Writing an irresistible blurb for your novel
Writing a blurb for a novel, while still technically writing, is closer to a science than an art. The blurb that appears on the back cover of your book, and on your Amazon page, will either: a) work by convincing readers to take a chance on it, or b) fail to engage your target readers. In that sense, a good blurb is anything but subjective.
In this post, three publishing professionals have shared their tips for writing the best blurb for your novel.
- How to write a blurb for your novel in 4 steps
- Optimizing for Amazon and other online retailers
- How to split test your blurb
How to write a blurb for your novel in 4 steps
“The opening of your blurb has to be incredibly precise and dynamic,” says editor Rebecca Heyman. “For a lot of first-time authors, I think there's an instinct to make sure readers understand everything that happened in the book’s universe before the beginning of the actual story. That's generally a mistake.”
So if it shouldn’t set the stage for a reader who’s about to dive into your book, what should your blurb do?
Step 1: Introduce your main character(s)
At its core, novels are a storytelling medium, and that means your blurb has to be about characters. Consciously or not, readers check out the synopsis to see whether they want to spend time with your main characters. They don’t need to know their entire backstory, though — just enough to understand how they figure into the story’s primary conflict...
Step 2: Set the stage for your primary conflict
The primary conflict is what drives your story. It’s Harry Potter doing battle against Voldemort and his minions, FBI Agent Clarice Starling negotiating with Hannibal Lecter, or Captain Ahab’s obsessive vendetta against a whale. Without a real-world conflict, you don’t have a story readers can sink their teeth into.
It‘s tempting to talk about “interior journeys” in your blurb, but that’s something best avoided in most cases. While a character’s compelling internal conflicts might turn out to be an aspect readers enjoy once they read your novel, they make for terrible blurb-fodder.
“Your primary conflict has to exist in the physical world of your manuscript,” says Heyman. “That's not to say that character arcs are not a critical part of what makes a plot dynamic, but they are certainly not going to hook most readers.”
“If we're talking about Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the story is just this big analogy for the human condition, where there's so much happening under the surface. But if we’re writing a blurb, we need to talk about the conflict that’s happening in the physical world of the story — which in this case is, ‘A guy wakes up as a bug.’”
Step 3: Establish the stakes
Without consequences, a conflict lacks drama. A blurb that says “Jack Ryan has 24 hours to rescue the Russian ambassador,” isn’t as impactful unless we know what’s at stake: “...his failure will result in certain nuclear war.”
Let’s see how a few popular books from different genres establish the stakes in their blurbs. In JoJo Moyes’s Me Before You, a young woman becomes a caregiver for a quadriplegic millionaire and begins to fall for him.
When she learns that Will has shocking plans of his own, she sets out to show him that life is still worth living.
This single sentence not only establishes the external conflict (“Louisa must convince Will to live”), it also lays out the stakes, which are literally life-and-death.
Hugh Howey’s self-published sci-fi phenomenon, Wool, is set in an underground community known as a ‘silo.’ When its leader decides to break the #1 rule by leaving the silo, a mechanic named Juliette is tasked with putting the community back together:
…. she will soon learn just how badly her world is broken. The silo is about to confront what its history has only hinted about and its inhabitants have never dared to whisper. Uprising.
The conflict: Juliette must mend her community while coming to terms with its inherent flaws. The stakes: The smashing of the status quo and potential anarchy.
To show your story’s full potential, the reader must be aware that something hangs in the balance for your characters.
Step 4: Show the reader why this book is for them
Most readers have an idea of the book they’re looking to read next. A well-tuned blurb won’t try to sell everybody on the book — it will help people who already want a book like yours see that it’s for them.
"It's important subtly highlight how your book is familiar by including elements that readers are already excited by," says Sione Aeschliman, an editor who regularly helps querying authors through events such as #RevPit. The key is to imply similarities between comparable books without sounding derivative: ensure you also distinguish what makes your book unique.
Introduce your main character, establish the primary conflict, lay out the stakes and let fans of the genre see that this book is for them. There are blurbs that don’t follow this form, but if you stick to this formula, you won’t go far wrong.
Common blurb mistakes
1. They’re too long
This usually happens when the author goes too deep into the backstory, or when they start outlining the plot. Remember, you’re just looking to provide a taste of the genre, the characters, and the central conflict — not explain each of those elements in full.
Around 150-200 words should be more than enough for your full blurb.
2. They rely on cliches
Sometimes, to keep blurbs short, authors rely overmuch on tired, meaningless cliches. “A white-knuckle roller-coaster ride of an adventure” doesn’t communicate the story’s tone as much as it reveals the author’s lack of inspiration.
3. They show no voice (or the wrong voice)
If the tone of voice on the back cover doesn’t match that of your novel. This is usually a sign that: a) the people who enjoy the tone of the synopsis may be disappointed by your book, or b) your blurb may not appeal to people who are inclined to like how your book reads. The blurb is likely the first time readers will encounter your writing — so make sure you start the way you intend to continue.
So now that you’ve got a kick-ass blurb adorning the back of your book let’s see how you can adapt it for online retailers.
Optimizing for Amazon and other online retailers
Author Alessandra Torre self-published her first book in 2012, and for the first three months of the release, she sold between five and fifteen copies a day. Then, on a whim, she changed the blurb on her Amazon page and saw her daily sales jump to 300 overnight. Her sales kept doubling to the point where she was selling 2,000 copies a day.
