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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71 Responses to The New World of Publishing: Blurb Writing

  1. Your description of the process for traditional publishing reminded me of the old Hollywood joke: Why are screen treatments only one page long? Because the producer’s lips get tired.

    I can write pitches just fine for other people. (As a matter of fact I did it professionally for a while.) But I have a hard time with my own. Part of the problem is that my cross-genre or non-genre work doesn’t allow me to rely on reader expectations much. The more I can see what the reader is going to expect, the better I can do with the blurb.

    Getting feedback on blurbs is the hardest — at least for non-genre stuff. If they read my work, THEY get as caught up in the plot niggles as I do, and if they don’t, they want me to blurb a different, more salable, book.

    I do find that time helps, though.

  2. Joe Vasicek says:

    Not a passive voice in the whole thing? Not quite:

    “…In a world where the success of an industry depends upon the creative ability of a few, greatness must be recognized…” (0:22-0:29)


    Still, that’s a pretty cool video. I’m looking forward to hearing what you learned from the workshops!

    • dwsmith says:

      Joe, I was teaching the workshop. (grin)

      • JackHovenier says:

        The blurb workshop inspired everyone. As someone asked at a meal, “When was the last time you went to a class and a few days later realized you already learned far more than you know when you started?”

        What doesn’t always come through in this blog is how motivating Dean is in person. Everyone in the workshop left feeling that the time was well spent. Thanks, Dean. Great post. Even better workshop.

        • dwsmith says:

          Thanks, Jack, great having you here as well. Always.

          One thing I really love about workshops is that they not only challenge me and Kris to figure out a way to organize the ideas into something that will make sense, but the talks with the writers around and after the organized parts. I always learn from those talks and the networking. Great fun.

          Now for a day of rest, a party tomorrow night for those in town, then the Think Like a Publisher starts on Thursday evening.

        • Well said, Jack. Last time I saw Dean in person was a Southwest Writers workshop in the mid ’90s. He brought it home to me—great “useable” advice that I follow to this day. If anyone is wondering if it’s worth it, just pony up and go. You’ll learn a ton from a man who knows.

      • Joe Vasicek says:

        I know, but you always say that you learn just as much as your students from these things. Either way…

        • dwsmith says:

          Oh, I see, Joe. And yes, I often do. This one I learned a bunch and got some great ideas in the after-hours talking and in talking between sessions. So yes, I did. (grin)

  3. Kira Wilson says:

    I had never really thought before about how important that little blurb on the back of the book cover truly was. Looking at it now from the perspective of a indie writer, that’s a pretty big oversight on my part. I guess my newbie-ness is showing 😉

    Any rough guidelines that you can give me and others like me who are just starting out and can’t (but would absolutely LOVE to) attend the workshop?

  4. Ken E Baker says:

    From a selfpub persepctive, a lot of people talk about spending the money on a good cover, because that is the first thing that attracts the person to the book if you are shopping online. The second thing – is the blurb… so worth spending the money on, I am sure.

    • The Smoker says:

      You know, I’ve always put it as cover -> title -> blurb -> sample.

    • The problem with paying for a good blurb is that you would certainly have to pay for someone to read the book thoroughly. So a blurb would not be cheap.

      • dwsmith says:

        Camille, and then that person would go to the plot points which is a bad thing. Blurbs are not about the linked details of a book, but telling the reader what the book is about. Many good blurbs have little or no plot points in them. So even having someone read the book might not help much. It’s the failing of so many traditional published blurbs. The editors just remember a few plot points and put those down. Not really the best way to attract a reader.

        • Agreed on the plot points — but that’s a Catch-22, I think:

          If you have someone who hasn’t read your book write the blurb, they will write a great blurb for a book that is easier to sell than yours.

          This is less of a problem for those who fit neatly into genre categories.

          The more I think about it, the more I feel that Blake Snyder has the best method. One of his methods doesn’t work for me though: write the blurb before you write the story. The other, though, is just to focus on irony. Forget everything else, what’s the irony?

