Orna Ross, Adam Croft, and Boni Wagner-Stafford discuss the similarities, differences, and key elements in your book blurbs.
What must every indie author include in their blurb? What should they never include? What are the differences between fiction versus nonfiction book blurbs?
Tune in for this session on book blurb best practices.
Here are some highlights:
Boni Wagner-Stafford, on Writing Nonfiction Book Blurbs
It's all about establishing credibility, letting the reader know what they're going to be able to do, say, think, or feel after having read the book. You want to make sure that you're painting a picture of the result that they're going to enjoy once they have read the book.
Orna Ross, on Mistakes Made in Writing Book Blurbs
I think one of the key mistakes that I see people make over and again, is that they do a summary of the plot. And that's it. They leave off the last third of the book, think that in doing that they have created a kind of suspense, and that the reader is going to be drawn in by the story alone. But it's much more about generating an emotion.
Adam Croft on Book Blurbs for Different Genres
For thrillers, you'll be looking at selling the suspense side of things and the impossible choice that the characters have. For romance, you're selling a much more romantic dream. For literary fiction, your blurb, structurewise, is probably going to be longer.
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The Power of Persuasion, by Robert V. Levine
Listen to the Self-Publishing Fiction and Nonfiction Podcast on Book Blurbs
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About the Hosts
Orna Ross is founding director of ALLi, which she founded in 2012 and launched that year at London Book Fair. After being traditionally published Orna took her rights back from Penguin and republished with titles and treatment she’d always envisaged. With a background in journalism, as a literary agent, and writing teacher, it is Orna’s work with ALLi that has seen her repeatedly named one of The Bookseller’s “Top 100 people in publishing.” Orna writes award-winning fiction and poetry, runs a Patreon page for poets and poetry lovers, and an active author website. She’s on a mission to help eradicate creative poverty, through digital publishing and enterprise. You’ll find her, most days, on Twitter and she posts poems and quotes for poets on Instagram: @ornaross.
With almost two million books sold to date, Adam Croft is one of the most successful independently published authors in the world and one of the biggest selling authors of the past few years, having sold books in over 120 different countries. In February 2017, Only The Truth became a worldwide bestseller, reaching storewide number one at both Amazon US and Amazon UK, making it the bestselling book in the world at that moment in time. The same day, Amazon’s overall Author Rankings placed Adam as the world’s most widely read author, with J.K. Rowling in second place. In March 2018, Adam was conferred as an Honorary Doctor of Arts, the highest academic qualification in the UK, by the University of Bedfordshire in recognition of his services to literature. Visit his website, The Indie Author Mindset, or find him on Twitter.
Boni Wagner-Stafford is a nonfiction author coach, writer, ghostwriter, and developmental editor. Since 2015, she has helped other authors publish memoir, anthology, how-to and journalistic nonfiction titles. She also miraculously managed to cross the line with a couple of her own titles, with the requisite gazillion half finished. She’s an award-winning former television reporter, talk show host, and news anchor who later led public-sector teams in media relations, issues management, and strategic communications planning, then muddying her hands as a creative entrepreneur. Visit her Ingenium Books website, find her on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.
Read the Transcript
Orna Ross: Hello, everyone, and you are most welcome to our Ask ALLi broadcast Facebook Live video here this evening with the great Bonnie Wagner-Stafford. Hi, Bonnie.
Bonnie Wagner-Stafford Hello!
Adam Croft: Hello, good evening.
Orna Ross: And the even equally great Adam Croft. Hi, Adam. And this is our show of the month where we look at some principles of writing long form books and compare the theme of the month when you're writing fiction versus when you're writing nonfiction. And today we're going to be talking all about blurbs and hooks and you know, how you write good book descriptions that make your reader buy the book essentially, and hook them in and and ignite their interest and so on. We were inspired really, for this particular topic for the podcast, by Adam's work on this very issue because he has a book, which he is going to now flash for us.
Adam Croft: Here we go. And get the camera shot that will help.
Orna Ross: Excellent. So yeah, Writing Killer Blurbs and Hooks. So what made you write this book? What was the need you saw for that?
