Growing up, I was something of a “free-range” kid. That means my parents weren’t terribly concerned where I was at all hours of the day, and I was given a lot of freedom to go anywhere I wanted, including riding public transportation into nearby New York City. This might have been the beginning of a worrying downward spiral for some kids, who would have used this power to get into all sorts of trouble, but I was a glasses-wearing nerd. I used this power to go to bookstores.
Things have changed, since then. The Golden Age of Browsing in Bookstores is long gone. Instead of being able to pluck a limited selection of books from a shelf and examine them thoroughly before making any decisions, today’s book shopping experience is, to paraphrase Bo Burnham, “a little bit of everything, all of the time.”
You can literally buy almost any book ever published online—but you can’t easily replicate the browsing experience. Stuff like “Look Inside” on Amazon makes an attempt to replicate that experience, but it’s not the same. Like many digital tools that seek to emulate a physical, real-world interaction, it’s too clunky and time-consuming.
Which is why we’re living in the Golden Age of the Blurb.
What’s a blurb? A blurb is that short book description found on the back cover or inside cover flap of a book, which is used by online retailers as the default brief description. It’s sometimes referred to as “back cover copy” (BCC). If you’ve ever self-published a book on an online platform, chances are you’ve written a blurb for your book, and as a result you know how hard it can be.
The history of the blurb goes back to the early days of the 20th century. Humorist Gelett Burgess invented the word for a prank cover to one of his books, which featured a woman he named Miss Belinda Blurb in the act of “blurbing,” with the cover festooned with over-the-top praise for the book itself (the actual blurbs). When he included the word in his book Burgess Unabridged: A Classic Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed, he defined it as
Blurb, n. 1. A flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial. 2. Fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher.
Blurb, v. To flatter from interested motives; to compliment oneself.
Now that’s how to do it: Not only invent a marketing tactic but also give it a name and a comic spin (it’s a bit sobering to realize that you can be a successful writer who literally invented one of the most common words in use today and yet be totally forgotten).
Blurbs are meant to be really short—100 to 200 words, max. They’re not easy to write—if you thought writing a synopsis of your book was hard, try writing something that captures the spirit of your book in a compelling way in just 150 words. In fact, being able to write an effective blurb is one of those things only a writer can accomplish (other things we’re good at: Poverty, correcting people’s grammar until we’re no longer invited to anything, and staring unblinking into various and sundry voids).
Every book has a blurb, but not every book has a good blurb. And that’s important, because your book’s blurb is part of The Holy Trinity of marketing features for your book, along with your book’s cover and reviews. When people are shopping for their next reading experience online, they enter a sales funnel that works like this:
- Snazzy cover catches their eye—this looks like the genre I love, and the art screams EXCITING STUFF HERE.
- They check the overall customer rating and maybe read a few reviews from each end of the spectrum (5-star to 1-star).
- They read the book’s blurb and make a decision.
The precise order of those things may shift, and some readers might add a step 4 where they click that “LOOK INSIDE” button to actually flip through a few pages digitally. But your book’s blurb is always one of the things people will read before making a purchase decision—in fact, there is always the chance it will actually be the ONLY thing someone reads about your book before making that decision.
This means you have to put a lot of thought and effort into making your blurb effective. Think of it this way: In many cases, your blurb will be the first piece of writing a potential reader sees from you, and it will set the tone and give them their first impression of what your book is like and about.
Number one, your book’s blurb needs to make your potential reader interested. It needs to ‘hook’ them and make them want to keep investigating your book at a bare minimum—and ideally buy a copy.
A blurb should also give the reader a glimpse of the story, especially your story’s hook. You shouldn’t give away spoilers or bore them with too much detail, but your reader needs to know if this is a story they want to read.
Your blurb should also ground your book in its genre and sub-genre if any. It shouldn’t leave readers confused as to whether it’s a mystery or a space opera, and if it’s non-fiction it’s best to make that explicitly clear.
Judging the effectiveness of a blurb is easy: If it makes a reader want to keep reading, it’s a good blurb. The challenge lies in figuring out whether you’ve got a good blurb before you do months of A/
Writing a good blurb requires a lot more than a great “elevator pitch” for your book (although that’s important). Like writing anything, writing a good book blurb is as much an art as a science, but there are some specific ingredients that every good book blurb includes:
The best way to think of a book blurb is a series of nested hooks that convince your potential reader to keep, well, reading. That starts with the first line of your blurb, which should convince them to keep reading (and click “read more” if necessary), and continues with a description that keeps them intrigued, ending with a desire to actually read the book.
One approach that works well is to pose a question in your first line. Adam Croft uses this approach a lot in his book blurbs—for his 2015 thriller Her Last Tomorrow, his blurb begins “Could you murder your wife to save your daughter?” A question like that immediately involves your reader. They’re pulled in because they instinctively seek to answer the question, which leads to a natural curiosity as to how the writer answers it in the story.
The difference between a great first line in a blurb and an okay first line in a blurb can be just a few words. Consider the blurb for J.G. Ballard’s Crash. In areas outside the U.S., the blurb’s first line is
When Ballard, our narrator, smashes his car into another and watches a man die in front of him, his sense of sexual possibilities in the world around him becomes radicalized.
