Blurbs that Bore, Blurbs that Blare

I know that everyone has their own method of choosing books. Some go by the cover, others by the back copy. Some people get a good feel for the book by reading the first (or last) page or chapter. For me, it’s all about the book blurb—that two-paragraph snippet on the back cover or the inside of the dust jacket. If I don’t get a good vibe from a book after reading its blurb, back on the shelf it goes.

As an author in charge of writing my own blurbs, this creates a fair amount of anxiety; with the bajillions of books out there vying for our reader’s attention, it’s critical that we nail the book blurb. But how? What do I include? How long should it be? WHAT, IN THE NAME OF CHOCOLATE, MAKES A GOOD BLURB?

Enter Michaelbrent Collings, who’s got some seriously good advice on how to write the awesomest book blurb ever…

There seem to be a lot of misunderstandings about the back cover copy—the “blurbs” that so many writers have to put on the back of their books. 

In Ye Olden Tymes, some person who was paid to do stuff like that—meaning, a fellow who probably looked like a dumpier version of a Mad Men character—would take care of the blurb as part of the deal a writer got when they were published.

Now, with more and more writers turning to self-publishing, and with more and more publishing houses relying on the writers to provide copy, advertising, marketing, and more…it’s likely going to be something the writer does.

And that’s great! Because, well, who understands the story like the person who wrote it?

But it also sucks. Because, well, who less understands how to sell the story than the person who wrote it?

Wait, lemme ‘splain. No. Is too long. Lemme summarize. (And because the summary is this long, you should understand how important this subject is.)

Watching most writers tell others about their books is like watching parents show baby pictures: it’s a passionate, energizing, fascinating process for everyone… except for everyone who isn’t the parent. Sorry, but (and I say this as a parent myself) very few people really care about Tommy’s new tooth, about Lucy’s skinned knee, the nanosecond-by-nanosecond details of Charlie’s first step.

There. I said it. If I’m gone tomorrow it’s because The Angry Parents League finally dragged me away to an underground oubliette filled with binkies and used diapers, there to die in madness induced by never-ending Teletubbies reruns.

Back to my point: we don’t care about the everyday details of other people’s kids. At least, not until we are thoroughly invested in the child. And you don’t get a stranger thoroughly invested in anything by spewing mundane crapola.

So why, if that’s the case, do so many writers try to “suck in” complete strangers with the boring, banal details of their story?

It’s because those writers a) don’t care to be professionals, or b) just don’t understand the purpose of the blurb. I will ignore group a) because, to be honest, they irritate me and I hope they suffer embarrassing diarrhea at a fancy dinner party. No help for them.

As to group b), here is the purpose of the blurb, and this is the only purpose of the blurb. I will put it in big bold letters so’s y’all know I’m serious-like.

The only purpose of the back blurb is to raise a question that can ONLY BE ANSWERED when the reader BUYS and FINISHES the book.

That is IT, people. The outside of your book—the cover design, the spine, the lettering, EVERYTHING—is for one purpose: to separate readers from their money. Your blurb is part of that. And its part of the job is (again):

The only purpose of the back blurb is to raise a question that can ONLY BE ANSWERED when the reader BUYS and FINISHES the book.

So how do you do that? A few clues. First, leave out the details. No one cares about Eugene’s first skinned knee. Lead with that and it’s a buzzkill at the Christmas party. But if you say, “So, Number Three almost died today,” all conversation STOPS. 

Those who know that “Number Three” is your third kid will think, “Holy crap, died?!”

Those who don’t know what “Number Three” is will think, “Who died?” or “Who’s number three?” or “I thought you could only go up to Number Two!” (this is a Christmas party after all, so some of your people probably aren’t thinking straight at this point).

But everyone’s interested. Because you haven’t given details. You’ve raised questions. If you walked out of the room at this point, you’d get angry phone calls from “concerned” (i.e. ragingly curious) friends and family.

This is a good start for your blurb. Raise that question!

Also implicit in the above are a few other things that good blurbs tend to include: the genre of the piece (romance? Western? sci-fi?), the mood (funny? scary? Melodramatic?), and the HOOK. This last merits a bit of discussion here.

The hook is that gimmick, the setup, that grabs you in just a sentence or two. The core idea that sets it apart from all the others out there. It’s what you’d see on the movie poster—The Shining is about a family trapped in a malevolently haunted hotel, The Hunger Games is about a girl who competes in a battle to the death with other teens, etc. Note this, again, is not the story. Neither description told you who would live, who would die, what their lives were like outside the bare description of a setup. But the setup…interesting!

