Another Round of Blurbs!

In the previous post, we revisited some of the blurbs I analysed in late 2019, to see how these books have fared 18 months on. Those which were successful tended to share nine key features in common, while those which were less successful adhered to few – if any – of the guidelines I identified. And as our revisit revealed, the extent to which blurbs seemed to follow those guidelines appears correlated with their success.

Of course, a sample size of 12 “successful” and five “unsuccessful” novels is too small to draw any hard and fast conclusions. It is also possible that a book with a poorly written blurb may be poor in other ways as well (although, care was taken to select only those books with professional-looking covers to ensure this wasn’t the weak link). Additionally, trends change over time, and what worked well almost two years ago may not work as well today. So, I thought it might be fun to do another round – pick another group of “successful” blurbs, and another group of “unsuccessful” ones, and see how they compare.

The “Successful” Pack

Just like last time, I selected 12 “successful” books to see what features their blurbs might have in common. Six were once again taken from the New York Times bestseller list – I simply selected the six I found most personally appealing of the fifteen. The other six were again drawn from my genre (satire) on Amazon.

Although last time, I was able to choose novels from the top 20, this time, I had to expand my reach somewhat. Why? Because of a phenomenon I noticed back in 2019, but considered extraneous to my analysis, and opted not to mention:

The romance invasion.

What do I mean by the romance invasion? Of the top 100 books in the “satire” bestseller list on Amazon, just 15 were discernibly satirical in nature. The rest were all romances. And please note that I do not mean satirical romances, or romances with a bit of satire in them. Such books certainly have a place in a list of satirical books.

No, I mean romance novels which, according to their blurbs and reviews are not intended to be funny, let alone satires.

I’ll go into more detail in a future post, but suffice it to say that it was necessary to expand my list to the top 100 just to scrape together enough actual satirical novels to include this time round. Of the fifteen, six were either on the list last time, or a different book by the same author was. Of these, only Catch-22 was selected for analysis last time, so I decided to analyse all five other stalwarts this time. The final book I selected for analysis was the highest-ranking satire on the list (NightBitch which came in at number 13 – that’s right, no satire even cracked the top ten “satirical” books on Amazon at time of data collection in late July, 2021).

The “Unsuccessful” pack

Seeing as I have six books from the NYT bestseller list, and six from the top 100 satire books on Amazon, I thought I’d expand my “unsuccessful” selection a bit this year, as I found six books that met the same criteria as I used last time: sales ranks of greater than 3 million, fewer than 3 ratings, although with covers of reasonably professional quality (in order to distinguish books that have enjoyed less success because of an unappealing cover).

So, how well do these new books adhere to the guidelines I uncovered last round?

1. Foregrounding the protagonist

Last time, two thirds (8/12) of the “successful” blurbs mentioned the protagonist’s name at the beginning. The same proportion did so this time.

Just two of the six NYT bestsellers’ blurbs broke with the tradition of introducing the protagonist by name in the opening sentences, both of which were quite unique books (The Midnight Library, in which the character is arguably a stand-in for the reader, and the library itself – which is introduced – is more important, and Song of Achilles, which, as a retelling of a classical masterpiece, does not need to do much of the work necessary for an original work).

All of the blurbs for the the newer satires selected introduced their protagonists early, often in the first words (though Nightbitch is unnamed). The only two blurbs which did not follow this pattern were those for Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Instead, the authors of these classic novels were introduced first. Presumably, readers are expected to be somewhat familiar with these stories.

We might conclude from these examples that you can break the rules – when you’re famous! Yet, almost all of the unsuccessful blurbs broke the rules without the requisite fame:

The first, despite being for what appears to be a character-driven novel, did not specify a protagonist in the first paragraph, instead referring to a group of characters as “they”. Later, we meet four characters over the span of just two sentences – but they are never mentioned again.

The second is another rather unique book, a self-help parody, with a fictional doctor as its star. But again, the good doctor is not introduced until the third paragraph.

Next we have a book named after its protagonist – who nonetheless fails to appear in the blurb until the sixth sentence. Since the name is highly unusual, I didn’t even recognise it as a person’s name initially, and was left wondering what the title even meant until I got halfway through the blurb.

