Great! You’ve gotten a potential reader to visit your book’s product page. Maybe it was your fabulous cover that intrigued them, or the brilliant title, or — hey! — maybe it was your name, you celebrity author you!
In any case, it’s now time to seal the proverbial deal. Make the sale. Get the interested customer to become a reader and, hopefully, a fan.
Your book description, that’s how.
While not the most prominent piece of metadata attached to your book, the description is the one that does the heavy lifting.
Your keywords help them find your book. Your cover and title help draw them closer. But it will ultimately be your description that pulls them in and convinces them to buy — or pushes them away and loses the sale.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on a small clump of words. But they can do it!
You’ve spent hours, days, and weeks polishing the language inside your book. Take the time to craft book descriptions that shine just as bright, and they will reward you with sales for months and years to come.
I’m going to lay out an effective way to structure your book descriptions. 1 There are other ways to do it — but this is a proven approach, and if you chose a different one, make sure it’s for a reason!
The Inverted Pyramid — Start with the Hook
When you’re planning out your book descriptions, it’s a good idea to approach it as if you were writing a news story. Journalists never know how much page space or air time their story is going to get, so they are taught to write in what’s called an inverted pyramid. The idea is that the essential information is communicated up front. If anything needs to be cut, it can be trimmed from the bottom — where the less pertinent (and less exciting) information gets gathered.
The most important, exciting, sexiest nugget of information, what journalists call the lede, 2 should always go at the very top. Putting it further down in the story is what’s called burying the lede, and it’s considered a mortal sin in journalism. Subtlety and complexity may be virtues in storytelling — but in writing news copy or book descriptions, you have to grab the reader immediately.
In writing ad copy — which is what a book descriptions are — that exciting, sexy nugget is called the hook.
The most popular hook with major publishers tends to be a review in a major news source or a major award. Lacking that, the hook should be a one- or two-sentence summing up, not of your book’s plot/subject, but of what makes it worth reading. It should pique the reader’s interest and make them want to read more. As with the cover, it should make a promise, implying your book’s genre and tone, but mostly, it should leave the reader thinking, Oh, wow! I wonder how that works out! 3
Say we’re trying to come up with a hook for Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. This is where you, as the author/publisher, need to break out your inner English major and decide what you think your book is actually about. Is Pride & Prejudice a great love story? Sure. But is that what it’s about?
Me, I think the book is about what the title tells us it is: it’s about two people who are strongly attracted to each other from the beginning, but whose pride prejudices each of them against the other. You may think it’s about something else, but play along with me, here.
Okay, that’s what the book’s about. However, the hook isn’t a thesis statement in an English paper. So the hook can’t just say what I think my book’s about. What I want to do is tempt the reader with that idea and make them want to find out more — by reading more of the description and, hopefully, hitting the BUY NOW button and reading the whole book.
So the hook could be something like this: Love at first sight can take a long, long time.
It’s a paradox, a mystery — but if the reader is a romance fan, it will (hopefully) spark their interest and make them want to read more.
If I were writing a non-fiction book about, say, marketing ebooks, perhaps I would start with a hook something like this: If an ebook is just a website in a box, how do we get readers to want to look inside??
See what I did there? I asked a question — a time-honored marketing technique that (hopefully) intrigues the reader and makes them want to read on in order to find out the answer. 4 As with the paradox I created for the Austen novel, it sets up a narrative tension; if the reader is pulled in at all, they’ll have a hard time stopping reading. And once they’re pulled in, you’ve hooked them.
Find the strongest, most irresistible hook you can — but make sure that your book delivers on that promise. When I first published my YA historical novel Risuko, 5 the first title in my Seasons of the Sword series, I used a pretty kickass hook: Can one girl win a war? As with the P&P hook above, it sets up a paradox that makes the reader want to find out more.
The problem was that, though the hook was appropriate for the whole series, the first book didn’t actually answer that question — it was just the beginning of the protagonist’s journey. And so I had a number of readers who were disappointed. Overpromise and underdeliver may be a good way to get a reader to buy your books — once. But it sure won’t turn them into fans. And it won’t result in good reviews.
I changed the hook to read, Samurai, assassins, warlords — and a girl who likes to climb. That communicates the setting and subject matter for the book, and sets up a question: What the heck is a girl who likes to climb doing with samurai and assassins?
I now use that first hook as part of the description for the series.
