Ever pick up a book and read the back cover or the inside flap of its book jacket? What about the enticing description on an author’s or bookseller’s website?
This descriptive sales copy is one of the most important tools for selling books. If a book’s cover draws the reader in, then the copy seals the deal. Effective and compelling copy tempts the reader and invites them into your story. The copy answers the reader’s questions, like Will I enjoy this? Does this sound like a book I want to read?
And yet so many indie authors underestimate or completely overlook this key sales feature. Many choose instead to try and summarize their book’s plot, maybe throw in a few clichéd phrases, and struggle to find a simple sales pitch.
Why is promotional text so hard to write? Part of the reason is that authors are too close to their own projects. Because an author loves their story and knows it so intimately, they want to include every character and subplot. They can’t focus on the key story events and characters, and they overwhelm readers with details that aren’t important to the pitch. These descriptions tend to suffer from what I call “bloat” and generally are much too long and wordy. Others can be too short or far too generic, relying on clichés. And some merely treat the copy as a dry book summary.
But you don’t have to hate writing book copy. Take it from someone who has worked with hundreds of publishers, editors, and authors and written book copy for over 1,000 books—this can be fun…if you let it.
The #1 Most Important Tip: Remember that you’re not selling the book to yourself.
I’m going to start with the biggest and most important tip for writing copy. Any copy. Before you begin, you’ll have to adjust your mindset a little bit. This means putting aside that part of your brain that tells you that “whatever I write is great because it’s coming from my soul.” Your copy can have soul—but your soul can’t dictate the direction your copy will take.
Here’s the thing: you’re not writing copy for you. You’re writing it for potential readers. It’s one of the simplest concepts, and also one of the hardest to implement. You must make it accessible to as many readers as possible in your book’s target demographic.
It’s actually pretty easy to appeal to people of vastly different ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, countries, genders, personalities, beliefs, and educations. Why? Because we have the most important element—our shared humanity—in common. To that end, your copy should focus on the human experiences and emotions we all have: love, anger, betrayal, excitement, curiosity, humor, grief, friendship, family, and more.
When you start to think about your promotional copy, set aside the particulars of your story and first identify which key elements and emotions your story is about. That will help to keep your writing focused.
2. Let go of your attachment to your book.
No, not permanently. But the best way to approach your copy is as if you’re a fresh reader. Not an easy feat. Imagine that the book was written by your favorite author in the genre, and you’ve been hired by a publisher to write the description. You know full well that clichéd hooks won’t fly, and the editors are looking for copy that will draw readers in. What are the most compelling parts of your book? What sets it apart from other books that might be similar? Ask close family and friends who have read your manuscript—or maybe even a trusted beta reader—those same questions, and see what they say.
3. Simplify your plot or message.
To avoid bloated copy, you must focus on only the main characters and the primary internal and external conflicts. Secondary characters, specific scenes, small setting details, and other things like that can be incredibly distracting.
Start by isolating the main character and their plot arc, as well as the book’s main conflict. Then identify key genre tropes that you must include. In romance copy, for example, your readers need to meet the couple and understand why they’re attracted to each other and what’s keeping them apart. For mysteries and thrillers, your readers need to be introduced to the good guy and the crime, and understand what’s at stake. For speculative fiction, we need a little world-building—to understand the “rules” of this universe and what kind of tech or magic is in play—as well as to meet the hero and understand the quest.
Remember that when people are browsing, they’ll have short attention spans. You want to avoid long sentences, excessive descriptions, and unnecessary padding. Otherwise, you’ll obfuscate the key features of the book and why readers might want to read it. Keep any added color short and effective by being smart about your word choices. The key message here is quality over quantity. Don’t get frustrated if this feels like it takes longer than your other writing. It should. Be patient and think about whether you really need those eight or ten words when two will do.
Tip: Write long, then go through and ruthlessly edit the copy down for clarity, simplicity, and effect. Watch how quickly it changes the pacing of the read and also emphasizes the key tropes and plot, as well as the personality of the character. Ideally, you should aim for 150-200 words. Also, watch your verb tenses carefully. Always keep your copy present and active.
4. Take your cues from the book’s organization and pacing.
If you’re struggling with how to structure your copy, think about the structure of your own book:
Opening sentence (or two) of copy: This should be an introduction to your main character, and where they are at the beginning of the book and/or their journey. Do not include anything a reader won’t find in the first few chapters. Most important, make sure this is engaging and exciting, and gives enough information about your main character(s) to make them intriguing or likable.
Main body of copy: Introduce the central plot and conflict up to and including the middle of your book. What started your characters’ journey, and what obstacles do they face? What dangers/adventures lay in wait?
Closing sentence (or two) of copy: Avoiding spoilers, hint (only hint) at the dangers and conflict ahead, and if you can, drop a cliff-hanger.
If you’re writing nonfiction or literary fiction, you can also include a description of the book and its main themes (such as “Evocative and rich, [Author Name] tells a story about what happens when a writer meets a blank page, and creates book copy that changes their book sales forever”).
5. Sell it with shoutlines.
What is the key selling feature of the book? This is where you want to almost literally shout it. Placed at the top of the copy and usually in bold, this “shoutline” or “tagline” is your chance to grab the reader immediately. If you’re a bestselling or award-winning author, this is where you mention it. Does your book have a catchy hook that is provocative, exciting, or hilarious? Is it part of a series? Insert that information here as well. Short and punchy always work best, but you should aim for 10 to 15 words max. Look for a line of dialogue or a moment that captures your book’s essence—the themes, the tropes, the soul, or even the characters.
Tip: If someone has blurbed your novel or you have a great advance review excerpt, consider adding that at the bottom of the page. Clearly delineate the review text from the promotional copy by enclosing it in quotation marks, italicizing or bolding it, or even changing the font size (slightly). And don’t forget the attribution.
6. Have fun with it.
Copywriting is a different skill set but one that can be learned with patience. Like most writing, if you’re not having fun writing the copy, the reader will notice. If you are groaning and moaning and sulking while you describe your book, that reluctance will show in the work. Throw yourself into it. This is a good time to remind yourself why you’re excited about your book and what inspired you to start writing it in the first place. That sense of enjoyment and excitement will always shine through.
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.