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Don’t Let Aunt Edna Write Your Book Description

29 January 2012

From JW Manus:

When Aunt Edna is telling a story, I have to make sure the guns are safely locked away.

Aunt Edna: Did you hear about the Smith’s dog?

Me: Who are the Smiths?

AE: Remember that nice couple who lived on Oak Drive? The blue house. Awful color, looked like one of those toilet bowl cakes. I thought about leaving them a note. A nice note, not mean or anything, just a hint that paint is cheap and I’m sure the neighbors would be more than happy to help paint the house on a weekend.

Me: Huh? What does this have to do with a dog?

AE: They painted the house when they moved in–

. . . .

Bless her soul, Aunt Edna is not trying to drive people crazy. It’s that she has a story to tell, and it excites her and she wants other people to understand how exciting it is, so she needs to explain all the backstory and who the characters are and, of course, every story relates to another, so Uncle Henry’s hearing problems are important, too.

It’s those Aunt Edna-ish impulses that give many writers fits when they try to write book descriptions. They love their book, they’re excited, they want others excited, too, but they know too much and they’re emotionally involved. Browsers on Amazon or B&N won’t look for the key to the gun safe, they’ll just click the “next” button.

Copy writers who create blurbs and book descriptions for publishers tend to work off synopses, rather than the read the books. Why? It’s not their job to love the book or get involved or excited about the story. Their job is to entice readers into buying the book. A synopsis hits the high points of character and plot, providing all the information the copy writer needs with none of the emotional investment.

. . . .

Study. Go through your shelves or head to the bookstore or browse Amazon for descriptions written by pros. Find mass market paperback novels that are similar in genre and tone to your novel. After you read about ten or twenty, you will discover there is a formula. Copy writers use that formula because it works.

. . . .

Know your audience. Do a little market research. Hop over to Amazon or GoodReads, find the ten most popular novels that are similar in genre and tone to yours. Read the reviews and look for buzzwords. If for instance you wrote a fantasy novel, look for whatever readers are mentioning. The characters? The setting? Use of magic? Dragons? Tricky plots? Battle scenes? What are readers getting excited about? Seriously, make a list of the buzzwords. Readers who liked those popular titles will be looking for similar titles to enjoy. To help them find yours, focus your book description on what the readers are actually looking for.

. . . .

Think brief. You have seconds to catch browser attention with your cover. A few seconds more to intrigue with your first sentence or two. A reader will then decide if they want to read more. So you have to lead with your very best. Don’t blow it by presenting a mass of text. Blurbs on the backs of mass market paperbacks tend to run between 100-250 words. Usually closer to a hundred.

Link to the rest at JW Manus and thanks to Eric for the tip.


27 Comments to “Don’t Let Aunt Edna Write Your Book Description”

  1. Thanks for the tips. My Aunt Edna is Aunt Mary and she likes to talk about her body as if it’s not actually attached to her…ahhh there it is…lol… Seriously though, this is good advice and although I try to be succinct, I’m not sure I always hit on the right points. I’m gonna give your info a whirl and hope that it helps. CHEERS!

  2. Aunt Edna a.k.a. Mrs. Nickleby…

  3. I’ve seen a lot of books listed that I can’t tell from the description what genre it falls into. The author describes the town or the main character’s job or family and I am left thinking: Is this a mystery? paranormal? slice of life? For me that bodes ill for the skill of the writer. And if I’m looking for a cozy, I don’t want to read the first page and discover it’s torture porn or teenage angst.
    Is it wrong to classify it in the first sentence? To say this is a thriller or coming of age or whatever?

    • Personally, I think classifying the genre is a good move. I saw a comment somewhere where the writer suggested a subtitle in the title. (don’t have to put it on the cover)

      GORY PANDA PARTS: A Paranormal Romance

      It makes sense to me on two levels. One, it tells browsers right off the bat it’s what they are looking for. Two, if a browser is looking for a paranormal romance and they use the keywords “paranormal romance” then your book will pop up in the results.

