How To Write A Book Description That Sells
by Tucker Max
After the title and the cover, the most important marketing material for your book is the description.
The book description goes on the back cover (for paperbacks) or the inside flap copy (for hard copies) and right below the price (on Amazon). It’s crucial that this short paragraph be right.
There are so many examples of how book descriptions led to huge changes in sales, it’s incredible authors don’t spend more time getting it right. One of our favorite stories is Mark Edwards’ book, Killing Cupid.
Despite a nice cover and good reviews, it wasn’t selling as many copies as it should have. He dove into the competition, analyzed their descriptions, and completely revamped his description. Sales doubled…within an hour.
This isn’t uncommon. In many cases, the description is the factor that solidifies in the reader’s mind whether the book is for them or not. If you get it right, the purchase is almost automatic. If you get it wrong, nothing else can really save you (except a recommendation from the right source).
In this post, we will walk you through how to write a create book description, and include some examples of authors who did it well, and those who didn’t.
1. Realize It’s An Ad, Not A Summary
Don’t think of the book description as a synopsis, but instead view it as an advertisement. It is not meant to summarize your book. It is designed to make people want to read your book. You want them to take action and buy it. Think of it like a trailer for your book.
So many authors want to put everything about their book in this section. Resist that urge. Remember what you are looking for in a random book description—a reason to read the book.
How do you give the reason to buy it? You state the problem or question your book addresses, you show that you solve or answer it, but leave a small key piece out. This piques the interest of the reader, and leaves them wanting more.
2. Great First Line
Grab them from the first sentence. If that isn’t right–or worse, if it’s wrong–you can lose the reader immediately, and then it doesn’t matter what the rest of the description says. People are always looking for a reason to move on to the next thing. Don’t give it to them. Make the first sentence something that forces them to read the rest of the description.
3. Make It Personal And Relevant
Make the description personal, and clearly explain why anyone interested in this issue the book addresses needs to read it. Done right, this creates an emotional connection by describing how the book will make the potential reader feel after reading it. Or even better, what the reader will get out of reading the book. Will it make them happy or rich? Will help them lose weight or have more friends? What else? Be clear about the benefits, don’t insinuate them. You are selling a result to the reader, not a process (even though your book is the process).
4. Don’t Hide The ‘What’ Or The ‘How’
Explain exactly what the book is about, in clear, obvious terms. Do not make the reader struggle to understand what your point is, or how you get the reader there. For some books it’s not enough to write a compelling ad with important keywords; sometimes you need to give readers a sense for where this book is going and how it gets there. This is especially true for prescriptive books (how-to, self-help, motivational, etc.). People like to understand the “how” as well as the “what,” especially if it’s something new or novel (that being said, make sure to leave just enough mystery to make them buy the book; this is a balance that our examples will show you how to hit).
5. Use Compelling Keywords
It’s not enough to be accurate, you need to use high traffic keywords that increase the likelihood your book will get picked up in search. For example, if Sports Illustrated does a book you’d want to not only say Sports Illustrated Magazine but also mention the names of the A-list athletes in the book. Even better, use words that evoke an emotional on the part of the reader. Don’t use “jerk” when “asshole” will work.
6. Bullet Points Are OK
If it makes sense for what you’re trying to convey, use bullet points to list out the information. They are an effective visual tool that make your description scannable and easily digestible. People like to scan, let them.
7. No Insecurity
Don’t compare your book to other books. I see this all the time, and all it does is make the book (and the author) immediately look inferior. Plus, a reader the may hate the book you are comparing yourself to and you’ll lose them.
The only place a comparison makes sense is if you are quoting a very reputable source that makes the comparison itself.
8. Do Use Beneficial References
Don’t compare to other books, but DO use what benefits the book does have. If there is an impressive stat to mention (e.g. NYT Bestseller), that will be bolded in the first sentence. Or if there is one salient and amazing fact about you or the book, that can go in the book description, something like, “From the author of [INSERT WELL KNOWN BESTSELLING BOOK.]” Or perhaps “From the world’s most highly decorated Marine sniper, this is the definitive book on shooting.”
9. If You’re Struggling, Get Help
I can’t tell you how many amazing authors I’ve had come to me utterly befuddled because they couldn’t write their own book description. This is normal. The reality is that the author is often the worst person to write their own book description. They’re too close to the material and too emotionally invested. If this is the case, we recommend either asking a friend to help, or going to a professional editor or even better–a professional copywriter–for assistance.
