How to Write Book Descriptions That Keep Editors* Happy

Thursday, August 5, 2021

*At least this editor

As editor of The Steampunk Explorer, I often find myself writing short news items about new books. In most cases, I try to include a short description of the book that will be intelligible to my readers. My source material is usually the blurb on the book’s Amazon page, but I occasionally get the info directly from the author or their publicist.

Some blurbs are reasonably straightforward, and I’m able to distill a description with little effort. But others are baffling, so I find myself spending precious minutes hunting for the information I need.

I might go to the author’s website. If it’s a series, I might look at blurbs for earlier installments. Sometimes I’ll look at reader reviews. And often, after all this, I still come up empty.

Blurbs are not the only problem. In some cases, I get press releases about new books where the descriptions are equally baffling.

It’s all an enormous headache, just so I can write a 100-word news brief. Sometimes I bite the bullet and try to write a description based on less-than-ideal source material. Other times I give up and move on to the next book.

That prompted me to prepare this short guide to writing cogent book descriptions. I do so out of enlightened self-interest, figuring that in the long run, I’ll save time better spent on other tasks.

If you’re an author, you might wonder if it’s worth the bother to change the way you write your blurbs just to please one editor. But if I’m baffled by your description, it’s likely that potential readers are confused as well.

Even if you feel compelled to write blurbs that are somewhat cryptic, this guide should at least help you write better descriptions in publicity materials for journalists.

Real-World Examples

First, let’s take a look at some actual book descriptions I’ve run on the site. This will give you a better idea of the end product I’m looking for.

“A novel about a conwoman in 1870s America who can talk to ghosts.”

No Rest for the Wicked by Phoebe Darqueling

“Set in a in a steampunk fantasy world, the story involves a team of misfits on a mission to rescue an inventor who has been imprisoned in a distant city.”

The Slave City by Celine Jeanjean

“A short novel in which Mark Twain ‘travels to the mining camps of America’s wildest frontier—the Moon—in search of wonders, adventure, and a fortune in precious water ice.’”

Mark Twain on the Moon by Michael Schulkins

The Four W’s

What do these examples have in common? They all have the four essential W’s of newswriting: Who, What, When, and Where, though in some cases it may not be obvious.

If any of those four elements are lacking from your blurb or publicity materials, it will be difficult for me to write a good description.

Let’s take a closer look. First: No Rest for the Wicked. This line was based on a description that the author sent me directly.

“A novel about a conwoman in 1870s America who can talk to ghosts.”

Who: A conwoman.

What: She can talk to ghosts.

Where: America.

When: 1870s.

All that in one short sentence. Note that the “who” is a description of the character, not the person’s name. When you’re writing a novel, you can take the time to introduce the character and let us know more about them. But I’m looking for shorthand. She’s not Jane Doe or Lady Gearsmith. She’s a conwoman.

Next: The Slave City.

“Set in a in a steampunk fantasy world, the story involves a team of misfits on a mission to rescue an inventor who has been imprisoned in a distant city.”

Who: A team of misfits, not “Larry, Moe, and Curly.”

What: A mission to save an inventor.

Where: A steampunk fantasy world.

When: Timeless. Because it’s set in a steampunk fantasy world, the era is probably meaningless to anyone other than the author or readers invested in the story. That’s OK. If it’s a fantasy world, “Timeless” counts as “When.” But it’s even better if we know some parallel with our own history, like “a fantasy world in an alternate 19th century.”

Next: Mark Twain on the Moon.

“A short novel in which Mark Twain ‘travels to the mining camps of America’s wildest frontier—the Moon—in search of wonders, adventure, and a fortune in precious water ice.’”

Who: Mark Twain. Because he’s a well-known historical figure, that’s all you need to know. In this case “Mark Twain” is better than “novelist” or “riverboat pilot.”

What: A journey to distant mining camps.

Where: The Moon.

When: This is implied. It’s during the lifetime of Mark Twain, likely in the late 19th century.

One That Doesn’t Work

Now here’s a blurb that makes it nearly impossible for me to write a cogent description like the ones above. I made it up, but it’s not unlike dozens of others that have driven me batty.

“The Caravan of Thunder is coming, and Lady Stanforth knows the Clockwork Nimbats can’t be far behind. Desperate in the face of ultimate evil, she forms an uneasy alliance with Cogsmith John and his band of feral Moon Goblins.

“Meanwhile, as the hordes approach, Sister Glenda is left to fend for herself.

“Can they hold off the fearsome onslaught, or will a new age of darkness descend upon the city? Hearts will be broken, lives will be shattered, and no one will escape the reckoning in this thrilling conclusion to the Gears of Myopia steampunk adventure series.”

Feeling confused? Maybe the blurb is meaningful to people who read earlier books in the series, but anyone else is left scratching their heads.

Let’s break it down:

Who: Lady Stanforth, Cogsmith John, and Glenda, but we have no idea of who they are beyond their names.

What: Some kind of impending doom involving a caravan or clockwork nimbats (whatever they are) but we have no real sense of what drives the story, at least in a way that would allow us to write a coherent description.

Where: No clue. Sounds like a fantasy world or maybe alt-history Earth, but we really don’t know.

When: Ditto. You really need to make it clear if your story is set in a timeline on Earth or in some fantasy world where it doesn’t matter.

The big problem with blurbs like this is that the authors are too immersed in the worlds they’ve created. For a reality check, try describing the book to someone who hasn’t read your work and see how they react.

The Takeaway

Just to conclude, here’s my advice in six easy bullet points:

• Give me the four W’s: Who, What, When, Where

• Give me the setting: Alt-Earth? Fantasy world?

• Give me the time period (or is it timeless?)

• Don’t just name your characters, describe them

• Go easy on the world-specific jargon

• Make it clear why it’s steampunk