I’m not sure if it was sheer arrogance or supreme optimism, but when I first started writing blurbs professionally I didn’t turn to the internet for advice. Strangely, it may well be the reason I’m any good at what I do now — because honestly, it’s a minefield out there (except for this article, of course…you’re in safe hands here).
Instead, I drew on my favourite book blurbs. I studied them for similarities, I looked for different structures and styles, and I read as many catchy hooks as I could lay my hands on. And then I just got my hands dirty and got stuck in.
For many indie authors, however, writing a book blurb is usually one of two things (and very often both):
- A panicked afterthought.
- A constant source of dread until it’s done.
If you relate, let me first say — you are not alone. It’s the reason I run Book Blurb Magic, where I not only write bespoke blurbs, but also teach authors the mysteries behind bestselling book descriptions and how to create them.
And when I say mysteries, it’s because blurb-writing is often shrouded in mystique. Everyone has a “trick” or a “rule” that’s supposed to magically make your book blurb appeal to the right readers…and they’re usually hellbent on following it to the grave.
But the thing with blurb-writing is that it is equal parts a science and an art — and treating it as one or the other is bound to cause problems. I’ve seen people swear that blurbs that use more than five adjectives will confuse readers, or that going one word over 150 actively discourages readers from buying your book.
My rule of thumb is that if it’s not a rule of thumb, it’s probably just holding you back.
Unfortunately, if you’re new to blurb-writing, it can be pretty tricky to distinguish the fact from the fiction…so today I’m debunking five pieces of blurb advice I would never, ever recommend following.
First things first — what’s a blurb?
Before we dive in, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. The word “blurb” has had a few uses in the publishing world across the decades, but most people now use it to mean the 150-200 word description placed on the back cover of your book (or in the product description box on Amazon KDP).
Even more importantly, your book blurb is not a synopsis of your story! A synopsis includes all your spoilers, whereas your book blurb has a slightly different structure, designed to pique readers’ interest and leave them wanting more.
(Pssst! If you’re curious about the structure of a fiction or non-fiction book blurb, head to www.anatomyofabookblurb.com to grab my free cheatsheet.)
Bad Blurb Advice #1: Never Start With A Question
My jaw actually dropped when I read this in a writing forum recently — because questions remain one of the most powerful marketing tools there are! Provided they’re the right question.
As this advice was obviously provided in good faith, I can only assume this was meant to discourage authors from using weak questions; a practice that happens all too frequently towards the end of blurbs.
But when it comes to starting your blurb with a bang? The right question can immerse readers in your story with incredible speed and ease.
So, what is an example of a “right” question? I’m glad you asked.
This is slightly easier for non-fiction authors — anything that gives you a quick “yes” is a winner. For example, a weight-loss cookbook blurb I wrote once started with “Do you find weight loss programs restrictive, unappetizing, or time-consuming to follow?”.
Any ideal readers of that book will instantly answer “Yes”, and to be honest, they’re the only readers you want your book to attract, because happier readers means higher ratings and reviews.
For fiction authors, any question that prompts thought in the reader is usually a winner, but beware of asking questions only your characters or book can answer!
For example, if my blurb starts with “Will Jane ever be able to love again?” there is nothing there that speaks to our reader directly. But if we reworded it to “Can a broken heart ever truly mend?” (admittedly cheesy, but it serves my point), notice how the reader is invited to reflect and get involved.
The bottom line? The right questions work a treat.
Bad Blurb Advice #2. Only Mention Two Names (Protagonist and Antagonist)
One for the fiction authors here — first up, why are we even considering such a limit? The answer lies in what I call “The Animal Farm Problem”.
If you’ve ever read George Orwell’s classic novel, you might remember that there are a lot of animals and a lot of names in the first chapter or two. Perhaps it was my underdeveloped teenage brain, but all my peers and I remember about that experience was being quite confused.
The thing is, names require more cognitive load for readers to process — because they’re not a piece of imagery that can be absorbed, they’re a fact. Connecting those names to faces and personalities is something readers are usually up for by the time they invest in a book.
But not while they’re reading the blurb.
So, on the face of it, it makes good sense to mention as few names as possible (this goes for fictional place names too). But must we be so strict as to limit it to two?
No. No we do not.
Personally, I regularly cap my blurbs at three character names (less if there’s a bunch of complex places I also need to mention), but I have also written highly successful blurbs with five or six character names.
