As I prepare to publish Razor Mountain, my serial novel, I have several side tasks to tackle. One of these is the book description. You might know this as the back cover or the book blurb.
The cover art and description are usually going to be your first (and often only) chance to catch the interest of a potential reader. The blurb isn’t the most important thing — the most important thing is to write a great book — but the blurb is the first thing. You have to convince your potential reader to start reading before they can see how great your book is.
Don’t think of the blurb as a simple summary. It’s a sales pitch. The blurb’s only job is to get a person to open the book and start reading. After that, it’s up to your story to keep them hooked.
Short and Compelling
Most writers don’t have a lot of experience crafting book descriptions. It can be a daunting task. If you’re writing a novel, it’s usually because you have a story that you want to explore over a lot of words. A luxurious amount of words. But there’s no such luxury to be had in the blurb. So the overarching idea of crafting a blurb is condensing and cutting that huge story into a few sentences that give the feel of the story and help sell it.
For Razor Mountain, I’m looking at services like Wattpad and Tapas as places built to publish serial fiction. Wattpad doesn’t limit the size of the book description, and Tapas has a limit of 2000 characters, which is quite a lot. A typical back-of-the-book blurb or Amazon description is in the neighborhood of 100-250 words, which equates to about 1/3 to 2/3 of a page, double-spaced.
The real limit is the reader’s attention span. We live in a world where we aren’t just competing with thousands of other books and stories, but all the other forms of entertainment available at the click of a button. We’re competing with Netflix and TikTok too.
In a great recent conversation about book openings on the Writing Excuses podcast, they told the story of an author who planned to throw away an unsolicited ARC they received, but got caught up in by the back cover blurb on the way to the trash can and ended up reading the book. That’s how short and compelling the blurb should be.
One of the best ways to get started is to find good examples and deconstruct them. What is the description actually telling you about the characters, plot, or conflict? What kind of language are they using? Does the description pull you in?
My first step was to pull books I love from my bookshelves. These are books that I’m already familiar with, so I can evaluate what bits of the book actually make it into the blurb. I have also been cruising Amazon’s most popular books and reading descriptions. Many of these are books that I haven’t read, so I have to strictly look at how the description makes me feel. Do I want to click the “buy” button by the time I’m done reading?
Ultimately, if you want to craft a great book description, you should read a ton of book descriptions. Like learning a new language, immersing yourself in this stuff is the best way to get into the right mindset for writing a blurb of your own.
It’s important to know what genre(s) you’re targeting, and look at similar books. If you have a list of comp titles, that’s ideal. You’ll quickly notice that certain structures are common in the blurbs for particular genres.
On the other hand, don’t limit yourself solely to your chosen genre. You may find that a blurb structure common to another genre happens to work for your story. Just make sure you’re not inadvertently posing your book as a different genre — you don’t want excited readers feeling let down when they realize what they’re reading is completely different from what the blurb advertised.
Of course, I’m not the only person who has ever tried to figure out what makes for a great description. It’s also worth looking at the analyses other people have done. I was able to find a few good articles on the subject:
What’s In a Blurb?
You’ll notice that a lot of these articles claim to have the secret recipe (or “handy formula” or “step-by-step” guide). That’s great click-bait, because we all want to believe that there’s a simple and straightforward process for these things. Unfortunately, this is art, baby.
As is so often the case when it comes to writing, it can be unnecessarily limiting to treat a rigid recipe as the gospel truth and refuse to deviate. However, there are a few elements that are so common in a book description that they are almost obligatory. If you’re not touching on them, you should have a good reason why.
Hook(s) – This is a sentence or tiny paragraph at the start (and sometimes also at the end) of a blurb. This is straight up ad copy. It’s clickbait for your book. It should be surprising or shocking, exciting or unbelievable. A hook at the start of the blurb is a foot in the door, designed to get the reader to read the rest of the blurb. A hook at the end, on the other hand, should be the stinger — the summation of the blurb that compels the reader to immediately flip the book over and open it to chapter one.
Character(s) – If you have a single protagonist, especially with a first-person POV, they should feature prominently in your blurb. If your book is focused on the conflict between protagonist and antagonist, the antagonist should be prominent as well. However, if you have a large cast with multiple points of view, you may have to pick one character to focus on in the blurb, or lean more heavily on the overarching plot.
Plot & Conflict – Unlike a full summary or synopsis, you do not need to reveal the whole plot. What you need to do is reveal an important conflict or source of tension. If you have big secrets and exciting reveals, you can drop hints, but don’t give them away. Show the reader why they’ll want to keep reading. What is the challenge the characters will face? What will the consequences be if they fail?
Let’s look at some examples from my bookshelf.
The Martian, by Andy Weir
A MISSION TO MARS. A FREAK ACCIDENT. ONE MAN’S STRUGGLE TO SURVIVE.
When a dust storm forces his crew to evacuate the planet while thinking him dead, astronaut Mark Watney finds himself stranded on Mars’s surface, completely alone.
Armed with nothing but his ingenuity, his engineering skills — and a gallows sense of humor that proves to be his greatest source of strength — Mark embarks on a dogged quest to stay alive. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?
- At 86 words, this is a pretty short blurb. This is partly to make room for seven glowing quotes from major reviewers and authors. But it also reflects the story, which is a suspenseful sci-fi thriller.
- The fact that it’s a sci-fi story comes through in the first four words.
