How to Write an Effective Book Description
by Richard Ridley
One of the most crucial elements to selling a book is also probably
the most difficult element to create for authors. The book
description is your lead-in, your chance to hook readers and get
them to crack the cover and satisfy their curiosity. Even in an
online environment, the book description can bridge the gap between
having just another title among a sea of choices and a sellable book
The problem is that many authors have a hard time writing a good
book description. The main reason it can prove so difficult is that
they don’t want to leave anything out. As the creator of the
material, there’s a natural instinct to find a way to cram all or as
much of that material into the description as possible. But too many
details can render your description confusing and ineffective.
Elements of the Book
As someone who has failed and triumphed over book descriptions, here
is what I have learned through my personal series of trial and
error. Call them rules, suggestions or ramblings of an author gone
mad, but I’ve collected these tips by observing and consulting with
other authors, both self-published and traditionally published.
Don’t include subplots. When it comes
to the book description, the only thing that matters is the main
plot or main theme. That’s all you need to focus on. Including
anything else will send you off into an endless loop of “then
this happened” moments that will dilute your book description.
What is the primary action that drives your book?
Keep it under 150 words. This, no doubt,
will elicit some moans and groans by a lot of authors.
Summarizing a book that consists of tens of thousands of words
to just 150 is impossible, right? No. In fact, I am of the
belief that you should be able to summarize your book in a
single short sentence. Remember, you don’t have to concern
yourself with the character development and sub-plots, so those
tens of thousands of words it takes to adequately draw a reader
into a book aren’t necessary when it comes to your book
description. In the simplest terms, what is your book about and
what will make readers interested?
Write in third person, present tense.
Even though your book is most likely told in past tense, your
book description is not. You are describing this book as if
you’re sitting face to face with the reader, and they’ve asked
you what the book is about. You wouldn’t speak to them in the
past tense. In addition, the book description is told from third
person point-of-view even if you’ve written your book from first
Use emotional power words. You are trying
to evoke emotions with your book description, the same emotions
that your book evokes. To convey these feelings, you need
emotional power words like tormented, charismatic, passion,
obsession, terrifying, etc. There are too many to mention
here, but a quick search for “Power Words” on the internet will
produce hundreds of words to choose from. Just be careful not to
overdo it. Use power words sparingly and strategically. If I had
to put a number it, I’d say in a 125-word description, you’d use
6-10 emotional power words.
You are not the author. You are not
writing your book description as the author. You are writing it
as the publisher. Making an impact on the reader is your
principal concern. What will move the reader to want to know
more about your book? What will motivate the reader to add your
book to his or her cart? Write the book description with your
head, not your heart. Remember, the book description is
marketing material - not literature.
Those are my five main points when it comes to writing a book
description. Another good practice is to read as many book
descriptions in your genre as possible. It’s a great way to figure
out what the industry standard is. These descriptions become
industry standards for one reason: they sell books.
Here’s an example of a book description that I believe gets it
right. It’s for Gil Adamson’s novel, The Outlander, published
by Harper Collins in 2007.
In 1903 Mary Boulton flees alone across the West, one
heart-pounding step ahead of the law. At nineteen, she has just
become a widow - and her husband's killer. As bloodhounds track her
frantic race toward the mountains, she is tormented by mad visions
and by the knowledge that her two ruthless brothers-in-law are in
pursuit, determined to avenge their younger brother's death.
Responding to little more than the primitive instinct for survival
at any cost, she retreats ever deeper into the wilderness - and into
the wilds of her own mind.
From the description, I know the book is a psychological thriller
featuring a young woman on the run from some very nasty people. I
get a hint that her husband may have deserved his fate, but I’m also
led to believe that Mary Boulton may be mentally unstable. The
description is roughly 90 words. It’s told in third-person, present
tense, and I count seven emotional power words (“heart-pounding,”
“frantic,” “tormented,” “mad,” “ruthless,” “primitive,” and
“wilds”). I only know the main plot: she killed her husband, and now
she’s a fugitive running for her life. I picked up the book because
of its cover, but I opened the book because of this description. I
now own it.
You’re not just writing your description for your back cover. You’re
also writing this for your social media network, as part of your bio
information for personal appearances, for flyers and other print
material, etc. This isn’t just for you; it’s for your fans. With a
concise book description, they are more likely to copy and paste it
into an email to friends and family or on their own social
networking accounts. Think of this type of description as being
portable. It’s easy to share and, as a result, is a major tool in
your spread-the-word campaign.
I will leave you with this: you may get it wrong the first time you
try to write a book description, and that’s okay. It’s just another
part of the process. As you go through various versions, don’t
delete those earlier ones. I’ve found that by combining the elements
of the latest version with earlier versions, I hit pay dirt. Good
luck and happing selling!
Richard Ridley has
been a writer for more than 20 years. He is the author of the IPPY
Award-winning young adult series
The Oz Chronicles.
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