Why is your Blurb so important?

Editor Olivia Eisinger spoke about the importance of the copy on the back cover of your book at the January AuthorCraft event. Here is a transcript of her talk.

So what is a blurb? A blurb on the back of your book or an Amazon page or any other website, is your sales pitch. Once your title and cover have drawn your potential reader in, the blurb is what is going to make the difference between your book being cast aside and that all important sale. You have one chance to introduce your book to the reader, so you need to make it count. Remember there are a 184,000 new and revised books published in the UK every year, 184,000, so you need to make your book stand out.

A blurb is essentially a compelling hook that captures your book. Try and look at your work objectively and think about how best to describe the essence of your book in a concise and interesting way. If you want me to just take one thing away from reading your blurb, what is it to be? What makes your book stand out from the crowd? Who’s your ideal reader? And broadening out your reach, whom do you want to attract? What platform are you publishing on? Printed book? E-Book? Blog? Magazine? Remember, a blurb is not a synopsis of your book, but an overview of the themes, characters, goals, conflicts and the mood and general atmosphere of the book.

Most authors write their book blurb as an afterthought, but it’s probably one of the most important pieces of writing you’ll ever do as it will bring in those all important paying readers.

Certain rules that apply for both fiction and non-fiction titles. Look at your own bookshelf, for books in your genre. Besides the title and cover, consider what made you want to pick that book up in the bookshop. Look at words with greatest impact. Do some research on-line. Choose three to five of the best selling books in your genre and make a note to stylistic similarities. Then ensure you incorporate them into your blurb. Words such as … it’s literally just a handful from four or five books I plucked off my shelf when I was researching this talk … provoking, perilous, razor-sharp, tumultuous, exhilarating, hilarious … all different things that will grab the reader.

Keep your blurb short, that is key. A maximum of 150 words. If you’re already a published author, add a short description of yourself, but again a maximum of 30 words.

Your first sentence needs to entice your potential buyer to read more and grab their attention. The blurb for Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, starts with the following: “What if you had the chance to live your life again and again until you finally got it right?” What an opener! How many of us think to ourselves on a regular basis … well, I know that I do … what if I’d done this? I should have done that? I regret doing so and so. So this is a perfect hook for her book.

Use words that match the mood of your book but also your ideal reader. Your words need to arouse and peak their interest, not turn them off. The multi-million best seller and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017, The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, is a slave narrative. The overall mood of the book is described as quote, “A shatteringly powerful meditation on history and the unfulfilled promises of the present day.” So think about what this tells the prospective reader. A historical piece of fiction that tells us something about our lives in the 20th century, racism, black lives matter, me too, etc., it’s tapping into the current mood of themes of life today even though it takes place almost 200 years ago.

You need catchy, punchy sentences, nothing long winded or dull. Often using numbers can be a hook. “Two sisters, one soldier, no escape,” is the hook for White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht. I was recently sent this by NetGalley, one of the many book reviewing sites out there and it really grabbed my attention.

Stay true to you as an author and your book. Don’t sell it as adult romance if it’s a teenage thriller. You don’t want to disappoint and then get bad reviews on Amazon or anywhere else. Give the reader what they expect. Confused readers will just put your book down and move onto someone else.

This is the blurb for More Than This, which is a young adult book by Patrick Ness: “A boy drowns desperate and alone in his final moments. He dies but then he wakes, naked, bruised, and thirsty but alive! How can this be? And what is this strange deserted place? Might this not be the end? Might there be more to this life, or perhaps an afterlife?” My youngest daughter, who’s aged eleven, absolutely loves this book. The blurb stays completely true to what the story is about, what the author is trying to say, and is not misleading in any way.

Look at your blurb again the next day or the next week in different formats. Does it look as good on the printed page as it does, say, on your phone or tablet. You may notice something different, something that you didn’t see before. Get friends and family to advise you. Think of your font, the color, these are all things that could make your book stand out. Remember, re-writing isn’t a crime. Take your time. Write your plot summary, main characters, setting and cut back, cut back, and revise until you get the absolute essence of the book.

