Analyzing Book Description Copy

by James Scott Bell

One of the key elements of selling online these days is the ability to write book descriptions (also called “cover copy”) that sizzle and do the job in three paragraphs or so. In this age of short attention spans, you can’t afford to waste any space. You can read about one method of generating good cover copy here(h/t Jodie Renner).

For amusement recently, I randomly looked at some descriptions from bestselling authors. You ought to do the same. Go through Amazon and study the best books in your genre. See what professional marketing people have come up with. Figure out what works and doesn’t work for you. Then write your own copy accordingly.
Below are links to Amazon for three book descriptions (I didn’t want to overstep copyright concerns by producing them in full). Give each a quick read and then come back for my analysis.
Innocence by Dean Koontz

The first line is pretty good. Captures me and makes me want to read the next line (which is the whole secret of copywriting).
But that second line is a bit soft. I would change “do her harm” to “kill her.”
I would like to see more specificity in the third paragraph. What is it that creates the “bond”? What sort of “reckoning” are we talking about here? Why are these two people involved?
The last line, of course, is purely for the author. If you’re Dean Koontz, you deserve such praise. But my advice for us mere mortals: do not use over-the-top fluff. You can mention kudos, but only if you back it up with something like a nice blurb from a well-known writer, or a review from a trusted source. I don’t care how good your self-published thriller is, it is not going to “leave readers transformed forever and change the course of history for all mankind.”  
NYPD RED 2 by James Patterson & Marshall Karp

This copy starts with a “headline” style, which is often a good idea. But only if the headline is short and to the point. Here, I would take out the whole parenthetical statement and leave this: NYPD Red hunts a killer who is on an impossible mission.
The next two paragraphs are excellent. They are specific and to the point and tell me exactly what type of story this is. It has both outer plot (serial killer) and inner journey (Kylie has been acting strange recently). It’s all there.
The puffery about Patterson is, of course, also well-deserved. But notice that it is backed up with a clip from a trusted source.
Stand Up Guy by Stuart Woods
The headline focuses on the series character, which is fine. Readers of the series will want to know about it. “Edge-of-your-seat adventure” is a cliché, of course. I wonder if readers have a slightly negative reaction to such things, even subconsciously. Maybe it doesn’t matter. I’m not sure. What are your thoughts on it?
The first paragraph has some issues. What is a “well-deported” gentleman? I had to look up deported, and found out it’s an archaic word for “conduct.” Key copyrighting tip: Don’t make readers work hard! Write in such a way that a middle school student could read the copy and not get tripped up by any of it. 

Also, is there enough at stake? Does “keenly interested” indicate enough trouble? 
The second paragraph gets us a little closer to specifics and how they involve the lead character. I’m okay with that.
Now here’s one for a short story:
Sometimes, comedy can seem like death…
For Pete “The Harv” Harvey, stand up comedy is a serious business. At least, he wants it to be. But the struggle to make it in the glitter dome of L.A. hasn’t exactly been a smashing success.
One night, after bombing onstage at a local club, Pete wonders if his next stop is managing a car wash. Then a man sits next to him at the bar–a man with an almost unbelievable proposition. One that could mean a whole lot of money to Pete “The Harv” Harvey, who will soon learn that deals too good to be true are no laughing matter.
I think the author did okay with that. It’s brief and to the point, gives the set up and then gets out of the way.

And here’s more news: This story, “No Laughing Matter,” is FREE today through Wednesday on Kindle. The favor of a review is requested.
Go ahead and get the story now. I’ll wait.
Welcome back! Now dive in and leave a comment on book descriptions. What do you think works, or doesn’t work? What grabs you? What makes you shrug your shoulders and go “Meh”?

34 thoughts on “Analyzing Book Description Copy

  1. Interesting. Found the Koontz blurb too vague to be interesting. The other 2 novel descriptions were much more detailed & interesting. Of those 3, the blurb that would lure me to investigate further is Stand Up Guy–though that seems like a really weird title.

