The dreaded book blurb. This is the text you find on the back or inside cover of a book. It’s how you entice your reader to pick up your book and turn to the first page. It is the fundamental building block of book marketing, and writing one is no easy task. How do you do it? Where do you even start? I’m going to walk you through a list of Do’s and Don’ts, providing examples as we go so that you can get a clear idea of how to craft the perfect book blurb while steering clear of the many pitfalls.
Give the reader enough information to know what the book is about. Taken from Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing, this blurb provides a concise summary of the central conflict, setting the scene (a quiet fishing village in 1969), the mood (somber, mysterious), and some of the themes (isolation, social stigmatization) without giving everything away.
For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet fishing village. Kya Clark is barefoot and wild; unfit for polite society. So in late 1969, when the popular Chase Andrews is found dead, locals immediately suspect her. But Kya is not what they say. A born naturalist with just one day of school, she takes life’s lessons from the land, learning the real ways of the world from the dishonest signals of fireflies. But while she has the skills to live in solitude forever, the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. Drawn to two young men from town, who are each intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new and startling world—until the unthinkable happens.
Give a full summary of the plot. The last thing you want to do is provide a blow-by-blow rundown of your entire book, bloating your blurb out with a sequence of then…then…then statements.
In 1952, six-year-old Kya watches her mother leave their shack in the marsh. One by one, her siblings depart too, leaving Kya alone with Pa, a drunken, disabled World War II vet prone to violent rages. When Kya is ten, her father disappears as well, leaving Kya to fend for herself. The townspeople call her “dirty,” “the Marsh Girl,” “Missing Link,” and “marsh trash.” Soon, Kya meets Tate, a boy from town and they begin to meet at a secret cabin in the marsh where he teaches her to read, but they part ways when Tate leaves for college. Lonely and alone, Kya finds herself drawn to Chase Andrews, who encourages a romantic relationship. However, it soon becomes clear his intentions are less than pure when Kya discovers he is set to marry someone else. Their relationship takes a violent turn, and when Chase Andrews’ body is found by two boys next to an abandoned fire tower in the swamp, the town are quick to point their fingers at Kya. Incriminated by the red wool fibers on Chase’s jacket and a damning testimony who witnessed Kya and Chase fighting, Kya is locked up and must fight to prove her innocence.
This reads like a poorly written Sparks Notes summary, and not only are you going to bore your reader, you’ve given them so much information, they’ll feel like they’ve already read the book.
Introduce your main character. Below is the blurb from the internationally bestselling novel A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Notice the colourful introduction of the main character, Ove, which gives reader a compelling snapshot of who the story is about.
Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?
Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.
You cannot hook your readers unless you have a character they can care about, even a miserable character like Ove, and Fredrik Backman does an excellent job of introducing a man who, while being prickly and unappealing, may turn out to be worthy of sympathy and who may surprise us, just as he does the local residents.
Overwhelm your reader by introducing EVERY character in the story. If you introduce too many characters all at once, you run the risk of obscuring who the story is really about. Granted, the title of this book in this example makes it unquestionable, but that isn’t always the case.
Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. Ove’s neighbors, Rune, Anita, and Anders, think he is the bitter neighbor from hell, but his neighbor Jimmy is perpetually happy, kind, and unbothered by Ove’s grumpiness. One November morning, Parvaneh, her husband Patrick and their two children move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox. Despite starting off on the wrong foot, Ove notices Pravaneh has a laugh that reminds him of his late wife, Sonja, and that she shares his disdain for IT consultants and Patrick’s ineptitude. Gradually, the two form an unexpected friendship, a friendship which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.
While the colourful and diverse cast of characters in A Man Called Ove certainly lends the book its charm, you do not need to inundate your reader with a litany of every character and their role. The blurb is not a casting call.
3. Genre and Tone
Match your tone to your genre. This will ensure you entice the right reader. Below is a blurb from a middle grade mystery book by Barrie Summy called The Disappearance of Emily H. The language is reflective of a middle grade book, and it plays with a sense of urgency that befits a mystery without overstretching.
Emily Huvar vanished without a trace. And the clues are right beneath Raine’s fingertips. Literally. Raine isn’t like other eighth graders. One touch of a glittering sparkle that only Raine can see, and she’s swept into a memory from the past. If she touches enough sparkles, she can piece together what happened to Emily.
When Raine realizes that the cliquey group of girls making her life miserable know more than they’re letting on about Emily’s disappearance, she has to do something. She’ll use her supernatural gift for good . . . to fight evil. But is it too late to save Emily?
Surprise your reader by using mismatched tones and/or vocabulary.
A young girl has vanished, and ebullient Raine must tap into an ancient, esoteric magic that will reveal memories hidden in the world around her in order to expose the truth behind the disappearance. Set against the backdrop of twenty-first century America, this is a compelling coming-of-age story about one girl’s search for truth.
Confusing, right? It reads like a mature literary novel, crossed with magical realism, crossed with…cult mystery? It’s a complete hodge-podge, and it certainly won’t resonate with the intended 10-14 year old audience.
4. The Hook
Catch your audience’s attention with a strong hook. American author Jodi Picoult is a pro at hooking her readers. The following blurb is from one of her most well-known books, My Sister’s Keeper, and from the first line, you are hooked.
Anna is not sick, but she might as well be. By age thirteen, she has undergone countless surgeries, transfusions, and shots so that her older sister, Kate, can somehow fight the leukemia that has plagued her since childhood. The product of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, Anna was conceived as a bone marrow match for Kate—a life and a role that she has never challenged…until now. Like most teenagers, Anna is beginning to question who she truly is. But unlike most teenagers, she has always been defined in terms of her sister—and so Anna makes a decision that for most would be unthinkable, a decision that will tear her family apart and have perhaps fatal consequences for the sister she loves.
Use cliches or shock for effect. The art of hooking your audience is a subtle skill that requires more precision than battering your reader with a garish or overblown statement. Do this, and you run the risk of coming across as amateurish.
Anna has spent her entire life being tortured by her parents. By age thirteen, she has undergone countless surgeries, transfusions, and shots so that her older sister, Kate, can somehow fight the leukemia that has plagued her since childhood. The product of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, Anna was conceived as a bone marrow match for Kate—a life and a role that she has never challenged…until now.
While some might argue that the first statement is true, it lacks finesse, and unless Anna’s parents had her strapped to a chair in the basement and subjected her to waterboarding and electrocution, it cries of melodrama. It also misaligns Anna’s perception of her circumstances, and portrays her as less discerning and forbearing than she is truly is. So even though it is important to catch our attention, it is usually better to air on the side of subtlety.
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