Adam Croft: Well, for me, one of the things that kind of brought me success a few years ago was a hook for a book, “Could you murder your wife to save your daughter? Her last tomorrow,” and it's something I've repeated since a couple of times, and I've actually managed to outpace that one as well. So it's something that's always been quite kind of dear to me, I suppose because it's built my career, knowing how to write a novel is one thing, but knowing how to condense that novel down into 10 or 12 words. And then into a couple of short lines for a blurb, which is actually going to make somebody want to part with their money and pick up the book is a very different matter. So it's something I've been quite keen on, on getting right for for some time. There are a few different approaches to writing blurbs and hooks. There are a few people out there already who give their advice on this and offer services doing it. But I think the method I've come up with and the things that inspire that go a little bit deeper into the background of things. And that look at kind of what makes the blurbs work rather than a kind of a top down approach.
Orna Ross: Yeah, absolutely. It's a great book, folks. And if you struggle in this area, and I have lost track of the number of authors who have said to me, “I would rather write another book than write a blurb for this one” and I think it's a really common thing that we struggle with. And that's why we wanted to talk about it today. And Bonnie, you're talking pretty much from the, I mean, we heard Adam talk about his fiction hooks there and nonfiction is your area of expertise. Do you think there's a difference between writing a nonfiction blurb and writing a fiction blurb?
Bonnie Wagner-Stafford: I think there is a huge difference. And that depends on which kind of nonfiction we're talking about. But so let's take how to fiction and compare it to any kind of fiction, the approach is going to be different. Now I have to say, I know nothing about writing fiction blurbs. But for nonfiction, it's all about establishing credibility, letting the reader know what they're going to be able to do, say, think, or feel after having read the book. And so there's, you know, you want to make sure that you're painting a picture of the result that they're going to enjoy once they have read the book. And you don't want to give so much away. I think this part is similar between the two genres, you don't want to give so much away that they don't need to buy the book. But it's quite a different approach from that respect.
Orna Ross: Yeah. So you mentioned emotion there. And I think one of the mistakes that authors make it and let's look at fiction first. Because in a way, I think it's a bit more challenging. Though I'm open to being challenged on that. But I think one of the key mistakes that I see people make over and again, is that they do a summary of the plot. And that's it, they might mention the setting. And that's essentially, they leave off the last third of the book, think that in doing that they have created kind of suspense, and that the reader is going to be drawn in by the story alone. But it's much more about generating, like the cover, it's not about telling the story of the book, it's much more about generating an emotion. Do you want to talk a bit about that, Adam?
Adam Croft: Well, that's actually right. Yeah, that's what most authors do seem to get wrong is that they think that, you know, telling us, what happens introducing the characters and you know, saying who they are, what their jobs are, what their ages are, how they met, you know, a quick preseason of what happens and then, as you say, missing off the end and putting dot, dot, dot is somehow a blurb. That's not. That's a synopsis that's missing its end and a synopsis and blurbs are very, very different things.
Orna Ross: How does one structure a blurb then, ideally, let's take and I know it varies across genres, we talked about tone and genre in a little while, but the essential structure, I'll ask you, Bonnie, first for the essential structure of a nonfiction book. And then Adam, if you could talk us through the essential structure of a fiction blurb.
Bonnie Wagner-Stafford: What I like to do with the nonfiction blurbs is try to make sure that the problem and again, how to nonfiction, the problem is identified. Then the solution, kind of the big picture summary of the solution, and then some bullet points that describe elements of how to get to the solution. And then the very end is the picture of the life or scenario or the picture of what life is going to be like once they have the solution. So kind of problem, big picture solution, bullet points of the elements of the solution, and then paint the big picture of what life looks like after they have implemented everything, that's in the wonderful nonfiction how to book.
Orna Ross: Fantastic.
Bonnie Wagner-Stafford: And it sounds easy. And that takes takes a lot of different takes, we can go around and you know, 12 different versions, you know, with authors as we try to get this right.
Orna Ross: Sure. And but it is wonderful to have that structure, I think it makes a difference for people listening to know, “Okay, that that's an approach I can take to how to nonfiction.” Narrative nonfiction is very like, the difference for those who may not be entirely sure what I mean because a lot of these things are defined in different ways by different people how to nonfiction, I think it's pretty obvious books that teach you how to do or something.