Fourth was a book I was highly interested in, focusing (as my forthcoming novel, Propaganda Wars does) on an advertising agency. Yet again, however, we don’t learn the name of the protagonist until the fourth sentence.

The fifth book, apparently an attack on feminism, doesn’t mention a protagonist at all. (It is still unclear to me this book’s position, and the sample does not make matters clearer)

However, the final book – which I would describe as another potential outlier – did introduce the protagonist in the first sentence – albeit on the second line after a rather lengthy introduction.

2. Highlighting where and when the work is set

More than half of the books in the original sample mentioned the setting of the book in the opening sentences. This time, all of the NYT bestseller blurbs mentioned the time and/or place the novel was set in, and for the most part, towards the beginning of the blurb. The only exception was again Song of Achilles, but readers should be able to pick this up from contextual cues, and it is clearly specified at the end. Likewise, all of the satires selected for analysis included the time and/or place of their setting, mostly towards the beginning.

Of the “unsuccessful” blurbs, just two (including the outlier mentioned above) clearly stated the period or setting of the plot towards the beginning. Two did not mention time or place at all.

The other two mentioned place, but in the final paragraph or sentence. In one case, this was to signal that the characters were changing location – although where they started out was never established. In the other, this information could have been provided earlier to give the reader a context in which to understand what they were reading. This blurb did mention a time period early – but not the period in which the novel is set, leaving the reader somewhat anchorless.

3. Clearly indicating the drama with “But…”

Half of the NYT bestsellers used ‘But’ in their blurbs to introduce drama (‘But’ was the most popular way to introduce drama in my previous analysis, too). Of those which didn’t, two achieved the same effect in other ways – through a highly contrastive change in paragraph, or through the use of other words (‘Faced with the possibility… she must…’). Again, Song of Achilles was the notable exception.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the satirical novels selected for analysis were somewhat more diverse in how they handled tension. Still, most used ‘but’ or synonyms and related words such as ‘however,’ ‘so,’ ‘when,’ or ‘suddenly’. The only exception was Dear Committee Members, which, despite adhering to the norms of blurb writing in other respects, somewhat takes on the form of a letter, and itself consists of letters. As such, a ‘but’ sentence introducing drama would seem unfitting.

Only two of the “unsuccessful” blurbs included a “But” sentence. But (pun intended!) in both cases, the dramatic effect was diminished. In the first case, this was because the “But” sentence was also the sentence that introduced the characters. For a “But” sentence to really crank up the drama, we should already know and care about the characters. Similarly, the book named after its protagonist included a “But” sentence, but (again, intended!) because the entire blurb was written as a single, very lengthy paragraph, the drama was lost.

The majority of the “unsuccessful” blurbs did not include any drama, or it was hidden, not offset by “But” or any similar linguistic or formatting choices.

4. Asking questions

Years ago, when I was undertaking my doctoral research in linguistics, specialising in online communication, I noticed something intriguing about asking questions: If you asked one or two questions in an email, you’d probably get a response to both. If you asked three or more, however, your respondent probably wouldn’t answer all of your questions.

Only a third of the “successful” books (4/12) in the previous sample asked questions. This time, two made use of explicit questions – the blurbs for The Midnight Library and Nightbitch both included two questions. Some of the other bestsellers implied questions, by mentioning that the protagonist “wondered” something, or through the use of ellipses…

The first of the “unsuccessful” blurbs (with the four characters) began by posing two questions, and goes on to pose another in the text. While Nightbitch began with a question addressing the reader (“Looking for a summer read with bite?”), which invites them to read on, the two questions at the beginning of this blurb were quite broad and almost philosophical in content. Since the reader does not yet have anything to connect these thoughts to, they are left trying to work out how these musings may be relevant to the following paragraphs.

The self-help parody also began by posing a series of questions (again, three). However, this seems to fit well with the genre. The advertising agency book did end with a question, but try as I might, I couldn’t understand it, and neither could anyone else I asked. And although the ‘outlier’ did pose a single question, at the end of the blurb, which might otherwise have gotten me interested in reading on, it was, unfortunately, anticlimactic. While the entire blurb had been building up a situation in which the protagonist would be torn between two choices, the wording of the question implied that he could simply achieve both goals – tension resolved!