    I’m into fast shopping, so the main thing I’m looking for is short yet detailed copy–enough to get the flavor of the story & what’s at stake, & be interested enough in the characters to visit some more.

    • You represent most readers today, BK. “Fast shopping.” So yes, one really has to capture attention immediately. Three paragraphs, and the first must compel moving on to the second, and the second to the third.

  2. Clichés used in blurbs like this do not upset me at all, quite the opposite. Makes it clear for me what kind of book this will be without any strain on my brain cells.

    Well-deported did not throw me. Probably due to the countless speeches from my mother during my teenage years. “How you deport yourself now will reflect on you for the rest of your life.” They just talked like that.

    ‘Keenly interested’ does nothing for me. Doesn’t interest me keenly or any other way. Too academically tame, somehow, for the genre.

    Of the three, I would pick Dean K.’s book to buy because; I already know and like him as an author; it sounds mysterious; and because of the questions it made you ask yourself. I want to know more.

    I’ve downloaded your story, will read and review shortly. Good thing I did as well. Once I did, Amazon showed all the books I’ve downloaded. Two I’d forgotten all about. Way too easy to buy books.

    • Amanda, you bring up a good point. The “cliche” may actually be a valuable shorthand for the type of book. IOW, it could save time in the evaluation process.

      Thus, “A heartwarming tale of family love” tells us one thing, and “A heart-pounding thriller of political intrigue” tells us another, and quickly, too.

  3. Jim,

    Once again, thanks for your wonderful instruction. I’m working on a one-sheet for the ACFW convention, so the advice works beautifully for that, too.

    Being a beginner, I am not qualified to critique the cover copy examples you reviewed. But I would mention that “well-deported” and “keenly interested” may be an attempt to set the “feel” of the story. (Of course I’ve not read the story.) In your exercise for creating back cover copy, you ask the question, “How do you want the story to ‘feel’ to the reader?” (PLOT AND STRUCTURE, Appendix B) Just a thought.

    I downloaded your story, NO LAUGHING MATTER, and will review it. Thanks.

    • Steve, good pickup…it’s all about the “feel.” My qualm about “well-deported” is not simply that it’s an odd term, but that it doesn’t really tell me enough. I would rather see something more specific, such as Hammett’s description of Joel Cairo.

  4. I would have preferred Innocence and Stand Up Guy to be more specific. I think they are okay as is, but more specific language could go the extra mile to convert people who are on the fence. After you read a ton of back cover copy, the language starts to sound the same. The cliche is both good and bad I think.

    The good part is the cliche tells you what sort of book this is. The short hand lets your brain know it’s a cops and robbers book, or a heart felt love story without having to go into a lot of detail.

    The bad part is of course, it’s cliche and can lead to a vague copy that sounds just like everything else in the genre.

    I think good back cover copy tells us what sort of “death” we’re looking at. As you point out in Plot and Structure, all good novels have death overhanging, and the back cover copy should tell us what death the character is facing.

    There should also be an element of paradox. Your back cover copy does both. With the first sentence I immediately want to know how comedy can be like death, and the rest of the paragraphs tells us we’re looking at death of the psyche. Excellent example!

  5. I read “No Laughing Matter” already. Thought the blurb sounded familiar. Loved it then, so didn’t mind at all the second read.

    Great story. Voice was spot on and the character of Pete was really well done. Nothing bad to say. Not sure what a ‘turblor’ (sp?) is, but I’m guessing a measurement of tremor for earthquakes. Twists and turns and emotional highs and lows, for a short story, it had them all.

    The blurb draws interest with the phrase ‘an almost unbelievable proposition’ and mentioning the money motivation is smart. The only thing I didn’t really like was the cover. Not sure if the face needed to be used three time and also not sure if the face is laughing or upset. If covers matter, and I believe they do, this one would bomb for me.