Space your text in single lines or short paragraphs, so it doesn’t look like a solid block of text, which can be often off putting. Get quotes if you can. Remember quoting an individual rather than a magazine or newspaper is far more of a draw because it shows that that individual has gone above and beyond the regular review because your book has really caught their attention. A powerful quote or testimonial can make all the difference.

Mark Billingham, who’s the creator of D.I. Thorne and the best-selling Sunday Times author of many detective novels, managed to get a quote for his first thriller, Sleepyhead, from the doyen of American detective fiction, George Pelecanos, whose written over 20 detective novels and worked extensively on HBO series The Wire.

Comb your contacts for anyone related to the subject you’re writing about. Ask them if they’ll say a few words about your book, even if it’s to say, “It’s a great book! I loved it!” Or even better, if your book is the same genre as one of your favorite authors, send them a note. Say how much you enjoy and respect their work with a copy of your book enclosed. Ask if they’ll comment on it. You never know. Why not try it?

There are other elements needed for a fiction blurb. Basically you need to use a formula. The formula is start with a character in a situation, add a problem, then a twist, finally the mood and atmosphere of the book, probably including a cliffhanger. So, for instance, this is Ian McEwan’s The Children Act. McEwan starts with a character in a situation. Quote: “Fiona Maye, a leading High Court judge, renowned for her fierce intelligence and sensitivity, is called on to try an urgent case.” Then McEwan adds the problem. Quote: “For religious reasons, a 17 year old boy is refusing the medical treatment that could save his life. Time is running out.” Then he adds the twist. “Fiona visits the boy in hospital, but it is she who must ultimately decide whether he lives or dies.” And then the overall mood of the book: “Her judgment will have momentous consequences for them both. What will she decide?” This leaves readers on the edge of their seat, desperately wanting to know more.

Use setting to evoke atmosphere, and transport potential buyers from a wet Wednesday in Woking to the mood and place of your novel.

Pete Simmons, who’s a playwright and a novelist, has written a Western called Bitter Creek Posse. Even though it could be considered an old-fashioned, rather dated genre, he brings it right up to date with his overall summary, using words that perfectly match his book.

The book is, quote, “a fast-paced and brutal tale of revenge, played out in the unforgiving glare of the New Mexico sun.”

Think about how this makes us feel. We’re immediately plunged into the heat, dust of the Wild West, and all of its connotations of action, violence, revenge, and so on.

If your book is a historical novel, add a date and a place. Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, which is the Sunday Times bestseller from last year, starts with “London, 1893.” It’s already setting the scene and drawing the reader in, and yet we don’t even know anything about the book yet.

She continues, quote “When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness. Retreating to the countryside with her son, she encounters rumors of the Essex Serpent, a creature of folklore said to have returned to roam the marshes. Setting out on its trail, Cora collides with local minister William Ransome, who thinks the cure for hysteria is faith, while she is convinced that science offers the answer.”

So, this evokes the atmosphere of the book perfectly, both the time that it is set in, but also the sense of adventure that a young widow feels when she shakes off her shackles, and the Victorian themes of exploration and scientific evidence versus religion and faith. And that was all in what, six lines, probably, six, eight lines?

Non-fiction books, there are extra elements to think of, especially if it’s a self-help book. Readers have a problem that needs to be solved by you, and by you alone. What can you do to help them?

You need to have snappy, pertinent questions, that the reader can only answer by, trickily, purchasing your book. Make sure that your first line or hook is a question about the reader. So, how’s this for an opener, quote, “What is stopping you from being the person you want to be and living your life the way you want to live it?” This is the opening gambit of the blurb for Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers, an arresting first line that will pique your reader’s interest straight away.