      • But if you leave it off the title and put it in the tags,won’t that also cause it to pop up? I don’t mind so much when people put the genre in the subtitle, but it drives me batsh!t crazy when the subtitle is “a novel”. Really? Because I thought it was a geranium.

        • Kat, good laugh.

          I always get mixed results with Amazon searches. I blame the publishers (indie, trad) because they aren’t putting helpful keywords in titles and tags. The genre in the subtitle displays on the main result page. Browers don’t have to guess by the cover art if it’s the genre they want.

          GORY PANDA PARTS: Not A Geranium!

          • Ooh, mind if I us that as the next title in my never-to-be-written weird shapeshifter novellas? After I don’t write the gerbil one, that is. 😉

            • Feel free, Anthea. I’d buy it.

              One thing about writing for HQ, they drill the hooks and selling points into you. I always had to fill out long forms filled with bits the marketing departments could use.

  4. I try to use the cover to get the genre across.

    Aunt Eda is a good example of what I think of as a sequence error – the writer backtracks for a paragraph or two, then writes forward, then backtracks. (Mom did a lot of this.) It’s as if they want to get it ALL in – and type it up as they think of it.

    Usually this gets mixed up with headhopping too. Really muddies up the text.

    “They live in that ghastly blue house,” she said. “You know, the one where cousin Jay was found that night?” Jay had been found beaten up and drunk in the yard over 10 years before.

    Paul reflected his cousin Jay had likely walked into a telephone pole while he was drunk. But he was too fond of Aunt Edna to say it.

    Enda wondered if Paul had been the one to beat up Jay. The two boys never did get along.

    TMI – TMI – TMI!

  5. I just did a search for “paranormal romance” on Amazon. This is the results page (them pesky romance writers are real good about classifying their sub-genres–wonder if that has anything to do with their sales? Heh.)


    Notice the number that use the subtitles to tell not just that the books are paranormal romances, but some say they are erotic. #9 (when I checked) is a paranormal mystery. A quick scan through the titles alone helps browsers zero in on the books they want to look at.

    I’m all for anything that takes browsers one step closer to being buyers.

    • I agree the sub-titles help, but not all of those had “paranormal romance” in the sub-title. I did a quick random check and what they DID have in common was a tag for “paranomal romance” in their top three tags (most of them had it as the number one tag).

      Folks undersestimate tags. Wnat to help an author friend in a big way? Click on the “like” button next to the title, then scroll down to the tags, check all the ones you agree with (up to 15) and click the “Agree With These Tags?” thing.

      I also checked on the books by a friend of mine who’s a well known paranormal writer. What I saw was that on her books “paranormal romance” is further down the list (they’re listed in order by the number of people who agree with the tag, the number to the right of the tag). So folks thought other tags were more relevant. Most interesting.

      • People tend to overestimate tags. (After the tagging clubs went wild, Amazon pulled back on their power.) Just having the tag is fine. No need to pile on the check marks.

        However, more important than tags are KEYWORDS. Make sure that you enter your genre and main subjects in as keywords when you enter your book information. No need to go hog wild on that either, but that’s one of the first elements the search engine looks for.

        I don’t know exactly how Amazon ranks elements, but generally, title is the most important place for search keywords. After that, meta info, and the beginning sentences of the “body” text. (Also headers within text, but we don’t get to use those in setting up the page.)

        Of course, the book categories are important.

        Tags are really important for one thing — at least in how the algorithms were originally set up — they are great for specialized aspects of the book. If there are a million books with “paranormal romance” as category, title and keywords and in the description (which there are) tags aren’t going to make much difference for them.

        But “ghost cat” or “vampire feline” can make for a good hook for paranormal fans who are also cat people. Such people DO search on genre + special interest. And it doesn’t always suit the title to put that bit in. Of course, you can still put it in the keywords and description, but frankly that’s where tags have power.

        And of course, they have the most power when readers discover your book and tag it with such things themselves — because they know the terms they are looking for.

