The New World of Publishing: Blurb Writing

As I said in the first post of this short series, I will take a few areas of publishing and compare them across, from indie to traditional. The differences, the beliefs, the myths, and how things are actually done.

The first post I did on editing and proofing, and I’ll do another on cover design, plus other areas that are common between the two forms of publishing. One area per short post.

But for this second post, it’s time to talk about blurb and promotional writing.

As I start this, a bunch of writers are coming into town to attend a “Pitches and Blurb” writing workshop here. It’s a four-day push to learn the skills involved in writing basic ad copy for books. They will also work on cover letter blurbs, back cover writing, and tag lines.

Understand, these are writers I have invited here, who are at a pretty decent level of craft and writing skills. And even after four days, they will only understand how to write them. None of us, even those of us who have been writing blurbs and cover letters and ad copy for years, get it right every time.

I find it funny how indie writers (usually newer indie writers with only their first book out) always look to discounting their prices when a book or story isn’t selling. It never once occurs to them that maybe they wrote a passive, dull description for their book. Or that their cover sucks. Or that maybe the opening of their novel, which readers will sample before buying, is dull, has no setting, and is nothing more than someone waking up in the morning.

Openings of stories and novels tend to get better after a million words of writing practice (with focus). But only after the writer starts understanding how to relay character and setting. Covers tend to get better after a few dozen covers as long as the indie publisher is paying a lot of attention to learning cover design and font layout and blurb use. But I have watched really, really talented storytellers produce dull and off-putting blurbs that actually turn buyers away from their wonderful novels.

It’s why I think the Pitches and Blurbs Workshop that is starting here today is the most important workshop we do for indie writers and for traditional writers.

On this short article, I will start with the traditional side of things as I did last article.


Who writes the blurbs in large, traditional publishing houses? Well, the answer to that is “it depends.” It depends on the size of the advance on the book, the imprint, the publisher, and so many other factors.

That said, I’m only going to talk here about lower-level midlist books, books with advances under $25,000.00.  Genre books for the most part. And when I mean traditional publisher, I am talking about the large publishers in this instance. Mid-range and small and specialty presses often do this differently.

When a midlist novel is bought by a traditional publisher, the editor reads it. That’s it. The copyeditor (normally freelance out of the office) will go through it much later on, but the only person who actually reads your novel is the editor.

The editor then does a summary of the book for the publisher and the sales force for the meetings.

This changes slightly as advances go higher, remember. Sometimes. The bigger the check, the more people read the book.

From the editor summaries, the publisher and editor and sales force decide where to slot the book in their monthly sales lists and about how many copies it will sell. All fine.

(I know… to beginning writers this is shocking that only one person in a publishing house reads your book. But alas, in most cases, it’s true. There is just not enough budget and time to have more people read it I’m afraid.)

So now, one fine morning, three or four months after the last time the editor read your book, there is a scheduled meeting with sales and cover design and your book is up on the docket as one to talk about.

But only the editor has read the book, so it’s the editor’s job to write the sales blurb and back cover copy and some of the catalog copy. And normally they do it in a rush to make the meeting, from memory of the book they read months before.

Not kidding.

They might glance back at the manuscript, glance at any promotional material the author sent in, glance at their notes. And then write it to the best of their ability that morning under the deadline.

Editors write cover copy and blurb copy. Why? The fine members of the sales force are not writers and haven’t read the book. They have only read the editor’s summary of the book and maybe a first chapter. And there is not enough money in a line of books these days to have a dedicated ad-copy writer. And not enough need. So in most houses, in most lines, the task falls to the editors.

And more times than not they do the writing mostly from memory of a book they read months before, usually going directly to the plot and often turning-point scenes that give away too much, because that’s what they remember.

That’s one of the many reasons Kris and I have always taught writers to learn how to write good cover copy and blurbs that will sell. And use tag lines when you have a good one. And make sure the editors have what you wrote in case they wanted to use it. Most editors have zero issue accepting help on this from their authors, if their authors know how to write blurbs.

Sadly, most authors do not. Most authors selling to traditional publishing wouldn’t know a good blurb that would help sell their book if their life depended on it. And that’s the expectations of editors for their authors as well. Editors are always stunned and happily surprised when a writer helps them with quality ad copy.

So the editors write the blurbs and back cover copy, usually at the last minute, often from memory of a book read long before.

Indie Publishing

Everything falls to the author. And in most instances, just as with traditionally published authors, that’s a bad thing.

Most indie authors have no sense of business. So the idea that an indie author can write a blurb that is a sales tool to help sell their own book is just pretty funny. Sad, but funny.

When you don’t flat understand business and have no desire to learn, you sure can’t begin to understand sales of anything.

Selling books is a business I’m afraid.

Indie authors tend to write blurbs that go into the plot details. A bad thing. And they write blurbs that are filled with passive verbs, and often focus the subject on something that makes their own books unattractive to buyers.

Why? Because we wrote the thing. Therefore, that cool scene on page fifty should be mentioned in the blurb, even though it’s about splattering blood over a woman’s expensive white blouse and cutting off her lover’s little finger with a nifty new blade in her blender. Yeah, that will sell. Maybe to five people. But the indie author loves that scene and puts that scene in the blurb.

And then lowers the price to 99 cents when the book doesn’t sell. Trust me, a book with a bad blurb on it won’t sell at 99 cents anymore than it will sell at $6.99.

I’m spending four days with a group of professional writers here on the coast, teaching them how to write blurbs for their covers letters to editors and to give editors help when a book sells. And if they go indie with a story, they are learning how to write blurbs and back cover copy that will sell the books both electronically and in paper. The writers here will barely break the surface of the skill in four days, but when they leave they will be aware that it is a skill. And I hope they will have some tools to use to get better.


The systems in traditional publishing for writing ad copy and blurbs sucks for most first novelists and genre novels. It gets better, as most things do in traditional publishing, as the advance gets higher. But for most writers, only luck can get you a good blurb.

However, blurb writing sucks worse on the indie side. In traditional at least there is a professional editor who has written a lot of blurbs writing the ad copy. And a sales force to say no if the copy truly sucks.

In indie publishing, most writers spend little or no attention to writing a blurb. And don’t really know how to do it well if they did pay attention.

Even though it is the third step in the selling process that a buyer goes through to buy a book, indie publishers ignore the ramifications of writing a bad blurb. They give the process only a moment’s thought, usually tossing off a blurb in a rush on the fly because writing it seems like a chore and they don’t want to get their hands dirty.

And then they wonder why their books don’t sell.

Some writers can’t even see a passive verb. About one third of the pros in every class I have taught on this topic are like that and struggle for the entire workshop to spot and take out passive language in what they write. But by the end, they at least can see it and know how to make a sentence active.

And if you have no idea what I am talking about when I say active language and sales copy, go watch a short and fun video called “Five Guys in a Limo” on YouTube. Not a passive verb in the entire thing.

The skill can be learned with some focus and practice and help.

And if you learn it, you can help your editor in your traditional publishing company and you can help your indie books sell more copies.

Have fun.


Copyright © 2012 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime

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