What does this tell us? That with online retailers, the synopsis is critical.
In this previous section, we looked at how to make your blurb attractive to browsers in bookstores. Now, we’ll show you how to also make it work better on Amazon and other online booksellers.
Perfecting your first line
Amazon only displays the first few lines of your product description, which is why book marketing consultant Bree Weber emphasizes the importance of hooking the reader in with your blurb's first line: “You have a limited amount of real estate to capture someone's attention. You are relying on the prospective buyer to engage and click read more to learn more about the book and the primary conflict.”
In the example above, self-publishing author Mark Dawson has put the very first line of his description in bold (which you can do using html markup). Because of his successful track record, the first line of his blurb is able to use social validation to hook readers in. “The million-selling series starts here,” it says, letting readers know that these books are really popular.
The next line is a double-whammy.
“It’s impossible not to think of Lee Child’s super-selling Jack Reacher” — The Times
Not only is it a quote from an internationally-renowned newspaper, it highlights Mark’s central marketing message: “If you like Jack Reacher, you’ll also like my John Milton books.” Just look at Mark’s cover designs and you’ll see that this Reacher connection is no coincidence.
Having an effusive and descriptive pull quote for your first line is really effective, and you’ll see the technique used time and again by bestsellers and newcomers alike.
“If you're getting great reviews — whether they're editorial reviews or reader reviews from Amazon or Goodreads — add those into your description,” says Weber. “They basically serve as a word-of-mouth recommendation.”
But if you don’t have any suitable reviews or sales stats to speak of (yet), make sure that your first sentence features a snappy, irresistible hook. This will often be an evocative tagline or a punchy story hook. Remember that your aim is to appeal to fans of your genre, so browse through the bestselling books in your category and see how they go about capturing a reader’s attention.
Use of keywords in blurbs
Sticking with Mark Dawson’s example, here is part of a blurb from another one of his thrillers:
John Milton’s life is about to change. The former government assassin follows a lead to Manila that he hopes will change his life. But he never expected to wake up in an unfamiliar hotel room beside a murder victim. And, unfortunately for him, Milton doesn’t remember a thing about the night before.
Even if the reader has never heard of this series before, they can quickly gather that it falls squarely into the realm of the modern action thriller. As mentioned before, you need to give readers an idea of your genre — and keywords like murder and former government assassin will let the reader know exactly what they’re in for.
“These are general themes often found in Mark’s books,” says Weber. “He's capitalizing on those potential keyword searches to make sure that they show up in his first paragraph, so he's gonna appear higher up in more Amazon searches."
And it works! Just enter “British government assassin” into the Kindle store search box and see whose books turn up first.
A note about keyword stuffing
If you browse long enough through Amazon, you will see cases where the title and description are packed with as many keywords as possible. It’s most obvious when you see long titles like Killer Mystery: A thrilling adventure with a twist ending.
“Amazon, like any search engine, is looking for quality content or authoritative content,” says Weber. “There is an element of penalization if they feel that the description is sort of spamming the system.”
Amazon’s algorithm is mysterious and ever-evolving, so it’s impossible to know exactly what level of keyword use is acceptable. As a rule of thumb, you want to stay on Amazon’s good side — and not alienate actual humans who end up reading your blurb. So long as your title and product description all remain relevant and natural to read, you should be in the clear.
How to split test your blurb
The great thing about digital publishing is that retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble are pretty flexible: you can change your product description if you feel like it isn’t working. In writing your blurb, you will probably end up with multiple versions — each of which might focus on a slightly different hook. To help you decide on which synopsis to go with, you can always test them out.
One of the simplest ways to determine which blurb works better is to show two versions to someone and ask them to pick the one they prefer. As opposed to asking for feedback, which can send you down a rabbit-hole of conflicting opinions, split testing is designed to help to answer one question: which blurb works better?
Find readers of your genre
A lot of authors will head to their favorite Facebook group to ask fellow authors for their opinions. However, that’s not always the best option: those folks are not necessarily readers of the genre in question.
“I’d recommend starting with your beta readers or early reviewers who are regular readers of your genre,” says Weber.
The added bonus of split testing your blurb with people who have read your book is that they’ll also be able to tell you which version lines up best with the actual novel itself, and homes in on the most interesting elements.
A/B test your mailing list and Facebook Ads
This is a little bit more of a gamble, but if you have a mailing list, you can run what’s known as an A/B test and send out two versions of a newsletter announcing your book’s release. If you use a mail client like MailChimp, you can see how people respond to the blurb by whether they click through to your site and pre-order. This way, you can get a sense of what your fans are looking for.
If you don’t have a significant mailing list yet, then you can run an A/B test using Facebook ads. Target these ads at fans of comparable authors or books. The amount of copy you can fit into a Facebook ad is limited so you might wish to test out the first sentence of your Amazon blurb.
As you’ve hopefully seen, your blurb is one of your book's biggest sales influencers, and it demands as much, if not more, attention than any other part of your marketing plan. The time and effort you put into refining and testing your blurb is money in the bank.
What are some of the best book blurbs you’ve seen on an Amazon page or on a back cover? Share them in the comments below and tell us why you like them.