          Of course, screenwriters have to write one-line blurbs (loglines) so you really can’t do much in the way of plot.

    • I’d say the blurb is the third chance you get to convince a reader not to buy your book, after the title and cover. I’ve often looked at the Amazon page of an indie book whose cover and title seemed interesting, only to click away a few seconds later because the blurb is a mess.

      I think it’s one of my main failings, so I’m intending to spend some time reading blurbs and improving mine over the next few weeks. I’ve definitely noticed sales jumps after changing the wording before now.

  5. The Smoker says:

    I agree fully with your conclusions. A month or two ago, I read something here that set me to thinking more about areas of improvement. I went and did research in how to write blurbs and looked at some that I thought where good and asked why. It isn’t a huge change that I’ve made, but I can see a slight upward trend in my sales (perhaps attributed to a series of changes rather than blurbs only). I’ll have to go look at some of your blurbs and see if there is something I can use there!

    • dwsmith says:

      Smoker, I wouldn’t look at some of my blurbs just yet. (grin) Remember, here at WMG Publishing Inc we are in the process of fixing everything we did early on. Give us a number of months and then have a look at the blurbs. Will they all be good? Nope. We all miss. But we too are getting better. I know I have gotten a ton better since I started teaching the blurb workshop.

      As Mike said above, it’s one thing to know how to do it for others, it’s a different skill to do it for your own work. (grin)

  6. At this point in my writing career I’m focusing as much as possible on becoming better at writing, and I believe probably the quality of my writing itself is responsible for my relatively low sales figure (about 0.5 sales/book/month). But I know the other skills in the set will have to be addressed soon, and it’s a scary thing to know.

    I feel confident about learning how to design better covers over time, though I am definitely not a great artist or designer.

    I know my books need a lot better editing and proof reading. But I also know it’s just a matter of finding a good proofreading buddy, or a good (and cheap) paid editor.

    But blurbs scare the hell out of me. If there is something I’m not good at is telling someone else how great what I write is, while I myself think it must get a lot better before reaching “average”.

    Right now I’m probably the worst blurb writer in the market. Most times I just copy the first few lines of the book. When I actually write an original blurb, believe me or not, it turns out to be even worse.

    Perhaps I’m just delaying the unavoidable, but I keep telling myself I’ll get to improve my blurbs once I feel more confident about my writing. May be I should be focusing more on it right now…


    • dwsmith says:

      Lucas, follow the advice above of Candy and Mike. And then practice. It can be learned, just as good storytelling can be learned. The key is to keep at it and practice.

  7. Chong Go says:

    Hi Dean,
    I would love to read anything else you’re willing to share about blurbs and back cover text. I’ve spent years watching buyers at the Frankfurt book fair, and one thing I’ve learned is that contents don’t matter a bit if a book doesn’t have a good cover and back cover text.
    People passing by would spend less than a second looking at a particular book, but if the cover intrigues them, they’ll focus on it for maybe a second. If they still like what they see, they’ll pick it up. Still liking the cover and title, they’ll look at the back. If they still think it’s interesting, finally they’ll open the book, and only then do the contents come into play.
    Having a weak cover and a bad blurb is like wearing stained, smelly clothes to a job interview.

    • dwsmith says:

      Chong Go, thank you!!! Wow, what a clear and concise picture of the importance of what I have been talking about. Everyone, reread his post again and imagine your book on that table, because that’s the same as it being on an electronic shelf in an online store.


  8. Mike Zimmerman says:

    Great analysis here. I have some perspective because back in the day (’93 to ’01) I was an in-house copywriter for Penguin and later Bantam-Dell. When I started at Berkley (then the paperback arm of Putnam) I was added to a dept of three. By the time I’d left Penguin (after Putnam was acquired by them in the late ’90s), the dept had grown to 12 copywriters. I also freelanced for other majors on the side. We handled all books from covers to marketing to catalogs to point-of-sale items. It was a lot of damn copy; Putnam hardcovers were the only books off-limits to us, I suspect because the editors there considered us a little paperback, a little ghetto. I counted up the books once, ballparking it at more than 800 books just for me inside of 7 years. I handled the big names (Clancy, Cornwell, John Sandford, and later at Penguin, Stephen King). I also worked on every type of genre book: literary fiction from Riverhead like Nick Hornby, SF/fantasy for virtually every Ace title, category romances, westerns (the “adult” western line was ungodly fun, the only time I could get the line “bang, bang, she’s dead, off her feet and full of lead” on a nationally-released book), mysteries of every stripe, thrillers, and every variety of nonfiction.

