Saturday, January 29, 2011

My Method for Writing a Book Description

When I decided to self-publish my books on Kindle, I made a concerted effort to follow the rules for successful ebook authors as designated by author J.A. Konrath.

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 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:
deadly conspiracy
elderly curator
baffling cipher
danger-filled quest
long-festering conspiracies

Here are some from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:

owl delivers
mysterious letter
school for wizards
aerial sports
great destiny

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:

sweet bond
magical healing
triumphant romance
tough truth
a dilemma
whopper of a secret

And from some other sad books:

emotional healing
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! :-) 


Pale Rambler said...

Great information, Karen! Thanks for the Book Description 101. I should be ready in the next few months to need this kind of information for my first book.


Angeline Kace said...

Thanks Karen! This is so much more helpful than the other things I have been able to find about writing a good description.

Angeline Kace

Coleslaw said...

I am sure Robin knows far better than I (who am not a writer, other than my blog-nobody-reads) what makes a good title, but despite her dictum "shorter is better", my favorite title is still Ill Met By a Fish Shop on George Street.

I think your method for writing a book description would come in handy for students writing book reports, too. (Do they still do that anymore?)

Karen McQuestion said...

Mark, you are welcome. I call it "my" method, although publishers have been doing it this way for a long time. I give myself credit for figuring it all out, though.

Angeline, you have the most beautiful name! I'm glad you found my little tutorial helpful.

Coleslaw, I think with titles it's sort of a subjective thing. One of my favorite kids' books has a long title (And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street). To me it's important that the title fit the book and be memorable.

As for book reports, I honestly don't know. Anyone out there have grade school age kids? Are they still doing book reports nowadays?

Angeline Kace said...

Thanks Karen! I must confess that it is a pen name though! However, I am thrilled you think so! I spent hours creating it!

Angeline Kace

Bill B said...

Thanks for yet another great tutorial -- with clear examples. Writing the product description can be as fun as creating the product! Although in the software biz (and in others, I'm sure) sometimes we [arguably] make the description better than the product!

Consuelo Saah Baehr said...

I'm going to my bookshelf today and look at my descriptions with your tutorial in hand (well, on screen).
It is so concise and simple - excellent. Thanks, Karen.


Karen McQuestion said...

Angeline Kace is a great moniker. When your book comes out I will definitely remember...

Bill B., I think making the description better than the product holds true for advertising in general. When my older son was a little guy we constantly saw commercials for "Gushers"--these fruit snacks with fluid in the middle. In the commercial, a kid would eat a Gusher, and then out of nowhere, a gusher of water would propel him up in the air. My son begged for these stupid things, and I finally bought them not realizing why he wanted them. I'm sure you know the end to this story. He ripped open the package, popped one in his mouth, and waited for the gusher. When it didn't come, he was furious. Talk about false advertising. I think it turned him into a cynic for life.

Consuelo, thanks for leaving a comment. I checked out your books and--wow! You're a big deal. My book description formula might be too simplistic for your novels. Still, it's one of those things to keep in your back pocket, because you never know when you might need to do an easy breakdown of a story.

Anonymous said...

Great post Karen. I have taken notes and plan to follow your advice. I have dusted off a novel I wrote three years ago and got me an agent but was rejected by EVERYONE in NY. So I am going to release it as a Kindle exclusive. I apreciate all of your knowledge on this subject. Truly helpful.

Sean McCartney
The Treasure Hunters Club
Secrets of the Magical Medallions

Anonymous said...

As for book reports they are now called Book Talks. I know in the school I teach in that the LA teacher tries to get the kids to read a different type of book about every 4-6 weeks.

Sean McCartney
The Treasure Hunters Club
Secrets of the Magical Medallions

Thea Atkinson said...

I can't tell you how thrilled I am to come across this blog post. Blurbs are my absolute worst next to synopses and are so crucial

Best advice I've read in years. thanks. I'm already reworking the blurb for Anomaly to see if I can improve it. It needs the love.

Thea Atkinson

Anne R. Allen said...

Really useful. I'm bookmarking it now. Thanks!

Karen McQuestion said...

Sean, getting rejected by EVERYONE in NY gives us something in common. :) Thanks for clearing up the book report question. "Book Talks" sound much less intimidating.

Thea, I'm glad this was useful. It's one of those things that seems obvious once it's pointed out. Before I figured it out, though, I spent a lot of hours trying to write descriptions and was never quite satisfied with them. It can be frustrating.

Anne R. Allen, I'm glad this was helpful!

Kippoe said...

Thanks for the great pointers, book description is a hard part of the project. Just wanted to say your book does stay with the reader long after it is read.

Karen McQuestion said...

Aw Kipp Poe, that's so nice of you to say!

Anonymous said...


What if you have multiple main characters or a group?

