What is the first thing you check on a book (after the cover art)? I would bet, whether you’re at the library, at a bookstore, or shopping online, it’s the book description. What does that mean for you as a writer? You need to know how to write a book description, preferably a great one.
Like dialogue, knowing how to write a great book description separates the best writers from the new ones.
But what determines good book descriptions? Do book descriptions fall into categories like voice and style, where it's not so easily taught as developed through practice?
Or, are there ways writers can be mindful about their book descriptions? Writing tips that can help them write better book descriptions faster?
That's what I'd like to explore, and teach, in this post.
What is a Book Description, Really?
I recently picked up a nonfiction book, which I don’t read many of, and almost put it right back down. But the description intrigued me. It got me to read the first couple pages, standing right there in the store. Then it got me to buy the book.
A book description is one of the most crucial elements to selling your book (if not the crucial element), and yet it’s often the hardest thing for writers to come up with.
As the creator of the story, authors don’t want to leave anything out. There’s a tendency to want to put every little element in the book in there. After all, you wouldn’t have written all those subplots if they weren’t important, right?
The thing is, the description isn’t a summary or a book report. It’s an ad.
Say it with me: The book description is an ad!
Start thinking of the description as a marketing tool now. And read on for a few other tips on how to write a book description.
Want to learn how to write a book from start to finish? Check out How to Write a Book: The Complete Guide.
How to Write a Book Description for Any Book
You should heed the following five tips regardless of whether you've written a nonfiction or fiction book.
1. Keep it short.
Somewhere between 150 and 250 words and no more than three paragraphs. You don’t want to bore people into putting the book down and the fewer words, the less likely you are to put in unnecessary plot points.
This means you should spend less time explaining detail and more focus on plot. What are the big hooks for your story? What stands out, and how do these events and decisions establish a unique character making a decision that pushes them into some sort of adventure or life-changing event?
2. Write in third person.
It doesn’t matter if the book is written in first person. This isn’t the book itself, it’s an ad.
You don't need to show readers the narrative of your story in this post. You need to tell them what it's about.
Third person works great for this.
3. Don’t overdo the language.
You want simple, straightforward terms. No purple prose or verbose writing.
Descriptions that try too hard, especially ones with adverbs, will signal that you're trying to make the book better than it is.
If your story has an interesting plot, plot alone should be able to make your story stand out.
Plot will convince your ideal readers to pick up and buy the book.
4. Write a hook.
Just like your book needs a hook at the beginning, so does your book description. No one’s going to keep reading the description, let alone the whole book, if the first line is as boring as dry toast.
Plus, this is often the only thing an online shopper will see before they're prompted to click to see more, and you want them to click.
How do you create a hook? Irony!
This means you need to show why your hero is the least likely hero for the story.
Marlin is a timid clownfish who needs two cross the Pacific Ocean in order to rescue his son. If he was a brave clownfish, Finding Nemo wouldn't be as interesting.
5. Use keywords.
Emotional words, like chilling or passion, work well for both nonfiction and fiction book descriptions. You can Google power words to find some good ones. Don’t overdo it, though!
You’ll also want to consider what people might be Googling that would lead them to your book. This is especially true for nonfiction works.
Keywords ultimately tell the reader why this book is for them.
Readers have a specific taste, and a good place to start with keywords is thinking about how genre plays into the description.
For some ideas:
- Crime books like a murder
- Young adult books like a good coming of age arc
- Fantasy wants to see magic
- Action wants to see life threatened in some way
Figure out the keywords for your genre, and use these to establish the stakes for your story in a physical, psychological, or professional way.
Fiction Book Description Example: Surviving Death
Let's put it all together now in an example! Here's the book description I wrote for my book Surviving Death.
As you go through this, consider how I've applied the aforementioned five points to write a good book description into this back cover description.
- Third Person
- Catchy language (without overdoing it)
- Keywords (that address my book's genre and the story's stakes)
A prophecy. A rebellion. A young woman thrust to the forefront. Welcome to the afterlife.
Tilly’s death isn’t going very well. She’s been assigned the last job anyone wants: escorting souls to Hell. Worse, the afterlife is run on an automated system of justice based on arbitrary rules and three-strike punishments, and despite her best intentions, her strikes are running out.
One more screw up and she’ll be damned for all eternity.
Just like her mother.
Furious at the ridiculous rules in the afterlife, Tilly risks her own damnation in a search for justice. She sets out on a quest through Heaven and Hell—one that makes her the accidental face of a rebellion and leads her to an ultimate showdown with Lucifer and Death himself.
