The Secret Recipe of Bestselling Book Descriptions

Years ago, I loved eating at a restaurant called Secret Recipe, famous for its home-style food from a variety of locations across the globe. When work and financial constraints meant I couldn’t travel, Secret Recipe was a way to experience a little exotic flavour in my day-to-day life.

The variety of dishes was certainly one of its best features, as far as I was concerned. You could eat at Secret Recipe with almost anyone, and they’d be able to find something on the menu to suit their tastes. Yet, in spite of the variety, each dish was of consistent quality.

Bestsellers are a little like that. Each book has its own distinct flavour, but the professionalism with which it is presented, and the quality of its ingredients – cover, spine, blurb, formatting – do not differ wildly from book to book.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that, in my analysis of the blurbs of bestsellers, I uncovered something akin to a ‘secret recipe’ which all of the NYT bestsellers had in common, and which was largely replicated across the satire bestsellers I analysed.

Here’s a typical template of the sort of information you’d see in bold at the beginning of a NYT bestseller’s description:

#1 New York Times Bestseller
Selection of the (Reese Witherspoon/Good Morning America/…) Book Club
A highly anticipated best book of Summer selected by (Vogue/The Independent/…)
Winner of the Good Reads Choice Award for Fiction
“One line endorsement” – Entertainment Weekly

From (name), the internationally acclaimed/bestselling author of title.
One sentence tagline.

It’s enough to give the poor independent author heart palpitations.

How can we possibly compete?

That seems to be the feeling among indie authors – at least, judging by the less successful blurbs penned by indie authors that I analysed. Of the above components, the indies attempted only one – the tagline – and just two out of six gave it a go.

Cooking Independently

The secret to being a good cook is knowing what you can substitute when you’ve run out of an ingredient, can’t afford it, or it’s simply unobtainable. The same is true for cooking up the perfect blurb to serve your book. Let’s take a look at each of the above ingredients one by one, and see how even beginning indie authors can adapt this recipe:

#1 New York Times Bestseller

Unsurprisingly, all six of the NYT bestsellers I examined casually mentioned the fact that they were on the bestseller list (in bold, and sometimes capitalised letters)! Who among us can say we would not do the same?

Yet, being a #1 New York Times Bestseller certainly isn’t necessary for a book to be successful. And even those books currently on the list, at some point in time, were not. So, you could skip this line altogether, or, if your book has made it to the top of some bestseller list, e.g. in its category on Amazon, you could mention that here.

Selection of the Reese Witherspoon/Good Morning America/… Book Club

Again, unless you’re super lucky (and let’s face it, super connected) your book is unlikely to be chosen for one of those famous book clubs. In fact, just two of the six bestsellers were also selected for book clubs (and just one of the bestselling satires I examined was). But your book may still have been chosen by a book club somewhere, in which case, there’s nothing to stop you from calling it a “book club favourite”.

If your book isn’t released yet, but you think it would be great for book club discussion, why not add a discussion guide and extra resources? (Click here for an example) Then advertise this fact in your description.

A highly anticipated best book of summer selected by Vogue/The Independent/…

Sure, Vogue or The Independent might be a little out of the reach of most of us indies. But seasons are open to all – who is to say you can’t describe your book as “the perfect summer read” or “a cozy winter read”?

Of course, this sort of strategy works best when your book is somehow related to the season – a tropical romance makes a great poolside read, a cozy mystery is great for the cold weather. That could be why only two out of the six NYT bestsellers (and just one of the satires) used this specific strategy. It also means keeping your book’s description up-to-date – and thinking about who your audience is. (Fun fact: at any given time, half of the world is in the opposite season to you!)

Winner of the Good Reads Choice Award for Fiction

Here’s another big one… We can’t all win the Good Reads Choice Award for Fiction – obviously – and only one of the NYT bestsellers’ descriptions included an award the book had won. But I think this category is worth mentioning, since indie authors need a reminder to put these things front and centre. One of the indie authors in my sample won quite a prestigious award, but didn’t mention the fact until the very last line of their blurb.

So, if your book has won any sort of award, this might be a good place to mention it! In fact, while only one of the NYT bestsellers mentioned winning an award, half of the successful satires did.

One line endorsement

It surprised me that more than half of the NYT bestsellers included an endorsement of the book, in bold, before the blurb. Half of the bestselling satires did, too (and a further two after the blurb). I’ve included endorsements in the past, but never thought to put them before the “meat” of the description meal. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised though – there’s been a trend of placing quotes from other authors or reviewers on the front cover.

Even if your book doesn’t have any reviews yet, you could ask an author friend if they’d mind endorsing your book. In fact, swapping endorsements can be a great way of getting your name in front of their readers, and vice-versa. Or, when you have some reviews, quote one of them. Even the big publishers frequently include quotes from Amazon and Goodreads reviews these days. For many readers, a glowing endorsement from a fellow reader means just as much as a few lines from a professional critic.

From the author of…

Half of the NYT bestsellers’ descriptions, and close to half of the bestselling satires, mentioned something about the author – how acclaimed or bestselling they are, and/or what books they’ve written previously, in bold, at the beginning of the description.

If this is your first book, you may have a hard time filling in the blanks here (and don’t feel bad – half of the bestsellers didn’t contain a description like this, either). But if this is your second (or more!) book, you should have something to write here. If any of your previous works won awards, mention that here. Even if they haven’t you can mention the titles of the books you’re proudest of. This plays two roles -it lets the reader know this isn’t your first rodeo, so to speak, and it subtly promotes your other works. Readers love discovering a new favourite author, and knowing that, if they enjoy this book, there are others waiting for them, may give them the nudge they need towards trying this one out.


The tagline – which I’ll delve into in my next post – was the only element, apart from showing off its #1 New York Times Bestseller status, which was common to all six NYT bestselling books’ descriptions. It was also the most frequently included item in the bestselling satire novels’ descriptions – either in bold or offset from the rest of the text.

A well-written tagline simply requires a few minutes of thought and perhaps some workshopping with friends. You don’t need to have won any major awards or sold millions of copies to have a tagline that can compete with the best of them.


Hopefully you’ve now got some great ideas of what to include in your book’s description. But there’s another ingredient we need besides great ideas: formatting that allows those great ideas to shine through.

Every single one of the bestselling books I examined had a description broken up into short, snappy paragraphs.

Just two of the six less successful books did.

Every single New York Times bestsellers, and the majority of the bestselling satires I analysed used bold (and italic) fonts in their descriptions.

Just two of the less successful books did.

Yes, I know, I know. Amazon is not the easiest of sites to format text on. It’s a lot to expect that indie authors, who are already stretched in several different directions, trying to both write and market their works, will also learn basic HTML!

But it really is worth the effort.

Take a look at the blurb below for my debut satirical novel Number Eight Crispy Chicken:

Now, click here to see how it appears with paragraphs and bold text.

It’s a world of difference, isn’t it?

Just like writing a good tagline, as we’ll look at next, proper formatting doesn’t cost a thing. Simply enclose your text in <b> and </b> for bold, or <i> and </i> for italics.

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