Sean McCartney
The Treasure Hunters Club
Secrets of the Magical Medallions

Karen McQuestion said...

I'm so glad you asked, Sean. In fact, I meant to address that very thing, but forgot...

If you have a group of characters, then the group is considered the protagonist. To see examples of book descriptions done this way, check out THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS or any of the Lemony Snicket books about the Baudelaire children.

Kate C Neal said...

I've been dreading this very thing you're discuss, but I'm a little less scared now. Thanks for a very helpful post!

Karen McQuestion said...

Glad I could help, Kate!

Sheri L. Swift said...

Thanks Karen for your advice. After a year of trying to get my manuscript published, I too settled for an ebook. I had several "partnership" publishers wanting it, but at a cost to me! Lol! You've given us all hope! : )

Karen McQuestion said...

I hear you, Sheri! But I don't think you should think of it as settling. More of a smart move, business-wise and creatively. I'm quite sure I wouldn't have said that a year ago, but so much has changed (in a good way) for writers since then.

Cheryl Lynn said...

Karen, your advice is priceless. I'm in the process of developing two novels and I'm soaking up all of the wonderful nuggets you're sharing with your readers.

Thanks much. Big kiss, MUUUAAAH!

Debbi said...

Thanks, Karen! I've applied your advice and changed my book description for LEAST WANTED. Maybe punching it up a bit will do the same for sales.

Here's hoping. :)

Pale Rambler said...

Okay, so I finally sat down with your guide in front of me and hammered out a 119-word description for the murder mystery I'm writing. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life. Definitely some tooth-gnashing, hair pulling and quiet sobbing in the corner of the room while curled up in the fetal position. That said, it's the best attempt I've made so far at writing a compelling description. Actually makes me want to read the darn thing. Couldn't have done it without your great advice. Thanks!

Jools Sinclair said...

Hi, Karen!

Thanks SO much for this posting! It's brilliant!! And, it's very kind of you to share...

Hope you're staying warm....

Jools Sinclair
The Vampire of Franklin Academy

Karen McQuestion said...

Cheryl Lynn, your comment put a big smile on my face. I'm sending writer-love right back at you!

Debbi, I love that we can make changes after the fact. It will be interesting to see (but hard to tell) if it makes a difference. I hope so!

Mark, when I read about the tooth-gnashing, hair pulling and quiet sobbing, it made me think you're quite dramatic with the words. Maybe you should write fiction? Heh.

Jools, I'm glad this post helped. I have two more self-publishing workshops coming up. After they're done I'm planning on putting all my handouts up on the blog, one by one. It's basic information, but I think a lot of it may be helpful to writers.

Suzanne said...

WOW! this post was filled with great information. I've been concerned that the description of my novel (on kindle) wasn't strong enough. Now I'm going to go back and re-write it. Thanks!

Karen McQuestion said...

You're very welcome, Suzanne! I'm tickled that this has been helpful to other writers.

Edie Ramer said...

This is great! I'm about to write the blurb for my next book. I'll try to get all of these points in it.

Karen McQuestion said...

Edie, thanks for letting me know you found it useful!

Chryse said...

This is so wonderfully helpful, Ms. M. I've passed this info on to other self-pubbed authors I know, and just changed my story's description. Thank you for writing this!
~Chryse Wymer

Karen McQuestion said...

Hi Chryse! Thanks for letting me know it was helpful, and for passing on the word to other writers.

JL_Bryan said...

Thanks, Karen! I struggle with these and it's great to have help. I'll bookmark this blog post for future reference :)

I followed a link here that Chryse posted on Konrath's blog.

Karen McQuestion said...

Hi J.L. Bryan! I am SO glad you mentioned finding the link to this post from Chryse's comment on Konrath's blog. I kept seeing all the hits going straight to this post and I couldn't figure out where they were coming from. Mystery solved! Thanks.

And thanks to Chryse also. :)

Mark Edward Hall said...

Thanks for the helpful hints, Karen. I shall take them to heart.

Mark Edward Hall

Karen McQuestion said...

You are welcome, Mark Edward Hall!

Lundeen Literary said...

Karen, this is a great post!

You know, I don't think that the way NY does it is exactly the BEST way to describe a book, but what I think is significant is this: This is how successful books have been described by NY for ages. This means when a customer reads a book description that does not conform to this style, the the customer may very well assume that the book is self-published, poor quality, or not meant to be a success.

You know how people have power ties or suits? Or interview outfits? Or clothes that make them feel sensational about themselves that they wear to a first date? That's something to which I equate the book description. If you meet a first date at a nice restaurant and they're wearing muddy jeans and a ragged hoodie, you already aren't asking for date #2. They have to really blow you away during the rest of the date to reverse that first image.

The NY description is the designer-cut first date dress, and a crappy description is the ragged hoodie. I suppose we all have to decide how we want to present ourselves.


Moses Siregar III said...

