Thursday, April 21, 2016

Creating Promotional Copy That Works: Book Descriptions

By Marcy Kennedy, @MarcyKennedy

Part of the Indie Author Series

Last month I started a new series on creating promotional materials for our books with a look at tag lines.

A tag line is a teaser or a catch phrase meant to capture the emotional tone of the book, hint at the genre, and hook the reader. They don’t tell the story. They don’t name the main character. They are bait.

This month we’re going to look at book descriptions. These are what we’ll upload to our book page at all the major retailers and put on the back cover of our print versions. Once our tag line captures them, our book description needs to convince them to buy.

The obvious first question is how long should our book description be?

There are two ways we can think about this—sentences and word count. We want this to fit on the back of our book without looking cluttered, so ideally we want to aim for 6 to 10 sentences or 100 to 150 words. (Even if we don’t plan to create a paper copy, this is the best length. If we can’t capture our story in that word count, it hints at a problem with our plot.)

I’m going to take you through a way to write a solid description, within that word count.

A caveat before we start—study book descriptions in your genre.

Everything I’m going to say is a guideline, not a rule. Each genre has its own individual quirks and expectations. By studying the descriptions of successful books in our genre (the books hitting the bestseller lists on Amazon), we’ll be able to see if there are any common elements. We need to show readers that our book will meet their expectations for the genre they love.

Start with a hook.

This could be our tag line or some other interesting element to grab reader attention. If we’re not using our tag line, the best idea is to look at what common hooks our genre uses.

The hook could be something about the setting.
Mankind’s outer colonies are disappearing. Without warning. Without a trace. – Destroyer (a military science fiction) by Chris Fox

It could be about an interesting character.
Most everyone thinks Ward of Hurog is a simple-minded fool—and that’s just fine by him. – from Dragon Bones (a fantasy) by Patricia Briggs

Introduce the main character.

All you need is their name and a descriptor in a sentence or two.

I emphasized the importance of knowing the conventions of your genre at the start of this post because what details you include about your main character depends on your genre.

For example, in YA, the age of your protagonist is important.
Sixteen-year-old Kira Moore is a zero, someone who can’t read thoughts or be read by others. – Open Minds (a YA science fiction) by Susan Kaye Quinn

In a mystery, the reader wants to know if the main character is a professional (like a detective or a coroner) or an amateur. They usually also want to know right away where that main character lives and whose death they’ll be investigating.
When a young boy discovers the body of a woman beneath a thick sheet of ice in a South London park, Detective Erika Foster is called in to lead the murder investigation. – The Girl in the Ice (a police procedural) by Robert Bryndza
No one in Bradley, North Carolina, is exactly crying into their sweet tea over the murder of Parke Stockard. Certainly not retired schoolteacher Myrtle Clover. – Pretty Is As Pretty Dies (a cozy mystery) by Elizabeth Spann Craig

Mystery readers don’t care about the main character’s age ;)

Go to the Commitment Point.

The point in the story that we should aim for goes by a lot of different names. James Scott Bell talks about it as the point of no return, a door closes forever behind the character, taking them out of Act 1 and into Act 2. Larry Brooks of Story Engineering calls it the First Plot Point.

My personal term for it is the Commitment Point. It’s the spot where your main character has a clear story goal and they’re committed to pursuing that goal. If your book is structured correctly, this point hits at approximately the 20-25% mark.

The biggest mistake many writers make in creating their book description is that they try to go too far into the plot.

Stopping at the Commitment Point works because we don’t give away any spoilers, we don’t have to get into any twists and turns that might lose our reader, we highlight the main conflict, and most importantly, we leave our reader wanting to know more. And after all, making them want more is the whole point. If we don’t have them by a quarter of the way into the story, we never will.

Add a closing summary-type sentence about the complications and stakes.

This adds that “must buy to find out what happens” factor.
Now, to save Tate’s life, Avery must live another woman’s life (complication) -- and risk her own... (stakes) – Mirror Image (a romantic suspense) by Sandra Brown
Now she only has a one in twenty-four chance of coming out alive from a game where it’s kill or be killed (complication & stakes all rolled into one). – The Hunger Games (a YA dystopian) by Suzanne Collins
But when her father goes missing, Makeda will have to find her own magical talent—and reconcile with her twin sister Abby—(complications) if she’s to have a hope of saving him… (stakes) – Sister Mine (a fantasy) by Nalo Hopkinson

Whether you follow this pattern or another one for book descriptions, make sure you’re specific (no “things go terribly wrong”), that you avoid sub-plots, and that you never, ever give away the ending!

Any other tips you’d like to share about writing a book description? Feel free to share an attempt at your book description in the comments below!

Marcy Kennedy is a suspense and speculative fiction writer who believes fantasy is more real than you think. Alongside her own writing, Marcy works as a freelance fiction editor and teaches classes on craft and social media. She’s also the author of the Busy Writer’s Guides series of books. You can find her blogging about writing and about the place where real life meets science fiction, fantasy, and myth at

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Do you want readers to be so caught up in your book that they forget they’re reading?

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  1. This is my back blurb for a paranormal romance / magical realism. word count 130. It opens with:

    Finn Cleary is an excited five-year-old passenger heading for a new life on Titanic’s maiden voyage. But fate not only denies him his New York destination, it also separates him from the girl he was destined to marry.

    it ends with:

    But a promise, made in haste complicates his next incarnation. Finding Finn’s lost shoes may be young love’s only chance to stay together.

  2. Thanks for the tips, Marcy! I believe writing a book description is just as challenging as writing a book. How can you best describe the book in just 10 sentences without looking cluttered? Add to that the pressure of making it sound as interesting as possible to catch the attention of readers. Your tips will surely help a lot of writers. Very helpful and timely.

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  3. This seems a lot like a query. Can you explain the difference? Great post. Been working all day on my description.