The Nefarious Blurb
Back in elementary school, the Scholastic catalog was a thing of wonder. I would pore over the books like an office girl drools over the product pages of Sephora. I carefully examined every catalog that came my way, but I took the Scholastic one especially seriously because it was the one full of things I could actually get. The pretty packages in Christmas fundraising booklets were out of reach. "No Tammy, those chocolates are too expensive, and they're not good for you." The seasonal trinkets from the Oriental Trading Company? "They're overpriced pieces of flimsy plastic, and you'll only forget about them in an hour." But when it came to books, "Ask and you shall receive." My mother would note the titles I circled, and when the book fair came to town, they would appear in the house like magic.
When I was browsing those thin ink-laden pages, there was only one thing that I based my nine-year-old purchasing decisions on: the blurbs. The pictures of covers were (a) tiny and (b) meaningless. What grabbed me was the promise of the story inside. The blurbs could either entice or kill. For example, no matter how much the Scholastic folks hyped up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, I was dead-set against ever wasting my precious hours on it after reading the two-sentence description. It went something like this:
An eleven-year-old boy learns he's a wizard and goes to a magical school. He and his friends must work together to fight the evil Lord Voldemort.
You have no idea how deeply rooted my aversion to this book was after reading that. How on earth could a plot so boring and trite be a bestseller? Somehow it entered the house—probably because one of my brothers asked for it—and I refused to touch it with a ten foot pole. It wasn't until some year later, when the entire family was three books in and wouldn't shut up about it, that I caved.
Fourteen years later, I still believe in the power of the blurb. People make a big deal about covers, and will spend hundreds of dollars for an amazing 150px rectangle, but covers don't sell books. Nobody looks at a cover and thinks, "Wow, that photo of a teenage model in heavy eye makeup is so awesome, I just have to buy this." They think, "Huh, I wonder what that's about?" Then they click the link or flip it over. For what? The blurb. The blurb is what sells them on it. Even if the reviews are dismissive, even if the first few pages aren't stellar, if you were hooked by the story promised in the blurb, you will want to buy the book.
Now I doubt very many people will insist that the blurb is unimportant. Blurbs have been a hot topic of conversation in the self-publishing blogosphere lately. The thing is, though everyone nods vehemently in agreement that well-written blurbs are super-duper important for sales, nobody I've seen has discussed how to write them well. I'm no expert, and I'm still messing with my own copywriting approaches, but from my experience on the customer side, here's what I've observed that successful blurbs accomplish:
1. They tell you the flavor of the story.
Too many blurbs are completely devoid of character. After all, most are written by editors or copywriters on a time crunch, and they just outline the basics. That blurb for Harry Potter turned me off so many years ago because the tone was flat and unimaginative; nothing like the book it represented. Conversely, a good blurb would have drawn me in with a taste of the reading experience I could look forward to.
Here is an example of what you should not do. Witness the description for Lemony Snicket's The Bad Beginning from Barnes 'n Noble:
Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are intelligent children. They are charming, and resourceful, and have pleasant facial features. Unfortunately, they are exceptionally unlucky.
In the first two books alone, the three youngsters encounter a greedy and repulsive villain, itchy clothing, a disastrous fire, a plot to steal their fortune, a lumpy bed, a deadly serpent, a large brass reading lamp, a long knife, and a terrible odour.
In the tradition of great storytellers, from Dickens to Dahl, comes an exquisitely dark comedy that is both literary and irreverent, hilarious and deftly crafted. Never before has a tale of three likeable and unfortunate children been quite so enchanting, or quite so uproariously unhappy.
Way to kill every trace of whimsy and individuality, blurb writer. But here is a famous example of what you could do instead, from the author himself:
I'm sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hands is extremely unpleasant. It tells an unhappy tale about three very unlucky children. Even though they are charming and clever, the Baudelaire siblings lead lives filled with misery and woe. From the very first page of this book when the children are at the beach and receive terrible news, continuing on through the entire story, disaster lurks at their heels. One might say they are magnets for misfortune.
