Friday, April 17, 2009

How to Write Good Book Product Descriptions

Yesterday, I picked on some book product descriptions, pointing out some problems with them. Today, I want to discuss some ways to improve book descriptions. Who knows, maybe I’ll learn something.

Lead with the Best Parts

Peruse a few websites that list books and you’ll see product descriptions that have been chopped off with the words “read more” at the end. Imagine visiting such a site and the only words you see for one book are “From the author of the Sacramental Sunset Series comes the…read more.” For another book you see, “A mysterious stranger comes to a pastor’s aid, only to…read more.” On which description are you more likely to click? We have no control over how much of a description a customer reads, but they all read the first words.

Describe it as a Reader Would

We put a lot of stuff in our books that means a lot to us as writers, but the readers see it as just part of the story, not what the book is about. I hinted at this yesterday when I cut away so much of the description of Kiss. A reader closes a book and her husband asks what the book was about. At first, she isn’t going to go into a lengthy explanation of the back story and the B plot, as Thomas Nelson has done. Instead, she will say, “It’s about a woman with the ability to steal the memories of other people.” Only after her husband asks why, will she venture into more details, but even then she is more likely to describe what happens in the second quarter of the book. Don’t believe me? Pick a book and try it yourself.

Use Action Words

Which is better? A mysterious stranger comes to the aid of a pastor, only to disappear. The pastor convinces his flock that the stranger is an angel sent from God and people begin flooding into the church. Then one day, the stranger shows up more than mildly inebriated. Or. This is a book that takes place in a small town. It involves a pastor and a mysterious stranger. The pastor’s church think the stranger is an angel. One day, he is on the church steps drunk. We want to invite the reader to experience the world we have created and have him wonder what happens next. It isn’t enough to describe the world of the story.

Use Third Person Present Tense

Use third person present tense and while you’re at it, stay out of the character’s heads. The book description isn’t a fictional story. It is a non-fiction statement that tells people what happens in the book.

Don’t Mention the Theme (for novels)

Every novel should have one theme, but that doesn’t mean it is appropriate to mention the theme in the book description. If we can get by with just coming out and telling the reader the theme, then why are we wasting our time writing fiction? The theme will come out soon enough, but not in the book product description.

The Hook Goes Here

The prevailing wisdom is that an author should begin the first chapter with a hook. I say that is too late. Many, if not most, readers have already decided whether they are going to enjoy the book before they open the cover. Put the hook in the book product description, so we have a better chance of convincing the reader that she is going to enjoy the book. Make sure the book product description leaves the reader with some unanswered question. What will a pastor do when he finds a drunk “angel” on the front steps of the church building? I don’t mean that you state the question, but let the reader ask, knowing that the answer lies within the pages of the book.

Leave the Trophies at Home

I have a trophy I won in a writing contest. I keep it in a drawer, two drawers below my sock drawer. If I wanted, I could truthfully begin the description of every book I write with the words, “award winning author,” but what does that tell the reader about the book? Nothing. The reader is looking for an experience, not a dust collector. If you feel compelled to brag about your greatness in the author biography, fine. But don’t clutter the book description with your cheap baubles; it is far too important.