Narrative nonfiction includes things like memoir and they are books that are much more like a novel, they, the language used tends to be different, more expansive. They may use story a lot, they may use other aspects of fictional telling, like dialogue and other, you know, setting and story as I said, to get their, you know, to create whatever it is they're trying to create from the book and we'll talk about the objectives that your book has in a little while.
But yeah, so if we bring narrative nonfiction into fiction camp for the purposes of structuring blurb, Adam, could you do a sort of a what is a good structure? Obviously, there's lots of different ways you can structure but what's a good structure for fiction?
Adam Croft: Well, structure in fiction is much looser, really. I mean, formatting wise, you're not going to have the bullet points and the steps that you have, for example in nonfiction blurbs. I think the key takeaway is that it's, the blurb isn't for telling people what the book's about. It's selling the book. It's a sales pitch in the same way as nonfiction one is, but it's less salesy as well. I think another mistake that a lot of authors make is when they're structuring their blurbs they are, if they've gone through some of the kind of existing schools of how to write blurbs, they are telling potential readers to buy the book. And perhaps the sales pitches a bit too rough.
Whereas the approach I'll be looking at kind of looks at the psychology behind it and and making readers want to buy the book or have to buy the book. And it is about selling that emotion, I suppose and all the different emotions for different types of books. For thrillers, you'll be looking at selling the suspense side of things and you know the impossible choice that the characters have. For romance, you're selling a much more romantic dream. For literary fiction, your blurb, structure wise, is probably going to be longer. You don't have those same constraints. For example, if you're writing a thriller blurb, you're looking at getting that really tight, really, really fast paced, and pull readers through.
I mean, don't forget who your, the people are, who are going to be looking at these blurbs, what you know what they read, it they're Thriller readers who are looking at your blurb, they're going to want the same kind of structure of the writing as well. So I think making the book irresistible to somebody who is looking for that type of book, for that genre, and make sure you're staying on message for that reader, I think is is probably the most key thing when it comes to structure.
There are certain words and tropes and things and I'm going to touch on that a little bit later on which you'll want to look at and look what other blurbs are doing and what words and what language crops up. I know, Bonnie, you have a look at some some power words and things that are used in nonfiction particularly.
Orna Ross: Yeah, let's talk a little bit about power words because the blurb isn't long. And you know, it's kind of like poetry in the sense that every word has to earn its place. You know, it's, at least like a, you know, flash fiction or something short, where the novelist, one of the things it's very hard to write a novel, because it's long form, but it also does give you that bit of space. If If a reader gets caught up in your story, likes your characters, they will forgive a little looseness and bagginess here and there, there is no room for any looseness or baginess in your blurb, every word has to earn its keep. And so this concept, I think of power words is really useful. Do you want to talk us through some power words, Bonnie?
Bonnie Wagner-Stafford: Yeah, and I want to say also that, so we've talked about in here just talking about the different style of writing and so we almost have to put on a different writer's hat, we do have to put on a different writer's hat and understand that the purpose of what we're doing is different than the purpose of the writing that we've done to create the book. And so it's really more on the copywriting side, which is the writing involved in selling, in attracting and selling and so the concept of power words, and if you know, you can do a Google search and say, you know, power words for copywriting. And you'll find words like “you, because, secret, hidden, truth.” I mean, there's, you know, you can, I was just doing a quick search before we came on for the show, and there's a couple of blogs that are “168 Power Words.”
So I think it's really helpful to understand what those are. But there's a risk in overdoing it. So, you know, I don't think you want to use one of those power words in every sentence, for example, otherwise, it's gonna, you know, you're going to come across looking like you're trying to sell, I don't know, toilet paper or something. But they can really be helpful and for how to nonfiction, you know, the “secret” word, for example, isn't is not bad, as long as you don't overdo it. And it's, you know, obviously, if you're writing a how to nonfiction book, you, you do have something to offer that perhaps nobody else does, or not very many people do. So maybe you can say that it's a, you know, the secret solution to whatever it is.