Look at the following examples.

When Sharlene wakes up after a five-year coma to discover that she has a ring on her finger and a three-year old baby named Kumbaya, she has no memory of how she got the ring or where the baby came from. Doctors assure her that Kumbaya is hers, and their tears assure her that the story behind the little half-Liechtensteinian babe is a heartrending one. But for some reason, no one will speak to her. They will not explain the ring, the baby, or the two million dollars in smuggled African conflict diamonds she also finds in the baby’s bassinet.

Now Sharlene is on a mission. To find the father of the child, to find the owner of the diamonds, and, hopefully, to find the man she somehow knows in her heart that she loves. She will travel across the world, from Australia to France to Indonesia on a globe-trotting trip that will take her everywhere and bring her into contact with people like the deaf-mute man who somehow plays harp music that makes her heart sing. She will travel everywhere…and then return to find that answers, and love, were right at her side all along.

And my thoughts after reading this, of course: HO. LEE. CRAP.

There’s no reason to read the book. Sounds like I’ve just read it, actually. I got the beginning, the middle, and even the end (she’ll find her answers when she comes home, and at this point I’m so sick of reading about it I don’t care anymore).

The saddest part is there’s a good blurb hidden in there. Think of this:

Sharlene wakes from a five-year coma with no memory of her accident. Or how she got the wedding ring that sparkles on her finger, the $2 million in illegal diamonds…or the three-year-old baby that doctors insist is hers.

Now Sharlene is on a mission for answers. Led by clues she finds, led by a need to know. And most of all…led by a feeling that love waits at the end of her journey.

Now I ain’t sayin’ this is art. But it is 1) shorter (which is almost always better on blurbs, since you have maybe ten seconds to grab someone and twenty seconds total if you DO grab them), 2) leads with the “hook,” and 3) SETS UP THE QUESTIONS THAT CAN ONLY BE ANSWERED BY READING THE BOOK (Who gave the ring? Where did the diamonds come from? A three-year-old baby?)

Here’s another blurb. This one from my book Strangers, which has been a top seller on Amazon, Nook, Kobo, etc.

You wake up in the morning to discover that you have been sealed into your home. The doors are locked, the windows are barred. THERE’S NO WAY OUT.

A madman is playing a deadly game with you and your family. A game with no rules, only consequences. So what do you do? Do you run? Do you hide?

OR DO YOU DIE?

This is 100% about the hook (waking up completely sealed in a family home), and about the QUESTIONS: will the protagonists make it out? Who is the madman behind it? What are the motives? How is such a thing possible to be carried out? And, hopefully, more questions that can only be answered by clicking that little “Purchase” button.

I also did the tricky move of putting the reader “in” the story. Instead of being “A family wakes up” (Strangers is about a family), I said “You wake up,” “you and your family,” “what do you do?” etc. It personalizes the story and makes the moving question even stronger sometimes (though of course this doesn’t always work). For instance:

You wake up from a coma. Five years gone. Illegal diamonds next to you, no memory of them or the sleeping three-year-old that the doctors insist is yours.

The only way to find answers is to follow the clues left by a mysterious man. A man whom you sense will lead you not only to your past, but to your future. Not only to understanding, but to love.

Okay, hopefully you get the point. And, regardless, I’ve blathered enough.

Remember, though (if you remember anything), this single thing. The point of blurbs. The fact that no one cares about your babies…not right away. You have to get them invested in the questions and the big stories before they will be interested in the details. And remember…

The only purpose of the back blurb is to raise a question that can ONLY BE ANSWERED when the reader BUYS and FINISHES the book.

Good luck. Go forth and sell your babies.

 

michaelbrentMichaelbrent Collings is a #1 bestselling novelist and screenwriter, one of the top selling horror novelists on Amazon for over two years straight, and has been a bestselling novelist on various ebook lists in over forty countries. His newest novel is This Darkness Light. Join his mailing list to be notified of new releases, sales, and freebies.

About BECCA PUGLISI

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

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42 Responses to Blurbs that Bore, Blurbs that Blare

  1. Jon says:

    where did you get the blurb that is too long from? Just wondering.

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  3. Sarah says:

    Excellent info. Thanks
    If different parts of blurbs can be seperated in terms of the way that they give info about the book or promote it, then Is it correct to say that the questions that come in the blurbs in order to make readers hungry for more information can be regarded as a promotional move or no, they are still a way to give info to the readers?

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  5. Simon Holloway says:

    Thanks again for the very helpful post: after three weeks and many edits, please, tell me, what do you think of this?

