“Blurb” is such a funny word to say, but it’s a word that writers everywhere should know, because the blurb can have so much influence on who and how many people buy or download your books. According to Wikipedia (not the best source I know, but it’s quick and convenient, so what are you going to do?), a blurb is “a short summary or promotional piece meant to accompany a creative work.” In the context of a book, a blurb is usually the summary text on the back of the book describing the story, but it can also refer to reader reviews, promotional taglines, and author biographies. For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on the summary text on the back of a book, since that is what often plays a role in any reader’s decision to buy a book.
Generally blurbs are at most a paragraph or two, and give a brief idea to the reader what they can expect before they open up the book to read it. This brief idea is given in three parts: the explanation, the mystery, and the promise. Here’s what I mean:
Nathaniel is a magician’s apprentice, taking his first lessons in the arts of magic. But when a devious hot-shot wizard named Simon Lovelace ruthlessly humiliates Nathaniel in front of his elders, Nathaniel decides to kick up his education a few notches and show Lovelace who’s boss. With revenge on his mind, he summons the powerful djinni, Bartimaeus. But summoning Bartimaeus and controlling him are two different things entirely, and when Nathaniel sends the djinni out to steal Lovelace’s greatest treasure, the Amulet of Samarkand, he finds himself caught up in a whirlwind of magical espionage, murder, and rebellion.
This was the blurb on the back of The Amulet of Samarkand, the first book of the Bartimaeus Sequence by Johnathan Stroud. I was maybe ten or eleven when I first read this book. I was just coming out of my Harry Potter junkie phase and wanted something new to read. I wasn’t at first really interested in the book, but then I saw the blurb on the back and I was immediately hooked. I ended up reading the entire trilogy and the prequel, really enjoyed them, and I’ve been influenced by it ever since. And just based on that one blurb it got me to read the first book.
Let’s look at this blurb using the parts I named above. First, we have the explanation, which tells us what the novel is about. Judging from that, the reader learns that the main character is Nathaniel, he’s a magician’s apprentice, and he decides to send a djinni named Bartimaeus to get revenge for him by having him steal an amulet from Nathaniel’s enemy. The explanation stops at telling us what happens next and how it leads into “a whirlwind of magical espionage, murder, and rebellion.”
That’s what the mystery is for. The mystery’s purpose is to say that although a little bit of the story has been revealed to you in the explanation, the rest of it you’ll have to read the book to find out. All we can tell you is that there’s a lot of cool stuff there, in this case magical espionage, murder and rebellion. Usually the mystery is held off until the last sentence, meant to leave the reader intrigued enough that they’ll open the book to find out more.
Last but not least, the promise is found throughout the blurb, and it is as it’s called: a promise. In this case, the promise is telling us that this is an awesome story geared for readers just like the person reading the back cover, and that they will miss out if they do not open the book. This should be the main goal of the author when writing their blurb.
Of course, there are some things you should and shouldn’t do when writing your blurb. For instance, it may be tempting to make it seem like your book is the greatest thing that’s ever been written. For all I know, it has. But if the message from your blurb is “It’s new! It’s great! You should read it and make sure everyone else around you reads it!” and that message is too obvious or strong, it might turn away readers rather than make them want to read more. We want people to read our works of course, but coming on too strong never got anyone anywhere.
The best way to do is let the blurb and the story it’s summarizing do the talking for you. Instead of coming on strong, let the blurb subtly entice the reader into wanting to check out the story and find out more. Another way of looking at this could be like thinking of the blurb as a free sample in a grocery store or shopping mall. You get a small taste to begin with, but if you want more, you’re going to have to buy the whole product.
Another thing to keep in mind is not to put too much information in the explanation part of your blurb. Give them just enough information to form an impression, maybe give them a few images in their heads, but not too much that they’ll have a basic idea of where the story is going to go and what will happen, so why bother picking the story up? Make sure to leave some room for the mystery in the story to hint at what’s to happen so the reader will be intrigued enough to open up the book to page one.
And finally, try to do all this in as few words as possible. The blurb above is less than a hundred words and still manages to grab your attention. You should aim to write an effective blurb around a similar length that does the same thing. This isn’t just because keeping it brief is good for giving hints and mystery, though that’s part of it. It’s also because practically speaking you only have so much room on the back of your book, so you should try to keep the word count around one hundred so that the printed summary doesn’t feature tiny, tiny letters that make it difficult to read. And if the reader has difficulty reading the back cover, what are the chances they’ll want to read what’s on the inside?
What tips do you have for writing blurbs?