Six Do’s and Four Don’ts in writing book blurbs

Writing book blurbs is hard.

Ask any author pitching to agents on the traditional publishing route, and 99% will tell you one of their most hated activities is writing the dreaded synopsis, the summary of the whole book.
‘How can I reduce my 125k fantasy novel to 350 words?’ they cry.
With difficulty. I’ve had to do it.

As an indie author, you escape this horror. But in a piece of divine retribution perhaps, you instead have to write a ‘blurb’ for your book.

What’s a blurb?

Sometimes known as a book description, it’s the very short piece of writing which entices readers to buy your book, convinces them they cannot live another day without walking those pages with you. It’s on the back of your paperback and on every retail site, generally including your own website. After the cover, the blurb is THE thing which sells books, we are told.

Think about your own book-buying experience
people in a book shop

You wander in to the shop, and in front of you is the table of books inviting you to browse. You glance over them, look at titles and covers (for me they are a package), pick one up, turn it over to read the description on the back. If I get that far, I open a page at random and see if I like the writing style. If I do, it’s a purchase. We go through a similar process with online retailers, opening up the Look Inside to see if we’re interested.

The horror of writing book blurbs

Indie authors generally regard writing the blurb with the same outright fear with which pitching authors view the synopsis.

‘How can I reduce my 125k fantasy novel to 130 words?’ we cry.

In fact, us indies have it worse, because, yes, you read it correctly – 130 words is considered the maximum for an effective blurb.

I am no blurb expert. I have written, published, re-written them several times over for all my books and I know they still need work. For Legend of the Winged Lion, my IRL writing group was constructive but gentle. My twitter writing friends were constructive and brutal, and rightly so. I’m relatively happy with this one.

What do the experts say about writing book blurbs?

In researching blurbs I found that various sources don’t differ much on what makes a good one, at least in terms of what it should cover. There is, however, a big ‘must do’ which is harder to achieve and which I suspect is the key to a great blurb.

First, the so-called easy bit on what a blurb should and should not contain.

The do’s

1. A first line which grabs attention, known as a ‘hook’.

2. Give readers an idea of the role your main characters play in the book and a feel for what they are like as people. They might be relatable, or exciting, or dangerous, or in trouble. But they need to be interesting if readers are to spend the length of a book with them.

3. Be clear about the central conflict in the story and especially the stakes, which need to be high. Arouse the potential reader’s need to know by including a little detail to highlight the perils/challenges the protagonist faces.

4. End your blurb with a question, or a cliff hanger statement of some kind.

5. Make it easy and quick to read. Keep your blurb short and clear (the max 130 words rule). No long sentences (I got told off for that) or paragraphs. In your layout, use bold where appropriate and spaces between paragraphs.

6. If you have great reviews, don’t hesitate to use a phrase or short sentence from one of these right up front. It’s confirmation that the author isn’t the only person who regards the book as excellent.

The don’ts

1. Tell the potential reader the life story of your main characters and what colour their eyes are etc. They don’t care at this point.
2. Spell out the resolution to the main conflict or give away any spoilers. Because now they don’t need to read the book.
3. Talk about or even allude to any sub-plots. Stay focused on the key story.
4. Use too many strange words, especially in fantasy (again, I was guilty).

Now we have that harder ‘must do’

Your blurb needs to sound ‘right’ to readers of the book’s genre. It must use familiar language and tone so the potential buyer feels they are getting what they normally like to read. For a start, this means your blurb’s style will match the book, eg higher urgency for a thriller, more emotional for romance.

There is more to it than this though. Mentioning themes that are familiar in the genre, using what might sound like cliched language, subtly assures the potential reader that this book is similar to comparable, enjoyed, books. Makes a lot of sense. It’s tricky, because you don’t want to sound derivative and your blurb has to also make it clear that your book will give the reader a different (although comfortable) read.

How to do this?

Reading other blurbs, especially those for best sellers, helps. See what the successful authors say, because if your blurb reminds people of JoJo Moyes, to take an example, they’re more likely to be tempted if they’re a Moyes’ fan. Be analytical, work out what themes are mentioned which are relevant to your story, look at words and phrases and see if they will work for you too and incorporate them into your blurb.

Test your blurb. Ask for total honesty, because any hurt feelings now will be as nothing if your potential buyers don’t make it past your blurb.

Good luck!

This post first appeared in my February 2022 newsletter – there’s a new writing tip there every month, so if you found this helpful, you might like to sign up (and receive a free eBook in the process). Check it out here.)