In this short book alone, the three youngsters encounter a greedy and repulsive villain, itchy clothing, a disastrous fire, a plot to steal their fortune, and cold porridge for breakfast.
It is my sad duty to write down these unpleasant tales, but there is nothing stopping you from putting this book down at once and reading something happy, if you prefer that sort of thing.
With all due respect,
2. They give you a solid idea of the plot, but leave you wondering how it will turn out.
If a blurb tells you nothing about the story, you have no incentive to read it. But if it tells you everything, you have even less reason to pick it up. Here's an example of the former, describing the last of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy:
Ana and Christian have it all—love, passion, intimacy, wealth, and a world of possibilities for their future. But Ana knows that loving her Fifty Shades will not be easy, and that being together will pose challenges that neither of them would anticipate. Just when it seems that their strength together will eclipse any obstacle, misfortune, malice, and fate conspire to turn Ana's deepest fears into reality.
So what is this book about, exactly? There's, like, these lovers, and then this conflict, and, like, yeah. It's really gripping, I swear; you just have to take my word for it.
You might as well throw in the towel and write a blurb like those posters for movies in the 1940s. "A beautiful dame! A handsome rake! An epic love mangled by the twisted hands of fate!" Actually, I'd be interested in checking out a book like that...but not the one described above.
Now here's a problematic blurb from the opposite end of the spectrum—ironically from the first book of the set:
When college student Anastasia Steele goes to interview young entrepreneur Christian Grey, she encounters a man who is beautiful, brilliant, and intimidating. The unworldly Ana realizes she wants this man, and Grey admits he wants her, too—but on his own terms. When the couple embarks on a daring, passionately physical affair, Ana discovers Christian's secrets and explores her own desires.
The problem with this one is that, well, that's pretty much it. That's all there is to the book. I don't doubt exactly how it will go, or exactly how it will turn out. Now, sometimes, this is what readers want, especially in genres like erotica. They're just there to fap, not to invest themselves mentally or emotionally. The blurb promises sex, and the book delivers sex. James also gets the boost of fame and hype, so it doesn't much matter how she describes her books—people will buy them without even looking at the blurbs. But for almost everyone else, you should leave something up to the imagination.
3. They make you connect with the characters before you even open to the first page.
After reading those short paragraphs on the back cover (or under the cover JPEG), readers have already decided where their sympathies lie. They've written the story in their heads, cobbled together from past experiences with similar plot lines, and they know roughly who the characters ought to be and who they want to root for. Then they will buy the book based on the story they think you will tell. If your protagonists and their predicaments don't resonate with them right off the bat, they probably won't try to get to know them on the page.
And once you've established who's who and what's what in your premise, subvert them at your peril. If you write a rom-com where your girl doesn't get your guy, but you represent them as a fated couple in the blurb, expect a lot of angry comments to the effect of, "I thought this story was about A and B, but then it was all about B and C, and I was so disappointed that I just stopped reading." And if you describe your heroine in sympathetic terms but she's supposed to be a brat with room to grow, the ones with preconceptions of what a female lead "should be" will be extremely annoyed.
Readers like to know exactly what they're getting into within the first ten seconds of picking up a paperback or glancing over an Amazon page. If that tiny blurb doesn't accurately represent the 90k word masterpiece you spent a year perfecting, and snag their curiosity besides, they'll drop it or navigate away in a heartbeat. Is it fair? Not really. Is it even possible? Often not. But you at least have to try.
Now for some fun, here are a few tongue-in-cheek blurbs for famous books I stumbled on in the comments for this article in the Guardian about trends in cover design. See if you can recognize them on sight.
1. Urged on by his dead father, a troubled adolescent embarks on a killing spree.
2. Small bloke with big feet climbs a volcano to drop his ring into the lava.
3. A man turns into a beetle with not so hilarious consequences.
4. Two men walk around Dublin all day thinking about sex and the agenbite of inwit. Zany pranks in Nighttown ensue.
5. Hissy fits and nuclear meltdowns galore, sexed up with English manners, restraint and inhibition, as a couple o' gals nab single guys in possession of good fortunes.