This paper could also be titled, ‘How to read a manuscript, jot down quotes, words and phrases with swift appeal, atmosphere, sense of character, hints of mystery, and recognition of place then bundle it all together in a rational and exciting way so that whoever picks up the book and reads the blurb thinks, ‘I must buy this immediately!’.
A blurb is a short summary of a book’s contents, usually displayed on the back of a softcover or the inside flaps of a hardcover. Its express aim is to convince a potential reader that they need this title. Publishers are well aware of the power of those 100 or so words, after all they spend much time and money getting books into shops and into the hands of the customer. However, if the readers don’t like the sound of what’s inside then ultimately they’re not going to be rushing to the front counter. Customarily the editors, and sometimes the authors, write the copy that appears on their book covers as they tend to know a books’ strengths better than anyone (and it is cheaper than paying someone else to do it).
However, some larger publishing houses such as Penguin regularly employ copywriters to put a positive spin on their publications. When asked ‘Why?’, Colin Brush senior copywriter at Penguin General replied, ‘For one thing, copywriters are dedicated wordsmiths who are able to get a message across in a very short space. Secondly, copywriters are able to bring a freshness and vitality to a blurb that an editor or author who has been immersed for months and sometimes years in a book may find in short supply. Lastly, any copywriter worth her or his salt thinks first and foremost about their audience: the person they hope to reach in the bookshop.’
Usually, blurb writing begins with the development of a plan. Clever writing should be based on gathering relevant information, spending time on research, reading and collating plenty of material, so you will be prepared for the bit when the writing starts. This way you should have the blurb written in your head before any of it appears on the computer screen, however, it still doesn’t diminish the importance of refining and rewriting afterwards. When you’re stuck on particular adjective a thesaurus is a great reference, and it is also helpful in avoiding the overuse of certain phrases.
Conversely, when dealing with works of fiction (and certain biographies) the blurb can be mapped out in a more unconventional ‘what happens next’ scenario. First this occurred, and then this happened, and then out of nowhere tragedy struck, but then something wonderful happened … or did it? This outline is more about the individual story and bringing it to life in a very short space, during a very short time (as the potential buyer scans the cover). Freelance copywriter Helen Williams states, ‘I just make the words on the cover as enticing, accurate and entertaining as possible. Oh, and I nearly forgot – I have to check it. It’s hugely important that quotes, names and plot lines are correct, and I have to ensure the blurb is a true reflection of the writing inside.’
Whether writing copy for a philosophical work, a popular language book or a cult classic, blurb writers need to identify the book’s intended audience and structure the language, tone of voice, and choice of review quotes around that. Writers should try to digest as much information about the book as possible and work out what makes it special. This can be especially true of non-fiction titles where the ideas and themes can be complex. Condense everything down into a concise message while at the same time provide enough intrigue to give a flavour of what’s in the book and create an atmosphere. An example of structuring a blurb towards a target market is this non-fiction piece taken from the jacket of Ben Collin’s biography on Norm Smith The Red Fox published by Slattery Media Group in 2008:
Norm Smith is regarded by many as the greatest coach in the history of the Australian Football League, having transformed a battling Melbourne into a League heavyweight that won six premierships in 10 seasons (1955-64). In this meticulously researched monument to Smith’s life – enriched by the recollections of more than 100 people, many of whom had played with or under the Demon dictator – author Ben Collins lays bare the man behind the legend… in all his glories and foibles. In this most captivating analysis of Smith, a portrait emerged of a frightfully hard and brutally honest coach who was ruthless in football but possessed disarming compassion away from the game. This is his story, concurrent with that of his older brother and fellow coach Len Smith, from their childhood in tough, working-class Northcote during the Depression to their status as the most influential coaches of their generation.
A good blurb exercise is to write as much down as is relevant. When you think of a phrase or an approach that might work, note it down and keep reworking it until it’s right. Expect to do several drafts for each blurb, each with a different angle, until you sort out what works and what’s likely to attract your target market. It’s much easier to cut copy down than to add a sentence, so don’t worry if it seems too long and you’ve got to fit it to only one hundred words. It’s also a good idea to come back to the writing after a time and reassess what’s been written. Put yourself in the shoes of the book shop browser and see how they might react when reading the blurb for the first time.
When writing blurbs for fiction it is a good idea to avoid spoilers or going too far into story lines. Although book blurbs will likely include a brief summary there is a fine line between revealing general plot settings and divulging information that the reader should figure out for themselves. A good book blurb should set up the plot’s general ‘problem’, asking questions that the reader should discover while completing the book. Here is an example of a fiction blurb taken from Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies published in 2009 by Quirk Books which has helped persuade over 500,000 readers to buy this book:
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies features the original text of Jane Austen’s beloved novel with all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie action. As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton—and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she’s soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers—and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield as Elizabeth wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead. Complete with 20 illustrations in the style of C. E. Brock (the original illustrator of Pride and Prejudice), this insanely funny expanded edition will introduce Jane Austen’s classic novel to new legions of fans.
Generally, fiction blurbs follow a basic premise which usually involves introducing the main character(s) and presenting a simple plot set up. Questions of internal or external conflict may be inferred while summarising the goals of the relevant individuals and highlighting what have to lose. The basic flow of the blurb may resemble something like this: setting > introduce main character > simple plot set up > conflict.
Reading numerous book blurbs will help a potential writer gain an understanding of the art. Books that are in the same genre (i.e. horror, romance, suspense, mystery, etc.) as your intended book blurb can be useful in understanding what sells and what doesn’t. Look for key words that arouse your interest and examine the way the writer wrote the blurb that made you want to read it. Placing yourself in the shoes of the reader should allow you valuable insight in how to attract people to your story. When asked what are the main ingredients to writing a successful book blurb, Louise Willder copywriting manager for Penguin Press replied, ‘Keep it all short, snappy and simple. Start the copy in an arresting way, keep it moving from beginning to end – and leave the reader wanting more. To sum it up, good blurb writing isn’t an art, it’s a craft that can be learned and honed like any other (…but don’t tell everyone!).’
Baverstock, Alison. How to Market Books. 4th Ed. Kogan Page Publishers, London 2008.
Clark, Giles Noel. Inside Book Publishing. 3rd Ed. Routledge, London 2002.
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