What makes a successful blurb?

So my last post was a bit of a weird experiment for Halloween. But this time, I want to tackle a more serious area of research: the quest for what makes a good blurb (or, in the case of ebooks, description). We all know not to judge a book by its cover. But can blurbs give us readers a clue as to whether a book is worth reading… or give us writers a hint as to whether it will sell?

The successful blurb

It may seem crass to define the success of a blurb by sales figures. But a blurb is, at its most basic, a marketing tool. According to Derek Murphy, author of Guerilla Publishing, the task of a book’s cover is to convince the reader to read the blurb. The task of the blurb is to convince the reader to buy the book.

Data collection

Following the advice of numerous guides to writing a blurb, I collected blurbs from the NYT’s bestseller list, and from the Top 20 lists from my genre (satire) on Amazon, resulting in a sample of 26 blurbs.

I read each of these carefully, and chose the top 5 books I would like to read from each of the NYT’s and Amazon’s lists for further analysis. I also included the two blurbs by indie authors which had scaled these lofty heights (and whose books sounded awesome!). This resulted in a sample of 12 blurbs for close analysis.

Rather than examining the entire description on Amazon (which often includes endorsements from reviewers, statements from the publisher, bullet points, excerpts, and other extraneous information) I looked only at the body text which would appear on the back cover of each book. And here’s what I found:

THE BEGINNING

1. Foreground the protagonist:

Two-thirds (8/12) of the blurbs sampled mention the protagonist’s name in the first 15 words. The vast majority (10/12) mention the protagonist by the end of the first sentence. There were just two exceptions: The Testaments, which is notable because naming the three women protagonists would be a spoiler, and Bloody Genius, which does allude to the protagonist (who is later named in the second paragraph) as a member of one of the ‘two feuding departments’.

2. If your work is set somewhere or sometime else, highlight this:

Half (6/12) of the blurbs mentioned the place a book was set in during the first 15 words, and two-thirds (8/12) mentioned it in the first sentence.

Additionally, one third (4/12) of blurbs mentioned the period a book was set during in the first 15 words or the first sentence.

THE MIDDLE

3. Clearly indicate the drama:

If the beginning of your blurb has told us who is where (and possibly, whom they are with), there is a very easy way for the second sentence or second paragraph to segue into the drama: with a conjunction like ‘but’ or ‘yet’.

‘But’ was the most commonly used, appearing in more than half of the sample (7/12). It was even used twice in The Institute’s lengthy blurb. Other times, it appeared with ‘Yet’ or ‘Not even’.

Despite what your English teacher might have advised, most of the time, ‘But’ was used to begin a sentence or paragraph. None of the other conjunctions were used more than once, but yet again, most of the time, they were used to start sentences or paragraphs.

4. Consider asking questions:

A third (4/12) of the sample used questions in a bid to engage the reader, all of which prompted simple yes/no answers.

According to the research summarised in Yes! by Goldstein, Martin and Cialdini, questions are better than commands when the audience is in an ‘unaroused’ state, that is, when they are not already convinced by a certain argument, or haven’t already made the decision to buy a product. This may explain why, in all but one of the blurbs, the question was posed in the first paragraph – where we might expect the reader to be least convinced and in most need of gentle engagement. Towards the end of a description, a call to action may be more likely to work well.

THE END

5. Consider linking to other authors/titles

Only a quarter (3/12) of the sample did this, but the examples are so specific, they deserve attention.

The blurb for Repo Girl concludes ‘If you enjoy reading Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, you’ll love this fast-paced mystery with lots of laughs.’

Likewise, Little Mishaps and Big surprises tells us ‘If you’re a fan of Lucy Diamond, Lindsey Kelk, Sophie Kinsella or Tracy Bloom, don’t miss this heart-warming, feel good romantic comedy’.

Both of these successful books appear to have been published by indie authors whose names may not have been as familiar to readers as other authors in the sample, like Margaret Atwood or Stephen King. By including other authors’ names and titles in their blurbs, these indies have been able to precisely target the sort of reader who will enjoy their work – communicating something really important to the reader of the blurb, as well as possibly picking up some new readers searching for ‘Stephanie Plum’ or ‘books like Sophie Kinsella’.

The only traditionally-published book to employ a similar tactic was that for The Cockroach, which is a satire drawing upon Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and, hence, in describing its genre, calls the book a ‘Kafkaesque satire’.

OVERALL

6. Keep it short and sweet:

The body text of the average blurb in this sample was 150 words. However, there was a lot of variation. The shortest (that of well-known classic Nineteen Eighty-Four) was almost half this length. The longest (that of The Dutch House, which spans five decades and features a large cast of characters) was nearly double.

