What makes an unsuccessful blurb?

My last post focused on successful blurbs, so it’s only fitting that this time, we take a look at unsuccessful blurbs. After all, sometimes we learn more from examining (our and others’) mistakes than we do by only looking at examples of best practice. (And I certainly made a lot of mistakes in writing the blurb for my first independently-published book, You Stole My Heart… Do I Have to Take Your Name?)

The unsuccessful blurb

In my browsing of forums like this to get a handle on readers’ opinions, it seems the most common complaints are that a blurb bears no relation to the book’s contents, or that it gives away all of the book’s plot twists.

In fact, both of these mean that the blurb was ‘successful’ in terms of getting the reader to purchase or borrow and then read the book.

So, to look for blurbs that are unsuccessful, we need to look for those which don’t lead to sales (as measured by Amazon rank) or to engagement (as measured by reviews).

Specifically, given the cover’s role to get people to read the blurb, and the blurb’s role to get people to read the book, we have to look for books which fail to attract many sales or reviews despite having an attractive cover.

Data collection

In order to find books that met this criteria, I looked through the listings for my genre (satire) on Amazon, excluding those books which are not yet released, or are in languages other than English.

I then clicked on any with covers that appeared, if not professionally designed, at least attractive enough for me to be interested in reading the blurb.

Of those books, I selected the first five which had no or few reviews (books with fewer than three reviews were considered for the purposes of this exercise), and which were not selling many copies (fewer than one book sold per day, based on the Kindle Best Seller Calculator’s estimates).

All five selected books had a sales ranking of around three to four million, and were listed under satire.

Confounding variables

Of course, there are many factors aside from the blurb which influence a book’s sales. Some books might have a great cover and blurb but lack the marketing power of a competing book. Some might simply be too expensive. Others, in spite of having a terrific cover and blurb, are simply not about topics that attract a lot of interest, and that’s fine.

A book on a very esoteric topic might be doing extremely well even with an Amazon sales rank of over four million. Yet others might have a great cover and blurb, but have a price that turns potential readers off.

It is not possible to say with 100% certainty that the blurbs of these books are ‘bad’, or that they are the cause of their books’ lack of success.

However, given the clear patterns present in my previous post, we can draw some conclusions. If those elements – foregrounding the protagtonist, period/setting, indicating the drama and asking questions, and linking to other authors/titles are not common to these non-bestselling books, then the blurbs may be part of the problem.

While I won’t name names here, all five of the books selected for analysis (from the first 120 I scanned) happened to be independently published. This is unsurprising, given that

a) traditionally published books are likely to have a professional blurb-writer (as Nikolas Erik points out), and

b) a book from a major publisher will likely sell some copies even if the professional blurb-writer does a terrible job.

Let’s go through them one-by-one:

The free, pretty book

The first book had a very eye-catching cover, and the title itself is an intriguing question.

The blurb started out well, with an interesting first line which did indeed introduce the protagonist.

The entire blurb, however, is extremely short (only 26 words, comprising 3 brief sentences), and where a successful blurb might have clearly indicated the book’s drama, all we are told is that the protagonist ‘must do something’.

Two short endorsements are provided, one of which can be read as rather negative.

Given this book is currently free on Kindle, I can’t help but think a slightly expanded blurb which gives us more of a reason to care, and perhaps even the removal of the less-than-rave review, might boost this book’s downloads.

The confusing but intriguing book

The second book I came across had a somewhat less attractive cover, and a subtitle that confusingly appeared above the title. However, it looked professional and interesting enough for me to click on.

Once again, the blurb is shorter (though, at 76 words, not significantly so) than any of the ‘successful’ blurbs analysed in my previous post, yet it follows most of the other rules to a tee.

The first sentence introduces the protagonist and setting, the second introduces the drama and the antagonist.

This esoteric book seems to be one which fits into the ‘good blurb but not particularly marketable book’ category, confirmed by the book’s endorsements, two of which are responses from a publishers/agents explaining why the book would be difficult or even inadvisable to publish.

The personal poetry book

The third book is another which was always going to have a limited audience: a book of poetry (which is a hard sell to begin with) collected by a relative after the poet’s passing.

Only about 65 words of the description are a blurb proper. The book has an extremely polished-looking cover and doubtless contains some very inspiring content, but the ‘blurb’, such as it is, focuses more on the poet’s life and the process of creating the book than on selling to the reader.

This is fitting, given the book appears to be more of a tribute than a product – corroborated by the fact that the family member is giving the poet’s work away for free rather than seeking a profit.

It’s also not clear to me whether ‘satire’ is the best positioning of a book like this.

An outlier?

The fourth book was the most successful in terms of ranking, with a very professional-looking cover, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it has a blurb which most closely follows the patterns uncovered in my research on successful blurbs.

The blurb for this book introduces the protagonist and the antagonist in the first sentence, uses ‘But’ to introduce the drama, gives us a (presumably) romantic interest, and is approximately the same length (136 words) as one of the ‘successful’ blurbs.

This book is a great example of how a well-written blurb may help, but it doesn’t guarantee success.

