In late 2019, shortly before the release of my 2020 debut novel Number Eight Crispy Chicken, I wrote a pair of posts on the art of blurb writing. One focused on successful blurbs, in order to discover what they have in common. Then, I examined the blurbs of less successful books – in an attempt to see to what extent a book’s blurb may be the driver of its success.
No experiment is truly reliable unless it is replicated. And with my second novel Propaganda Wars in the works, I thought it was time to revisit those books I examined a year and a half ago – and to discover whether the bestselling books of 2021 adhere to the same guidelines I identified.
While it may seem crass to define the success of a blurb by a book’s sales figures, as Guerilla Publishing points out, the task of a book cover (the subject of my previous post) is to convince the reader to read the blurb. And the task of the blurb is to convince the reader to read the book.
Back in 2019, I collected blurbs from the New York Times bestseller list, and from the Top 20 lists of my genre (satire) on Amazon. I selected the top 5 from each I would like to read, and added 2 indies who had scaled these lofty heights, bringing the total sample to 12 blurbs.
Close analysis of the body text revealed nine key features the blurbs of the most successful books had in common:
- Foregrounding the protagonist
- Highlighting where and when the work is set
- Clearly indicating the drama with “But…”
- Asking questions
- Linking to other authors/titles
- Keeping it around 150 words
- Holding back on characters other than the protagonist + antagonist/romantic lead
- Using emotional words
- Repeating the title
… and its “opposite”
Finding blurbs that were “unsuccessful” took a little extra care. Firstly, given the cover’s key role in convincing readers to check out the blurb, it was crucial to rule out books with unprofessional, unattractive covers. A book might have the best blurb in the world, but if the cover is spectacularly offputting, nobody will read it. Secondly, I needed to find books that, in spite of their acceptable or even attractive covers, had not enjoyed “success” – as measured by sales rankings and reader engagement.
Searching Amazon’s satire category, I looked for low-ranked books which had few or no reviews and weren’t selling many copies. This resulted in a sample of five books with sales rankings of around 3-4 million, and fewer than three reviews.
Analysis of these “unsuccessful” blurbs revealed that most didn’t follow the guidelines I identified across the successful blurbs.
Where are they now?
Three of the 12 “successful” books (The Dutch House, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Little Mishaps and Big Surprises) remain in the top 10,000 on Amazon, selling around 20 to 30+ copies a day. Eight are in the top 100,000, meaning they continue to sell around a copy per day. All but one have an Amazon sales ranking of under a million, and even the “least successful” of the successful books is just over this number. All continue to amass reviews.
The five books with “unsuccessful” blurbs, for the most part, dropped even further in rank. Four of the five now have sales ranks of 4-12 million, compared to the 3-4 million they started with. And none of them have increased in number of reviews. The only book to shoot up in rankings was the one I identified as an “outlier” in my original post – one which seemed to tick most of the boxes that the successful blurbs did. It ended up with an incredible sales ranking of 57 thousand, suggesting that there really may be something to these guidelines.
A personal experiment
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share my analysis of how my own debut novel, Number Eight Crispy Chicken has fared, given I composed its blurb on the basis of this analysis.
My rather modest goal was to simply avoid the “unsuccessful” category. And I’m pleased to say I have managed that – Although it spent some time at number one in one of its categories, Number Eight Crispy Chicken is currently sitting somewhere in the 2 millions, with 17 reviews on Amazon, and with a further 26 (and 30 ratings) on Goodreads. Not the lofty heights of the New York Times bestseller list, but, thankfully, not at the bottom of the pile either.
While we’re here, I thought I might as well repeat the experiment. It’s one thing to observe these books’ ups and downs over time, but do the same guidelines still apply to books being released today?
Tune into my next post to find out!
You may note that while I have identified the successful books by name, I have kept private the titles of the “unsuccessful” books I analysed. I don’t believe in naming and shaming authors who are untrained in marketing simply because they do not have the resources afforded to them by big publishing conglomerates. The quality of these books’ blurbs is not necessarily an indicator of the quality of their content. You’ll just have to trust my statistics on these.