By Karl Bunker
Promotional copy for our books isn’t necessarily something we think about as we’re writing them, but we should, and today Karl Bunker gives us a heads up about what we need to know when it comes time to actually write this copy. I think you’ll find this article helpful.
When you’re setting up your book for sale on Amazon or some other outlet, one of the tasks will be to enter a description of the book. This is where you put the promotional copy for your book, and the writing of this small block of text is one that many writers find difficult. After all, in a very few words you’re trying to write down the essence of your entire book, while simultaneously convincing people to buy it. Furthermore, there are some stylistic conventions to this book-description text, and if you stray from those rules your text will look amateurish and thus drive customers away.
In this article we’re going to address writing promotional copy for a fiction book; the rules for nonfiction promotional copy are different, although there are some points in common.
If your book is going to have a print edition, the description you write for its product page on online venders should also be appropriate for the “jacket copy” that goes on the back cover of the print book. You may want to write different jacket copy simply for the sake of variety, however.
The purpose of promotional copy is obvious from its name:
- to promote your book
- to make a sales pitch
Potential customers who arrive at your book’s online product page will often know little or nothing about the book or its author. They’ll be curious, but they’ll also be aware that there are literally millions of books in the world, and the odds are slim that your book will belong to the small subset that they’ll be interested in reading. Their hopes aren’t high; they’ll be looking for any small indication that your book belongs to that vast category of “not for me.”
So they’ll look at the title, at the thumbnail image of the cover, and if neither of those drives them away, they’ll probably look at the book description next.
What can you write that will keep these potential readers from clicking away? How do you speak to these skeptical browsers and let them know that your book is something they’d enjoy?
Writing good promotional copy is difficult. But it’s still just a kind of writing, so any writer should be able to learn to do it. It can be compared to learning to write in a new genre, and as such the learning process begins with examining the work of professionals in the field.
By reading many examples of good promotional copy for books, you’ll develop an “ear” for this particular brand of writing.
Speaking of genre, one of the things you’ll notice while studying promotional copy is that there are both similarities and differences in the copy written for books of varying genres. Just as different genres warrant different sorts of covers, the style of writing used in book descriptions will vary with different types of books. But the similarities between the copy written for divergent sorts of books is as instructive as the differences.
Here are links to the Amazon product pages for eight books; take a look at the book descriptions for each of the following.
First, a couple of best-selling thrillers:
Next, two classic Stephen King novels:
Two popular young adult novels:
And finally two recent successes in literary fiction:
Similarities in Professionally-Written Copy
Even though these novels clearly represent very different sorts of reading experience, the similarities in their promotional copy are obvious, and this points up some general rules to keep in mind.
- The Basic Structure of the Description
In all of these examples:
- the book’s protagonist is named (though in one case the “protagonist” is a family)
- and there’s a brief description of the plot, focusing on some highlights of action or emotional intensity.
In most of the examples, the final paragraph winds things up with a burst of hyperbolic praise. Those first two points — naming the protagonist and giving a brief summary of the plot — are pretty much universal and should be considered absolute requirements.
In six out of eight of our examples, the closing paragraph of the description is a blatant sales-pitch, using superlatives to play up the book’s qualities.
In the remaining two books there is simply a continuation of the plot synopsis, but with the final paragraph zooming in on the central source of tension in the story.
A convention you’ll sometimes see recommended is to end the copy with a suspenseful question: “But will Dudley reach Nell in time to save her from the oncoming train?” This is something of an outdated cliché, and is rarely used by professionals these days. More common is to incorporate some implied question into the description of the rising tension of the plot: “But Dudley is running out of time, while the train bearing down on the helpless Nell is right on schedule!”
- Review-Quotes and Other Horn-Tooting
With most of the books linked to above, the book description starts out with some mention of the author’s achievements or the book’s established success. This may not be an option for you, but if it is, by all means use it. If you can quote a review from a creditable source (that is, where the byline is something better than “Jane Doe, Amazon Reviewer”) or some impressive best-seller ranking, these are the ideal way to lead off your book description.
The longest description among our examples is under 300 words and the shortest is under 100. A great many book descriptions from professional publishers are even shorter than this – under 100 words and only a single paragraph.
When you’re writing a description of your own book, there’s going to be a natural temptation to go on at some length — to try to squeeze in some mention of all the fine points of your work. But too long of a description looks unprofessional and is likely to be counterproductive. After all, no one is interested in reading a book description for its own sake; people simply want to find out as quickly as possible whether the book they’re considering is one they’ll want to read.
If you’re writing jacket copy for the back cover of a print book, you can get away with slightly longer text, but the general rule of brevity still applies.
- Some Universal Rules
Looking at the items that most professional copy has in common, we can infer some general rules:
- Be sure to name the protagonist; this draws readers in, giving them a feeling of connection with the book. Occasionally you’ll see one or two other characters named, but usually your copy will be too short for that to be a good idea.
- Give a general outline of the plot, but don’t waste any words on a “book report” style description. You want to let readers know what sort of a book it is, but you want to tease them more than inform them. For this reason your plot synopsis should go only as far as the early chapters of the novel, setting the scene and describing the central conflict.
- The final paragraph can be either a straight-up sales pitch or a continuation of the plot description that emphasizes the key point of tension in the book.
- Quote reviews or mention other success, if you can.
- Keep it short!
- Differences; Beyond the Universal Rules
Moving on to the differences in the promotional copy for our sample books, we can see that the language of the text has been crafted for each book’s expected audience.
The text for the literary novels is more sedate than for the more commercial fiction, so while the hero of The Da Vinci Code goes on a “breathless race through Paris, London, and beyond,” the protagonist in The Goldfinch “moves silkily” through drawing rooms and antique stores.
But more interesting is looking at which points are singled out for praise in the various books:
- In the literary novels it’s the writing skill of the authors that receives attention.
- Action and thrills are naturally the selling points for the thrillers.
- Horror and suspense are emphasized with the Stephen King books.
- In the romantic The Fault in Our Stars the emotional content is stressed.
- The Focus of Your Description; What Are You Selling?
This brings us to a crucial point: The purpose of your promotional copy is to sell your book, but exactly what aspect of the book should you be selling? What will your ideal reader most enjoy and appreciate about your book?
Your book belongs to some genre, so you want to sell it by showing how it excels at whatever it is that readers love about that genre.
If your book is a science fiction space opera, you should probably say that the space-battles are epic in scale and fiercely intense; while for a romance novel you might describe your characters’ emotions as deep, piercing, and overwhelming.
Adjectives are your friend in writing promotional copy, and you mustn’t be shy about a little bit of hyperbole. Readers expect book descriptions to be at least a little over-stated, so don’t damn your book with faint praise. Even in the dignified and demure genre of literary fiction, we see terms like “thrilling,” “fearless,” “brilliant,” and “mesmerizing.” Fire up your word processor’s thesaurus and have some fun!
And that’s about it. Promotional copy is brief, so there’s not a lot of analysis that can be done with it. Again, probably your key tool in learning to write good copy is to study the work of others; to develop your writer’s “ear” for this sort of writing and allow yourself time to learn this new skill.
Can you think of any other considerations when writing promotional copy for a book? If so, let us know in the comments.
Karl Bunker runs an eBook-formatting business at www.PrecisionEbooks.com. As a reader, self-publishing author, and eBook formatter he has been involved with eBooks and the world of self-publishing since long before the days of the first Kindle.
Photo: bigstockphoto.com. Amazon links contain my affiliate code.