Examples of Good Book Descriptions
Tim Ferriss’ 4 Hour Work Week
Forget the old concept of retirement and the rest of the deferred-life plan–there is no need to wait and every reason not to, especially in unpredictable economic times. Whether your dream is escaping the rat race, experiencing high-end world travel, earning a monthly five-figure income with zero management, or just living more and working less, The 4-Hour Workweek is the blueprint.
This step-by-step guide to luxury lifestyle design teaches:
- How Tim went from $40,000 per year and 80 hours per week to $40,000 per month and 4 hours per week
- How to outsource your life to overseas virtual assistants for $5 per hour and do whatever you want
- How blue-chip escape artists travel the world without quitting their jobs
- How to eliminate 50% of your work in 48 hours using the principles of a forgotten Italian economist
- How to trade a long-haul career for short work bursts and frequent “mini-retirements
What Makes It Good?
There are three things that make this good.
- It has a great first sentence: Tim immediately tells you why this book matters to YOU—because you can stop waiting for retirement. Who doesn’t want to retire now? OK, I’m interested, tell me more…
- It has bulleted, specific info: A vague promise is no good if it doesn’t deliver. Tim then makes specific promises about the information in the book, both about things that have happened, and things it will teach you.
- It makes you want to read more: After the contrast of the big broad goal and the specific information, at the very least, any reader is going to keep going into the reviews and other information. You’re hooked—you want to know HOW he teaches this.
Nir Eyal’s Hooked
“Why do some products capture our attention, while others flop? What makes us engage with certain products out of habit? Is there a pattern underlying how technologies hook us?
This book introduces readers to the “Hook Model,” a four steps process companies use to build customer habits. Through consecutive hook cycles, successful products reach their ultimate goal of bringing users back repeatedly — without depending on costly advertising or aggressive messaging.
Hooked is a guide to building products people can’t put down. Written for product managers, designers, marketers, startup founders, and people eager to learn more about the things that control our behaviors, this book gives readers:
– Practical insights to create user habits that stick.
– Actionable steps for building products people love.
– Behavioral techniques used by Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and other habit-forming products.
Nir Eyal distilled years of research, consulting and practical experience to write a manual for creating habit-forming products. Nir has taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. His writing on technology, psychology and business appears in the Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic, TechCrunch, and Psychology Today.”
What Makes It Good?
Three things make this good:
- Engaging questions: Instead of stating a goal, this book asks some fundamental questions that many people are looking for answers to. This immediately catches the interest of potential readers.
- Important key words: We tend to advocate staying away from buzzwords in your book description, but in some cases—especially business books—the right use of them can work. This is an example of where they work. Words and phrases like “actionable steps” and “practical insights” and “habit forming products” actually work.
- Establishes Legitimacy: The description does not deliver much information about how this works aside from vague promises, so to compensate, the authors bio is emphasized. This is important for establishing legitimacy. Names like “Standford” and Harvard” signal to the reader know this guy is for real.
Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over
“Widely acclaimed as one of the world’s most influential economists, Tyler Cowen returns with his groundbreaking follow-up to the New York Times bestseller The Great Stagnation.
The widening gap between rich and poor means dealing with one big, uncomfortable truth: If you’re not at the top, you’re at the bottom.
The global labor market is changing radically thanks to growth at the high end—and the low. About three quarters of the jobs created in the United States since the great recession pay only a bit more than minimum wage. Still, the United States has more millionaires and billionaires than any country ever, and we continue to mint them.
In this eye-opening book, renowned economist and bestselling author Tyler Cowen explains that phenomenon: High earners are taking ever more advantage of machine intelligence in data analysis and achieving ever-better results. Meanwhile, low earners who haven’t committed to learning, to making the most of new technologies, have poor prospects. Nearly every business sector relies less and less on manual labor, and this fact is forever changing the world of work and wages. A steady, secure life somewhere in the middle—average—is over.
With The Great Stagnation, Cowen explained why median wages stagnated over the last four decades; in Average Is Over he reveals the essential nature of the new economy, identifies the best path forward for workers and entrepreneurs, and provides readers with actionable advice to make the most of the new economic landscape. It is a challenging and sober must-read but ultimately exciting, good news. In debates about our nation’s economic future, it will be impossible to ignore.”
What Makes It Good?
This book description does almost everything right. It quickly but unobstrusively establishes the authors credentials, it immediately states the huge social question it addresses, and it does so in a way that creates an emotional reaction from the reader—questions of equality are highly emotionally charged.