Great job with this, Karen.

The one thing I read here that made me worry a bit was this:

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.

Everyone is welcome to check mine out here. What do you think? Is the intensity angle too heavy, or maybe it's appropriate for my genre and story? Should the line that, "She suffers all the consequences" be rewritten somehow?

Thanks again! No need to answer if you're busy.

Karen McQuestion said...

Thanks for your kind words, Jenna! I love the "interview outfits" analogy.

Moses, I read your description and thought it was well done. The word "suffers" is the only thing that stopped me, but you have enough other exciting stuff going on that it's not the downer it would be otherwise. Epic fantasy is clearly not my area so I don't feel qualified to comment beyond that. If anyone else has an opinion, feel free to weigh in!

Judd Exley said...

Hey Karen, this is GOLD. When you unlock something like this, it doesn't take long to find just that extra little bit to fine-up some of the edges of your work. Thank you SO much for putting it so simply.

Only just discovered you and JA and Amanda Hocking through David Farland, but I am having the best time finding more and more writers that have such awesome information to share.

Moses Siregar III said...

Thank you, Karen!

Karen McQuestion said...

Moses, you are very welcome!

Judd, I felt just like you when I discovered J.A. Konrath's blog way back when. It was like getting handed the keys to the castle. I'm glad I can pass on what I know to other writers. God knows I've been helped a lot along the way.

Jennifer Galuska said...

Informative, simple. Thanks!

Jennifer Galuska said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shayne Parkinson said...

Thanks for this, Karen! Your examples, and the patterns you've identified in them, make your advice wonderfully clear and useful. Definitely something I'll be returning to when my WIP's closer to finished :-)

And congratulations on your success - it's clearly well-deserved.

Best wishes from New Zealand!

Shayne. said...

Hi Karen, I started reading Konrath's blog and I found you. Thank you for sharing with us your method! I will try it as soon as I am ready to publish my novels.

Karen McQuestion said...

Jennifer--informative and simple was what I was aiming for! Thanks for letting me know I hit the mark.

Shayne, all the way from New Zealand? I love how the Internet makes sharing information so easy. Thank you for leaving such a nice comment. :) all seems to start with Joe Konrath's blog! I'm glad you stopped by.

Coral Russell said...

Great post! This will help me a great deal. Hope you don't mind if I link to this from my blog -

Karen McQuestion said...

Feel free! I'm glad to share what I know.

William Deen said...

Thanks, Karen. I really struggled with this aspect of the publishing process. It seemed more difficult than actually writing the book. You made it easier.

Karen McQuestion said...

Hi William, I struggled with this too, which is why I was pleased to be able to crack the code, so to speak. I'm glad you found it helpful!

anarchist said...

Any thoughts on writing a blurb for a collection of short stories and poems? I was thinking of doing a one-sentence summary of three or four of the most interesting plots, then a more general blurb.

Karen McQuestion said...

anarchist, your instincts are good--I'd do it exactly as your described. It might also help to take a look at how other collections are described. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri comes to mind...

anarchist said...


Christine DeMaio-Rice said...

Karen McQuestion, you are my favorite person of the day. This is great. Great great,

I am inspired to write my description.

Karen McQuestion said...

Christine--I'm so glad you left a comment. I tend to forget about old blog posts. I'm glad to hear people are still finding this helpful.

Jenny said...

Thanks so much for this post, Karen. I'm writing back cover blurb for my 3rd novel and your info is so helpful.

Karen McQuestion said...

Hi Jenny! I'm glad you found it helpful. Thanks for taking the time to tell me so.

Shah Wharton said...

This is perfectly timed for me - thanks so much for this Karen. X

Shah Wharton said...

This is perfectly timed for me - thanks so much for this Karen. X

Karen McQuestion said...

Shah, I'm glad you found it helpful. Thanks for commenting!

C.E. Hart said...

FAB-U-LOUS post! Thank you, Karen. I love how you've outlined this so clearly. :)

By chance, have your written a post on writing the dreaded (in my case anyway) synopsis? Just the word makes me fret and mutter.

Karen McQuestion said...

Ah, C.E.Hart, the dreaded synopsis! I've slogged through a few of those myself. I don't have any tips, but you do have my sympathies.

Thanks so much for leaving a comment! I love knowing this post is still finding writers who find it helpful

Aneesa Price said...

Thank you for the great advice. It is amazing how much more intimidating writing the description was as opposed to writing 79,000 words! I think it's related to the fact that I know that it creates one of the first impressions that lead readers to click 'buy'. I'll heed your advice as best as I can. Thanks again.

Aneesa Price said...

I went back and re-read the post - still intimidated... you're spot on about emotional investment! I'll follow this structurally and then take it from there. Deep breath..

Karen McQuestion said...

Aneesa, I'm glad to hear you found this post helpful. Thanks for letting me know!