In these instances, I took great care to link names to imagery or further context, to help the reader grasp the cast introductions as quickly and easily as possible. So be warned, it is an intermediate level feat to include more than three names comfortably! But it can (and sometimes should) be done.
The only rule to follow here is “don’t be confusing”. And have a good reason for mentioning names — don’t just throw them all in there because.
Bad Blurb Advice #3: Do Not Exceed 150 Words. Ever.
Someone once commented on one of my Facebook ads to tell me that I was an idiot because “a book blurb shouldn’t exceed 50 words — there’s no need”.
But internet weirdos aside, blurb word count is something a lot of people have strong feelings about. Personally, I used to allow myself up to 250 words for Amazon descriptions and only 200 words for physical book covers. These days, 230 is my absolute limit for either, and only for epic fantasy that absolutely requires it.
My preference? 180 words is a beautiful sweet spot.
But I have seen multiple pieces of advice online that suggest exceeding a particular word count spells doom for your book sales.
While I definitely suggest 230 words as a hard stop for general blurb-writing, and encourage you to keep it under 200, the simple reason is this:
We all have certain expectations of what we’re in for when we read a clothing label. It’s gonna be a few sentences and some weird symbols. That’s it. So if our clothing label comes with a few paragraphs we’re probably going to zone out.
The same goes for blurbs. People are expecting three-ish paragraphs, so give them three-ish paragraphs. Don’t make them work hard to read about your story.
As for the naysayers who insist that surveys “prove” that readers clock off after 150 words — firstly, I have found no conclusive evidence on this. And secondly, if they clock off after 150 words, all it means is that your last sentence failed.
Because every sentence in your blurb has ONE job, and one job only: make people read the next sentence.
So write without fear and stick to common sense.
Bad Blurb Advice #4: You Need To “Hype” Your Writing
I love my friends dearly, but there is only one person I reliably trust to recommend books to me that I invariably love: my well-read, extremely astute boyfriend.
Perhaps you’re the same — or maybe you’re easier to recommend books for than I apparently am.
But either way, we usually pick and choose who we trust to tell us what we’ll love.
So if you’re reading a book blurb where the author is insisting that their book is “the thrilling tale of the year”, or a “raw and vulnerable exploration of modern humanity”…I’d forgive you for tuning out.
(Personally, the little voice in my head responds to such sentences with “Well I’LL be the judge of that!!”.)
It comes back to this old chestnut: show, don’t tell.
If your blurb paints an accurate, appropriately-detailed picture of the story your readers are about to dive into, you won’t NEED to convince the RIGHT people to buy your book.
All you’re doing when you tell readers what their reading experience is going to be is create distrust in people who would probably like your work (because they’re like “Why is she trying to sell me so hard?”) and possibly convincing less than ideal readers to buy your book (and then probably leave you a lackluster review).
Of course, your blurb should paint your book in a positive light. But let your story speak for itself and leave your ARC readers to do the hyping.
Bad Blurb Advice #5: Think Like A Reader
You’d think this would be helpful, wouldn’t you? Of course, it makes sense to place yourself in your readers’ shoes while writing a blurb to be read by them. But let me ask you this: did you spend all your time writing your book in your readers’ shoes, or were you thinking like an author, going about your craft?
While you might have stopped to consider your audience at various points, most of us write most freely when we’re not thinking about who is going to be reading it. That’s a consideration for the editing process, not the writing process.
The same is true of blurbs.
The truth is, as the author you have a uniquely comprehensive understanding of your book that literally no one else has. This should be harnessed during your blurb-writing process, not shunned!
Imagine telling a guitarist on stage to “think like the audience” instead of focusing on what they do best — making music. It just doesn’t make sense.
Instead of burying your author instinct, use your innate love of storytelling to weave a blurb that captures your book’s best assets…without freezing up while trying to inhabit a faceless reader avatar.
Because the best blurb is the one that captures your book’s unique essence — something you are perfectly positioned to do.
Jessie Cunniffe is a professional blurb writer and book blurb coach from Sydney, Australia. A passionate advocate of the indie author community, Jessie has dedicated herself to taking the pain out of blurb-writing with her custom blurb services and two signature courses: Book Blurb Magic and The Spicy Blurb Playbook. On the occasion that Jessie manages to snatch some reading time, she’s probably buried in P. G. Wodehouse or Agatha Christie. Grab her free blurb cheatsheet at anatomyofabookblurb.com