How to Blurb: Writing a book description that sells

A blurb can sometimes mean a short review quoted on a book cover, but in this post we’re going to look at the other kind of blurb: the book description.

The blurb is your sales pitch, printed on the back of your book or quoted on its sales page online. It’s the second most important thing, after the cover, when it comes to selling your book.

The first thing a potential reader will see is the cover and title of the book. This should intrigue them into picking it up or clicking on it, and then the blurb should make them want to find out more or buy the book. Joanna Penn says the blurb,

“…has to be almost an exaggeration of your story that entices the reader to buy…”

And this is why it can be quite difficult to write a good blurb. You’ve just written 100,000 words and now you’ve got to distil that down to its essence and capture it in 150 words, or less. Easy!

But you don’t need to include everything in the blurb – you wouldn’t be able to anyway. It’s not a summary of the whole story (that’s an outline or synopsis). You don’t even have to mention how it starts.

The key is to create intrigue around the central conflict and emotional theme of the book. You do this by focusing on the main character or characters, and what they get up to in the story. If you just talk about the theme it’ll be too abstract and sound like every other book written on that subject.

Before you start blurbing, ask yourself some probing questions:

  • Who is your target audience?
  • Why is the story interesting or different?
  • Why should the reader care?
  • Why should the reader buy this book and not another?

Answering these questions will help you to focus your blurb to hit the right tone with the readers you’re targeting. If you’ve written a thriller, the blurb should be dynamic and exciting, full of cliff hangers and danger. If you’re trying to sell a romance, the blurb should be seductive and intriguing. You get the idea.

You don’t have long to grab a reader’s attention – especially if they’re browsing online – so every word counts. Keep it short and try to be original. Remember that people tend to skim read, especially online, so use short sentences and simple language. Aim for clarity and be direct.

The ideal length for a blurb is about 100–150 words. On Amazon there’s even less than that before it breaks off and you have to click ‘read more.’

The Amazon description gives you four lines, but how many words that shows depends on the size of the screen and whether you use a larger font. On a 15” screen with a browser open at full using normal font, Amazon displays the first 78 words of the description for my first novel, for example.

So the important details need to be upfront and the first sentence should have the biggest impact. Perhaps use a cliff hanger to make readers want to read on, or a question. For non-fiction, you can offer a solution to a problem or promise a new angle on your subject.

But whatever you do, don’t waffle. Say what you mean to say and get to the point.

The blurb should be written in a way that reflects the voice and spirit of the book. Use evocative language and description that fits the genre, and make it compelling. You might also want to include the setting and/or time period if they’re particularly relevant – in historical fiction or sci-fi, for example.

You’re aiming to excite the reader and make them feel something. Give them a reason to care or a way to connect with the story. And the best way to do that is to focus on character.

Start by introducing the protagonist and the main dilemma or conflict that drives the story. In other words:

  • Who is the main character?
  • What do they want?
  • What or who is stopping them from getting what they want?

These are the basics of storytelling and should form the backbone of your story. In fact, if you’re struggling to write the blurb it might be because your plot through-line isn’t clear enough. Think about the story from the main character’s perspective and what they’re trying to achieve. How do they feel about what happens to them? What’s driving them?

Name and describe the character(s) in the blurb. Use strong adjectives and make the reader want to get to know the character in more detail. But don’t overdo it. One telling glimpse into your character’s life is enough.

As always, less is more.

Research blurbs in the same genre as your book and analyse them. What attracts you to a particular book? What works? What puts you off? The key is to sell the book without going overboard and turning into Marketing Guy. For examples of short, effective blurbs, I recommend checking out some of Hugh Howey’s novels. Like this one for Half Way Home:

“Five hundred of us were sent to colonise this planet. Only fifty or so survived. We woke up fifteen years too early, we had only half our training, and they expected us to not only survive…they expected us to conquer this place.

The problem is: it isn’t safe here.

