Tuesday, November 19, 2013

How to Write a Book Description

Today's post is about Book Descriptions.

Whether it's a hard copy or an e-book, a good description can make or break a sale. If it's for an agent/publisher query or a review request then the premise is what they see. Obvious stuff, yes, but the English Major has to start his argument with a thesis. Anyway, this post will focus on the Don'ts and Dos of writing a book description.


Theses are things to avoid when writing your premise book description: self-praise, long winded descriptions, clich├ęs, and summaries. (By the way, some of this stuff is from my review request policy).

Personally,  I can't stand it when writers tell me how 'original' they are. One person even told me their work was going to 'redefine the fantasy genre' or something like that. No one is 100 percent original, myself included. Also, don't write about 'exciting' or 'passionate' or any other adjective. The book description should speak for itself. The last person whose opinion on the book you want is the author because they're biased. Just stick to the book itself.

 Briefly talk about the protagonist (or main characters) and their problem. I once read somewhere that the premise should be short enough for an elevator pitch; no one can clearly communicate three paragraphs in the time in takes for an elevator to travel three floors. Instead, go for three sentences. If you can manage one sentence, that's all the better. It's like a haiku; tremendous meaning contained in the fewest number of syllables. If you can concentrate your book's greatness into a small space than you're more likely to attract attention and interest.

By the same token, don't sacrifice your book's uniqueness for brevity. If your premise boils down to  "average guy fights evil thing to save the world", "find the Macguffin" or "boy meets girl and they kiss" then it's likely to be passed over. Find a golden mean between laconic and descriptive.

Between these two you shouldn't have to worry about the third; summarizing. Don't write a description that summarizes the work. If you do that then the prospective reader/publisher feels like they've already read the book.  I found one book that said (paraphrased) 'Protagonist does this and that and when they arrive at their destination they uncover a secret'. It was so forgettable that I can't remember the book's title. All you should do is set the stage.


These are the things you should do when writing a premise: set the stage, be concise, and add factual details.

For setting the stage, you can start with the conflict: who the protagonist is, what their problem is, and a few things about the setting.  By the time you convey all this, you should have a paragraph. If the prospective reader is into your genre then these three things should be enough to hook them. It gives them what they need without revealing anything that would spoil the story. If they don't like these three things then they're not likely to enjoy your book.

By the same token, be concise. Readers/publishers/reviewers etc. are busy people and don't want to spend five minutes reading an extended premise to find out what the heck the book is about. If you can stun them with three sentences then they're likely to pick up/stamp/download etc.

Aside from that you can add factual details. Editions, for instance, are a good to add if you've made substantial changes. Say you published before you hired a professional editor and now you've got reviews stating "Horrible grammar!" or "needs an editor". If you mention how you've done this in the book description for the current edition then the reader can dismiss these red flags (at least I hope so, because this is what happened to my first book). Awards are another good thing because they are objective praise. An award says "I wrote a great book" but because it came from someone else it avoids the problems of self-praise. It's about creditability.

An example of a great premise is this book I reviewed the other day "Never Trust a Dead Man". It sets the stage, it's about a paragraph in length and there is no self-praise to be found. It was such a fantastic premise that I bought the thing immediately.

If you'd like to read the descriptions for my books, I have a page for that. Please let me know if you think I practice what I preach or not.

Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

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