The other two “unsuccessful” blurbs did not include questions.

While questions can be powerful, if overused, misplaced, or poorly worded, they may have the opposite to the desired effect.

5. Linking to other authors/titles

Just a quarter of the “successful” blurbs in the original sample linked the book to other authors or titles, but the examples were so specific, I found them worth mentioning. One, like Song of Achilles, was based on an existing work (Kafka’s The Metamorphosis). This time also, the blurb for Song of Achilles mentions Homer’s The Iliad. Additionally, many of the bestsellers used Amazon’s description field (which holds the blurb) to include links to other works which may provide a framework for readers to understand whether this book will suit their tastes.

In the case of the NYT bestsellers, this was achieved first and foremost by mentioning the fact that the book was a NYT bestseller (all six books did this in the first line, in bold, and often capitals – and who can blame them?). Half of the satirical novels also mentioned some major award in bold text at the beginning. Two of the six bestsellers also mentioned book club selections, or other awards in various publications (2/6 books). Four each of the NYT and satirical bestsellers quoted endorsements from various publications or other authors (8/12 books), and half of the bestsellers linked back to the author’s own previous works.

Notably, in the original sample, the other two blurbs which linked their books to other authors or titles were both for books by indie writers, who had managed to make it to the top of their genre – perhaps in part by attracting readers who were familiar with these more famous writers. Thus, I was particularly interested to see how many of the “unsuccessful” blurbs (all of which were for independently published books) might employ this strategy.

Unfortunately, like last time, the answer was underwhelming. One book used a quote from a (I hope, invented) “Literary Agent” which was quite disparaging. Perhaps this was intended to be self-deprecating, but in the absence of any reviews from readers, it was rather offputting for this negative review to be the only evaluation of the work available. Additionally, the quote gave no indication of what other books or authors this one might be similar to. Likewise, the parody self-help book had a quote from the fictitious doctor’s (again, invented) “legal team”, which was funny, but didn’t fulfill this particular purpose. The ‘outlier’ did mention having won quite an important award – but unfortunately, did not use bold text or capital letters like the blurbs for the traditionally published books did. I suspect this is one of those areas where it is far easier for authors who have someone paid to toot their horn for them, than it is for those of us who have to try and promote ourselves – in the face of feelings of self-doubt.

The only book with a blurb that linked it to another book was that of the anti(?)feminism book. The brief blurb (a single sentence) stated that the book is set in the universe of an upcoming series. Given that a series which does not exist yet cannot have an established fanbase, this doesn’t help the reader assess whether they will enjoy the book or not.

While it’s easy to say “my book’s not a NYT bestseller, I can’t have a description like that”, there’s nothing to stop you from comparing your book to some more famous authors in your genre. Nothing to stop you from highlighting some of your best reviews in your description. And certainly nothing stopping you from learning to use bold font, even if it is just to display your tagline.

6. Keeping it around 150 words

In my original dataset, the average “successful” blurb was around 150 words long, while the “unsuccessful” ones tended to be around half that length, at an average of 72 words.

Counting only the main text of the blurbs (not the awards in bold, quotations from others, etc.), this year’s “successful” blurbs clocked in slightly above the previous set, with an average of 178 words (193 for the bestsellers, 164 for the top satires).

Using the same measures, the average length of the “unsuccessful” blurbs actually came in right on the money, at 153 words.

Does that mean the “unsuccessful” blurbs were better at following my guidelines? Or that the guidelines should be changed? Perhaps longer blurbs are in fashion now?

Perhaps.

But we should also be wary: a small dataset like this can be easily upset by a single unusual example, and that seems to be what has happened here. The single-sentence blurb consists of just 30 words. Removing that one from the sample, it turns out that the average “unsuccessful” blurb was the same length as the “successful” set.

The real lesson here isn’t that you have to stick to 150 words (or 178 words) like glue. Rather, you need to ensure that your blurb contains all of the necessary ingredients covered in the steps up to this point.