        • I also like to add the theme or trope to my tags, too. “Enemies to lovers” — “disguise and deception”. Of course, romance readers are pretty well versed in the common tropes and know what they like – it might not work that well in another genre.

          • But other genres will have phrases for their own tropes.

            My problem is that I’ve got very strange blind spot. I can take a trope, intentionally use it, and then forget that it’s that kind of story.

            One reason, I suppose, is because I like to color outside the lines a lot, and so I put thoughts of genre out of my head once I get going.

            • Camille, if you have beta readers or a critique group (and a tough skin, because trust me, you will want to argue with them) ask them what they think are the three top selling points of your novel.

              I say tough skin because every writer I’ve known who’s done this has come back outraged. “They don’t GET my story at all!”

            • My problem is that I don’t have beta readers in my genre. And those people I know who are in the genre are rank beginners who have no idea.

              And now that I think about it, that’s actually why I have a blind spot about the tropes I intentionally use. Because my proofers don’t recognize them, and so even though they respond to them, they respond as if it’s something new and cool. (Or they just seem puzzled that the story doesn’t conform to the tropes of their own genres.)

              When I can get feedback from a real reader of the genre, I’ll get an immediate reaction to the “hidden” tropes. I need to recruit some real readers….

              As for tough skin, I started my writing education out at Clarion in 1982 (nobody actually physically set fire to my manuscripts — but I understand it had been done with other classes). I’ve been to grad school. I’ve been both sides of the fence as a scriptwriter/script analyst. Also competition judge and writing teacher.

              And oddly enough, after all those years on both sides of the fence in learning…. I have come to the conclusion that those defensive young writers are absolutely right.

              Critique may be “correct,” but it is not often helpful, because when the story is poorly written, the audience doesn’t “get” the story. The audience offers advice suited to a different kind of story, and if the young writer takes it too seriously, they are doomed to mediocrity, because they will never learn to follow their own light.

              A good beta reader knows that all she is doing is holding up a mirror to show what she is seeing.

  6. Copy editors do a good job most of the time, but it pays to know how to do it yourself (this same formula can be used in queries as the brief synopsis of your work). For romance, the formula is dead simple, and probably applies to most other genre fiction as well. The goal is to keep it around the 100-125 word mark. If you read enough back cover copy it will start to jump out at you. Example:


    WHEN A WOMAN WITH A HEART OF GOLD… (first character teaser)

    Thirty-year-old spinster Harriet Plainface (descriptor, descriptor, name) plans to raise llamas on the land she just inherited (external goal). At last, she’ll be able to support the pair of orphans she’s adopted (external motivation). If only the beast next door would stop harrassing her. (external conflict)

    MEETS A MAN WITH A HEART OF STONE… (second character teaser)

    Bachelor playboy Studly Hungwell (descriptor, descriptor, name) plans to put an Olympic-sized pool on the acre next door (external goal) as a playground for his Bathing Beauties (external motivation). The only thing standing in his way is his prudish neighbor (external conflict).

    Sparks fly, passions ignite, and there might just be… (plot teaser)

    LLAMAS IN THE SWIMMING POOL (repeat of title).

    Alternatively, you can ask a question (Is gold stronger than stone?)

    Notice I didn’t mention any INTERNAL GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conlfict). You can put that someplace else unless that’s the really, really, really most important thing (i.e. you could emphasize that they’re both crippled by their looks, one so plain, one so handsome). But don’t mix internal and external.

  7. This is the way all stories get told in the South, except you forgot to give everybody’s genealogical history in the process!

  8. DWS recently posted a link to the Neilson Book Data UK studies. Some very interesting stuff.


    I haven’t been through it all, but one thing that strikes me is something that struck Dean: that the audiences for different kinds of books respond in different ways. For instance, that long descriptions help adult fiction most, but with children’s books, short descriptions are better.

    I think it doesn’t hurt indie writers to study advice on writing one-page query letters to learn some skills on blurbing.

    I’m still not comfortable with my blurbing style, even though I did it as a script analyst for a while. I just fall back on the old standard:

    Title, info.