    A lot of people ask: Did you actually read every book you wrote jacket copy for? Not a chance. I read the books I really wanted to read (the adult westerns). But for the most part, I had to read AT the book. The biggest thing I’m looking for? Tone of voice.

    Each book, each genre and subgenre, has a voice that its fans respond to (or expect). Cozy mysteries and hardboiled have distinctive echoes in them. A Patricia Anthony alien book (one of my faves back then) has a different voice than, say, a David Drake. I had to adjust my voice to fit. This is not something you think about. You just do it. You read to get the book’s voice in your head. And then you write a commercial for that book that’ll appear on the flaps or back cover.

    Listen to commercial voiceovers for movies. They try to mimic the “voice” or tone of the film. They keep it short. They tease.

    Dean is right. Sometimes your take is off. But all I can say about my work is that I got far more thank-you notes from authors than hate mail. (Best bit of thanks I ever received was a note from Tom Robbins that said, “To Mike, No hack, and that’s a fact.” And of course the annual tub of peanut-butter pretzels from the L’Amour family).

    But here’s the central problem for indie writers wanting to write copy for their books: Subjectivity. One of the hardest copy jobs I’ve ever had was writing the copy for the first time for one of my own novels. You HAVE to distance yourself from the particulars of the book and focus on the voice of your genre and subgenre. Capture the launching point for the story, the hook. Then offer a short promise of what’s to come, but then LEAVE THEM HANGING. You’re a Hooters waitress: Tease, tease, tease. Just like a trailer that makes you want to see a movie. That’s the effect you’re looking for. “Wow, I want to read this.”

    A useful exercise for anyone who wants to get better could be taking an hour and working up four distinct versions of copy for your book. No repeated sentences, just produce all-new copy for each of the four. And then rattle off a dozen one- or two-liners for the cover tagline, which have to be super-short to fit and be read on a thumbnail cover. You have to get your fiction writing voice out of your head and get that genre or subgenre voice in there. They aren’t the same.

    Ultimately, it’s like anything else. Practice. It’s a fun kind of writing when you dig into it.

    Mike Z.

    • dwsmith says:

      Thanks, Mike. Spot on the money. And great advice. People are getting a great lesson right here in the comments from you and Candy. Much appreciated and really great advice on the exercises as well.

    • “Just like a trailer that makes you want to see a movie.”

      That’s a good point, relating to Dean’s comment about blurbs that tell you the plot. I often see movie trailers which are just a selection of brief scenes through the movie and at the end think ‘well, we just saw the 30 second cut of the movie, why do we need to see the long version?’

    • Okay, THIS I love. Because that voice/tone thing is the thing that has been missing for me in every interaction I’ve had about blurbs from people who haven’t read the book.

      I could see hiring someone to write a blurb who skimmed the book for tone. Absolutely.

      But you can’t get tone from the author just telling you about it. Because if the author could nail the tone in their pitch to the blurb writer, the author could probably write the blurb herself.

    • Thank you Mike Z.! An outstanding piece of insight—hard-won experience culminating in sheer genius. I learned more about writing blurbs from reading this blog comment than all the months I spent flailing around, trying to get it just right. When it comes to blurbs, I’d follow you anywhere.