So I think it's interesting and helpful to look at what those words are. But compare them and be really careful about the choices you make based on what your book is about and making sure that you're not overselling. We do want to sell, but we don't want people to buy your book and then get into it and think, “Wow, this has nothing to do with, this is not the book I thought I was buying at all.” So I just think it pays to be a little circumspect about how many of those power words you use, and to make sure that they're appropriate for the book that you've actually written.
Orna Ross; And whether it's fiction, you know, whether it's a novel or nonfiction book, I think the one really important thing is to connect with the language of the book itself. And not only the language of the book, the spirit of the book, the heart of it, you know, it's your reason for writing it will be quite close to the reader's reason for reading it. And putting the show notes one or two of these sort of, I can't remember exactly what they're called. But you know, an AI that kind of reads your book and pulls out the expressive, it pulls out the language that you're using in your book and the sort of analysis that can give you around what you're doing. Because as we were saying, before we came on air, sometimes the worst possible person to try and write a blurb is you, you know, when you've just finished a book, you may not know the value of your book, you may not, you know, you may have kind of one sense and several reasons for writing it. And while I said the readers reasons for reading it might be very similar, there's also the risk that they might not and that you are actually, you know, focused in on one thing, but actually, if you do an analysis of your book and of the language within, the topic, themes and so on, a different sort of picture emerges. So whether it is using that sort of tool, or whether it is talking to people who've read the book, or, you know, your beta readers, your family and friends, tossing it around what they think is the key selling point of the book, it's good to, like every aspect of writing, get over yourself and get out of yourself as much as you possibly can in the act of blurb writing.
Bonnie Wagner-Stafford: Yeah.
Adam Croft: I was gonna, there's a couple of things that Orna picked up on that I thought were really key. I mean, Orna, you mentioned about the brevity of blurbs. And that the reader doesn't know you or trust you at that point, when they're reading a blurb you can't, you mentioned talking to them, you know, as if they are one of your readers. But also, as you say, bearing in mind that they don't know you, they don't trust you, you can't be going off and you know, with long rambling prose and things yet, which is something I would completely agree with. And when we talked about the power words, and they're not just nonfiction either, there's something that I've used to good effect in my fiction. In fact, I think my two most successful hooks have employed these power words.
I mean, for example, “Could you murder your wife to save your daughter?” It doesn't say, I mean, this book isn't about you, or you know anybody. It's about a guy called Nick Connor, it doesn't say could Nick Connor murder his wife to save his daughter? You know, because nobody would care if they don't know who he is. And “What if you discovered your husband was a serial killer?” It doesn't say, “What if Megan Miller discovered her husband's a serial killer?” You know? Yes, very interesting. But who cares? Nobody knows her. Whereas the word “you” is, in any of these articles about lists of power words, is the number one. And it's not something everyone can use, and that will work in all genres.
But in psychological thrillers, which are books, which are quite often written in the first person for a reason, so you can get into that person's head. And they're quite often characters that you can identify with and situations and lives you can identify with, which are then turned upside down. That power word identifies very strongly with that genre, and what those readers of that genre will come to expect. So I think that's something that's definitely worth bearing in mind from a fiction standpoint, as well.
Orna Ross: And you, Adam have done a very interesting sort of analysis of different genres and different kinds of words that are associated with different genre, could you take two or three of the most popular ones and just share some of that work with with our listeners?
Adam Croft: Yeah, I looked at the top 10 or 20 books for some of the most popular genres out there. And I did a bit of a word cloud to see, you know, what pops up? A lot of them won't be surprising, but it's amazing how many blurbs I've seen on lower selling books that don't actually mention anything. So for example, crime fiction, you get words like “dead, investigate, suspicion, murder, discovers.” In romance and erotica,” sex, passion, last fantasy, desire, love, souls.”
Military sci fi, you've got “planets, interplanetary resources, empire, war, humanity, mission, alien, technology,” you know, these are the kinds of things you're looking at, perhaps go through the top selling books in your genre on any given bookstore and have a look at those words that are being used, look at the language that is being used. Quite often it speaks to the reader. And if you look at an epic fantasy book, for example, and an action thriller, they're both written in very different ways to appeal to very different types of reader.