    Logline or teaser (i.e. one or two sentences which standalone as a pitch). The key with this on is to emphaize the irony of the story.

    Then a longer pitch, only a paragraph or two, emphasizing the problem of the story, which also gives a feel for the tone.

    End with more practical info (like length, parental advisories, stuff people might want to know but you don’t want to lead with).

    • Upthread you said you had no beta readers in your genre. I checked your web site but can’t exactly figure out your genre. Is it alternate history? Sci-fi/fantasy?

      • Traditional mystery. Five of the books featured in my sidebar say “mystery” (or a variant thereof). The profile says “mystery and adventure author.” All of my reviews and craft posts are mystery oriented….

        SF and fantasy, and any related genre, is very very easy to find critique partners for. They’ll form groups at the drop of a hat and often belong to more than one group at a time.

        Mystery writers… not so much. They don’t want advice, and they don’t have advice to give. The only crit group I found I had to quit because of their insanely restrictive rules. (The assumption was that you’d submit one or two chapters in a month. They would critique Chapter 6 without having read any of the chapters before it.)

        A part of this may be due to the fact that traditional mysteries were driven out of publishing for so long. Everything had to go to the thriller end, or to the “gimmick cozy” to survive. The readers all fled for the classics.

        So the best advice on getting published was pretty much “write something different” or “put a cat who knits in it.” And the die-hards who kept the genre alive were people who know what they want, and don’t see the value in critique.

    • Camille,

      That study is really not what the folks over there at DWS’s site think it is. It is simply a propaganda piece by Nielsen BookScan to convince its customers to enter more metadata into their system. I have nothing against propaganda, but it should be recognized for what it is.

      The study makes the fundamental error of assuming that correlation is causation. It is highly likely that there is a confounding factor that explains both the higher sales and the existence of greater metadata. Let me spin a hypothetical simplified scenario to explain what I mean. Let’s suppose there are only two publishers in the system. Publisher A is very good at every part of the publishing business and their books routinely outsell Publisher B’s books because Publisher B is run by committee of drunken sailors. The drunken sailors never remember to enter all the metadata in Nielsen’s system. However, just entering all that metadata won’t change the fact that drunken sailors just aren’t very good publishers. In this scenario, the metadata existing in the system is a result of a well-run business. It’s the well-run business that sells books. The committee of drunken sailors reads the study (which is supplied to them by the Nielsen sales rep, along with a case of Scotch.) They immediately hire someone to enter all the metadata for their books. Do you think that their books will suddenly sell better?

      Don’t think like a committee of drunken sailors. In particular, don’t believe the business about reviews. The reviews in the study are entered by publishers about their own books. Not likely to be bad reviews. Completely irrelevant to self publishing authors.

      • Thanks William. I admit I only glanced at it. I was planning to get to reading it closely later.

        (You know, I do believe that a lot of publishing today IS run by drunken sailors.)

        The thing about all studies, even those not involving drunken sailors, is that they can only provide a part of the picture. For instance, that was a UK study. From my interactions with UK publishing people (writers, readers, booksellers) I suspect that folks across the sea have different expectations of books, and blurbs and booksellers and prices, and all of it.

        So even if it weren’t a propaganda piece, I would still see it as a datapoint, not a universal.

        The factoid I found interesting was the long blurb/short blurb bit. I have noticed myself that I am more attracted to some long blurbs and some short. And I suspect that different genres (and different contexts) call for different types of blurbs and descriptions.

        The one thing I do know is that I only pay attention to reviews if the product description doesn’t answer a question. (“Hmmm, sounds like I’d like it if it’s dark humor, but I’d hate it if this has grueling violence….” Sometimes you can pick that sort of thing up in the review, not by how the reader liked it, but by what they liked and disliked about it.)

  9. Aunt Edna is my mother-in-law.

    I will say, having to write cover letters for agents was good training for writing blurbs. I’m sure I need more practice, but at least there’s a sense of “no, really, you can’t write fifty paragraphs about this. You need to write just barely enough for people to know they want to read more.”

    *makes note of the various tips, too*

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