Blurb Writing Series, Part 1: Judge a Book by its Back Cover Blurb by Karen Wiesner
JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS BACK COVER BLURB
Fact 1: Readers judge books by their back cover blurbs just as they might a cover.
Fact 2: Authors and publishers want them to! To have a reader judge a book by its back cover blurb is our goal.
The only problem with this is that we want readers to judge our books to be worthy of taking the risk of buying and reading it, not the opposite. For that very reason, an *effectively good* back cover blurb is absolutely crucial to our success.
Let’s define our terms before we go any further. An effectively good blurb either is effectively good in making a reader open the book or it’s not. That’s the bottom line, and all that matters. A blurb can be good and not effective, or effective and not good, but either it’s both or it won’t work. End of story. (That could be literal, you know.)
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter a whit if it’s long or short or somewhere in-between. We have a misconception these days that being short by definition makes a blurb good and effective while a long blurb is by default in opposition of that, but both flavor-of the-day trends are illusions that you can’t afford to rest on. You can have a thousand word blurb that’s so amazing readers devour it and immediately want to read the book just as you might see a short, punchy blurb that’s incredibly well-written but doesn’t make someone want to read the book. Hence, effectively good means it’s both well-written and makes a person want to read the story inside the pages, not just the back. If a blurb isn’t good enough to make someone want to open the book and read, it’s not effectively good.
Beyond this, most authors don’t realize that there’s a sort of order to the steps that a reader goes through in the process of deciding whether to purchase and read a book. While the first five steps can go in any order and all degrees of importance are completely individual to the preferences of the reader, the steps are critical for all authors, publishers and distributors to note and address, since overlooking even one can mean the difference between a lot of sales and little or none.
Visualize a reader either in a physical bookstore or a virtual one like our publisher’s website or that of a distributor like Amazon. Your reader is perusing a selection of books, interested but not yet motivated to buy. Now imagine that each of the steps below elicits a rating scale in the reader’s brain that she might not even be aware has been triggered. Each step can get a rating of anywhere from 1 (drop-it-like-a-hot-potato bad) to 10 (do-not-pass-go-buy now!).
The initial scan of a book will factor in all of the following steps, in any order depending on reader preferences:
Step 1: Author. Some readers are loyal and buy anything and everything by certain authors. If they’re obsessed with the author, that’s all that’s needed to prompt a purchase sometimes. If this isn’t a must-buy author, then the author will play a large, small or anywhere in-between role in whether the rating the reader unconsciously gives is high or low.
Step 2: Cover. A lot of people think cover art plays such a huge role in whether or not someone will buy a book that there may be an overcompensation in the industry and thousands of dollars may be spent (needlessly? a moot point) on cover art. The fact is, some readers might be turned off by certain covers, for a variety of reasons that may or may not have anything to do with how attractive or high quality the cover actually is. From my point of view strictly as a reader, while something that catches my eye will be given the full evaluation, a cover that doesn’t appeal to me much doesn’t automatically put the book out of the running. Regardless of what the cover looks like, if I’m interested in the book for any other reason, like the other steps in this process, I’ll give it a closer look. Even if I hate a cover–because it’s ugly or the design is of poor quality–I may buy a book if the other factors I prize get the thumbs up. But I know cover art does play a larger part in some reader’s buying decisions, so it’s something I have to be aware of and address as an author.
Step 3. Genre. Many readers have only certain categories they’re interested in reading in, some only one. Most of the writers I know read everything, or read in a lot of different categories. But genre does play a factor in whether or not to buy for many readers. So genre will play a large, small or anywhere in-between role in whether the rating the reader gives this step a high or low.
Step 4. Book size/word count. I’ve heard readers say they never read anything shorter than novel, not even in a collection, mainly because they believe the reader won’t or can’t create a fully-fleshed out story in the page limitations. Others won’t read anything that’s too big and intimidates them on size alone because, after all, if you can’t say something concisely, then maybe it’s not worth saying at all. In this step, extremes in either direction are almost always what tip the balance in favor of or against a buy.