Orna Ross: I have to say that when I have a blurb to write, I take my 10 top comparable authors, you know, which you need to know anyway, for advertising and for other reasons. And I actually copy and paste their blurbs into a document, go through it with highlighter and just picking out sentences that I kind of like the sound of or, you know, where is it connects with what I'm trying to do? And then I kind of sleep on it. And I get up the next morning and I download a blurb and that's become my method of doing it. And it's really quite effective.
So it takes in a lot of stuff that I might not be aware of, because the other thing to say about blurbs is there's fashion in blurbs. And you know, what's kind of interesting to readers and makes them sit up and make some take notice does change. I mean, if you read the blurb on a lot of, say, 1960s, 70s or 80s fiction, you'd quite possibly fall asleep, and you know, and some of the best books. And if you look about how they were actually and in fact, the blurb is a relatively recent invention in the first place. So you know, the fashions definitely change, I see differences in my genre, and I'm sure you would see them in yours, too, if you start looking closely, and it's good to kind of ride the wave of whatever is working.
So you can take it that, you know, the comparable authors who are selling well, their blurbs are working. So what is it about them, just do a bit of analysis and see what do you think really makes a good blurb work. So treat it like you would any other kind of piece of writing, look at the craft behind it, explore what's happening within the burb and break it down a bit, take a bit of time and trouble. I think one of the reasons that authors don't like writing blurbs, they don't get the equation of time. They're kind of finished the book and “I just want to write this thing and get it up and you know, be done with it and move on to the next one.” But it's a little bit of time spent here makes all the difference.
Adam Croft: I think as well, there's no harm in asking your readers, you know, if you've got a Facebook readers group or a mailing list, perhaps craft two or three or four or five blurbs and say “Which one you prefer, which one do you think sells the book best?” I think the time to do that is probably before the book comes out because you don't want necessarily other people who, like you, have read the book and know it because you can be blinded by that.
The blurb is for people who haven't read the book before. And also the other takeaway for me is that you don't need to know your blurb the first time around. You can update it, however often you like, you can change it, you know, once every few months and see what happens to sales, see if they go up. See if they go down. If they go up, then great. If they go down, go back to the old blurb. You know, as independent authors, we've got complete control to change that whenever we like.
Orna Ross: Yay. So if your book isn't shifting, I think it's one of the first things to look at. Very often authors do look at the cover. And our are not as quick to look at the description and blurb and hook and that first couple of sentences for the online retailers, Amazon, you know, you want to be above the fold, you want the first two sentences, it's like the first two sentences of your book, it's you know, spend time crafting that part in particular, because a lot of readers, you know, that's the bit they're going to see. So don't save your best bit for paragraph three.
Adam Croft: Yeah, the read more.
Orna Ross: Because they will, you've got to get them before they, you know, above the read more bit. It's the most important part. And sometimes people forget that and they maybe fill up with a big quote or something from the book. So a one liner quote can be very useful. But if you fill all of that with a big quote then you can quite, you can puzzle people. So you need to get straight into that value proposition immediately. And as you know, within the first two sentences.
Bonnie Wagner-Stafford: Yeah. Another place you can shop your back cover copy in your blurb around is your advance readers, advance review readers, if you're asking for editorial endorsements. Here's a copy of the blurb feedback, on the blurb and here's where you can take a look at the book and please review and give me feedback and recommendations works as well.
Adam Croft: Yeah, readers love feeling like they're involved and giving feedback on things. You know, sometimes where I've been stuck on covers and things I put that in my facebook group. And people like to feel that they're a part of the journey and a part of your career and that they've actually had some input. You know, they see the cover there on the shelf and they think, “Yeah, I helped to choose that.” And likewise with the blurb.
Orna Ross: Yeah, they absolutely do. And don't ask them, if you are asking for feedback, don't say “Do you like my blurb? Or do you think my blurb is any good?” So you've got to find the right open question, like, “Which of these blurbs would sell, would make you buy this book?” and give them two or three options or you know, something like that, that's got to be very directed. Like with any kind of beta reading, and ask, you've got to be very specific, if you're going to get useful feedback, the quality of the feedback that you get will be very dependent on the quality of the questions that you you ask people. We are almost out of time, folks. So just a last final tip from each of you. And I guess you know, the question that I kind of ask every month, if you could only give one tip around this, if you could just say, you know, one thing you simply must gotta do, and it will make a difference, what would that be, Bonnie?