  9. Candy Paull says:

    First of all, I have your blog (and Kristine’s blog) bookmarked and check them religiously (and have links to them on my website so others can discover you). I have gained a wider perspective on the industry because of you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Second, I have been writing catalog copy and book covers for book publishers since 1990 (barring the last few years when the bottom fell out of the publishing industry). I’m back at it again, and I can say that the publishers I worked with usually had some fairly strong marketing copy and a good author questionnaire to help me write the covers and catalog. I skim beginning and end of the manuscript to find a key quote from the book that focuses on a dramatic moment (for fiction) or distills an important thought (for non-fiction). I focus on benefits and features for non-fiction, and on writing a cinematic style teaser for fiction. The key is to speak to the person who would love to read your book, not try to convince everybody to buy. My goal has always been to write copy that serves the author and attracts the right reader. Copy has to speak to your audience. Writing marketing copy is an undervalued art, even by the publishers who pay me to write it. It’s becoming more important now with the way books are sold online. Small information tidbit: in my corner of the publishing world, we call brief endorsements “blurbs” but refer to “copy” for cover, catalog, and other marketing materials. A clarification that I hope may be helpful.

    • dwsmith says:

      Candy, I could not agree more. Writing cover copy and ad copy is an undervalued art. And is critical. Thanks for your comments and yes, folks, reread her comment. Good advice.

      Folks, if you are wondering why I said mostly editors write cover copy and then am glad to see Candy here, it’s because she writes cover copy for the books up the advance chain, or books a publisher thinks will have some legs and they want good, quality copy on the work. That’s when they hire someone with the skills and experience of Candy, as I said in the post.

      Just wanted to be clear on that. Candy, thanks for the great description of what you do. Wonderful.

  10. Suz says:

    Oh poo. I thought you were going to tell us how to write good book blurbs in this blog post! Guess I better go do some online research.

    • dwsmith says:

      Hey, Suz, sorry, but it took me four days and the writers here a ton of practice to catch the skill and start learning it. So no way I can do it in such a short post here, or even one of my long ones. (grin)

      • Suz says:

        Well, how about if I take a look at your book blurbs and learn from them. Would that be okay? Which other writer’s do your style of back cover descriptions?

        Actually, after I published my first novel you had a look at it and did say the blurb was great. Unfortunately a lot of my writer friends got mad at me for the short blurb I had, they made me change it saying it didn’t describe what happens in the book. So I ended up changing it to a huge long mess that was 4 paragraphs long! lol

        Need to take it back to the short, catchy way it was before.

        • dwsmith says:

          Suz, not sure my blurbs are that good, since I have learned this skill more and more over each month, and many of my blurbs were put up two years ago. (grin) Again, we are all learning in this new world and I haven’t looked back at my older stuff yet to fix it. Give me three or four months to get things fixed across the board. And remember, anything I had out from New York like Trek or Men in Black was not me writing the blurb.

  11. Liana Mir says:

    I know this is my own personal waterloo. A good cover blurb has to hit genre, reader expectations, compelling premise or arc or idea, and it’s just not my forté. I can make my own covers, but as soon as I have the money, I’m planning to shell out for summaries.

    If I don’t have money, I do this:

    1. Find a reader who really “gets” and loves my fiction.
    2. Ask them to read/summarize for me if they please would.
    3. Tweak theirs or at least incorporate their thoughts into mine.

  12. Scott McGlasson says:


    Can you give some examples of passive no-no’s you’ve seen?

  13. Scott McGlasson says:

    A quick thought vis-à-vis blurbs; if your first book sells well, can you get away with “Book 2 In The (insert title) Saga”, etc, etc?


    • Iola says:

      As a reader, I’d say it’s important to add that this is a sequel or book x in a series (there is nothing more annoying that thinking I’ve ‘found’ a new author/series, and then find I can’t get into it because it’s book four and I haven’t read the other three).

      But I think this is the final line of the back cover copy. It’s the icing, not the cake.

      Another approach is to have ‘Series Name – Book x’ in small letters at the top or bottom of the front cover (and in the Amazon book title), to catch the attention of those who are anxiously waiting for the next book.

  14. Vera Soroka says:

    After reading this I went and got some of my favorite YA author books and read them. I must admit they were as dry as a chip but I bought them because of who they where.
    Some I’ve seen take and put excerpts from the book on the back of the cover. I like it but I don’t know if that is a good thing to do or not.