The hook, then, is a phrase or sentence that gets the potential reader excited about your book and looking to find out more. It likely is, incidentally, the same as the tag you use in any ads.
Once you’ve found the hook, make it stand out. It should stand alone as the first line or two of your description. If the retailer (KDP for example) allows you to use HTML, use <h2> or <h3> tags to make it pop. 6 Here’s what that code looks on my KDP setup:
And here’s the book page on Amazon:
(Note the follow-up question — the subhook, the barb on the hook, if you will — that I set in <h4> tags below the main hook: Can she come to terms with who she must be? Remember: Questions are your friend.)
The HTML adds emphasis. It makes the hook pop, drawing the reader’s eye where you want it drawn.
For sites that don’t allow HTML coding, see if you can add boldface and italics; most retailers and aggregators do at this point.
Tease and Pay-off
Once you’ve hooked them — once you’ve piqued their interest and gotten them hyped about checking out your book — you need to tease them. The tease is a sentence or two that drops them right into the meat of the book. Gives them a taste of what makes your book exciting.
In the case of a piece of fiction, you probably want to establish the central conflict — or at least, the establishing event. In my description above, I set the scene and introduced the central character.
Here’s the hook and tease for the recent bestselling mystery The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling):
“After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator.” Immediately, I get a sense of who the protagonist is and what he’s struggling with; if I like hard-boiled detective stories (which I happen to), then that tease is definitely going to pull me in.
If you’re working on selling a piece of non-fiction, the tease is where you establish the problem that your book is going to solve. Here’s the hook and tease for Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind:
Note two things: first of all, New York Times Bestseller is a pretty good hook; and second, the whole tease does a good job of establishing just what the book is about.
In either case, the tease should be quick and pithy. A powerful, evocative statement of what your book is going to be dealing with.
Once you’ve teased them, you can’t exactly leave them hanging — you’ve got to have a pay-off.
For fiction, you should give the reader a taste of how the protagonist(s) will be dealing with the challenge you established in the tease. Here’s the payoff for The Cuckoo’s Calling:
It does my heart good to see the typo in that description, by the way. Did you spot it?
For non-fiction, give an overview of how you are going to solve the reader’s greatest problem — the one that drove them to look for your book in the first place. This is your opportunity to show that your book is exactly the answer they need.
Now, that doesn’t mean you should give everything away! This isn’t a plot synopsis or an outline. Remember, you’re not satisfying them here, you’re promising them that the book will deliver satisfaction. If the hook and the tease were selling the sizzle, this is the picture of the juicy steak. Not the steak itself — but doesn’t that look delicious?
But Wait, There’s More!
So you’ve gotten their attention with the hook, the tease, and the pay-off.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re done.
Here’s the thing: if they want to click BUY NOW at this point, they will. But if they’re still on the fence, can you find more ways of drawing them in?
Sure. Remember the inverted pyramid we talked about at the top? Well, this can be an opportunity to add some of the material that wasn’t quite as essential or as sexy as what you’ve already dropped in, but that might still catch the reader’s interest and make them want to read the book. The sorts of thing we’re talking about:
- Blurbs by other authors in the genre
- Any editorial or even customer reviews that you think will give the potential reader a taste of what makes your book so great
- “Perfect for…”
- A short excerpt
- A short list of highly pertinent keywords
Now, Amazon offers you 4000 characters of space in your description — and it makes sense to use it. However, not every retailer is as generous. So it’s a good thing that you are working with an inverted pyramid. You can always cut from the bottom!
Blurbs & Reviews
Along with editorial reviews, blurbs can offer the potential reader a kind of social proof — “See! These other people, some of whom you admire, really think you should buy this book!”
Now, you can in fact add both blurbs and editorial reviews to your book’s Amazon listing through Author Central. However, those show up way down at the bottom of the page, far, far away from the BUY NOW button; why not list them twice? The reader is only likely to notice them in one place or the other, not both.
Also, other retailers don’t necessarily give you the opportunity to include them as a separate piece of metadata. So why not take the opportunity to drop them in here?
(If your blurb comes from an internationally renowned author or world-famous celebrity, or if you’ve got a glowing review from The New York Times, 7 consider using it as part of your hook. Otherwise? It belongs down here.)
