret.” If you want my money, then tell me what is original about this book.
Here’s a publishing business tip: The book description is written from the publisher’s perspective, not the author’s.
Trade publishers NEVER let the author write the jacket copy — that job is done by professional copywriters.
The author will almost always be dis-satisfied with what the publisher prints on the back cover because so much is left out. After all, you’ve written a great book, so how can you leave out the pie-baking scene or that loving description of Lord Folderol’s piercing blue eyes? What about your readers who may be saying, “Darn! If only I could just find a book were somebody knows how to bake a pie!”
Your book description has to tell the reader why he or she should buy this book. You have to be succinct about doing it or you are going to lose their attention. The more details you put in, the LESS reason the reader has to buy your book.
Writers Are from Venus, Publishers Are from a Different Part of Venus
As a writer, you will be asked what your book is about. You’ll politely describe the major plot elements, or you’ll rely on genre shorthand like: “It’s a hard-boiled detective story;” “It’s an alien invasion story;” “It’s a spiritual quest,” etc.
In case you haven’t noticed, polite nods aside, that response is not selling a lot of books for you.
As a publisher, when people ask me what the book is about, my answer is to talk first about what value the reader is going to get for their money in terms of entertainment, knowledge, personal growth, and so on and so forth.
When you write a book description you have to adopt the publisher’s mindset. This isn’t a public service announcement. It isn’t a synopsis. It’s a sales pitch.
Sounds crass? For sure.
Sells books? Yup.
Part 2 – Getting Down to It: My Approach to Writing Fiction Descriptions
There’s no magic formula for writing book descriptions. If you start pulling books off your own shelves, you’ll see some patterns. Like a student artist or musician you can learn a lot by imitating others, but you still have to find that point where you can break out on your own.
My own approach is pretty pragmatic. If you’re looking for something more theoretical, I encourage you to Google the subject. As a bonus you’ll be able to throw around terms like “hook” and “power words.” Or maybe even “I’ll have my people call your people.”
The Two-Stage Approach
I always write a book description in two stages. Stage one is an outline. Each part is a single sentence.
1) Set the stage
Write one sentence that describes the time, place, and setting of the story.
2) Dramatis Personae
Using one sentence for each, tell me something important to the story about your main character or characters. I can’t stress enough that these are the MAIN characters only. Three is usually bordering on too many.
3) Act Two, Scene One
Hollywood moviemaking is often described as being based on the “three-act play.” Act two is the “source of drama” where the main characters encounter obstacles — mad scientist seeking world domination or Meg Ryan can’t stand the sight of the protagonist. That sort of thing.
In one sentence, describe the Big Problem that confronts the characters.
4) The Pitch
Using no less than three superlatives, complete the following sentence: “This is a story about….” This is where you need to free yourself to go over the top, like a Mad Men brainstorming session.
As an example I’ll use the book description for an SF Action-Adventure my company just published. Using 1 through 4 above:
1) Setting: West Coast of Canada, slightly in the future but not much.
2) Players: Jonflan, the last surviving Yaka, a shape-changing alien, has come to Earth to re-seed its race. Krinof Koblin, a police officer, has come alone to Earth in hot pursuit.
3) What’s the problem? The alien has the ability to imitate any intelligent being it has physical contact with, making it a formidable foe in battle.
4) You’ll like it because: This is a story with bravery, determination, self-sacrifice, and non-stop action.
Stage Two – Putting It Together
The description is actually pretty serviceable as is, but now we need to turn this into something that reflects how we want readers to see the book. In this case the story is an action thriller so the description needs to be fast-paced with short sentences and pointed phrasing.
This fast-paced action thriller will keep you on the edge of your seat.
The last Yaka, survivor of a terrifying killer race, has arrived on Earth. Possessing the ability to shape-shift into any intelligent life form it has ever touched, this fearsome assassin can change into a thousand different, and sometimes lethal, beings.
A hunter has also arrived in pursuit. The Yaka is here to reseed its race. Krinof Koblin is here to stop it!
I keep these deliberately short. This example is just 75 words, maybe 15 to 20 seconds of reading. My goal isn’t to describe the whole book. I just want to tell the reader what kind of book this is and push some buttons to get them interested in reading more. From there it’s just one click to an excerpt that will, fingers crossed, lead to a sale.
This is my way. You can try this and make it your own or go completely your own way. Don’t expect to get it perfect the first time. But if you keep practicing it will become a lot more natural and soon you’ll be writing book descriptions to match anything the Big 6 can turn out.
Best of luck to you!
Gordon Williams is publisher, editor, and pretty much everything else at Babora Books, a small publisher in Victoria, Canada. Gordon has more than 25 years of professional experience in writing, publishing, and communications.