  15. Annie Reed says:

    Wow, some really good comments here! Awesome. :)

    Dean’s Pitches & Blurbs workshop melted my brain back when I took it, and I’m sure he’s packed even more information into it since then. I knew going into that workshop that I sucked big time writing back cover copy. The workshop helped me figure out where I screwed up and what I managed to get at least halfway right. And boy–listening to other writers’ blurbs for the same story really showcased what worked and didn’t work. Great experience. Even with the melted brain.

  16. The biggest takeaway I got from Dean’s Pitches and Blurbs class is realizing that a blurb’s purpose is to sell the book not summarize it. All summarizing the details does is narrow down the potential pool of buyers. If you can keep that in mind, you’ll be way ahead of the game.

    I highly recommend taking the class if you can. Had an incredible time, Dean. Thanks!

    • dwsmith says:

      Thanks, Kelly and Annie. It is a fun workshop isn’t it? Not too stressful like some, but can sure help you make a ton of money and help your poor traditional editors in certain situations.

      • Annie Bellet says:

        What? Not too stressful? It was the most stressful one I have ever attended!!!

        I would rather write a novel in 4 days than write a bunch of blurbs in that same amount of time. *grin*

        But it was good learning and a very necessary skill. Doesn’t mean I like writing copy any better though or find it less of a headache. Only workshop of yours that I ever gave serious thought to walking out on (and only for about 20 seconds, but they were a LONG 20 seconds, hehe).

        • dwsmith says:

          Annie, stress in the blurbs workshop? (grin) It is stressful, no doubt, if a person’s bent is a long, long distance from that sort of thing. Now off to work with Scott Carter and help a roomful of pro writers figure out how to act like a publisher.

  17. Not even one example of a terrible or really good blurb? I read your blog regularly and learn so much. But not this time. I’m disappointed.

    • dwsmith says:

      Sorry, Phyliss, the point of the blog wasn’t to teach blog writing, which takes days to even get a start, but to tell everyone how blogs are written between the two systems. Actually, the comments on this post can help you learn how to write them. Sorry I wrote something that didn’t fit exactly what you wanted me to write.

      And I did give some basics on how to write them. If you have a passive verb in your blurb, more than likely the blurb is bad. If you describe plot details in your blurb instead of what the story is about, more than likely it’s bad. And if you don’t know what I mean by passive verbs, I would highly suggest you learn some basic English before trying to sell your work to anyone.

      And let me see… oh, yeah, I linked to the best copy ad ever written and filmed. If you can’t learn from that, not my problem.

      • Karen says:

        I took this class previously, too. The hardest part – and what I learned the most about – was active writing. We visited bookstores and devoured back cover copy from extremely well known writers. Everyone cringed about the amount of passive voice and crowed over the few that we found with vibrant active verbs. I’d love to say that the learning grabs you and never lets you go, but it is something that we have to practice constantly because normal everyday writing is passive.
        I can’t tell you how many of my blurbs got sent back for revision because what sounded active to me contained hidden passive verbs. There were a few that looked like I had changed to a red font……


  18. Sell the sizzle, not the steak. :)

  19. Ramon Terrell says:

    The class was great fun and amazing! I left really excited and ready to get back to writing. After this class, I will be changing all the blurbs on all my books, and moving forward. This workshop is a boon to everyone’s career. Thank you again, Dean, for the education, and I’ll be seeing you again for another class very soon! :)

    Wish I could have stayed for the get together tonight. :(

    • dwsmith says:

      Thanks, Ramon. Great having you join the insanity and fun.

      And the party tonight was no big deal. Just a dozen or so professional writers and editors sitting around having pizza and talking business. Even Sheldon MacArthur, the bookseller showed up for a time. Sorry you missed it as well. (grin)

      • Ramon Terrell says:

        AARGH. Man I so very much wanted to be there. We just got back home right now. We had to stop in Portland yesterday. Gosh I wish I was there! Well, I will be back again anyway, so next time then!