A single-sentence blurb isn’t likely to be sufficient, especially for a book based in the universe of something you haven’t even released yet. Not even J.K. Rowling’s books based in the Harry Potter universe can get by with just a single-sentence blurb. Likewise, if your blurb is considerably longer than this figure, it may pay to check why. The two blurbs in the “unsuccessful” sample that came in at over 200 words both suffered from being unnecessarily verbose (something I’m well practiced at myself!)

7. Holding back on tertiary characters

Almost all of the original sample of “successful” blurbs named an antagonist or romantic interest, while fewer than half mentioned other characters. All of the NYT bestsellers’ blurbs but two introduced the protagonist’s antagonist or romantic interest, without getting bogged down in the details of tertiary characters. The Midnight Library described some romantic interests but left them unnamed – which may have been a strategic choice, to make it easier for the reader to imagine themself in the protagonist’s shoes. And again, Song of Achilles assumes familiarity with the subject matter.

This guideline, however, appears less relevant to the less mainstream satirical novel, especially those dealing with social commentary, in which the antagonist may be society (or some element of society) itself. In Animal Farm, it is the human farmer and a faceless totalitarianism that is the chief antagonist. In Dear Committee Members it is an entire university department. And in Slaughterhouse Five, the antagonist is war itself.

Nightbitch, with its unnamed husband, and Less, with its unnamed ex-boyfriend, may be following the pattern of The Midnight Library, inviting us to imagine these men as stand-ins for any or all husbands and ex-boyfriends.

Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead more than makes up for the reluctance of the other satirical titles to name secondary characters, overwhelming the reader: Oddball, Big Foot, Black Coat, Dizzy and Boros. The relative importance of naming a clear secondary character – either a romantic interest or an antagonist – would seem to vary considerably with genre.

Taking this into account, how did the “unsuccessful” blurbs – all of which were examples of satire – fair?

We’ve already mentioned that the first introduced four characters all at once. The blurb of Drive Your Plow exceeded even this limit. But the key difference is that Drive Your Plow‘s names aren’t just names, but colourful descriptions that build a picture of a wacky, fun read.

The self-help book (unsurprisingly, and appropriately) introduced no secondary characters, nor did the single-sentence blurb. The book named after the protagonist introduced a love interest in literally the final word of its lengthy, single-paragraph blurb. The advertising agency book introduced both a love interest and an antagonist, which may partly explain why this was the most lengthy blurb in its category.

Only the ‘outlier’ in this category introduced a love interest at an appropriate point in the blurb, leaving some humorous hints towards the protagonist’s nemesis.

8. Using emotional words

While a detailed analysis is beyond the scope of this already lengthy review, all of the NYT bestsellers used emotional words like “dizzying” or “breakneck” or “shock” in their blurbs, as did all of the successful satires (“squalid”, “exhilarating”, “furious”).

The “unsuccessful” blurbs tended to either be sparse with their use of emotionally-charged words, over-use them, or use them in contexts where it was not warranted. The word “squalid” for example, is perfect for evoking the reprehensible conditions of war. One does not want to read the word “spew”, however, in a book that promises to be life changing.

This particular blurb also insulted the reading ability and financial status of the reader. While clearly a joke, since the reader is the target of the joke from the very first line, there is little opportunity to build the sort of rapport that might facilitate such banter. Satire is by definition not about attacking those in a position of weakness – the illiterate, or the poor – but holding those in power responsible for their actions. And attacking the people you want to sell something to is rarely a good idea.

9. Repeating the title

Two-thirds of the “successful” blurbs in my original analysis (8/12) repeated the title of the book in some form in the next. This time, even more did so – just one of the bestsellers didn’t repeat the title somewhere in the blurb, and the same was true of the top ranking satires. In other words, 10/12 successful blurbs mentioned the book’s title at least once.

Only one of the “unsuccessful” blurbs in the original sample repeated its title in the copy. This time, it was just two. A missed opportunity, given research shows that repetition plays a powerful role in persuasion.

What kind of a blurb makes you start reading?

Let me know in the comments!

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