Choosing the right length for your book appears crucial.

7. Tell us about the protagonist + the antagonist/romantic interest, but hold back on other characters:

Almost all (11/12) blurbs named either an antagonist or a romantic interest. In some cases, such as Bloody Genius and Catch-22, this may be a group or an abstract antagonist, like an academic department, or the armed forces. The only exception to this rule was the blurb for an indie novel billed as a ‘romantic comedy’ which only obliquely referred to the character not needing ‘a man to complete her’.

By contrast, fewer than half (5/12) of the blurbs mentioned characters other than the main protagonist and antagonist or romantic interest. Those that did include Doctor Sleep, which really only named two characters (Dan and Alara, since the antagonist, True Knot, is a group), The Dutch House (which is a complex saga in which the main character is not the narrator), The Cockroach (which has two group antagonists), Plastic (in which the third character appears as more of an object/plot device, at least as far as the blurb is concerned), and The Institute.

The Institute mentioned by far the most characters – five in all. It’s worth noting that of the two books which really introduced more than two characters – The Dutch House and The Institute – were also significantly longer blurbs than any of the other books (241 and 243 words).

8. Use emotional words:

Do you remember those four words I gave you at the start of this blog post? Write them down now.

Did you remember all of them?

Which one sprang to mind first?

Why?

Although you might be blasted for including too many adjectives in a manuscript, there are different rules when it comes to blurbs: ‘unexpectedly’, ‘sinister’, ‘brainy’, ‘desperate’, and ‘ravishingly’ all make the cut.

According to my subjective analysis, words (both adjectives and nouns) with a negative emotional impact were most common. By ‘negative emotional impact’, I mean those which provoke fear, like ‘looming’ or ‘nightmare’, disgust, like ‘incontinence’ or ‘vomit’, or even urgency like ‘don’t miss’ (and in case you’re wondering, all of those examples came from the same romantic comedy blurb!) These types of words were found in all twelve blurbs in the sample, with an average of six tokens per blurb.

Conversely, words associated with positive emotions, such as ‘heart-warming’, ‘feel-good’, ‘romantic’, ‘perfect’, ‘great’, or ‘fab’ (all again from the same blurb as above!) while still common, were less frequent. These types of positive emotion-inducing words were found in all 12 blurbs, although a quarter of these contained only one positive emotionally-laden word. The average blurb contained four positive tokens.

The blurb with the greatest density of negative emotional words was that of Bloody Genius, in which close to 10% of the words in the text had some form of negative emotion attached to them. Most of these relate to violence (‘feuding’, ‘faced off’, ‘battleground’, ‘confrontational’), death (‘dead’, ‘killer’, ‘murderer’), and mental instability (‘extremes’, ‘wildly impassioned’, ‘crazy’, ‘diametrically opposed zealots’, ‘maniacs’). Perhaps to balance out the large number of negative emotions, this blurb contained fewer than average words with positive connotations.

On the other hand, the blurb with the greatest density of positive emotional words, and the second highest density of words with negative connotations, giving it the highest density of emotional words overall, was the indie novel Little Mishaps and Big Surprises, from which the above examples were drawn. Given that research suggests it is unwise to connect your product (or art or ideas) with images that evoke disgust, like toilets, as this image will linger in your audience’s head, it is perhaps unsurprising that the composer of this blurb felt it necessary to try and counterbalance the unsavory connotations of ‘doggy incontinence’ and ‘vomit’ with words like ‘perfect’ and ‘fab’.

Did it work? Did you remember the positive words or the negative ones – or both?

9. Repeat the title:

Repetition aids memory, and is a persuasive tactic all of its own. Two thirds (8/12) of the blurbs in the present sample repeated the title of the book in their text in some form.

This is particularly easy where the book is named after a setting (like The Dutch House or The Institute), or a character (like Doctor Sleep), but most blurb writers manage to work the book’s title in, up to five times in the case of The Institute.

Notably, neither of the two indie novels in the sample worked the book’s exact title in, although the blurb for Little Mishaps and Big Surprises cleverly echoes the title in the phrase ‘life has some little mishaps planned for Charlie that lead to some BIG surprises’.

Of course, simply because a blurb contains all of these elements does not guarantee that a book is worth reading (if you’re a reader/reviewer) or that it will sell (if you’re a writer). But, as my next post on unsuccessful blurbs will demonstrate, it should give us a pretty good idea!

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