Her mother’s soul—and the souls of mankind—depend on her.
How to Write a Book Description for Nonfiction
Nonfiction books have slightly different descriptions than fiction books. They often include bullet points to outline the book's goals and procedures and they talk more about the author than the book itself. Here are some additional tips for how to write a book description for a nonfiction book:
1. Make it relevant.
Clarify why the reader should choose this book over others, what they’re going to get from the book, and how the book will give it to them.
2. Add your expertise.
Why are you the one to help the reader instead of the next person? Why should they take a journey through your memoir instead of someone else?
Nonfiction books need to be written by the right person for the topic. Readers pick up nonfiction to learn something a lot of the time, so the teacher providing insight on this topic needs to have experience and exceptional insight.
Consider this back cover example from Ibram X. Kendi's book How to Be an Antiracist:
How to Be An Antiracist
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review • Time • NPR • The Washington Post • Shelf Awareness • Library Journal • Publishers Weekly • Kirkus Reviews
Antiracism is a transformative concept that reorients and reenergizes the conversation about racism—and, even more fundamentally, points us toward liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other. At its core, racism is a powerful system that creates false hierarchies of human value; its warped logic extends beyond race, from the way we regard people of different ethnicities or skin colors to the way we treat people of different sexes, gender identities, and body types. Racism intersects with class and culture and geography and even changes the way we see and value ourselves. In How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi takes readers through a widening circle of antiracist ideas—from the most basic concepts to visionary possibilities—that will help readers see all forms of racism clearly, understand their poisonous consequences, and work to oppose them in our systems and in ourselves.
Kendi weaves an electrifying combination of ethics, history, law, and science with his own personal story of awakening to antiracism. This is an essential work for anyone who wants to go beyond the awareness of racism to the next step: contributing to the formation of a just and equitable society.
Why is Ibram X. Kendi the best person to write this book?
Now look at Ibram X. Kendi's bio. In addition to being a fantastic speaker and writer, he's clearly qualified to be a voice for this book's discussion, especially since on top of his education, he's spoken about race on various platforms.
IBRAM X. KENDI is a #1 New York Times and National Book Award-winning author. He is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, and the founding director of the BU Center for Antiracist Research. Kendi is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a CBS News racial justice contributors. He is the 2020-2021 Frances B. Cashin Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for the Advanced Study at Harvard University, and he has been a Guggenheim Fellow.
How to Write a Book Description for Fiction
Fiction descriptions are what we're most familiar with. They're catchy and leave you wondering what happens at the end. Think of them as your book's movie trailer. Here are some additional things to think about when writing a fiction book description:
1. Be clear about the genre.
There should be no confusion on the reader’s part as to what they’re about to buy. Also, keep the information to the main genre. In other words, if you’re writing a psychological thriller, don’t concentrate on the romantic subplot.
2. Hint at the climax, don’t reveal it.
Again, a book description is not a synopsis for an agent, although a good book description is fantastic to use as part of your pitch in your query letter.
But ultimately, book descriptions are marketing tools to get people to read the book. No one will read it if they already know the end.
Plus! Books descriptions are a great way to plan your book before your write it.
Some people are plotters. Others are pantsers. Every writer can benefit from writing their book description before they write their manuscript, even though this description will likely change once your done writing your first draft.
You won’t get it right the first time
Just like anything else, writing a book description takes study and practice.
Pick out a few of your favorite books from your shelf. Read their descriptions. What makes them intriguing? When you’re reading descriptions in the store or online, be aware of what hooks you and what doesn’t and why.
Write one description for your book. Then write another. Then write a third. All for the same book.
Show all three to family, peers, people on the street if you want. Get feedback. Which description do they prefer? Would they read it based on what the description says? If not, why?
It's important to hear what others think. You're trying to sell the thing! (To strangers, no less.) Pay attention to feedback and rework as needed.
Keep at it. You’ll land the perfect book description eventually.
Look on your bookshelf. Which book has the best book description? What makes it so great? Let me know in the comments!
For your fifteen-minute practice today, you have two choices: Either write a description of your own book or write a description of your favorite book.
Remember you won’t get it right the first time. This is practice and a time for feedback.
When you’re done, share your book description in the comments. Don’t forget to give feedback!
Sarah Gribble is the author of dozens of short stories that explore uncomfortable situations, basic fears, and the general awe and fascination of the unknown. She just released Surviving Death, her first novel, and is currently working on her next book.