But in the U.S., this has been re-written as
When J. G. Ballard, our narrator, smashes his car into another and watches a man die in front of him, he finds himself drawn with increasing intensity to the mangled impacts of car crashes.
The former is immediately compelling because car crashes, death, and “sexual possibilities” seem impossible to link together. That latter reads like we’re about to open up the world’s most dramatic car safety manual. In other words, Ballard’s U.S. publisher is lucky he and the novel are already famous.
Your blurb should give the reader a shorthand description of the plot and main character(s). This should set the stage, establish the genre, and give a glimpse into your story—but it should not be a full synopsis. Blurbs need to be short, so cramming your entire plot into one isn’t possible, and attempts to do so will have seriously diminishing returns. You really want to include the specific details of your story that will intrigue and gesture broadly at everything else.
A great example of a blurb that sets the stage without giving too much away is Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train:
EVERY DAY THE SAME
Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning and night. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. Jess and Jason, she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.
And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel goes to the police. But is she really as unreliable as they say? Soon she is deeply entangled not only in the investigation but in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?
If you think about it, that blurb tells you exactly what this book is about while also giving you a clear idea of the genre and tone. And yet nothing is spoiled, and no unnecessary detail is offered—because it wants you to buy and read the book to answer those questions.
Things like great reviews from well-known sources, awards you’ve won (even for other books), or other achievements like bestseller status or a supportive quote from an established author can elevate a potential reader’s opinion of your book—and you.
Instead of some rando trying to convince them that their $2.99 will be well spent, you’re an author who’s been recognized by their peers, someone who has a track record. Don’t worry if you don’t have anything that could be defined as a bona fide to use here—it’s a ‘nice to have,’ not a ‘must-have.’ If you craft your blurb well overall, a lack of endorsements or awards won’t be a problem.
Now that you know the essential parts of a blurb, let’s consider some grace notes—some tips that can push your blurb from good to great.
White space increases readability, especially on screens. If your blurb is a dense block of text, almost every potential reader will nope out of it before too long. Short paragraphs—ideally, single sentences—not only jump out clearly, they are very easy to read through. A potential reader will just jump from line to line effortlessly.
Holding yourself to single lines also helps stop you from overwriting—if you force yourself to use very short paragraphs, you’ll soon find that a lot of the details you initially thought essential to your plot summary actually aren’t (this may, in turn, lead to an existential crisis as you wonder if those details are actually essential to your plot, which in turn may lead to wondering if your plot is as essential as you thought, which in turn leads to heavy drinking and crying jags or maybe that’s just me).
The classic example of a blurb following the short paragraph rule to perfection is Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight:
About three things I was absolutely positive.
First, Edward was a vampire.
Second, there was a part of him – and I didn’t know how dominant that part might be – that thirsted for my blood.
Third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.
In fewer than 50 words, this blurb lets you know that this is a story about vampires—but not a typical vampire story. It hints at danger (“thirsted for my blood”) but ends on something that was entirely unexpected in a 2005 vampire story—romance.
If you’re not a well-known author with a large mob of fans, your blurb is going to do double duty by introducing you to a potential reader who probably doesn’t know you or your work. An efficient way to do that is to reference established authors and books. Describing your story as “An energetic Young Adult fantasy that every Harry Potter fan will love” helps give the reader a sense of who you are and where your work lives. If you’re also using these terms in your keywords for discovery, there’s a good chance this is exactly what your potential reader wants to hear about your book.
This might seem obvious, but in your desire to intrigue and hook your readers resist the urge to reveal too much. One reason every author hates writing synopses of their novels so much is how difficult it is to take a complex, twisty plot filled with complex, deeply-imagined characters and make it all seem interesting in a few paragraphs that lack all the detail and subtlety of the actual writing. When it comes to giving readers a glimpse of your story, less is always more.
A great example of a blurb that describes its book without giving too much away is the blurb for Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which is a novel that is almost literally indescribable without the use of complex charts and at least one overhead projector:
Six interlocking lives—one amazing adventure. In a narrative that circles the globe and reaches from the 19th century to a post-apocalyptic future, David Mitchell erases the boundaries of time, genre and language to offer an enthralling vision of humanity’s will to power, and where it will lead us.
The beauty of that blurb is how it hooks you, then lets you know the range of genres it will encompass, gives you an idea of the ambitions Mitchell brings to the table and leaves you wondering how in the world he’d going to pull it off—all without giving you any real idea what the story itself is about.
No one becomes a writer because they want to write book blurbs—but crafting a kick-butt blurb is one of the cornerstones of your book’s passive marketing. Following a few simple rules-of-thumb can make this process a lot easier—and your blurbs a lot more effective.
- Writing Hooks for Your Books: How to Grab Readers’ Attention in Seconds
- Forget The Book, Have You Read This Irresistible Story On Blurbs?
- 10 Tips to Write a Book Blurb That Sells
- How to Write a Catchy Back-Cover Blurb That Sells
- How to write a blurb that hooks readers and converts to book sales
- How to write a book blurb: Crafting an attention-grabbing summary of your book