  20. Hey Dean, that must have been an amazing workshop and it got so many comments, congrats! I just wish you’d come over to Italy (where I live) to give all that wonderful advice to us, poor isolated writers…But don’t you have notes from your workshop? Can’t you put it together in a shorty e-book of advice? Because I really feel like that part of my brain that does the fiction writing and produces that damn novel just isn’t the same part that writes blurbs! I’m afraid m ost of us just aren’t the marketing type!

    • dwsmith says:

      Claude Nougat, hang on. We have a surprise coming in a few weeks about a new addition to the workshops. Might be what you are looking for. In fact, doing the pitches and blurbs workshop might just be possible now for those of you unable to make a workshop here at the coast. Stay tuned. (grin)

  21. I recently read an article by Carolyn McCray which included her suggestions about how to write product descriptions for books. She suggests putting excerpts of reviews up front and only much later giving a very brief description of the book. I looked at one of her books on Amazon (there’s a link in her bio), and it seemed like the description was buried in all the reviews.

    I’m not sure what I think of it as a reader. In general, I tend to avoid hype. But as a publisher, I’m curious about whether it works. Her Amazon ranks (on this book and others) certainly suggest she’s doing something right. I’m considering doing an experiment at some point and trying it out.

    For those of you who know much more about writing copy than I do–what do you think of her method?

    • dwsmith says:

      Works fine when you have good reviews from good sources. We do this with some of Kris’s reviews that are from places like Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly. Then we put them first and a short blurb about what the story is about later, followed by another blurb. We don’t do it on all books, but some. And we are doing it more. But you have to have good reviews from good sources or no point.

      • Mike Zimmerman says:

        If one is fortunate to have good reviews from good sources, ya gotta use them to maximum effect. But the copy still has to be brief and powerful. Sometimes you could do something like this:

        Writey McWriter’s crime fiction has been called “irresistible” by the New York Times and “wildly imaginative; electrifying, even when it’s not” by Entertainment Weekly.” Now McWriter delivers his most irresistible, wildly imaginative, and electrifying, even when it’s not, novel yet…and then you go into the killer tease copy.

        Or if a previous book got the praise, just write a sentence or two hyping the author and then do the plot hook, and then afterward say “Praise for An Irish Writer by Writey McWriter” and list the reviews. That’s straightforward, but it works.

        My personal taste also prefers to put great quotes on the front cover whenever you can, whether they’re a review or a blurb you got from a recognizable name relevant to the genre. But thumbnail covers make this really tough sometimes. It has to be readable, so going with a couple of adjectives can work well: “Violent…powerful…irresistible.” –Writey McWriter

        And while we’re on the subject of adjectives, cover copy is a terrific, wonderful, and useful place to put them. When I was an in-house copywriter, the dept assembled a “word guide” broken out by genre, since each genre has certain buzzwords that their fans respond to. The document is long gone, but some off-the-top examples:

        Thriller/suspense: shattering, nerve-jangling, heart-pounding, intense, relentless

        Historical romance: Breathtaking, breathless, sweeping, untamed, forbidden

        SF: Mind-bending, epic, galactic, otherworldly, alien and yet so human

        You get the point. Brief yet powerful copy plants immediate seeds in the potential buyer’s brain — they are both getting what they expect (genre voice) and something new and exciting (your never-before-seen plot tease).

    • I NEVER read the review blurbs. If I can’t find the book description right away, I become extremely frustrated and usually click away from a page.

      If I’m highly motivated, I’ll scroll down to the consumer reviews, which usually have a description of the book in them.

      I find it ironic when I have to go to the amateurs to get info that I would think a pro would put up front.

      • Carradee says:

        Agreed. When I’m looking in the “product description” section on a book, I want to read the description. If the reviews are after that, fine, no biggie.

        But I tend to only read the best reviews for a book after I’ve read it. If I’m looking into a book beforehand, I’ll check out the negative reviews that list specifics.

