Write a Better Book Blurb

blurb edit

The word ‘blurb’ was coined in 1907 by Gelett Burgess

(image: http://1.usa.gov/1lR3pZA)



‘Blurb 1. A flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial.
2. Fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher… On the “jacket”
of the “latest” fiction, we find the blurb; abounding in agile adjectives
and adverbs, attesting that this book is the “sensation of the year.”‘

Burgess Unabridged, by Gelett Burgess (1914)



After your cover – that good looking, intriguing example of art and design that demands new readers pay attention to your book – the words on the back cover are critical to selling your story. They work hard to advertise your creative efforts while simultaneously offering a glimpse of the world of mystery and excitement that lies within the pages. Your selection of and economy with words in this limited space must create a compelling need to find out more.


For this and other reasons, writing a blurb is hard. If you’ve been up to your eyeballs in syllables – the nuts and bolts of your story – for weeks on end, the ability to jump out and conjure up a seductive and compelling bird’s-eye view of your book and its tale can be tricky. Those 250-odd words need to capture your story’s soul: its characters, their challenges and the underlying themes, and entice that potential reader into taking a chance on a your book because they want to know more. How do you write that?


Five Ideas to Get You Started

Pick five books that you have enjoyed and know well, and then read their back-cover blurbs. How do these words capture the nature and essence of that familiar story and stimulate your sense of interest and recollection? Look at the use of questions, superlatives, adverbs and adjectives and how they are pitched up to hook you in. Also regard the economy of words and punctuation, how few are needed to paint a compelling picture. Note any opening language, style or tone that you like, or anything that nicely illustrates a sense of time, place and circumstances:



At a suburban barbecue one afternoon, a man slaps
an unruly three-year-old boy. The boy is not his son.
           AT LARGE
A psychotic serial killer who
flays the bodies of his victims
         LOCKED AWAY
A homicidal genius in an asylum
for the criminally insane
A young FBI trainee who must
deal with one to stop the other
Extremely Loud
In a vase in a closet, a couple of years after his father
died in 9/11, nine-year-old Oskar discovers a key…


Determined to save her family from starvation
in the face of marauding 
Gnez troops, Ludmila
Derev appears 
on a website for Russian brides.



I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably
smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again,
as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey,
Michigan, in August of 1974.



Next visit a library or bookshop and pick up titles at random based on their cover, then look for gilded examples of beautiful blurb hooks and come-hither language. Failing that go to amazon and look for new books in any genre of your choice. Wait until a cover catches your eye and then read the blurb in the ‘book description’ field – this is normally the same text that appears on the actual cover. Do any phrases, questions or style of writing grab you? What puts you off a story by reading its blurb? Go looking for interesting books in your particular genre and note the language, descriptions and phrases that raise an interest. How does the competition write their back-cover copy?


Putting It into Words

Hopefully inspired you can now have a go at your own blurb. The bare bones of it can be made from telling a potential reader that an {appealing character} in {interesting situation} has {something going on} with {something at stake}. See how your story plays out when you feed it into this simple blurb generator, then look at your choice of language. Be colourful, descriptive, intriguing – even playful with your opening sentence.


Look out for text that’s lifeless or flat. For example, the ‘discovery of disturbing paintings after New York man goes missing’ could be kicked up a notch: ‘In a New York slum, a tenant has mysteriously disappeared – leaving behind a huge collection of sick but brilliant paintings.’ (The Brutal Art, by Jesse Kellerman). Don’t be reticent: ramp up the drama and tension in your word choices – anything that creates atmosphere, empathy and a touch of excitement is to be encouraged.



‘Brevity is the soul of wit’

Polonius (Hamlet, Act 2/scene 2)



Now cut your blurb down to 250 words as a rough guide to total length – some back covers have more space than others, so length can vary. Slightly. Be aware that if you are publishing through Smashwords your book description field allows just 400 characters, including spaces – not much at all, so check the limitation offered by your preferred publishing platform. And do practice paring your blurb down from 250 words, even if you think you don’t need these reduced offerings – 400 characters is a good length to describe your book on facebook and in communities and forums, so have it available to cut and paste. Twitter users can also have a go at condensing their story down to the 140-character limit if feeling bold.


Once honed and whittled, check that you haven’t miss-, over- or undersold your story, implied something that doesn’t actually happen or in any other way ridiculously and unforgivably misrepresented your work:



Rick Polito‘s TV listings take the pith


Getting Feedback

Next give your hand-crafted blurb to someone who doesn’t know what your story is about (do you still have friends like that?) and to people who do – friends and family, online support from writing communities, people you work with, neighbours, Facebook associates… Ask a straightforward question for an honest opinion – “would they buy your story based on your sales pitch?” Get as much feedback as you can tolerate, correcting issues that are raised a few times and any other problems that bother you and your test readers.



‘Note words and quotes and phrases with instant appeal,
atmosphere, an air of mystery, a sense of 
a sense of place and put them all together 
in a coherent
and exciting way. So whoever picks up the 
book and
reads the blurb thinks: “I must read this book.”‘

Sarah Kettle, Penguin copywriter



Once happy with your streamlined blurb keep all your efforts – the 400-character précis, the 140-character twitter tweet and the finished blurb itself. You will need these for your website, blog, online sales page, Facebook and forum posts… and anywhere else you promote your writing.


Lastly you need some outstanding reviews – preferably written by someone famous or credible in your genre or in the writing or newspaper business – that screams praise for your vivid story telling talents and poise with prose. If possible get two or three of these quotations to backup everything that’s promised or suggested in your blurb, with the best one centred above your blurb copy and the rest running under it. If readily available, truly supportive of your writing and written by JD Salinger, JK Rowling and/or NR Mandela, you could do away with the blurb altogether and use them instead to promote and sell your book.


As with the rest of your manuscript make sure typos and errors are spotted and fixed, as these don’t look good when laid bare on the back cover. Spend time on your blurb, as getting it really wrong could get you laughed at or at least cost you sales. And if none of the above helps you can get in touch with me to see if I can fix your problem.

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