Although I cannot pretend to explain why this book hasn’t enjoyed the success I think it probably deserves, if I had to make a guess, it would be the fact that while this particular book had one of the best covers and one of the best blurbs in the sample, they didn’t seem to match.

That is, even after reading the blurb through several times, I couldn’t tell who the character depicted on the cover was meant to represent, nor did any of the visual symbolism seem to connect to that in the text.

This may be a book where changing the cover (excellent though it is) to one which is better aligned with the blurb (and hopefully, the content of the book) would avoid this disconnect in expectations.

Another disconnect?

The fifth book had a stylish cover which matches the content and tone of the blurb, yet neither seemed to fit in the satire category. The blurb itself is just 59 words long (excepting a question posed in a much bigger font at the beginning).

It begins with a couple of general statements, and then, in the final sentence, introduces the main character.

At least, I think it’s a character.

The book is categorised as ‘satire fiction’ but were it not for this categorisation, I could have easily believed the book to be a biography.

Results

So, how did these blurbs stack up compared to the ones on the backs of the successful books we examined last time?

  • Only three of the five blurbs foregrounded the protagonist. One left introducing the protagonist to the last sentence, the other (understandably) focused on the poet – although notably, this is atypical of expectations for a satire fiction blurb.
  • Only one mentioned the setting. No blurbs in this sample mentioned the period (but that makes sense as all appear to be contemporary)
  • Only one used a conjunction to clearly indicate where the drama begins.
  • Only one asked a question, but then immediately answered it, in bold font, giving the reader little opportunity to engage.
  • None of these indie authors compared their work to other authors or titles, even though both of the successful indie authors in the same genre analysed in my previous post did so.
  • All of these authors appear to have taken the ‘short and sweet’ memo a little too seriously – the average blurb in this sample was just 72 words long, which is less than half the average length in the ‘successful’ sample. While brevity is to be applauded, a blurb must still provide enough information to make the reader care.
  • Only two of the blurbs included an antagonist/love interest.
  • All of the blurbs in this sample did employ emotive words, however, far more neutrally positive, and far fewer high-stakes negative words were observed.
  • Only one of the blurbs repeated its title in the copy.

In brief, while not every successful blurb employed every feature identified, and not every unsuccessful blurb failed on every count, it is possible to identify some key differences between these two groups of books.

Furthermore, by examining those books which had both well-designed covers and quite decent blurbs (the last two in this sample) yet still didn’t make it very far up the list, we can identify a couple of extra factors we might not have noticed had we only looked at the successful blurbs.

Lessons learned

1. Choose an appropriate CATEGORY

Don’t just shove it any-old-where that you think will be easy to game or that some number cruncher has told you will be most profitable.

When people browse ‘satire fiction’ they aren’t looking for biographies or poetry or pet care books. They are (surprise!) looking for fictional books which are satirical in nature.

If you walked into a book store and found your book shelved as ‘self help’ or ‘cooking’ when it’s actually a paranormal romance, or if you found it filed under V even though your surname begins with a C, I imagine you’d go and shift it pretty quickly.

Why should an online store be any different?

No matter how well-written your blurb is, if the wrong people are seeing it, they’re not going to be interested.

2. Make sure your cover and blurb are RELATED

– or at a minimum, not confusingly disparate.

All of this has to do with alignment.

Back when I was teaching at university, one of my jobs was to try and improve our offerings by helping other lecturers ensure that their courses were ‘constructively aligned’.

What this meant was that the lectures students attended should help them understand the readings and homework they were set, which in turn, successfully completed, should prepare them for the activities they would undertake in class, which would be a sort of practice-run for the assignments they’d then be set, which would relate to the exam or major project at the end of semester, which was intended to be a good preparation for the ‘real world’ practical, commercial or research applications of what they were learning.

The minute this alignment breaks down and you start giving your students incorrect expectations about what they should do next, they not only don’t learn as much, but they leave negative reviews of your course.

Book packaging must be aligned, too.

A book filed under ‘satire’ should have a funny or bold cover.

A book with a funny or bold cover should have a funny or bold blurb.

And a book with a funny or bold blurb should contain a funny or bold story.

When the alignment in your book packaging breaks down, your readers won’t get as much as they should out of your book, and may leave bad reviews.

A note on reviews/endorsements

Finally, it’s a great thing to include reviews or endorsements, especially if your book doesn’t have any reviews on Amazon or other platforms yet. But think twice before you post any that aren’t glowing – especially if you have several to pick from, why share those that aren’t hyper-positive?

No book will ever achieve universal acclaim, and writers may find it uncomfortable to toot their own horns (that’s why it’s great if someone else will do it for you!)

By no means am I suggesting that you edit or manipulate a reviewer’s comments to indicate something other than what the overall tone of their review suggests. It’s wise to seek permission before excerpting any comments, especially if you intend to omit parts with ellipses… or add parts [with square brackets].

But while honesty is important, you don’t have to include everyone’s opinion to your own detriment. It’s perfectly find to not include reviews that may actually be off-putting to readers. You have no control over what reviews are left by customers on Amazon, but you can choose which to highlight by giving them a place of pride in your description box.

Save this space for the cream of the crop.

Want to have a go at creating your own blurb? Download my free blurb cheat sheet!

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