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.


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!


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.


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PQ Weekly Roundup: 16 Feb 2018

pqroundup2Every Friday, the PQ Weekly Roundup collects the most shared links in our social media network—bookish articles, reviews, quizzes, recommendations and more—in convenient digest form.



Thanks for dropping by this week’s round up. I hope we’ve managed to entertain and inform all you book lovers today!

Happy Friday,sig

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From the Vault: Celebrate Gal-entine’s Day with Books About Strong Female Characters and Friendships

Every year, around the beginning of February, our social feeds are filled with articles about couples–about giving the greatest gift and planning the perfect date and so on and so forth. It brings to mind fluttering eyelashes and swooning and swinging dresses and antiquated rules of courtship. And for one day a year, I guess it’s OK to enjoy a little chivalry and layer on a bit of smaltz.

But if, this year, you decide that’s not your cup of tea, why don’t you take a minute to appreciate “Gal-entine’s Day”–a celebration of strong women and female friendships. Here are a few books from a variety of genres to get you in the spirit.


Graphic Novel

by Megan Speers

Follow a somewhat unlikely heroine who embraces the surprisingly inclusive communal aspects of the punk counterculture in northwestern Ontario in the 1990s. From bush parties to dumpster diving, the bold wood engravings that make up this book depict hardscrabble yet happy lives.

The Museum of Possibilities

Short Fiction

The Museum of Possibilities
By Barbara Sibbald

Barbara Sibbald’s female characters in The Museum of Possibilities are no shrinking violets. From ambitious researchers to small-town housewives plotting death by dairy, these women are unafraid to seize their own happiness. Sibbald’s stories also explore the power of female friendships and the ways in which they shape our identities.

The Deep


The Deep
By Mary Swan

A story of twin sisters embarking on a journey to a France ravaged by World War I, to work where they are needed. Exposed to horror, confusion and tragedy, their relationship with one another is tested and profoundly changed.

Hand Luggage


Hand Luggage
by P. K. Page

A talented, clever and exceedingly passionate individual, P. K. Page lived an adventurous life full of travel to exotic locales. Her memoir in verse is a testament to the strength of character needed to survive and even thrive in a life of constant upheaval.

PortraitI am positive you and your best gal pal will find something of interest in here so that you can spend a happy Gal-entine’s staying in, reading a good book in the company of a few good fictional women!


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PQ Weekly Roundup: 09 Feb 2018

pqroundup2Every Friday, the PQ Weekly Roundup collects the most shared links in our social media network—bookish articles, reviews, quizzes, recommendations and more—in convenient digest form.



It’s snowing like crazy in my little corner of southwestern Ontario. If you’re around these parts, stay safe and warm and cozy up with a good book!


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In Praise of the Body Temp and Metabolism of the Hibernating Black Bear, or, News for February at PQL

If ever there is a time when I can completely relate to certain animals’ instinct to hibernate, that time comes up around the month of February. Here in Canada, we’re surrounded by frigid temps and, let’s face it, probably also knee-deep in the winter blues. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I feel like I have the low body temperature and decreased metabolism of a hibernating black bear.


I may look about as cuddly as this guy, but my hair isn’t nearly so neat. Nor do I look quite so awake…

But is hibernation really so bad? I know as a society, we tend to prize breathless, go-go-go craziness. We like to keep busy, stay sharp, work hard—and play hard, too. But, speaking from experience here, there’s something to be said for two days of unproductive bliss. I spent a solid chunk of my weekend wrapped in blankets, and I enjoyed every paragraph of the five-hundred page mystery I’d been saving. Consequently, when I returned to my desk and my computer screen bright and early Monday morning, I was as refreshed as any vacationer after a holiday at the beach—though decidedly less tan.

So while I know that a full 48-hours of pyjama-wearing, blanket-covered bliss is probably unachievable for most, I highly encourage you to spend a bookish afternoon, ensconced in your own personal den, doing your best impression of a cozy black bear … who maybe also happened to get his paws on a good book.


What’s happening this month?


Now that we’ve finished the lovely selected fiction collection by P. K. Page, Triptych, we’re moving on to printing the long-awaited book of essays by Richard Teleky—Ordinary Paradise. I have a special spot in my heart for books of criticism, so I’m especially pleased that this one is coming down the pipe.

Aside from that, we’ll be hibernating, so to speak, with no public events this month. But don’t worry—we’re out and about this March, so be sure to check back for details!

In the world.


maniculeFebruary 7 is Wave All Your Fingers At Your Neighbours Day. Presumably this degree of specificity is due to the fact that Wave One of Your Fingers At Your Neighbours Day ended in rather un-neighbourly feelings.

February 19 is National Chocolate Mint Day. I mention this for my friends out there (who shall remain nameless) who maintain that chocolate and mint are a disgusting flavour combination. To you, I say HA!

Finally, February 26 is Tell a Fairy Tale Day. What a great day to remember the magic and wonder that storytelling brings to our lives.


From the porcupette’s corner.

January was, all-told, a fairly quiet month. Lots of routine tasks that take up a lot of time, like grant writing and starting to prepare for the new season’s titles. In a way, these familiar tasks are calming and reassuring.

scruffy beggar

Forget alms for the poor. How about “free international tax advice for the porcupette”? I’d even settle for “help navigating voice mail hell for the disheartened”.

Of course, there’s just enough newness in there to keep things interesting. I’ve been fiddling with coding up another spring title to prepare it for layout and design, which always results in a few hard lessons about just how you can and cannot tag a manuscript. Plus, I’ve been diligently continuing my marketing studies at McMaster and trying to figure out the vagaries of Florida sales taxes given our upcoming trip to the AWP Bookfair, which could definitely be its own full-time job!

All in all, the balance of the familiar and the novel is the reason why this porcupette finds publishing so exciting—this sure isn’t an industry for those who don’t like to keep on learning!

PortraitI hope you enjoyed this little update on what we’ve been up to this last month at PQL. If there’s anything you’d like to see or hear about in future updates, feel free to drop me a line and say hello!

All the best, Steph

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PQ Weekly Roundup: 02 Feb 2018

pqroundup2Every Friday, the PQ Weekly Roundup collects the most shared links in our social media network—bookish articles, reviews, quizzes, recommendations and more—in convenient digest form.



Thanks for checking in for this first roundup of February! We hope you enjoyed this fresh crop of links.

See you next week,sig

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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.