We aren’t even safe from each other.”

I want to read this! Not bad for 57 words…

Once you’ve written your blurb, leave it for a while and check it again. Don’t be too pleased with what you’ve written. After a week, you might see it differently. Keep tweaking and rewriting and editing until it’s as good as you can make it.

Sometimes it helps to write a longer version first and then cut it down. Or you can start with a really basic one line pitch and expand it. Either way, it can help to print it out or look at it in different settings – like on your blog, or load it into your Kindle or onto your phone. Show it to others and get feedback.

Talking of a one line pitch, you might want to write a log line or tagline for your book too. A tagline is a short phrase of a few words that summarises the story or provides a hook. There are different ways of doing this and it depends on how you’re going to use it.

There are formulas (which we’ll look at below) that you can use to build your blurb, but these are way too detailed if you want to put a tagline on your front cover.

For a cover tagline you need one intriguing sentence – like a film log line that hooks the viewer into wanting to see the movie. Your full blurb goes on the back of the book, while the shorter tagline gives a taste of the story or evokes a mood.

Before getting into the formulas, here are a few things to avoid while blurbing:

  • Don’t use clichés or overused phrases
  • Don’t use too many superlatives
  • Don’t just summarise the first chapter
  • Don’t include every subplot or storyline
  • Don’t give away spoilers
  • Don’t use the passive voice
  • Don’t say it’s great or amazing or the best book ever written!
  • Don’t compare it with other books or authors (You’re not the next Stephen King, and even if you are, it’s not up to you to say so.)

Formulas for writing a blurb

There are various formulas for blurb writing that you can find online, but they all share the same basic features:

They start with the character and give you a bit of backstory – exposition or context for the story and setting. Then they introduce the main conflict or problem – whatever the character is dealing with – the dramatic tension. Finally they leave you with a cliff hanger or a hook, something that makes you want to read more and find out what happens.

All this can be put into a one sentence pitch that captures the essence of your book in three parts: the opening conflict, the obstacle, and the quest. Nathan Bransford formulates it like this:

When [opening conflict] happens to [character(s)], they have to [overcome conflict] to [complete quest].

The opening conflict is the inciting incident or how the story gets going – the event that happens to the character at the start that throws their life out of balance. The quest can be internal or external (and/or both), depending on the genre, and is how the character goes about restoring order to their world.

It’s a useful exercise to write a one sentence pitch because it helps you to focus on the absolute basics of your story. But your book description will probably need to be a little longer. You’ll want to include a few more details and description, and if you try to cram all that into one sentence it won’t read very well.

However, the three act structure is still helpful. Another way of looking at it comes from marketing and goes like this:

“the standout, the meat, and the emotional payoff.”

The standout is a hook, something that gets the reader’s attention. Then when you’ve got their attention, you give them the meat – the content, and then you give them the payoff, or a reason to care. You can translate that almost any way you like to fit your story.

There are also formulas that split the blurb into four components like this:

  • Situation (a)
  • Problem (b)
  • Twist (c)
  • Mood (d)

So you start with your character in a particular situation, then introduce a problem. But things don’t go as expected so you have a twist, or cliff hanger. The mood part refers to a sentence at the end that gives you a sense of what kind of book it is or how it will make you feel.

Here’s that formula applied to The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins:

(a) Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. She knows it will wait at the same signal each time, overlooking a row of back gardens. She’s even started to feel like she knows the people who live in one of the houses. ‘Jess and Jason,’ she calls them. Their life – as she sees it – is perfect. If only Rachel could be that happy.

(b) And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Now Rachel has a chance to become a part of the lives she’s only watched from afar.

(c) Now they’ll see; she’s much more than just the girl on the train…

(d) The debut psychological thriller that will forever change the way you look at other people’s lives.

The book also includes a tagline on the cover: “You don’t know her. But she knows you.”

(There are different versions of this blurb online, so the text for (a)–(c) comes from the Amazon page, while (d) comes from the publisher’s website.)

