The importance of your book description for making a sale
I had already started writing this installment of my series for indie authors, when I saw these results from the Fussy Librarian reader poll:
Question: When you’re looking for a new ebook, which is most likely to persuade you to buy? Please rank in order of priority.
Reading the first few pages: 2.23
Cover art: 2.13
Number of reviews and average rating: 2.13
1200 readers replied to this poll, so it is not something to sneeze at. And the description won hands down. (My own personal first would have been the first few pages, but I didn’t respond to the poll.)
As I mentioned in my post about what to do if your books aren’t selling, I regard the blurb as one of the most important things you need to consider changing if you want to increase sales. Once you have managed to get eyes on your book, and the reader has clicked on the image of your cover, the blurb is your first big chance to persuade her to click “buy.” And as the poll results above show, it’s worth spending some time on.
The “problem” of writing blurbs
I don’t claim to be the greatest writer of blurbs out there, but before publishing Yseult back in 2012, I studied a lot of book descriptions and read a lot of how-to articles and posts. I analyzed blurbs in my genre that I thought were effective and tried to figure out the best way to do it. One thing I admit I still have not figured out is how to write book descriptions for short story collections. My normal strategy is to describe the kinds of stories in the book and then provide short descriptions for two or three. It does not seem to be particularly effective. One of my collections, From Earth to Mars and Beyond, has probably sold less than a dozen copies total since I published it, which does not say a lot for my blurb-writing talents.
On the other hand, one of the short stories from the collection — which I meant to make free but still has not been price-matched on Amazon — is Mars: A Traveler’s Guide. I finally published it on Amazon at the beginning of January, and it has already sold more copies than From Earth to Mars and Beyond, the book I was hoping it would be a loss leader for. Now I’m reluctant to make it free on Amazon after all. *g* (For those freebie lovers out there, never fear: it is still free on most other sales sites.) Anyway, here’s the blurb:
Red Planet Adventures provides customized tours on Mars. Naturally, they have been optimized for safety. Soon, satellite coverage on the planet will even reach 100%! But what happens in the meantime … ?
This description might give you an idea of the problem a collection or anthology faces that a single work — be it short story, novella, or novel — does not have: it is the book itself that must somehow be described, and not the main dilemma of the plot.
Because it is precisely that which I am able to imply in the blurb of “Mars: A Traveler’s Guide” — the dilemma. The story doesn’t have a character, but it definitely has a major dilemma. That short blurb preps the reader for catastrophe (or at least I hope it does. *g*)
And that is the single most important thing the book description must revolve around: the dilemma or problem. The catastrophe that is just around the corner.
“Fine,” you say, “but that’s a short story. It’s easy to summarize when there are no subplots, no huge cast of characters.”
Yes and no. My Mars story presented something of a challenge in the opposite direction since, as I already mentioned, it doesn’t have a character. The standard recipe for blurbs is a character in a place with a problem. But another necessary element which sometimes gets short shrift is the tone or voice. It’s a bit like the first couple of pages of your book. In those pages, you are making a pact with the reader, communicating to her the kind of story she is about to read. Your blurb has to do the same thing. So for my Mars blurb, I chose the voice of the story, “Red Planet Adventures” — with the exception of the last sentence, which is the implied catastrophe.
By contrast, my novel Yseult is a true mob novel, (metaphorically speaking) with tons of characters and subplots and historical goings on. Here is the description:
For the price of a truce, Yseult is sent to a world where magic is dying – to marry the father of the man she loves.
Marcus’s son Drystan would have saved her from a loveless marriage, but with her relatives being held hostage, Yseult cannot endanger them and must go through with the wedding. The tragic love story of Yseult and Drystan plays out against the backdrop of a violent world threatening to descend into the Dark Ages – only Arthur’s battles to push back the Saxon hordes can save what is left of civilization. With her background, Yseult could act as a bridge between the old age and the new – but will the price be too high?
Yseult is almost 200,000 words long. The German translation is a door-stopper of over 700 pages. (I used some formatting tricks with the CreateSpace version of the English to get the page count — and the price — down, but it was a lot of work.) Nonetheless, I managed to get the description down to a handful of sentences, only a few more than I needed for a 10 page story.
The big challenge in blurb writing is just that: distilling your story down to the bare essentials. Forget about getting all those cool characters and plot twists in. It’s all about condensing the main elements of your novel into a couple of short, snappy sentences. Skip the details, and cut to the chase!