Step 5. Title. While there are very few people who would dismiss a book from consideration on the sole basis of the title, or even buy one because of a good one, this is a factor, however small, in a book purchase. Some people would never buy a book if the title was too racy or implied a subject matter they’re not interested in or they’re flat out against. On the other hand, I have a friend, humorous mystery author Christine DeSmet, who always comes up with these amazing titles: Misbehavin’ in Moonstone, When the Dead People Brought a Dish-to-Pass, Five-Alarm Fudge, All She Wore Was a Bow, Sex with the Man in the Moon… You get the picture. Her clever titles crack me up and entice me to want to read the stories. Others might have other examples, but titles play their part in making the decision to buy, however slight that part is.
As I said, these five steps can register in a reader’s brain in any order and with varying degrees of importance, all based on individual preference. That book can have any conceivable amount of stars, from 0 to 50 at this point, after this first scan is completed. Anything really low will probably be dropped back on the stack (or the page left on a website) without further ado. Now, imagine, if all five of these factors result in a good amount of stars (the book in question has 50 possible stars that could be awarded–and 50 would practically guarantee the move to the next, most pivotal step…)
The Turning Point…
Step 6: Reading the back cover blurb. Like it or not, this is almost always the open-or-oust deciding factor for a reader. Either step 6 gets her to open the book and move into the final step in the process, which is reading an excerpt, or all scanning stars are removed and the book is forgotten, ousted from her thoughts, and she moves on to something else, starting the process all over again. This is the get-off-the-fence point, the denouement, the make-or-break, life or death sentence. If the back cover blurb attracts her, she may read an excerpt and that will seal it for her either way. Some readers will buy then and there if the back cover blurb sufficiently excites them, especially if the book already has 50 stars in the decision-making bank (another reason to do everything right and not neglect but address each step successfully).
The sad part is that you can lose a reader completely at any step, at any time, even if she’s bought the book but she doesn’t enjoy it–that will factor into whether you get another sale from her in the future. It behooves us as writers, publishers and distributors to make sure each step is the best it possibly can be.
Every author knows what a back cover blurb is, given its high-profile placement on the back cover of every single print copy of a book and now as the accompaniment of electronic copies of the same. At its crux, a back cover blurb strives to be a concise, breathtaking summary of your entire story that includes the major internal and external conflicts and the goals and motivations of the main character(s). All of these things should and has to make the reader want to know more.
Unfortunately crafting an effectively good back cover blurb is no easy task, and many writers outright dislike writing them, or simply dread the process perhaps because so much is at stake if the blurb fails to engage publishers (if you’re submitting) and readers (after you’re published). Your back cover blurb can make or break a sale to a publisher as well as to potential readers trying to decide whether to fork over the money to purchase your work, given that it’s one of the first glimpses of the story and that glimpse had better be utterly intriguing. You may not get a second chance to capture your audience. Many publishers and certainly readers buy based on a sizzling back cover blurb that convinces them they absolutely have to read the story inside the pages…or they simply set the book down without ever opening it.
But a back cover blurb is only one kind of blurb that authors need to learn to perfect. A series blurb (if your books are part of a series) is also critical. If an author wants to create branding to sell a series (and who doesn’t?), having a series blurb that’s tied to every single book in that series without fail can’t be overlooked.
Some Do’s but mostly Don’ts to think about when it comes to blurbs, whether back cover or series:
The review slant. Never, ever for any reason include a “review slant” to your back cover blurb. What do I mean by that? Here’s an example that’s not from an actual blurb but a kind of consolidation of what I’ve seen predominately, usually tacked needlessly on the end of the blurb:
“In this gripping tale of heartbreaking betrayal and whipsaw action, readers will fall in love with these intriguing characters and their lives will never be the same as they’re driven to last page.”
I have the feeling a lot of authors will laugh and claim they haven’t done this in writing their own blurbs, but such a huge number of back cover blurbs out there have something like this. This is not an actual review from a credible reviewer, mind you. This is the author imposing the rose-colored view of her own book on her readers, not only lauding her work in bold word pictures (does that seem a little conceited or is it just me?). Review slants in a blurb reek of desperation. On principle alone, some readers will blow you a raspberry and say, “Pass.”