    In Evian, on the shores of Lake Geneva, Lucy sells tickets at the cinema. In the hills above the water her brother believes himself happily married to a woman he once tried to find by swimming across the lake. Their childhood friend, Fabrice, is returning from the quiet confusion of Canadian trees and the brief memory of his girlfriend in Toronto. Into this relative stillness comes Alain, escaping Geneva’s necessity of human contact. But when he and Lucy begin a relationship it forces them all to reconsider the ways in which they try to talk to each other.

    To the songs of Jacques Brel, and with the lake as a constant presence, Lucy, her brother Jean-Luc and Fabrice struggle to make themselves heard amongst the clamour of failing words and misconceptions, leading to potential crises for them all. This interwoven story of love, family and our inability to make ourselves understood leaves you wondering if language can ever be more than guesswork, and if so whether anyone can ever be heard. And for Alain, tangled somewhere in the middle, “Lakes, of course, are pointless.”

    All comments welcome!

    Simon

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  7. Very helpful advice!!

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  9. Michael N. Marcus says:

    It’s important to keep in mind that there are two kinds of book blurbs:

    (1) In England and elsewhere a blurb is a promotional message often written by the author that goes on the book’s cover and in promotional materials and online.

    (2) In the USA (and maybe elsewhere) a blurb is a brief bit of praise from readers, often excerpted from a review, that is used to promote the book.

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  12. Simon Holloway says:

    A truly wonderful post: it’s all so clear when it’s spelled out in simple words! The point of a blurb is to sell the book, nothing more. And other people’s kids, like other people’s holidays, are boring most of the time.

    Why didn’t someone tell me this years ago? Or tell my editor? Coming up with that killer question is so hard, though: how to sum up so many thousands of words in one sentence…will she get him? Will he get her? Will they get what they deserve? Variations of these are equally dull and uninspiring, so do we perhaps need to think a little more laterally in order to ‘hook’ that reader?

    Or am just being as obtuse as a parent with baby photos here?

    http//sjholloway.wordpress.com/

    • Blurbs ARE hard! That’s the point, partly: like so much in the world of writing, people think, “I can do that!” with little thought about the skill and practice that goes into it. It’s more than jotting down whatever word-vomit a person barfs up. Practice, practice, practice. My first good blurb was two sentences, and it took almost a week to figure it out.

  13. Marlena H. says:

    What does it say about me that I want to read the first one? Does that book even exist? I did a quick search for the book and found nothing.

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  15. Judy says:

    Geez, great post – I’m rewriting my current book blurb. Thanks

  16. A worthy post–not to mention wholly entertaining. It reminds me of an exercise I do every few days while neck deep in the rewrite of a manuscript: write the two page synopsis, shave the synopsis into three paragraphs, condense the paragraphs into three sentences, and finally, boil that sucker down to one. My brain nearly explodes with the effort, but the result makes the story crystal clear in my mind, and reveals deficiencies if I can’t complete the exercise.
    Truly appreciate your article, Michaelbrent. Cheers!

    • Glad it was helpful and fun!

      I used to tell people “Start small – write your epic and work your way UP to short stories.” There’s something incredibly difficult about writing careful, short pieces. But if you can do it well, the world is yours.

  17. I received some advice earlier this year about putting the blurb in the front of the ebook, right after the cover for the very reason that Robert mentions. Often, I can’t remember what the book on my Kindle is about, and if a reader has one of my books, I’d like him or her to be able to refresh his or her memory when scrolling through a digital library.
    Also, this is great advice for blurbs. Thanks Michaelbrent for this post!

  18. Jill Hughey says:

    Super post. I went straight to my upcoming release and rewrote the blurb. Thank you!

  19. Bookmarked so that I can easily come back and refresh my memory. Thank you!

  20. :Donna Marie says:

    This post totally cracked me up! And I use the word “crapola” all the time, too! lol

    I love that you broke it down into the 3 elements to be sure to include:

    – to raise a question that begs to be answered by leaving out the details
    – include the genre
    – the hook, which I see as the anchoring of the raised question, to plant the
    prospective readers feet in cement, the only escape being to read the book

    I agree with all of this and think of it as you would a “pitch” to an agent or editor. You have to do the exact same thing ’cause ALL of them are potential readers. You want your book to raise enough curiosity to make it impossible—or at least very difficult—to pass up. What has always stuck in my mind (and your post solidifies it AND helpfully breaks it into steps) is that a pitch should be like a movie trailer (you say poster—same thing 🙂 ). This is, in my opinion, 100% accurate! Thank you! 🙂

    • Crapola is an awesome word. So is booger, FYI.

