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The Porcupette’s Quick-and-Dirty Guide to Writing Book Descriptions

For the past few weeks I’ve been voraciously reading the manuscripts that make up our Fall 2018 list. (Spoiler alert: they’re great!) While I digest these fascinating new titles, I diligently jot down themes, images, and particularly well-written sentences in a little coil-bound notebook covered in so many Post-It flags it looks like it belongs to a serial killer. At any rate, I scrawl all these notes with an eye to what might eventually be used to write product for retail websites and, of course, the books’ back covers.

This is not an easy task. It can be difficult to know exactly which words to use to appeal to our readers, how to capture the feel of the book and communicate just enough plot to entice. It’s a balancing act that I’m still learning, but I have gleaned a few pearls of wisdom over the years that might be helpful to anyone trying to come up with a good solid product description for catalogues, website product pages, or back covers.

1. Know your audience.

Owls

Who who who is your audience? (See what I did there?)

Who are your readers going to be? How, where and why do they read? What are they looking for in a book? The answers to these questions can tell you a lot about how to present a given book. For example, you wouldn’t use the same words or focus on the same themes when presenting a book to a teenager who loves contemporary fiction and an adult who loves mysteries. Now, I know it’s tempting to say that your book will appeal to everyone at every age, but being realistic about who you are actually trying to reach will ensure that you attract the right kind of audience—which is to say, people who will actually enjoy reading your book. Before writing a single sentence of your product description, it’s a good idea to sit down and brainstorm the types of people to whom that description must appeal.

2. Select the right tone

Now that you know whom you’re writing for, you need to determine how to do it. The tone of your book description should not only appeal to this type of person, but also reflect the tone of the book. Is the book quirky and clever? Lyrical and sad? Is it light and happy or dark and twisted? Matching the tone of the description to the tone of the story is essential to ensuring the people who pick up the book know what they’re getting into.

3. Make a killer first impression.

Novelists everywhere know that it is usually good practice to make sure your first sentence is great. It should entice the reader to want to know more and lead them to read the next sentence. Start with compelling characters or exciting situations or fascinating facts to hook your readers.

4. Set the scene.

Bute Inlet

I’d happily escape to a setting like this one, wouldn’t you?

A compelling setting can make all the difference when it comes to grabbing an audience’s attention. They also have the added benefit of creating interest and adding colour to the narrative you’re about to unfold. Some audiences, such as historical fiction lovers, consider setting absolutely essential to their purchasing decision, so tell them up front whether the book they’re considering is set in the royal court of Tudor England or among the canals and piazzas of Renaissance Venice.

5. Avoid spoilers.

This one is kind of a no-brainer, but it’s an important point nevertheless. It is essential, when writing book cover copy, to give readers just enough information to whet their appetites, but not so much that they know the whole story. Potential readers should be left with questions, regardless of whether the book is fiction or non-fiction. How’s the protagonist going to get out of that scrape? Who committed the crime? How does the poet explore that theme? What sort of information about that super-cool topic can I learn? If your potential reader doesn’t have any questions, they don’t have any reason to pick up the book!

6. Be honest.

Angry man

Misrepresentation can lead to feelings of anger and betrayal on the part of your audience.

It is tempting to go off on a spree of hyperbole extolling your book’s unparalleled greatness. Hold yourself back! It is all well and good to be enthusiastic, but honesty is always the best policy. That means that you keep your audience in mind when you’re building your product description, and that you avoid misrepresenting the book, its characters, or its appeal simply in order to attract more readers.

7. Remember to KISS—Keep it Simple, Stupid.

A good rule of thumb to remember is that a good product description is short and sweet. Don’t use overly complex sentences or too much jargon—make sure that you keep your description clear and easy to scan so that your reader doesn’t have to expend too many brain cells to determine the main facts of the book. Short sentences, common words and simple syntax work best.

8. Keep psychology in mind.

What makes you buy a book? While a certain amount of whimsy might come into play, usually we can pinpoint more concrete factors. Maybe you’ve read a great review, or your best friend recommended it, or the lady at the bookstore positively raves about it. With that in mind, consider appealing to the human desire for social validation and include a nice endorsement in your description. Some publishers swear by starting with a blurb by an established author while others prefer to work it in later. If you have kind words to share from a credible voice, consider including them somewhere in your description.

9. Don’t forget technical considerations.

Another thing to keep in mind is optimization for search engines. Without going into too much detail, one of the considerations when writing book descriptions might be the types of keywords that you want to target. Once again, this goes back to establishing your target audience, their interests, and what they’re looking for in a book. Do a little research to find out what your audience is searching for so you can get your book in front of their eyeballs.

10. Revise, revise, revise.

As with any form of writing, be sure to edit your work. Have others read your descriptions and ask whether they’d pick up the book. Solicit as many relevant opinions as possible and go back to the drawing board if need be. If you have the time, it might be useful to split test your descriptions with a wider audience, allowing them to choose the best or most compelling version. The customer is usually right, after all!

books

PortraitAnd there you have it. Ten tips for writing back cover copy, product descriptions or catalogue copy. If you have any more to add, send them my way—I’m always on the lookout for good advice to incorporate into my process.

Cheers,Steph


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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.