First impression; life or death for writers

Regardless of how we writers think of ourselves, be it as a artistic hobby-fantasy-novelist or a businesslike realistic-crime story author, we hate to see people judging our books by their covers.  We say to ourselves “When writing is so different from visual arts, why do people think that because my book doesn’t have a professional cover, it’s not well written?”  It’s a common complaint among new writers trying to self-publish.  (I’ve never actually made this complaint, but only because I LOVE beautiful, well executed covers)

Since it’s so common, it’s also the complaint we’re most commonly warned against in every “How to Self-Publish” blog, book, article, and ‘ten things’ list.  Everyone knows you shell out the money for a good cover.

Unfortunately, there’s another, similar, mistake that far too many books (both indie and traditionally published) contain.  That mistake is the blurb or synopsis.  Don’t misunderstand me, the problem isn’t the blurb itself.  The problem is when the blurb is bad.

Let’s see an example.  A writer, having gone through the rigorous, harsh, and unfriendly process of editing and formatting, starts planning how his book will look.  After some work and pondering, he finds a competent artist who creates a really good, impressive cover.  Then, the writer thinks, “Hey, I’ve got everything I need to publish! Let’s go!”

The next day, everything is up, the e-book is online and the “buy” page on his website has the printed hard-back copy ready to go.  Within minutes, one of the people the author has been happily telling about his book decides to have a look at it.  The prospective buyer pulls up the page and scans it in fascination.  The book’s cover is AWESOME, just right for a murder-thriller.  Intrigued, the buyer starts reading the blurb, eager to find out what the gist of the story might be.

A minute later, the buyer scowls, disgusted, and closes the page.

“The day his father dies, Joseph Lewis starts to think he wasn’t the man he knew. The will leads him to his father’s secret room in an old house in England.  There, Joe discovers that he was a special agent for an international detective agency.  Once he digs through all the junk in the room, he realizes his father’s most important case was never completely resolved.  The discovery throws Lewis into a scary spiral of half-truths and coverups as the young man tries to solve that unfinished mystery. He gets shot, kidnapped, and recruited (by the wrong side) as he struggles to make sense of everything he knows, or thought he knew, about his dad.  The entire time, though, he worries that he might not like the answers he’ll find.

That blurb, a little 130 word synopsis, is bad enough to throw the sale. It’s confusing, poorly worded, and doesn’t tell the reader anything interesting about the story.

Anyone who has ever gone looking for books online knows this kind of blurb .  Self-published books can be found by the hundreds and hundreds of them have this problem.  Even ones with the great covers and professional layouts sometimes have it.  I’ve seen traditionally published books with it. (though they’re much rarer, due to the sheer number of people who read the blurb before the book is released)

For the most part, the mistakes aren’t obvious, glaring defects.  They’re not usually misspellings, bad punctuation, or formatting problems.  More often, it’s just bad phrasing.  However, that can be as lethal to sales as any amount of misspelling.  Readers want to be gripped by the synopsis.  They want it to be exciting, informative, and revealing.  They want it to tell them if they’ll like the book.

Here’s the same blurb, rewritten (at the request of a blog reader)

“The day his father dies, Joseph Lewis learns he never really knew the man. An unpaid bill on the old man’s desk leads to a secret room in an old English house and a drawer filled with old papers, a fifty year old journal and a half-burned photograph. The scrawled notes in the journal reveal his father as an agent for an international detective agency; an agent who failed to solve the most important case of his career. Thrown into a terrifying world of half-truths and cover ups, Joseph tries to understand the mystery that destroyed his father. Digging into secrets buried for half a century is dangerous enough, but the real threat just might be in his head; Joseph Lewis’s greatest fear is that he won’t like the answers he’ll find”.

Much better right?  It almost sounds like something you’d want to read!

Be as careful with your synopsis as you are with the rest of your book.  We judge a book by its cover and the blurb is part of the cover.  Make it the best blurb the reader has ever seen.

4 thoughts on “First impression; life or death for writers

  1. Blurbs and synopsis are very important! Not that I’m any where near perfect when it comes to writing my own, but I do try very hard to make them intriguing and I know what I like from a book!

  2. I try not to judge books by their covers, but I realize I do judge books by their blurbs. I depend on the blurb to tell me whether the plot will be interesting. Sometimes, it lies, like all the times I brought home a book because the blurb told me it was a sci-fi, mystery, or adventure novel, only discover it’s a romance novel in disguise.

    …Which means next time I try to sell a book, I ought to write a blurb that doesn’t result in people asking me, “Um, Allison, what’s a ‘denizen’?”

  3. Guess

    RE Today’s tweet. Here you are king until your imagination runs away with you, then you’re more like a beginning rider clinging to the saddle of a runaway horse:), or a captive being held hostage, or… you get the idea!

  4. Mad

    Come on Michael, we need a new post.

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