And make it compelling.
What do the blurbs from successful books look like?
For some examples of truly successful books, here are the book descriptions of a couple of indie bestsellers in Epic Fantasy (one of my genres) at the time of this writing, that are right there next to GRRM and Joe Abercrombie and the like.
– Amazon #1: Lindsay Buroker, The Dragon Blood Collection, Books 1-3 (An indie author from whom I have learned much. I highly recommend subscribing to her blog. She is WAY WAY WAY more successful than I am. *g*). Here’s the description:
A thousand years have passed since a dragon has been seen in the world. Science and technology have replaced magic, which has dwindled until it has become little more than an element of myth and legend.
There are those who still have dragon blood flowing through their veins, distant descendants of the mighty creatures of old. These rare humans have the power to cast magic, the power to heal, and the power to craft alchemical weapons capable of starting wars… or ending them. But they are feared for those powers, and in recent centuries, they have been hunted nearly to extinction.
The few remaining survivors must find a way to change how humanity perceives them or be lost to the world forever.
– Amazon #6: Edward W. Robertson, The Cycle of Arawn: The Complete Epic Fantasy Trilogy:
Dante Galand is young. Penniless. Alone. But devoted to learning the dark magic of his world.
His quest will take him from the city gutters to a foreign land of sorcerers. To a war for independence. And finally, to another war–this time, for his people’s very survival.
Neither of these book descriptions provide the standard book blurb formula of a character in a place with a problem. Of course, “place” is not as important in fantasy, since the worlds are largely imagined. And both of these bestsellers are collections of novels. (As is #2, GRRM’s Kindle edition of Game of Thrones.) But it is interesting to note that Lindsay’s blurb does not name a single character, while Edward’s only names one.
This is not the case for romance, however, in which both the female and male leads need to be named in the book description. Or a number of sub-genres of crime and thriller, which often give substantial weight to the personal problems of the main characters (especially in series novels), above and beyond the crimes to be solved.
In order to get around all of the Fifty Shades of Gray knockoffs, I went to the romance sub-category of Regency Romance for my sample romance description. Here is the blurb for the #1 bestseller, the winner of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in Romance for 2014, The Bluestocking and the Rake by Norma Darcy:
The Earl of Marcham has decided to put the excesses of his colorful youth firmly behind him so that he may find a wife and beget himself an heir. But a straitlaced spinster may stand in his way after she releases a morality pamphlet exposing some of his most private misdemeanors. Determined to have his revenge and teach her a much-needed lesson, the earl decides that his best course of action is to seduce her…
Miss Georgiana Blakelow has long given up the hope of marriage. Instead, she’s resigned to serving as governess to her siblings and saving the family estate from ruin. She might succeed, if only the wretch of an earl who won the estate at the gaming table would be reasonable.
As the sparks fly, and as Lord Marcham finds himself unexpectedly attracted to Miss Blakelow, she becomes even more determined to keep him at a safe distance. The closer he gets, the more likely he is to discover that his bluestocking isn’t all that she seems.
This blurb provides much more detail than the descriptions of the fantasy books given above, and names both the hero and the heroine. Several books I clicked on in this category use the same format: a paragraph for each of the love interests, detailing the conflict they will have to overcome to achieve the HEA.
As a final example of blurbs from successful books, here is the description from the #1 seller in techno-thrillers, Departure by A.G. Riddle, also indie:
Flight 305 took off in 2014…
But it crashed in a world very different from our own…
With time running out, five strangers must unravel why they were taken…
And how to get home.
Once again, no names, but in “from the back cover” the five international main characters are described in more detail, all introduced with significant goals to increase potential conflict.
What does that tell you about how to write your blurb?
These blurbs from successful books are all very different, and with the exception of romance, none of them is very good at the “character in a place with a problem” formula. The one thing they have in common is that they all emphasize some kind of dilemma — and do their best to arouse the reader’s curiosity.
So if you were hoping this post would give you a perfect recipe for writing your blurb, I’m afraid I will have to disappoint you. As you can see from the examples I provided above, book descriptions vary wildly from genre to genre. In my opinion, the best way to write a blurb is to go to the sub-genre you intend to conquer, copy a number of blurbs that you found particularly effective into a file, take them apart, and then try to describe your own book in the same way. It involves a certain amount of work, but given how high the book description scores in the poll I mentioned at the beginning of this article, it’s probably time well-invested.