I’m not a huge fan of these, but some folks absolutely swear by them: “Perfect for fans of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers!” “If you loved Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, you’ll love XXXX! ” “La Femme Nikita meets Orphan Annie in feudal Japan!” 8
Try it out. See if it works for you.
But make sure that the comparisons are really apt. You don’t want to promise Jane Austen and deliver James Patterson. Or vice versa.
“Why add an excerpt? They already have the Look Inside/Sample feature!”
Because they’re still reading your description. Don’t make them click or download and look somewhere else. You’re trying to get them to BUY NOW — now!
The excerpt should be short, and it should be chosen to entice and intrigue. A friend of mine who writes steamy novels says she always chooses a brief scene “just before the clothes come off.” Your book has just such a scene — even if the clothes always stay on: a scene where things are really about to get exciting. Choose a hundred words or so that will lead them right up to the edge… And leave them wanting to jump.
If you’re writing non-fiction, it might be good to share a brief section where you lay out the central problem that your book is going to tackle — again, you want to leave them wanting more. Or perhaps you can share a short how-to or recipe that will whet the reader’s appetite.
You should be using carefully chosen keywords throughout your description as clues to both your readers and to the search engine that runs the online store. 9 If your book is a science fiction western or a home-repair how-to or a silly alphabet book for toddlers, it’s a really good idea to drop the appropriate phrase in somewhere. But only if it actually works. 10 Keyword stuffing — dropping as many synonyms for search phrases as you can into a chunk of text — is ugly, it turns off readers, and a lot of search engines penalize that kind of bad behavior.
So if you can work your keywords into your text organically, great!
But if you can’t — if you’ve put your whole description together, and there’s no elegant way to add steampunk mystery or YA paranormal shifter thriller into it — consider dropping a short — SHORT — list in brackets or parentheses at the end. Often, I’ll add the length and any specific piece of information I haven’t been able to mention elsewhere:
(60,000 words, clean lesbian romance, HEA11)
(120,000 words, American Civil War historical fiction; book 1 of 3)
By adding this kind of listing at the very bottom, you’re doing two things:
- Including keywords for search engines — both inside and outside the retailer site
- Giving the reader a very clear idea what they’re going to get
When in Doubt, Change, Change Away
Remember, everything on a book’s retail page should be designed to entice exactly the kind of reader who will get the most out of the book. You should at this point have compiled an interesting, intriguing Venus fly trap custom-made for your ideal reader: your book description.
Once you’ve posted the description, see what kind of response it generates.
And then, once you get some sense of whether it’s working or not, you can always change it! You can change any part of a book’s metadata except the ISBN as often as you like: Title/subtitle, 12 price, description, cover — you can even change the author name, if you insist. 13
Experiment. Test. Improve. Keep what seems to work, change what doesn’t. There’s no such thing as a perfect book description — or cover, or…. — so feel to keep striving to make it better.
1 Oh — and this same text can serve as the basis for the back-cover copy if you’re creating a print edition!
2 It’s spelled that way to avoid confusion with the metal out of which movable type used to be made or the leading — space — between lines.
3 Or, if your book is non-fiction, it should leave them thinking, Wow! That’s just what I need — how can it help me do that?
4 This technique also works for email subject lines and for posting links to articles. It’s the absolute essence of clickbait, I know, but that doesn’t make it less legitimate or effective.
5 Since some folks have groused about it in the past, I want to make it clear that I’m not plugging my book, but rather giving an example from personal experience. As you’ll see below, that experience hasn’t always been positive!
6 Why not <h1> tags? Because, by convention, those are supposed to be the title of the page — in the case of a page on a retailer site, the title of your book — and there’s only supposed to be one <h1> per page. Also, in my experience, they are just too big. ETA: Since I originally wrote this, KDP has limited publishers to <h4>, <h5>, and <h6> tags. They still work! Use them!
7 Or at least a sentence that can be construed as a glowing review from The New York Times.
8 This last was, believe it or not, a blurb suggested by an agent who wanted to represent Risuko. Never liked it. But it sure catches the eye!
9 And also Google, which indexes all of these retail sites.
10 You can also consider using these sorts of phrases in the sub-title — in fact, you really should put them in both places.
11 As any fan of romances would know, HEA = “happily ever after” — a must-have for many romance readers.
12 I recently changed a book’s title. Twice. The final version works much better — and fits the series better.
13 The author name, however, is a part of the brand that you’re trying to build up. You probably don’t want to change it if you don’t have to.