1. Write a good book.
2. Have a good cover.
3. Set a low price.
4. Have a good product description.
To these basic four, I'd add:
5. Pick the right title (Robin Sullivan has an excellent post on this very topic here)
6. Market online to connect with readers
Today I'd like to talk about #4--specifically writing a book description for a novel. To make it easier for me, I'm going to write this blog post as if I'm talking to someone with a personal interest in the topic. If you're not a writer, you might want to click off right now. :-)
For sales purposes, a description has to convey the type of book, give a summary of the story, and entice the reader into buying or at least sampling your book.
The description also needs to be a certain length. Too long and you lose the reader. Too short and there's just not enough there. Readers who browse on Amazon.com or the Barnes & Noble site are used to seeing descriptions that take up a certain amount of space on the page. If your description doesn't fall within those parameters it will just look "wrong." People make snap judgments and don't even know why sometimes. If you play by the rules you won't give them a reason to discount your book.
It's interesting to me that some of the best writers seem incapable of coming up with a suitable description of their own book. They're too close to the material and too emotionally invested. As usual, I have an opinion on the subject and my own personal method for crafting a description. My method's not the only way to go about it, of course, but it could be a good starting point for someone who is stuck.
When I do workshops I illustrate my method using the publishers' descriptions of two popular books.
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
Robert Langdon is a Harvard professor of symbology who can't stay out of trouble. Last seen in Angels and Demons (2000), this mild-mannered academic finds himself entangled in a deadly conspiracy that stretches back centuries. Visiting Paris on business, he is awakened at 2:00 a.m. by a call from the police: An elderly curator has been murdered inside the Louvre, and a baffling cipher has been found near the body. Aided by the victim's cryptologist granddaughter, Langdon begins a danger-filled quest for the culprit; but the deeper he searches, the more he becomes convinced that long-festering conspiracies hold the answer to the art lover's death.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Orphaned as a baby, Harry Potter has spent 11 awful years living with his mean aunt, uncle, and cousin Dudley. But everything changes for Harry when an owl delivers a mysterious letter inviting him to attend a school for wizards. At this special school, Harry finds friends, aerial sports, and magic in everything from classes to meals, as well as a great destiny that's been waiting for him...if Harry can survive the encounter. From an author who has been compared to C. S. Lewis and Roald Dahl, this enchanting, funny debut novel won England's National Book Award and the prestigious Smarties Prize.
They're very different books, and at first glance, the descriptions don't seem to have much in common. But look closer, and (aha!) you'll notice a pattern, one you can use in describing your own book.
The first sentence of each starts with the main character and touches on his "ordinary world." We see that, like so many people we know, Robert Langdon is a Harvard professor of symbology, while poor Harry has spent 11 awful years living with hateful relatives.
Once the main character and their current situation are established, we learn that something changes. For Robert we find out that while he's visiting Paris on business, he is awakened at 2:00 a.m. by a call from the police: An elderly curator has been murdered inside the Louvre, and a baffling cipher has been found near the body. Harry, meanwhile, is just going along living his horrible life when suddenly an owl delivers a mysterious letter inviting him to attend a school for wizards.
I'm not sure about you, but in both cases, I'm definitely intrigued.
What happens next, you ask? Each description goes on to tell the reader a smattering of details so we get a feel for the type of story it is, but, and this is important-- it really doesn't reveal much at all in the way of specifics. We learn that Robert begins a danger-filled quest for the culprit; but the deeper he searches, the more he becomes convinced that long-festering conspiracies hold the answer to the art lover's death.
Back at Hogwarts, Harry finds friends, aerial sports, and magic in everything from classes to meals, as well as a great destiny that's been waiting for him. For both novels the description only hints at what is to come. The reason it's not clearly spelled out? They want you to buy and read the book.
The Harry Potter book description adds one more thing at the end: hype. Awards are mentioned and comparisons to other authors are made. The book is called an enchanting, funny debut novel. The publisher wrote the hype. If you self-publish, you are now the publisher. Don't be afraid to mention awards won. Compare yourself to other authors if that's appropriate. Add a little tagline praising the book if you want.
When I self-published A Scattered Life I impulsively added a line at the end of my description, something about the story being heartwarming and bittersweet and staying with the reader long after the last page was turned (ironic since it was a Kindle book and there weren't technically any pages). A friend who read the tagline said, "Oh, that was such a nice thing for them to say," and I was too embarrassed to tell her that there was no "them," it was only me.
Honestly? I couldn't really gauge how long the story would stay with the reader. And "long after the last page is turned," is not a precise length of time. I was told by early readers that the book stayed with them, and I hoped that would be the experience for other people as well.
Something to remember: Specific nouns and strong verbs are your friends when you're writing a book description. The Da Vinci Code uses the following words and phrases:
Here are some from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:
school for wizards
And another thing--try not to make the book or your characters sound depressing. Depressing and sad are the kiss of death when you're trying to attract readers. But what about Nicholas Sparks, you say? His books make readers sob and people love them! True, but read the descriptions of his novels and see how the spin masters work their magic. These kinds of words and phrases are used:
whopper of a secret
And from some other sad books:
brings the family together
triumph in the face of unspeakable tragedy
Hope is a good thing in fiction. Redemption too. What we don't usually seek out in a reading experience is pain all by itself. Just something to keep in mind.
So, to wrap things up, this is my way of writing book descriptions in a nutshell:
1) Establish the main character and his current situation
2) Tell about the change (or the happening, or what have you)
3) Allude to what happens next in vague, but exciting terms
4) Don't be afraid of hype
5) Use strong verbs and specific nouns.
If you follow the formula and keep the length right, you should do fine.
Thanks for letting me explain my method. Have a great day!
(If you found this post helpful, please consider sampling/buying one of my books. Maybe this one? EDGEWOOD Only $2.99 on Kindle! Just a suggestion. Thanks! :-)