      Definitely think of the book in movie terms…more and more people are comfortable with that kind of thought process so it’s definitely helpful in crafting salable elements.

  21. Julie Musil says:

    OMG this was soooo entertaining AND helpful! I must remember this advice: no one cares about my babies…wait…no…I must remember WHY we write the blurbs. Thank you!

  22. This post is HILARIOUS! Thanks for the laughs and for the good info. I just read the most recent blurb I wrote and I think it does ask a question that can only be answered by reading the book. But sometimes I struggle with questions in blurbs because if not done well, they can sound cheesy. A la romance blurbs “Will their love overcome all odds?” Dun dun dun. (The answer is always yes). I like the sample questions “Do You Hide? Or DO YOU DIE?”

    • Hahaha! Romance blurbs are definitely some of the worst offenders. Stop off at my website and you’ll see a slightly different version of this article that is a bit – ahem – critical of that genre. Nothing against the genre in general (REALLY!), but some of the blurbs are GACK-worthy.

      Though, of course, the same could be said of any genre. ;o)

  23. Bish Denham says:

    Very helpful Thanks!

  24. Wow – very cool.

    This might seem kind of nerdy and academic, but one of the greatest books I ever read is called Paratexts. It’s by Gérard Genette and goes into every detail of all the things that appear on covers and colophon pages, etc. Not as immediately useful as this great post, but something for the true book nerd and there are definitely some things in it that can give you the cutting edge.

    Michaelbrent: Just as we know there are different “formulas” for plot that work magic in the right hands, are there more concrete formulas that can be drawn out? You’ve given the model, but some of us think in structure more than examples.

    Thanks again for the great post. Checking out your novels now!

    • There are tons of plot formulas that are useful, for sure. One very good book as far as structure is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s for screenwriting, but there’s a section on structure that is very nuts-and-bolts and can be easily adapted to novel writing. I find it a very helpful reference.

      And thanks for the kind words!

  25. Excellent advice! Thanks for sharing.

    I wonder about something for self-published authors. Almost no-one sees a ‘back of print book’ blurb, especially if it is self-published fiction. Most of us sell ebooks, which have no blurb as such, only a product description.

    So how would the advice differ? (If at all)

    There are 4,000 characters to play with on an Amazon KDP page (or 2,400 if you used Author Central). Should all of those be used? Formatting? Since we only have plain text with a little html to fancy it up. No ‘back cover’ allure here.

    What about the first page of an ebook? Should I repeat the blurb? After all, if I buy a paperback, the blurb is still available to me when I read it (and I often will), no matter how long ago I purchased.

    But a lot (I’d venture more than 50%) of ebooks are not begun at the point of purchase. Does the reader now go to the product description page to re-read the blurb (which, in print form, usually gets me remotivated to read!). So should we put a small reminder blurb in there?

    I’ve got plenty of fiction ebooks on my iPad/Kindle TBR list that I now only really recognise the cover. Somewhere along the line I made the decision to buy (so the author’s job is done, yes?), but I can’t remember why or what the story is about.

    I think this is an area where ebooks let us down. If I could tap the cover and have ti spin around to reveal a ‘back of book blurb’, that would be great!

    Curious what others do that facilitates a sales conversion on ebooks – and what definitely doesn’t.

    • Robert, I love the idea of the cover tap to see the blurb! That would be so incredibly useful. I’m in the same boat as you with ebook overload and forgetting what the book is about!

    • Robert,

      Great question! I’m self-pub myself, so I consider this very topical. ;o)

      A few thoughts from my point of view, for what it’s worth:

      1) I use the “blurb” as the product description. Frankly the html/formatting is less important than the wording. If you are relying on sparkly gifs or big bold text to grab people’s attention…let’s face it, you’re screwed. Look at the Amazon sales page. Sensory overload already, so the only thing you can hope for is awesome copy that rocks their world.

      2) As for using it in the ebook itself, I personally do one of two things: I either skip the blurb in the ebook, or I include a jpg of the back cover that I’ve used for the paperback as the second page of the book. So when they open the book they see the cover, then they turn the page and see the back cover, along with the cover copy. It looks kinda pro-style and classy. But you’re right, most people at that point have either purchased the book, or they’re sampling it and they just want to get to “the good stuff” – the actual story. It’s a different mentality than people thumbing through a book on a Barnes & Noble shelf or on a display at a convention (where I sell a lot of paperbacks).

      Hope this helps!

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