The Porcupette’s 7 Steps to Writing a Good Book Description

It’s the end of summer, so naturally we’re thinking about … Spring 2019 titles! I know, I know, it seems early, but actually, while our bodies are focused on printing our upcoming fall titles, our minds are busy preparing all kinds of bibliographic data for next year’s titles.

I’ve been spending a lot of time these last couple of weeks preparing product descriptions for each of our spring releases. What does that mean? It means I’m writing up the description you’ll see, in some form or other, on our website, on vendor websites, in our catalogue, on the book’s back cover, and in any number of other places. It’s a process that every book goes through, and managing that process is a good skill for any publishing professional to have in his or her back pocket.

Here are some tips I’ve gleaned over a few years writing up these bookish blurbs:


1. Read.

The first step is an obvious one. Read the book. No seriously. Read it. Read every last bit of it. Don’t just skim it—take notes, jot down important quotes, keep a list of important themes, images, ideas and emotions. Be thorough. Make sure you understand the main point of the book, whatever the genre. You’ll probably keep referring back to these notes, not just when writing the description, but also when you’re pitching to sales reps or coming up with Q&A questions or talking up the book to booksellers. I’ve never regretted taking the time to read carefully and make comprehensive notes.


2. Determine your audience.

Once you’ve got a firm handle on the manuscript itself, it’s time to decide who’s going to want to read it. Think about the style, action, reading level and purpose of the book. Who is the author writing for? Who are you pitching the book to? What are some other books that those people like to read?

Are you hoping to attract to poets? You’ll probably want to include a couple of lyrical tidbits to whet their appetites. Maybe you’re reaching out to a younger crowd? Stay clear of too much jargon and make sure the reading level is appropriate to their skills. Looking to appeal to historical fiction fans? Make sure you let your reader know where—and when—the action is happening. Once you’ve determined who you’re writing for the next step is…


3. Read some more.

Yes, that’s right, more reading. This time, refer back to your audience research and delve into the other books that your readers enjoy. Take a look at their product descriptions. From your point of view as a reader and book lover, think about what you think works well … and what doesn’t. You might notice some trends in how certain genres of book structure their book descriptions. For example, I often notice that short story collections have a very specific style, providing tantalising hints of what some of the stories are about before providing a thematic link or an encompassing plotline. These kinds of conventions may help you figure out what kind of information to include or not include in your description.


4. Write.

Finally, it’s time to put pen to paper—or cursor to screen—and start writing. For fiction, this often means starting with the 5 Ws and communicating the setting, the major characters and the basic plot of the story. For poetry, I like to think about overarching themes and maybe include a particularly beautiful line or two. For non-fiction, it’s about distilling a sort of general thesis is trying to briefly explain the author’s purpose. I find that starting with a few pull quotes or lists of themes and images help to get me thinking about what is important to communicate to a reader.


5. Edit.

At this point you’ll probably be thinking, “Boy, those product descriptions sound dry as dust. All steak and no sizzle!” Well, that’s what this next step is for. Once you’ve got all the meat on the plate, it’s time to add some seasoning, and maybe a side dish or two. Rearrange your sentences and reword your phrases to add interest and a hint of mystery. Make sure you’re not giving away too much—or too little—about the plot or characters. Ensure that you leave readers with a question. What is going to happen to the main character? Why are the bad guys after the protagonist? How is the author going to prove this controversial or important point? What insight does the poet have into that theme that is relevant to my life? You’ll not only want to channel your inner advertising executive to sell the best features of the book, you’ll want to channel your inner reader, too, and ask yourself what would make you interested in the book. Most of all make sure the description is an honest representation of the book. There’s no point in appealing to a wide audience if the first thing a reader does is crack open the book and decide it’s completely wrong for them.

6. Get a second opinion. (And a third. And a fourth…)

No man (or woman) is an island, and no two readers are alike. If you want a wide readership, you have to take into account that different people have different tastes, and sometimes, you have to appeal to multiple readerships in order to get the best results. How do you do that? Ask for help! Ask the author for his or her take on the description. Ask an editor. Ask your boss. Ask your best friend. Ask a neighbour down the street. Find out if they’d pick up the book—and if not, why not. Take into account their varying perspectives and, if applicable, incorporate them into your copy.


7. Revise.

Congratulations—you’re in the home stretch. At this point, you should have a pretty appealing book description on your hands. Now it’s time to polish it to a mirror finish. Eliminate any typos and factual errors. Check that you’ve used the right word to capture your meaning. Make sure that any keywords you want to use to advertise the book later are properly integrated into the text. Make sure any special characters like em dashes or accents are properly encoded. Basically, check every fiddly thing you can think of until you’ve got an engaging and entertaining book description ready to sell books.


PortraitAnd there you have it—seven tips for writing book blurbs. I hope this helps all you writers and budding publishers out there come up with some dynamite product descriptions to help get your books noticed. If you have any tips for writing successful book descriptions, write us in the comments below—we’d love to hear from you!

Happy writing,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.