By Erica Converso
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Your book is unique – unlike any other in the world. But the structure of a well-crafted blurb will not – and should not – be. A blurb is the copy on the back cover of a book or the sales webpage, explaining what the book is about, usually about two to three paragraphs in length.
Blurbs are a tool for writers to explain to future readers what they’ll be getting if they choose your book. To appeal to them effectively, writers should answer the reader in the same way. This means that blurbs from nonfiction to romance have much in common.
Your reader will want to know certain things before they settle in with your story. And everything they want to know will begin with:
For fiction, who is your protagonist? Give us something about her. Let’s look at the blurb for The Color Purple, by Alice Walker.
“Celie has grown up poor in rural Georgia, despised by the society around her and abused by her own family. She strives to protect her sister, Nettie, from a similar fate, and while Nettie escapes to a new life as a missionary in Africa, Celie is left behind without her best friend and confidante, married off to an older suitor, and sentenced to a life alone with a harsh and brutal husband.”
As you can see from the bold text, we can learn a lot about who from this blurb. In only two sentences, we’ve found out Celie’s background, her early hopes and dreams, and the struggles she will have to overcome during the course of her story.
For nonfiction, the who is somewhat different. In memoir or biography, the who is the subject of the work, and they’re introduced in just a sentence or two. For works where the author is an expert, the blurb might instead begin with:
A good example is in the blurb for the book The Coming Wave:
“Everything is about to change. Soon you will live surrounded by AIs. They will organise your life, operate your business, and run core government services. You will live in a world of DNA printers and quantum computers, engineered pathogens and autonomous weapons, robot assistants and abundant energy. None of us are prepared.
As co-founder of the pioneering AI company DeepMind, part of Google, Mustafa Suleyman has been at the centre of this revolution.”
We began with what – the issue that the book plans to explore. The blurb personalizes the subject, by using language like “you” and “us.” It then follows with a reason that the who – in this case, the author – is capable of explaining that topic to you. By contrast, the Nobel Prize-winning poetry book The Wild Iris gives you only a brief mention of who, followed by a what:
“From Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louise Glück, a stunningly beautiful collection of poems that encompasses the natural, human, and spiritual realms.”
Note the use of adjectives to encourage the reader to pick up this stunning, beautiful book? Whether you’re pitching fiction or nonfiction, don’t be afraid to talk up your work. If you’ve created a magical land, seductive characters, or compelling research, say so! Even if your reader picks your book up for free from the library, you are still trying to sell it to them. You are trying to sell your reader and all of their friends and family on this single, extraordinary concept: that it’s worthwhile for the reader to voluntarily give up time and effort – which they could spend on any other book, or anything else in the world, for that matter – to read what you have written. If you want to convince people to pick up your book, give them lots of good reasons to read it!
How is also a very useful question for nonfiction. Summarize the main points of your book, focusing on your thesis.
In fiction, use how to give a preview of your plot. Who/what + a few details about the story like any interesting side characters, the stakes, and your main character’s approach to problem-solving in the narrative = your how. Don’t overdo here. Think of your blurb like an overture to a musical, with your first pages as the opening number.
Where? and When?
Where and when both function to give your work boundaries. For these questions, let’s take a look at the first sentence of the blurb for Jeannie Lin’s Butterfly Swords:
“During China’s infamous Tang Dynasty, a time awash with luxury yet littered with deadly intrigues and fallen royalty, betrayed Princess Ai Li flees before her wedding.”
What you choose to leave out of your blurb is as important as what you choose to put in. Many people try to cram the entire summary of their book into the blurb. But that is not the point. A good blurb doesn’t spoil the whole story for you – it gives you only enough information to make you ask questions. Readers want to be surprised, to learn, to discover. Explain why they should follow you into the world of your book, give them the limits of where it will take them so they know they’re following a guided tour of that world, and tell them what’s so important about bothering with this particular book. Anything else is irrelevant.
And this brings us to the final question:
Why should readers choose this book? For that, you will need to resolve your blurb with either a hook or a call to action.
This is a statement to grab readers’ attention. In fiction, it should come in one of two forms: a question directly to the reader, or an either/or statement. This important declaration lets readers know there is a way for the protagonist to win or lose, and either could happen by the end of the novel. Depending on your genre the stakes could be huge, such as saving the world or dooming it. Consider the blurb for The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman:
“Throughout the worlds, the forces of both heaven and hell are mustering to take part in Lord Asriel’s audacious rebellion. Each player in this epic drama has a role to play—and a sacrifice to make. Witches, angels, spies, assassins, tempters, and pretenders, no one will remain unscathed.”
But the stakes could also be less catastrophic, though important to the protagonist: “Will Beezus find the patience to handle her little sister before Ramona turns her big day into a complete disaster?” (from Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona)
A Call to Action
A strong CTA instructs the reader to do something or perform an action. Sometimes it’s as simple as advising them to read your book.
Here’s a good example from Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: “This international bestseller will help you clear your clutter and enjoy the unique magic of a tidy home – and the calm, motivated mindset it can inspire.” This final sentence both encourages you to do something – clean up – and tells you about the rewards you will receive from doing so – enjoying your home and a calm mind.
So there you have it – the basics of how to build a perfectly structured blurb. Figure out the answers to the questions above and you’ll have all you need to craft a winning description that will attract readers’ attention, resolve the question “Why this book?” and pose new questions that the reader will want to dive right in to find the answers to.
Start working on your blurb now…because we have a new contest on October 19. TEN lucky winners will receive a blurb critique from guest editor Erica Converso!
Here’s an incredible worksheet that will help you build an eye-catching blurb! Ready Chapter 1 is celebrating the launch of their free Peer Critique forum and shared this to prepare people for their blurb contests (where you can win agent feedback). They generously allowed me to share this resource with you.
Here are a few additional helpful posts about writing blurbs.
Please let us know in the comments if you have any questions.
Back Cover Copy Formula (Writers Helping Writers Resident Writing Coach Sue Coletta)
Blurbs that Bore, Blurbs that Blare (Writers Helping Writers)
How to Write a Book Blurb (Fictionary)
How To Write Book Blurbs: 8 Tips for Selling By Summary (Now Novel)
Erica Converso, author of the Five Stones Pentalogy, (affiliate link) loves chocolate, animals, anime, musicals, and lots and lots of books – though not necessarily in that order. In addition to her writing, she has also been a research and emerging technologies librarian. Check out Erica’s blog for free resources!
As an editor, she aims to improve and polish your work to a professional level, while also teaching you to hone your craft and learn from previous mistakes. With every piece she edits, she sees the author as both client and student. She believes every manuscript presents an opportunity to grow as a writer, and a good editor should teach you about your strengths and weaknesses so that you can return to your writing more confident in your skills. Visit her website astrioncreative.com for more information on her books and editing and coaching services.