fbpx How to Write Book Descriptions That Keep Editors* Happy | The Steampunk Explorer

How to Write Book Descriptions That Keep Editors* Happy

*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 blurb for earlier installments. Sometimes I’ll look at reader reviews. And sometimes, after all this, I still come up empty.

Sometimes I get press releases about new books where the descriptions are equally baffling. That’s even worse, since the goal of a press release is to get editorial coverage, and journalists generally try to avoid writing news stories that read like marketing materials.

It’s all an enormous headache, just so I can write a 100-word news brief that will make sense to my readers. 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, chances are potential readers are 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 Jean

“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.” “Team of misfits” tells us more about what we can expect when reading the novel.

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 Didn’t Work

Now here’s a blurb that makes it nearly impossible for me to write a cogent description like the ones above. It is adapted from a real blurb about a steampunk novel, but I’ve changed the details to avoid embarrassing the author.

“Lady Stanforth grieves as the League of Gargoyles has murdered her best friend. She’s focused on payback, but fails to see their stony grip on those who remain. The city’s crime bosses have agreed to an alliance so they can dismantle the Gargoyles, but that could destroy everything Fester has built. As the Council of Elders moves toward a fateful decision, The Lady’s life hangs in the balance. Hearts will be broken, lives will be shattered, and no one will escape this new threat to the kingdom.”

After reading the original blurb, I was completely baffled. I went to the author’s website to see if there was a better description, but it just repeated the one on Amazon. I went back and looked at descriptions of earlier books in the series, but they were equally baffling. Maybe the blurb is meaningful to people who read earlier books in the series, but anyone else is left scratching their heads.

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

What: Lots of things, but no real sense of what drives the story.

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.

One big problem with this blurb—an understandable one—is that the author is immersed in this world and its characters, and seems to have written the blurb for readers already familiar with the series. But this doesn't work if your goal is to attract new readers.

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

When I first discussed this topic at an online convention, I wrote what was essentially a parody of the problematic blurb above. Then I realized that the parody probably made the imaginary book more appealing, so I toned it down. But here’s the parody version just so we can end with a bit of levity:

“As Lady Meltwillow grieves the loss of her beloved nymph-kraken, the Clockwork Ghostwalkers of Luddite Manor are once again marauding through the streets of Geartown, raining nimbat fire on all who stand in their way.

“Meanwhile, the city’s Worm Lords have forged an uneasy alliance with the Viscount Chalkworth and his zombie hedgehogs, threatening to destroy everything Fester has built.

“Will the forces of darkness prevail, or will clockworm magic save the day? Find out in this thrilling conclusion to the Clocks & Compost steampunk adventure series.”