How to Write a Book Blurb: A Guide for Novelists
Last updated: 09/12/2018
Creating a book blurb, 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:
- Work by convincing readers to take a chance on it, or
- Fail to engage your target readers.
In that sense, a good blurb is anything but subjective. In this post, three publishing editors have shared their secret behind writing the best blurb for your novel.
What is a blurb?
A blurb is a short description of a book that is written for promotional purposes. Traditionally, it would be found on the inside back cover of a hardback. As paperback publishing developed, readers began seeing the blurb appearing on the back cover. Generally, 150-200 words are more than enough for a full blurb.
In the modern publishing landscape, where more books are being purchased online than in bricks and mortar stores, you are more likely to encounter blurbs on the product page of Amazon or any other digital retailer. Sometimes, you will hear them referred to as ‘book descriptions.’ So now that we have our basic definition out of the way, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.
How to write a book blurb 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?
Without further ado, here's how to write a blurb in 4 steps.
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...
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 that reader 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.’”
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.
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. If you stick to this formula, you won’t go far wrong. 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 your blurb 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 especially critical.
In the 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. You may also want to consult a professional in blurb optimization, as they have the expertise needed to attract readers from the get-go — otherwise, it'll probably take you a few tries to get it right.
1. Perfect 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. 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.
2. Use keywords correctly
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.
3. DO NOT keyword stuff
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.
Examples of book blurbs
When you’re refining your book’s blurb, there is a lot you can learn from guides and expert advice. But, in our opinion, there are few better ways to figure out how to do something than by seeing how the professionals do it. Let’s look at a few bestselling blurbs and see what we can learn from their successes.
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
Scottish Highlands, 1945. Claire Randall, a former British combat nurse, is just back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon when she walks through a standing stone in one of the ancient circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach—an “outlander”—in a Scotland torn by war and raiding clans in the year of Our Lord . . . 1743.
Claire is catapulted into the intrigues of a world that threatens her life, and may shatter her heart. Marooned amid danger, passion, and violence, Claire learns her only chance of safety lies in Jamie Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior. What begins in compulsion becomes urgent need, and Claire finds herself torn between two very different men, in two irreconcilable lives.
What do we learn?
Main character: Claire Randall, a former Combat nurse, recently reunited with husband
Primary conflict: Trapped in the past, she must rely on a man who could tempt her away from her marriage oaths.
Stakes: Survival and fidelity
Genre keywords: Passion, compulsion, torn between, shatter her heart
This blurb does a great job riding the line between historical fiction, fantasy, and romance. It sets up just enough backstory to help us understand the main conceit: a woman from the 40s sent back to the 18th Century and being torn between two different men in two different times.
Message in a Bottle by Nicholas Sparks
Divorced and disillusioned about relationships, Theresa Osborne is jogging when she finds a bottle on the beach. Inside is a letter of love and longing to "Catherine," signed simply "Garrett." Challenged by the mystery and pulled by emotions she doesn't fully understand, Theresa begins a search for this man that will change her life. What happens to her is unexpected, perhaps miraculous — an encounter that embraces all our hopes for finding someone special, for having a love that is timeless and everlasting....
Nicholas Sparks exquisitely chronicles the human heart. In his first bestselling novel, The Notebook, he created a testament to romantic love that touched readers around the world. Now in this New York Times bestseller, he renews our faith in destiny, in the ability of lovers to find each other no matter where, no matter when…
What do we learn?
Main character: Theresa, divorced, disillusioned
Primary conflict: Will she, or will she not find the man who wrote the letter?
Stakes: Will Theresa find romance and find her faith renewed?
Genre keywords: Mystery, emotions love, timeless, romantic love
The first two sentences of the blurb do a great job of painting a scene that readers can easily picture: A woman running on the beach, finding the bottle, pulling out a letter and having an emotional reaction. It also happens to be describing the inciting incident of the story, which really helps give the blurb some narrative momentum.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
EVERY DAY THE SAME
Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning and night. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. Jess and Jason, she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.
And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel goes to the police. But is she really as unreliable as they say? Soon she is deeply entangled not only in the investigation but in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?
What do we learn?
Main character: Rachel, lonely, recently lost something in her life
Primary conflict: Will she be able to untangle the mystery she’s become a part of?
Stakes: Has she Rachel done something terrible? Will her life ever return to the way it was before?
Genre keywords: shocking, police, investigation, deeply entangled.
It’s great how visual this synopsis is — the first paragraph almost works like a quick film montage: a bored woman on a train, the sound of the train, the houses flashing by. It takes us straight into the world of the book before it throws us into the protagonist’s head. “She’s even started to feel like she knows them”: by giving the reader her point-of-view, an attachment starts to form, and we’re more likely to care about her fate.
Also, note that this blurb does not mention Rachel’s alcoholism — though it does heavily imply that she’s now separated and that she’s in a dark place. What the synopsis does do is explicitly define only the elements needed to understand the hook: that she thinks she has seen something bad happen, that she may have done something wrong and that she’s an unreliable narrator.
Killing Floor by Lee Child
Ex-military policeman Jack Reacher is a drifter. He’s just passing through Margrave, Georgia, and in less than an hour, he’s arrested for murder. Not much of a welcome. All Reacher knows is that he didn’t kill anybody. At least not here. Not lately. But he doesn’t stand a chance of convincing anyone. Not in Margrave, Georgia. Not a chance in hell.
What do we learn?
Main character: Jack Reacher, former MP, drifter
Primary conflict: Charged with a crime he didn’t commit. Will he prove his innocence in this small, isolated town?
Stakes: In Georgia? Lethal injection
Genre keywords: Murder, kill, arrested, not a chance in hell.
This blurb is a lot shorter than the previous examples. It’s a perfect introduction to the hard-boiled, no-nonsense narration style of the books. The short sentences and sardonic interjections (“Not much of a welcome” and “not a chance in hell”) might read like clichés, but they capture a traditional hero in the Bogart mold.
Also, the blurb gives us a sense of the setting. There’s no reason the reader should be aware of Margrave, but its repetition and context let us know that this is not a friendly town. Without having to spell it out, we can tell that Jack Reacher is about to encounter some small-minded locals.
Of course, there are plenty of books to draw inspiration from. Just reach up on to your bookshelf and pull down your favorite book — see how they go about establishing characters, stakes, and conflict.
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.