But publishers are guilty of these kinds of review-slanted blurbs themselves. Instead of a summary of what’s in the story, you’ll find paragraphs talking about how great the author is, with or without reviews from credible reviewers, nothing that actually summarizes the story. When I first went to Amazon to find out about The Twilight Saga books at that time when it was all the craze and I still hadn’t read it, I couldn’t find a single page that gave me a summary of what to expect in each title. Instead, the virtues of the author were extolled (again, with or without actual reviews). At that point, I didn’t know the author, hadn’t read anything of hers, but I wanted to read this series–preferably starting by figuring out what in the world the series was about in the first place. But it didn’t happen! I had to read the books to figure it out. If they weren’t so popular, I might not have bothered with no series and back cover blurbs to guide me.
Quick, tell me in one sentence… Here’s another problem I see so often, I guess it’s become industry standard or it’s just been done so often, authors think it’s how it’s supposed to be done. Generally the first sentence of the blurb is worded in such a way that the reader is immediately in the mindset that someone said to the author: “What is your story about? Tell me in a single sentence.” In other words, the first sentence (or the last) of the blurb has something like this:
“MY STORY TITLE HERE is about a rapist hunting his prey in the big city.”
Most authors know what I’m talking about when I say, when put on the spot while in person about coming up with some brilliant one-liner that’s supposed to convince someone to buy and read…we croak! Stutter! Fail! And a sentence in a back cover blurb that has the author trying to tell readers what their story is about in one sentence is going to do the same thing: Croak, stutter and fail. Avoid it unless your goal is to kill your blurb in one sentence.
Questions, questions and more questions. Don’t flood your back cover blurb with questions. One or two in just the right place can be effective, but remember the reader doesn’t know anything about this book. If you’re asking questions, one after the other, relentlessly, she’ll be forced to freak out and scream, “How in the heck am I supposed to know? Stop badgering me!” Goodbye, dear reader.
Size–does it matter? We already said long or short, all that really matters when it comes to blurb size is whether it’s effectively good. But most average, effectively good blurbs are at least two short paragraphs long. Think about it: They used to have to fit solely on the back cover of a physical book, after all, and about two paragraphs are all you’ll get to fit there. But that’s not set in stone. Genre and other factors could dictate something more or less and credibly.
“Stop!” she said. Never use dialogue, dialogue tags, or actual excerpt snippets in a back cover blurb without very good reason. Second thought, forget this ‘good reason’ bull. There’s not good enough reason 99.9% of the time. So don’t do it.
Bring the past to the present. Present tense is the common means of writing a back cover blurb and for a good reason–present tense allows for more zing and tension.
The three elements of all good fiction. Always. You better believe that characters need to have characterization even in a short back cover blurb and their internal and external conflicts need to be as evident as their goals and motivations in that place. What is a back cover blurb if not the plot, conflict, the reason to read? Setting doesn’t need a lot but a hint always enhances. All three elements of good fiction. Always. Concisely. Intriguingly, with tension.
Info overload. Don’t overload your blurbs with too much information or complicated concepts. Maybe your character Zelsa Abdoeiaelkleadk Shultamoaton lives in Oaidahfaohg and rides a Qpdfoapagjoargj to work where Zelsa Abdoeiaelkleadk Shultamoaton is the YuPu Mointan. Within your book, you have space and creative means to describe what these are in terms readers can understand. But in a back cover blurb, Zelsa lives in the desert and rides a horse-like creature to the temple where Zelsa is the High Priest. In a back cover blurb, we don’t need to know every detail of your characters’ lives and we certainly don’t need to know what they do from one chapter to the next outlined in the blurb. We need the focused, most important details of character, plot and setting and tension. Keep in mind that if your back cover blurb has complicated concepts that only someone who’s actually read the book could really understand, you’ve done this backwards. In other words, if you have to read the story in order to understand the blurb, you’ve missed the point of all this: The blurb should make the story understandable and intriguing.
Info under-whelmed. Too little information is just as bad as too much. Does this make you want to read the story?
When one woman inherits the house she grew up in, a place that’s given her nothing but bad memories and nightmares, she must make a life-changing decision.
While there is some mild intrigue here, ultimately there’s not enough information to really make someone want to pick up this book and figure out what it’s actually about by reading it.