- You may or may not like the all-caps sentence fragments that form the hook here. “One man’s struggle to survive” reads a bit cliché to me. But there’s no question that this alone is a fair summation of the book, and it pulls me into the rest of the blurb.
- The book has a single protagonist in Mark Watney, and that comes through clearly here. The bulk of the book is him, alone, on Mars. It’s told from his POV, and it’s a strong POV. His gallows humor is a selling point.
- The conflict is also laid out clearly. He’s trapped, alone, on Mars. His crew thinks he’s dead, and he has to survive. This is the question that’s going to keep us turning pages.
Soul Music, by Terry Pratchett
When her dear old Granddad — the Grim Reaper himself — goes missing, Susan takes over the family business. The progeny of Death’s adopted daughter and his apprentice, she shows real talent for the trade. That is until a little string in her heart goes “twang.”
With a head full of dreams and a pocketful of lint, Imp the Bard lands in Ankh-Morpork, yearning to become a rock star. Determined to devote his life to music, the unlucky fellow soon finds that all of his dreams are coming true. Well, almost.
In this finger-snapping, toe-tapping tale of youth, Death, and rocks that roll, Terry Pratchett once again demonstrates the wit and genius that have propelled him to the highest echelons of parody next to Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, and Carl Hiaasen.
- This one is 133 words, but about 30 of them are spent putting Sir Terry Pratchett on a pedestal among literary greats, not on the story. Which is a good selling point, if you can get it.
- The genre is again pretty clearly defined as quirky fantasy by the strange names and the personification of Death.
- The book is equally split between two protagonists, Susan and Imp, and this blurb dedicates a paragraph to each.
- What it doesn’t do is delve too deeply into the plot. We only get a hint of the conflict for each character. Susan’s heart goes “twang.” Imp is unlucky that his dreams are coming true. Almost.
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
Shadow is a man with a past. But now he wants nothing more than to live a quiet life with his wife and stay out of trouble. Until he learns that she’s been killed in a terrible accident.
Flying home for the funeral, as a violent storm rocks the plane, a strange man in the seat next to him introduces himself. The man calls himself Mr. Wednesday, and he knows more about Shadow than is possible.
He warns Shadow that a far bigger storm is coming. And from that moment on, nothing will ever be the same…
- Word count: 97. While this back cover has only one quote next to the blurb, it is from Stephen King, and the remainder of the space is dedicated to young, slightly goth Neil’s dreamy stare, which seems like reasonable use of the real estate.
- This blurb focuses tightly on the protagonist, Shadow. Things haven’t gone well for him, and now they’re going worse.
- From Mr. Wednesday’s strange name, and the implications of his impossible knowledge, we can guess that this is some sort of relatively down to earth fantasy. This description is the least clear about genre so far. However, that may be reasonable, as the book itself lives mostly in the mundane real world, even when there are gods involved.
- Again, we get the start of Shadow’s story, but not much detail beyond that. We can presume that Shadow will have internal struggle with the death of his wife and the bad things in his past. All we know about the more external conflicts of the book is that trouble is on the way, and Mr. Wednesday seems to be involved.
- Here we see a closing hook (although “nothing will ever be the same” feels a tad clichéd to me). The blurb ends with ellipses, explicitly suggesting that the reader can continue this thought by opening the book and reading on.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill
“There is magic in starlight, of course. This is well known. Moonlight, however. That is a different story. Moonlight is magic. Ask anyone you like.”
Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest to keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch, Xan, is really kind and gentle. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon. Xan rescues the children and delivers them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest.
One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic. Xan decides she must raise this girl, whom she calls Luna, as her own. As Luna’s thirteenth birthday approaches, her magic begins to emerge with unpredictable consequences, just when it’s time for Xan to go collect another child. Meanwhile, a young man is determined to free his people by killing the witch. And a volcano, dormant for centuries, rumbles within the earth…
- The opening paragraph is the hook here, set in a different font and color. In this case, we’re getting a quote directly from the book, to give us a feel for the prose. Just like The Martian, this hook uses short sentences, some just fragments, to pull us in. Interestingly, these sentences don’t appear all together in the book. There’s an extra paragraph in the middle that has been left out to achieve this punchy, staccato effect.
- At 170 words, this is the longest description we’ve looked at. That extra word count affords it the opportunity to include the three main characters and quite a lot of plot.
- Xan gets the most words, Luna gets fewer, and Antain (merely “a young man” here) gets the least. As far as I remember, this roughly matches how much of the actual book each of these characters appear in.
- This blurb wears its genre on its sleeve. It’s clearly fantasy, and details like the witch and the Perfectly Tiny Dragon suggest that there’s no small amount of whimsical fairy tale here. The mention of leaving a baby as offering every year, on the other hand, suggests that there’s some classic fairy tale darkness as well.
- The blurb finishes with a building-up of tension by stacking conflict on top of conflict. First, there’s Luna’s magic and its unpredictable consequences. Then Xan is away while it’s happening. Then the young man is introduced, and he wants to kill Xan. But wait, there’s more! A volcano, set to erupt.
- Once again, there are the ellipses at the end, inviting us to open the book and find out what happens next.
I’ll be continuing to talk about book descriptions later this week. I’m taking all this analysis and putting it into action as I craft a book description for my serial novel, Razor Mountain.
Do you have a favorite book with a great example of a back-cover description? Post it in the comments!