So you've written a book? Congratulations! That's an awesome achievement. Where to from here? Before…
After your book’s cover, the blurb is the first interaction a potential reader will have with your text. More people will read your blurb than your book, so it needs to be written in such a way that the readers who will enjoy it will buy it. Writing a compelling blurb can be a daunting task, but if you keep a few key things in mind, you can create the perfect piece of copy to sell your book.
Who is your blurb for?
First of all, you need to realise your blurb isn’t for you, it’s for your reader. You’ll need to put yourself in the shoes of someone who might enjoy your book. This might not be an easy task. Consider asking some of your existing readers what they think the book is about and what stuck with them. You might be surprised at their answers. Knowing what others have taken away from your book is a good place to start, as you can use that information to create a blurb that will appeal to similar readers.
What your blurb needs
Your blurb is not a plot summary, a vague overview of the themes, or the backstory of how you came to write your book. The blurb is a sales pitch. If you’re unclear on how a blurb should read, take a look at the backs of some books produced by traditional publishers. These will give you a good sense of the kinds of things to include. While there are many different ways to write a blurb, there are three things that all good fiction and narrative nonfiction blurbs have: characters, context and conflict.
Characters are what connect us to a story and carry us through the narrative. Your blurb will introduce your protagonist or protagonists. If you do have more than one, or if your story takes place over multiple time periods, consider splitting their parts of the blurb into separate paragraphs. Your reader will also want to know who your characters are. This could be their profession or status and will be part of the context of your blurb. If you’ve written a memoir, think of yourself as the main character.
This is where you introduce your setting and/or your central themes. You don’t want to start describing every aspect of the setting. Just give a sense to the reader. It can be as specific as ‘the court of King Henry VIII,’ or as vague as ‘a forest.’ This isn’t a place for florid prose either, so keep your fancy metaphors and long-winded sentences for the inside the book.
The context can also include themes and some background of the character’s situation. For instance, it could be valuable to say that Jay Gatsby ‘has it all,’ or that Harry Potter ‘thought he was just an ordinary boy.’
Every story needs conflict. It creates tension and drives the story forward. Another way to look at conflict is to ask what the central problem of the story is, or what the main character wants. The things getting in their way are the conflicts. Usually, there is one central conflict, but there may be several. In a blurb, you have minimal space to spell these out, so it is advisable to choose one to focus on.
If you have an explicit villain from the beginning of your story, this could be a good place to introduce them. If the identity of your villain or the central conflict is a surprise or mystery, you can hint at their existence, but focus on what the stakes are if the protagonist fails.
These three things work together. The characters are the ones with conflicts, and the conflicts are a result of the context.
How to structure a blurb
Every sentence of your blurb is an opportunity for your reader to put the book down. Because of this, you need to start with the most intriguing or interesting information. It’s a bit like a newspaper article, where the most important information is always delivered first, with further details later in the article. By this logic, your first sentence needs to be your best.
Here are some examples of potential opening lines.
Harry thought he was an ordinary boy before the letters started arriving. [JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone].
Jay Gatsby seemed to have it all: youth, looks, money; everything but the one thing he truly wanted. [F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby].
Or you could start with a memorable quote.
Shoot all the blue jays you want… but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. [Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird].
While you want to give a good sense of what the story is going to be about, it’s important not to give too much away. Any events you focus on in detail should, as a general rule, take place in the first 50 pages of the book. Events after that point can be mentioned in a broader way, for instance, you might tease a looming threat that occurs later in the book, but you wouldn’t say exactly what it is. Of course, this rule can be adapted to your book. If you have a 600-page tome you may be able to include details that are further into the story.
While your first sentence is the key to getting someone to read the rest of your blurb, your final sentence is the key to getting them to buy. If they’ve read all of your blurb, the final sentence is the decision point. Will they buy the book, or will they put it back on the shelf?
You need to give your reader a compelling reason to want to buy your book. This might be in the form of a question, leaving the reader wondering, e.g. Will Darcy and Elizabeth be able to see past their differences? [Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice].
Or it might be an intriguing statement, e.g. But while Dorian seems untouched by his sins, the portrait holds a frightening truth. [Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray].
It can be nice to include the title of the book in this final hook line, e.g. But Pip’s great expectations will come at a price — one he may not be willing to pay. [Charles Dickens, Great Expectations].
Here’s a full example:
The man who has a conscience suffers whilst acknowledging his sin. That is his punishment.
Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov used to be a law student, now he’s living in a tiny St Petersburg apartment with no money to pay the rent. Poor and desperate, Raskolnikov decides that his only way out is murder.
But his plan goes wrong, and now Raskolnikov has blood on his hands and little to show for it. He is haunted, not only by his actions but by a suspicious detective who is getting ever closer to the truth. With minimal funds and the weight of his crimes on his shoulders, can he find a way to repent without turning himself in, or will his own guilt destroy him before then?
First published in instalments in 1866, Dostoyevsky’s classic novel is, at its heart, a psychological thriller, exploring the torments of a guilty conscience and what an extraordinary act can do to an ordinary man.
[Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment].
This example is written in the present tense to convey a further sense of urgency and tension. The tense you decide to write your blurb in will depend on the type of book it is. Bear in mind that it doesn’t have to be written in the same tense, or from the same perspective, as your book is.
These same principles can be applied to narrative nonfiction, such as a memoir, or even a history book. Character, context and conflict are key parts of any story, so you should be able to identify what they are, even in nonfiction. Exceptions to this rule might be books that are more informational than narrative-driven, such as guidebooks, reference books and other instructional books.
For other non-fiction books, think about the benefits your book brings to the reader. What journey will the book take them on and how will it change their life for the better? In this case, you can even cast the reader as the main character. Paint a picture of what their life is like now and how it will be improved by reading your book. Readers connect with stories, so look for the narrative in your book and focus on that.
It’s always a good idea to look at other books in your genre and see how they tackle blurb-writing. And remember, if you work on a print-on-demand basis you can change your blurb and see if that improves sales.
This is an extract from Self-Publishing in New Zealand by H.L. Kennedy, a pen name of Holly Dunn, published by CP Books, 2019.