Write your series back cover blurbs as if each book is a stand-alone. Here’s the hardest part of series blurb writing: You have to write every blurb as if this is the first and only book in the series. If you don’t or can’t, you really will lose new readers. Even those who are fans might be lost, given that they may read books years apart. The back cover blurb of a series novel can’t be written as if everyone will understand it…unless you don’t care whether new readers ever start the series after Book 2. If a back cover blurb is overwhelmed with the kind of complicated information that makes no sense unless you’ve read the book (or previous ones), it will seem as if the story has no rhyme or reason. Where to begin? There’s nothing user-friendly about complicated series books. If a reader hasn’t committed from the beginning, there’s a sense of, What’s the point? I’ll be lost by those new to the series. Find a way to write your series back cover blurbs so they’re accessible instead of terrifyingly intimidating and off-putting. Imagine someone picking up a series book for the first time and tailor the back cover blurb in a way that will welcome new readers, regardless of where they’re starting from.
The high note. End your blurb on a high note, the highest of all. That last sentence needs to sizzle, not fizzle.
Please, sir, I want some more. A blurb is a summary of the story that’s rife with suspense, intrigue, a reason–every reason–to want to keep reading! If the reader isn’t left with the desire to read more, the blurb isn’t effectively good.
And now we’re full-circle.
Series blurb utilization.
A series blurb is a general overview that covers every single book in that series. Series blurbs can range from one to four sentences, but keep in mind that certain genres (or series) do need longer ones–possibly even longer than four sentences. Science fiction, fantasy, and historical books in a series may well require longer series blurbs. That’s because the series blurb has to make sense of whole worlds, cultures and philosophies, which, in many cases may seem vastly different from those a modern reader is used to. If they don’t understand the premise of your series in the blurb, they may not bother reading the first book. Having a series blurb that includes the *series arc* and is paired with every single book in the series (everywhere without exception!) frees the author to concentrate on the *story arc* each individual book in the series covers with her back cover blurbs.
If readers don’t know your book is part of a series, what’s going to prompt them to look for the next one and the next one and the next one after that? It should be so blatant, yet this is the number one series rule I see broken, and it’s such a missed opportunity. Look at the website of any book distributor, and you’ll often have a hard time finding out if a book is even part of a series. A few publishers are diligent about this, but most don’t bother.
Make sure the title of the book is always, always, always associated with the series. In other words, never allow yourself or your publisher (if you can help it) to include just the title of your book. For instance, I never refer to my book Shards of Ashley simply by its title. Always, I refer to it as Shards of Ashley, Book 5 of the Family Heirlooms Series. Notice several things about this: I include the title of the book, the book number in the series, and the series title. In this way, new readers and long-time fans immediately recognize the information they need to know. A huge number of series readers say they won’t skip around in a series–they start at the beginning and read chronologically.
Beyond that, I capitalize the word “series” (or “trilogy”, “saga” or whatever) in every instance it’s used. That’s crucial, and I realize that it’ll take a shakeup in the publishing industry to get everyone to do this. But “series” is actually part of the book title, and you want readers to know immediately that this story is part of a series. Doing so further solidifies the series branding. In other words, I never refer to my Incognito Series as simply Incognito. Always, I add the “Series” tag because this is the full series title and the most effective way to brand it to my readers. If you leave let the word lag pitifully behind with the lowercase version of “series”, you’re downplaying the importance of the full series title. Worse, if you leave it off the title altogether, series readers won’t even know what they’re missing (but you might when your sales aren’t what you hope for). Start this habit now and make a point of being consistent in the use of the title of each book and series name.
All my series have a series blurb I use to promote it and every single book in that series. It’s necessary to utilize the series blurb as much as possible to create brand awareness for your series. New and longtime series readers alike want to know how the current book connects with others in that series. If the series blurb is effective, those sentences will accurately reflect the premise of every book in the series in a concise, intriguing summary. Series blurbs can sell books (to publishers and buyers) just as surely as story blurbs can. An author would never consider skipping a story blurb–a publisher wouldn’t either.