Speak directly to the reader and their problems, as if you know them personally. It encourages the reader to feel far more involved. This is the blurb for Matthew Syed’s book, Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, quote, “Can we really ALL, and ALL is uppercase and emboldened, be the best? Is the idea of innate ability holding us back?”

This makes the reader feel as if they’re not the only person struggling against the forces that they can’t understand and gives the reader a sense of belonging to a group rather than being on their own and having difficulty fitting in. This is also emphasized by the all being in uppercase to make it stand out.

You need to promise a strategy that will then solve the reader’s problem. Carrying on with Matthew Syed’s book, his strategy is an exploration of what talent means, and ends with the promise, “Bounce reveals how we can all be exceptional,” i.e. solving the reader’s problem.

Your text needs to be well spaced out using pertinent bullet points. Put the benefit to the reader at the top, and the bonus or the promise at the end.

For example, Jane Alexander’s bestseller, The Overload Solution, does exactly this. Her hook is, “When will you feel able to stop juggling and living your life? How about right now?” Already, your reader is drawn in, thinking, “That’s me, I’m constantly juggling. Why don’t I pick up this book? Wouldn’t it be nice to do something about it right now?” the reader will say to themselves.

Of course, the first step of the now is actually buying the book. In effect, the action of buying the book makes the reader feel that they’re already on that journey. This is the effect you want on your prospective readers. She carries on with her important bullet points, enticing action as to lure the reader in to thinking that it is imperative that they buy the book, but she ends with a very simple sentence that packs an absolute punch. Quote, “The five extra secrets of a stress-free life.” So simple, yet so effective.

Now, how perfect is that as an ending? Te whole premise of this book is about combating stress and over work and the final words that linger on in the reader’s mind are simple and effective, i.e. telling the reader that it’s all going to be okay, they’ll be able to conquer their problem with minimum effort if they buy the book.

Take a look at your blurb again the next day and put yourself in the reader’s shoes. If you had that problem and many self-help books are written by people who do have the problems to start with, if you had this problem, would you pick up your book? Have you helped the reader see what the advantage is to them from buying your book?

Finally, avoid spoilers. Probably common sense, I guess, but you can tease the reader with cliffhangers and atmosphere but if you give away main chunks of the action, the reader will feel they’ve already read the book so they’ll just put it down and move onto the next book in their pile on the Amazon list.

Avoid giving a summary of the first chapter, or, as Chris said some obscure incident in chapter 83. If the blurb’s enticing enough, they will buy the book in order to rad that first chapter and more.

Avoid saying how amazing and incredible your book is, unless somebody else says it, of course.

Just a little aside, avoid comparing yourself to JK Rowling as it looks rather arrogant and will probably turn your reader off and I personally wouldn’t compare your book to the great classics. I don’t think there’s any point in saying your book is like James Joyce’s Ulysses when it’s just not going to be.

So, to sum up, here’s the book blurb for Stephanie Meyer’s first book in the Twilight saga, Twilight. Quote, “About three things, I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him, and I didn’t know how dominant that part might be, that thirsted for my blood. Third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.”

Now, regardless of whether you’re a twilight fan or not, and I’m not particularly, I think this is a first-rate blurb, because it covers all the points I’ve made above. It’s great first line, numbers, the mood, punchy short sentences, words that match the genre of the book, the character, the problem, and the twist.

Now, as to my little tease right at the beginning of the talk, I’ll repeat it again, “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.” No, it isn’t the latest Scandy thriller sensation, it is, of course, that classic family favorite, The Wizard of Oz.

So, if you realized it was The Wizard of Oz, this guy called Rick Polito, who wrote this and other plot summaries in the late 90’s and it’s sort of floating around the internet. But rarely has a story been so accurately described because actually that is what happens, she does kill the wicked witch of whatever and meet three complete strangers and goes on to kill again because she kills the other wicked witch.

But, so it does actually happen but it’s completely misleading. So, it would be totally the wrong blurb for the book.

Transcript from a talk by Olivia Eisinger at AuthorCraft