Not all blurbs start with the protagonist. If your book’s setting is important, then you might want to start with a description of the world of your story to set the scene before introducing the main character. Here’s an example from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:

“In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Each year, the districts are forced by the Capitol to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the Hunger Games, a brutal and terrifying fight to the death – televised for all of Panem to see.

Survival is second nature for sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who struggles to feed her mother and younger sister by secretly hunting and gathering beyond the fences of District 12. When Katniss steps in to take the place of her sister in the Hunger Games, she knows it may be her death sentence. If she is to survive, she must weigh survival against humanity and life against love.”

Again, there are different versions of the blurb for this book online and it might be helpful to compare them. The one above comes from the publisher’s website. The version on the back of the book is similar but shorter:

“In a dark vision of the near future, a terrifying reality TV show is taking place. Twelve boys and twelve girls are forced to appear in a live event called the Hunger Games. There is only one rule: kill or be killed.

When sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen steps forward to take her sister’s place in the games, she sees it as a death sentence. But Katniss has been close to death before. For her, survival is second nature.”

You can see how only the essential details have been included but it still works to draw you in and gives you a flavour of the book. The blurb on Amazon is shorter again, and begins with the character:

“Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. But Katniss has been close to death before – and survival, for her, is second nature. The Hunger Games is a searing novel set in the future with unsettling parallels to our present. Welcome to the deadliest reality TV show ever…”

Short but effective, and it fits the formula above: situation, problem, twist, and mood.

You’ll also find formulas that you can simply slot the specifics of your story into – like writing by numbers. The results can be pretty basic but they provide a useful starting point for creating something that works. Here’s one example:

When [identity] [protagonist name] [does something], [something happens]. Now, with [time limit / restrictions], [protagonist] must [do something brave] to [accomplish great achievement] / or [sacrifice high stakes].

Here’s another:

[Protagonist] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist] must [protagonist’s quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist’s goal].

You can play around with these formulas and try things out for yourself – perhaps with The Hunger Games, or your favourite novels. It’s a good way to learn how it works so when you come to write your own blurb, it might be a little easier…

Happy blurbing!

3 thoughts on “How to Blurb: Writing a book description that sells

  1. I guess overgeneralising is inevitable when you try to sum up an art form in a blogpost but there’s a few things I’d qualify.

    Use strong adjectives

    This is often the sign of a lame writer. Think ‘purple prose’ or ‘Morrissey’. Note that other than The Hunger Games the adjectives are deployed lightly in the example blurbs you use. If your book isn’t full of strong adjectives why scare off discerning readers? (Also, note that in all three descriptions the main character is ‘sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen’, immediately establishing the YA status of the novel. I was suckered into buying a copy of Northern Lights without realising it was aimed at 12 year olds. I’ve never picked up a Pullman book since.)

    OTOH, if your target audience is pulp readers (or those who don’t usually read novels), go for the heavy-handed adjectives and cliches. I don’t know if Halfway Home is pulp but that’s the sort of description I would have passed over during my teenage ransacking of the sci-fi racks but would perhaps have directed some of my friends towards.

    Some books are plot driven, some are character driven, some are primarily atmospheric or abstract. There’s not much point having a plot driven blurb for an atmospheric book.

    I reckon the most important part of the blurb is honesty. You don’t want to sell your book to people who won’t like it (or turn off those who might). The bad reviews will outweigh even the catchiest blurb and effect other books by the same author. If possible use the same sort of prose in the blurb as in the book. If the book’s not full of action don’t try to pack it into the blurb.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, the strong adjectives bit only refers to blurb writing, not the novel itself. Adjectives and adverbs are big no nos.

      And you’re right about the honesty – that goes with identifying your target audience and matching the style of the blurb to the genre. It really is an art form – a totally different way of writing to the writing of the novel itself. Still haven’t got the hang of it – either blurbs or novels!



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