This is the second most common series branding rule I see broken. In this case, it’s not just the publishers who neglect to utilize the series blurb. A few years ago, I wanted to find out more information about a certain bestselling author’s series. The series had been around for a while, and several books were already available. I went to the publisher’s website, the author’s website, and even distributor websites trying desperately to find out what the series was about. The story blurbs were fine, but they didn’t tell me enough about the connections between the individual books to really appeal to me. (Not to mention that none of the books had numbers, so I had no idea about the order of the series, so finding out where to begin would have been a headache.) When I buy a series, I look first at the series blurb, since that tells me what I’m getting into. If that entices me, I’ll read individual story blurbs (in order, if more than one book is currently available). If I like those, I’ll make a purchase. In this case, the information I needed was nowhere to be found. I got tired of chasing after it, and this author (my apologies if none of this was her fault) lost the sale of all of these particular series’ titles. I do feel bad about that, because I know authors have little if any control over aspects of publication when working with mass-market (and sometimes even small press) publishers. But that particular author did have control of her own website, and she failed to give me the information I needed to make a purchase enticing, or even inevitable.
Taking this one step further: I strongly believe in using your back cover and series blurbs together in every single promotion you do for a series as well when your book is for sale at a distributor’s website. So you’d order it with your series blurb first, followed by the back cover blurb for that particular title in the series. If there are limitations to the size of your overall blurb, you may have to do some whittling. Having your blurbs in a variety of sizes for different uses is ideal. Start now: Associate all the stories in the series as part of the series–one book can’t be separated from the other because they belong together.
A series isn’t like a single-title book. If you lose readers from the beginning or anywhere in the middle, you’ve lost them for its entirety. That’s major ruin! Some series authors never recover from this. Talk to your publisher about this, but if they don’t do anything, at the very least make sure to provide easily accessible and compelling information about your series on your own website.
We know that readers buy based on an intriguing back cover blurb that convinces them they absolutely have to read the story inside the pages…or they simply set the book down without ever opening it. A blurb is either effectively good or it’s not. Work on it until it’s both. Additionally, we can see that a winning series blurb can sell not just one book but all of them in that set!
About the Author
Creating realistic, unforgettable characters one story at a time.
Karen Wiesner is an accomplished author with 130 titles published in the past 20 years, which have been nominated/won 134 awards, and has 39 more releases contracted for spanning many genres and formats. Karen’s books cover such genres as women’s fiction, romance, mystery/police procedural/cozy, suspense, paranormal, futuristic, fantasy, science fiction, gothic, inspirational, thriller, horror, chick-lit, and action/adventure. She also writes children’s books, poetry, and writing reference titles such as her bestseller, First Draft in 30 Days, Cohesive Story Building, Writing the Fiction Series: The Complete Guide for Novels and Novellas, and Bring Your Fiction to Life: Crafting Three-Dimensional Stories with Depth and Complexity. Her newest, Writing Blurbs That Sizzle–And Sell!, is available now.
Karen used to run a blurb service for authors. She’s crafted back cover and high concept blurbs for all of her own books and series as well as those for the stories in several award-winning anthologies, and evaluated, revised and crafted series, back cover and high concept blurbs for the entire backlist of nearly five hundred books in one publisher’s catalog.
You can check out more of Karen’s many books with Writers Exchange on her author page (which will include the 130 mentioned above, plus more new books as they come out).
Join Karen November 13-19, 2017 for her “Writing Back Cover and Series Blurbs That Sizzle–and Sell!” Workshop where she’ll cover the need for high-concept blurbs, back cover blurbs, and series blurbs and simple, effective ways to craft them, branding with blurbs along with creating them in a variety of sizes for different applications. Karen will also critique the blurbs of registrants during this busy week.
Author Testimony: “It’s hard to encapsulate in a few lines all of what Karen Wiesner has to offer writers. She created Jewels of the Quill, a writers’ marketing cooperative, spearheading several anthology collections from the group, organizing our ads and marketing, and maintaining the website that featured our individual accomplishments from new releases to awards. Being a member of this group for years, I was and still am eternally grateful to have had her guidance and help. Whether critiquing or editing one of my stories/books or helping me refine a blurb or create back cover material, I could always count on a quick, inspiring response. For example, I initially wrote [my paranormal romance] The Scarecrow & Ms. Moon as kind of a “Murphy’s Law” romantic romp. But, with Karen’s suggestions, I delved deeper into the characters, discovering emotions which took a humorous romance to another level. Because of the “heart” she inspired me to add, Scarecrow remains a favorite of mine. She did all this while writing multiple novels per year, poetry, giving workshops, AND writing self-help books for Writer’s Digest. Karen Wiesner is an asset I’d recommend to any writer.” ~Barbara Raffin, award-winning author The St. John Sibling Series
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