      • J.A. Marlow says:

        Same here. I become extremely frustrated and navigate away without buying. Why should finding out a little bit about the book be so much work? Why should I have to do the work as a reader who simply wants a few hours of entertainment?

        Just the other day I clicked on a book with an interesting cover and title.

        And then?

        Review after review blurb. One line of how I was supposed to FEEL (which I find insulting and a slam against my intelligence) in the middle of it all, and then more reviews.

        The strange thing is that this book was in the top 20 of a big category. I left the page in disgust wondering how the heck it got there. Were the buyers relying on the customer Amazon reviews for an actual description? What attracted all these readers? What was it that I wasn’t getting?

        That was an additional frustrating part. Is it that a lot of readers LIKE to be told how to feel and that is enough? No description necessary? No conflict put forward? We only have to put in, “You’ll be left amazed and left breathless by this story…” and be done with it?

        If so, I’m going to be really sad now…

        • I think when it’s a big book, most of the readers come to the page having heard about the book already. Also, they are people who don’t read many books, so they “trust” the best seller lists because it’s easy.

          IMHO, I am suspicious that those blurbs don’t really sell the book even to those readers. They are just noise filling a page most of the readers won’t even look at. They know they want it, so they click “buy.”

  22. “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”

    I would be stunned by this, were it not for the many, many times I have railed at fellow writers in a workshop to stop using the @#$% passive voice. Only to have them stare at me in blinking incomprehension. Only last night, I advised one writer to WRITE DOWN his justification for using any version of “to be” or “to have” in a FIGHT SCENE. Nothing can kill an action scene faster than a passive construction (unless it’s an internal monologue).

    I find this problem most pervasive among those whose education was in journalism or in the sciences. Both of those professions emphasize writing which strives for “objectivity”, in distancing the reader from the content. Exactly the opposite is true in fiction, where your goal as a writer is to suck the reader in and not let him or her go until after “THE END”. Passive constructions put the reader at arms’ length from the story, which you do not want. It’s often very, very hard for people who have spent their educational years and professional lives trying to leach all emotion or opinion from their writing to then turn around and inject as much emotion as possible into their fiction. So I am not surprised to learn, Dean, that many of your pro students have this problem. I am surprised when I find English majors with it. :)

    I think the comments here about tone and voice have offered me more advice than anything else. I am now off to read the back covers of all my favorite novels and see what made them attractive. As always, Dean, thanks a million for this insight into the process.

    • dwsmith says:

      Well, Sarah, I agree, but only to a point. As a thriller writer, I know when to use passive construction for what a reader needs. But trust me, a book without any passive sentences would sound just as over-the-top as the Five Guys in a Limo video.

      Take the passive out of your ad copy writing, where everything needs to be active and strong. Learn when to use passive construction in your stories and novels. It’s a tool of pacing among other things. So caution, folks, on trying to take it all out. That would be a bad thing.

    • Liana Mir says:

      Only last night, I advised one writer to WRITE DOWN his justification for using any version of “to be” or “to have” in a FIGHT SCENE. Nothing can kill an action scene faster than a passive construction (unless it’s an internal monologue).

      I do agree that those are weak verbs in an action scene and should be excised, but this sentence is an example of a passive construction. Not all instances of those two verbs are passive, as this sentence is an example of an active construction.

      • dwsmith says:

        Liana, as I tell people in the workshops here, while you are trying to learn, the actual definition makes no difference, just take out all “to be” verbs. Period. You can back off that if you want later, but at least you will be able to write a paragraph or two without those verbs in any sense. So while I agree, from an English teacher’s point of view, you are correct, my point is that it doesn’t matter in copy ad writing. Technical boring correct is just as wrong and just as bad in ad copy as anything.

  23. L.L. Muir says:

    You make me money, baby. Thank you.

  24. Nancy Beck says:

    As always, I learn not only from the original post, but in the comments as well.

    That’s why I love coming to this blog and Kris’ blog. I’ve learned so much from both of you and from those commenting here. A big thank you to all of you for being so forthcoming with your knowledge. :-)

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