Bonnie Wagner-Stafford: I'm going to say and it's something that I talked about in the SelfPubCon session, but I'm going to say that it's stepping back from what you're trying to do. And it's related to understanding what the feeling is that the reader is looking for. And even in how to nonfiction there is a feeling and what I encourage people to do is pay attention when, put our reader hats on, pay attention to the feeling that we are looking for when we go to buy books. And you know, often we don't think about it's just “Oh, I just, I'm looking for that kind of a read now. And I'm looking for that. And I'm looking for this for whatever reason,” but pay attention.
And think about what the feeling is that you're looking for when you're looking for that particular kind of book. And then use that information when you're crafting your blurb. And remember that every reader is looking for a feeling as well as a result, they're looking for an experience that results in a feeling. And so if you can connect to that feeling by understanding what your own is, as you go through buying books, you will be farther ahead when you start to write your own book blurb.
Orna Ross: Fantastic. And your top tip, Adam.
Adam Croft: Look into the psychology of persuasion, I would say there are some very good books on that as one by Robert Cialdini that I find very good, I think it's called the Power of Persuasion. And there are lots of great books out there that have these power words, that go into some psychological studies going back decades into what persuades people to do things. And the key really is not saying to somebody, “Hey, buy this.” It is showing them the object and making them want it and need it and make it feel as if the decision has come from within them. Because that's even more powerful than word of mouth. If they feel they've made that decision. It's something that Apple do very well for example, they, they never say “Come and buy the new iPhone,” they show it to everyone, they say “Look at this, this is what it does. This is the dream.” And people flock and feel they need to buy it. It comes from within them. Nobody's actually saying “You need to buy this.” So yeah, look at the psychology of persuasion. And read up on that subject. And it's quite incredible actually how powerful it is. And how much can apply to to writing blurbs for your books.
Orna Ross: Yeah, that's brilliant, I don't think anybody responds well to the sentence “Buy my book.” It just doesn't work.
Adam Croft: Get your copy today.
Orna Ross: No, if it ever did, it's not, it's not really the promise that a book kind of delivers. And I suppose my final tip would be to, every book folds into, loosely, one of three kinds of experiences for the reader, it's entertainment, or it's inspiration or it's education, or it's some mix of all three, usually the best books certainly mix all three of those in. But if you get a sense of what your book is mostly trying to do, I think that's helpful as well in terms of connecting them with the language that's inside the book so that there's a seamless sort of continuation between wherever the reader heard about your book in the first place, maybe your ad or your website. And then when they, you know, look at the book and then they look at the blurb it should all, there shouldn't be any surprises.
So they shouldn't say “Oh gosh, from that cover, I'm really surprised to get this blurb” or “From her website, I never would have thought this kind of book,” you know, that kind of thing. So just make sure that their pathway through from where they hear about the book in the first place all the way through to when they part with their precious few, too few dollars or pounds, that there are no surprises or nothing that feels kind of off, that kind of makes us just put it down and maybe not even quite knowing why but you've broken the spell as it were. So just look at the journey through. Okay, folks, this half hour goes very fast, it really does.
Bonnie Wagner-Stafford: Zoom, zoom, zoom.
Orna Ross: Well, thank you both for your time, Adam's off on holidays tomorrow. So have a great time. We're going to-
Adam Croft: I'm going to bed now and I'm going to get up and go.
Orna Ross: We should do that too. Because Bonnie and I are just back from Digital Book World which was a whirlwind and of course, the Self Publishing Advice Conference at the weekend as well. So if you have any questions about your own blurb, please do leave in the comments and we will be very happy to come back in and you know, if you want to put in a sample or example, Adam won't, he'll be lying on a Greek beach somewhere but-
Adam Croft: I'll get to it at some point.
Orna Ross: But one of us will be more than happy to take a look and publicly discuss it because that's really useful for other people as well. And next week, we'll be back with the Ask ALLi podcast and it is Self Publishing Poetry. So if you've also got some poetry in your bottom drawer, come along and listen to that. Until then, happy writing and happy publishing. Bye bye!