It then spends two short paragraphs laying out the contest of the debate over economic equality, and then tells you exactly what the book will tell you, without giving it’s thesis away. This description almost forces you to read this book.
Some bad examples:
Ben Horowitz’s, The Hard Thing About Hard Things
“Ben Horowitz, cofounder of Andreessen Horowitz and one of Silicon Valley’s most respected and experienced entrepreneurs, offers essential advice on building and running a startup—practical wisdom for managing the toughest problems business school doesn’t cover, based on his popular ben’s blog.
While many people talk about how great it is to start a business, very few are honest about how difficult it is to run one. Ben Horowitz analyzes the problems that confront leaders every day, sharing the insights he’s gained developing, managing, selling, buying, investing in, and supervising technology companies. A lifelong rap fanatic, he amplifies business lessons with lyrics from his favorite songs, telling it straight about everything from firing friends to poaching competitors, cultivating and sustaining a CEO mentality to knowing the right time to cash in.
Filled with his trademark humor and straight talk, The Hard Thing About Hard Things is invaluable for veteran entrepreneurs as well as those aspiring to their own new ventures, drawing from Horowitz’s personal and often humbling experiences.”
What’s Wrong With It:
This description is bad because–based just on this description–the book seems somewhat bland and boring. If I don’t know anything about Horowitz before I read that description, what in there makes me want to know more? Nor does it really tell me anything about the substance of what he says in the book, and it substantially undersells both Horowitz’s prominence and the reconance and importance of the books message. And who cares that he likes rap? What does that matter to me, the reader?
Compare this with the description for Tyler Cowen’s book above; it explains who Cowen is and why I should care, it tells me what he says, applies the book to my life, and shows me exactly why I need to care about what he wrote.
The irony is that having read both books, I can tell you that Horowitz’s is just as good, if not better than Cowen’s. But you would never know this from comparing the descriptions.
Douglas Rushkoff’s, Coercion: Why We Listen to What “They” Say
“Noted media pundit and author of Playing the Future Douglas Rushkoff gives a devastating critique of the influence techniques behind our culture of rampant consumerism. With a skilled analysis of how experts in the fields of marketing, advertising, retail atmospherics, and hand-selling attempt to take away our ability to make rational decisions, Rushkoff delivers a bracing account of media ecology today, consumerism in America, and why we buy what we buy, helping us recognize when we’re being treated like consumers instead of human beings.”
What’s Wrong With It:
Short descriptions are great, but this is too short to even tell me what the book says. This is an example of overselling, without doing it right. Look at the descriptions, “devastating” “skilled analysis” and “bracing account”—this description sounds like he’s doing what he says he’s warning us about: selling without substance. In no place does this description connect the reader to the issues in the book in a way that is engaging or compelling.
How To Write Your Book Description
The Three Basic Guidelines For Your Book Description
Word Count: On average, Amazon Bestsellers have descriptions that are about 150-250 words long. Most descriptions are broken up into two paragraphs, but some are kept at one, and some run to three.
Simple Writing: Keep the writing simple. Use short, clear sentences. You don’t want anyone to struggle to comprehend what you’re trying to convey because you’ve strung too many ideas together in one long run-on sentence.
Write As The Publisher, Not The Author: This will probably be obvious to you, but the book description should always be in a third person objective voice, and never your author voice.
Recommended Resources for Writing Marketing Copy for Your Book:
Places to Learn More
A blog dedicated to copywriting (although it has grown to encompass other marketing over the years). The archives are full of great advice and lessons for you to start learning about this stuff. I recommend starting with the free Copywriting 101 course.
Advertising Secrets of the Written Word by Joe Sugarman [~ $10]
Joe Sugarman is a legend of the copywriting world, and this book will teach you all the basics of copywriting in a pretty short, easy-to-read package.
Breakthrough Advertising by Eugene Schwartz [~ $90]
The best book to take things up to the next level. Breakthrough Advertising is the bible of copywriting, but for some reason it’s only available in $90 hardcover. It might be useful to search Google for the title + PDF if you don’t want to spend that much money.
Kopywriting Kourse (or another more expensive course) by Neville Medhora [~ $70]
The only way to really become a great copywriter is practice. This takes serious dedication, but this course is the way to do it. You can start with his cheap ebook first, if you want.
Places to Hire a Pro
Professional Quality: Command+Z Content
Command+Z is the best of the best. They’ve edited New York Times bestsellers, ghostwritten books for numerous celebrities, and written tons of copy. Their services don’t come cheap, though.