  6. Generally, I like copy to be straight and to the point.

    Something like, “The polar ice caps are melting, threatening to change the world’s maps forever. While the politicians argue about the cause, Amanda, a NOAA geologist suspects foul play. Using a computer rather than a pick-axe, she uncovers a conspiracy that stretches from the White House to the halls of the Vatican. “KNEE DEEP” will pound your pulse and bite your nails and make you late for work.

    Like Amanda, the clichés are just clues for me. Had KNEE DEEP’s copy ended with “heartwarming” I would have likely passed over it. Doesn’t fit with the tone.

    Shortie downloaded and queued. Can’t wait to read it.


    PS: In KNEE DEEP, it turns out not to be global warming, but monks using blow dryers and sunlamps to release Noah’s Ark from the ice. They are abetted by the president who is a Mason and keeper of the Templar scrolls. With a nice ironic twist that by recovering the flood artifact, they unleash a flood. Some secrets should remain buried.

  7. Thanks for the short course on book jackets, James. I was a little surprised by the clunky Patterson header. He started in marketing and knows his stuff. The man has built his brand. Koontz’s copy was a little too vague for me, but I admire his work.
    Yes, Stuart Woods’ copy is cliched, but he writes romance novels for men — and that’s not to put down women’s romance novels. There’s not a savvier group in the business. But how else do you explain Stone Barrington (the very name is a cliche) and the women who give him oral sex under the table in restaurants?

    • Er, um, I shall defer that last question to someone else.


      I do think you hit on something, though, I never really thought of. “Romance novels for men.” Certainly it’s a formula that works for Mr. Woods. Nicely done, Elaine.

  8. I love the TKZ blogs that review first pages. How about a day when back copy is reviewed. I’d send my in.

  9. Thanks for more great tips on back cover copy, Jim! And thanks for adding the link to my post on it, which sent readers to your excellent tips on the subject in CONFLICT & SUSPENSE (another book of yours I love!).

    On the topic of what has now become clichés in back-cover copy and reviews, like “edge of your seat” or “a nail-biter” or “a roller-coaster ride”, it’s getting tougher and tougher to come up with something original to say that basically means exciting, compelling and absorbing. I’m often at a loss when trying to write a fresh-sounding Amazon review for a thriller I really enjoyed. It seems like soon there will be no original-sounding expressions left! Does anyone else feel that way? Or maybe you’re all so much more creative than I am!

  10. Best discussion of writing cover copy I’ve seen. It will be very helpful. Thank you. I would like to pre-order Knee Deep. It may be one where the movie rights sell before the publishing. Extraordinary. I guess I do use cliches to judge: heart-warming is a no-go, but I doubt if I would get past a cover on one of those anyway. But, edge-of-your-seat type cliches I take with a grain of salt. But when the back cover says that John Gilstrap’s novels leave you breathless, then I know that’s the truth. Thanks for the freebie: NLM.

  11. For my cover copy I simply take first three words of each of my first eight chapters and mix them with the first seven words from each front page story in that days local paper to construct the first paragraph. I then convert that to Latin then have my son convert it back into English. This provides a surprisingly accurate representation of the actual synopsis of the first quarter of the story….must be something in the translation process.

    • Okay…you caught me…actually I just try to make a general synpopsis of the theme and the first three or four chapters and figure that should, if I’ve done my work right, get the juices flowing and the reader salivating for more.

  12. By the way…as a former standup comic, and as a writer of thrillers, and as the narrator of the podcast audio version of that story, I fully support that shameless self advertising. L.M. was a great little story.

  13. Thank you for the free book. I’m looking forward to reading it. I just finished reading your book, “Try Dying,” which I thoroughly enjoyed.


  14. Writing cover copy and story blurbs for me is harder than writing the book. I loved it when my former publisher took on this job but now with small press I have to write my own. It helps to bounce the blurbs back among writer friends for their input.

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