Formula Finder: Cracking the Book Description Code

booksI’m getting close to the point where I’m going to release my supernatural horror e-book:

Rupt World Stories: Monsters Are Real

(Links, cover art, and plugs for the book will be happening ASAP!!!)

As you can imagine, I’ve been spending a LOT of my time reading blogs and articles to learn everything I can about e-publishing, marketing, platforming, etc.. I want to be a successful writer in every way possible, and that means learning how to be better by finding out what others have done. It takes time to research, but it saves time in the long run.

In a nutshell, all the experts keep saying the same things:

  • Build your platform
  • Market Market Market
  • Produce more content NOW!!!

Throughout my link-clicking frenzy of research, however, I came across a very interesting article that in many ways goes against the sage, expert advice of the other self-published gurus.

In her article, “Genre versus Author Platform? Which Matters More?” C. S. Lakin asks how much does author platform matter for certain genre writers. She herself had put loads of money and time into building her own platform, but she wasn’t getting the results she wanted. Many of her fellow writers had no platform – not even a Facebook page – but yet somehow their sales were soaring. Lakin started to compare her product to those of her competitors, and she noticed a major difference.

Her competitors were writing in very specific niche genres, and they were the types of niche genres that sell VERY well.

As an experiment, Lakin decided to analyze top-selling books within a particular niche genre, so that she could figure out the genre style/structure. Having understood the genre mechanics, she proceeded in writing a book within the genre, even though she possessed no previous experience writing for that specific audience. She also analyzed book descriptions within the genre, and tried to imitate the form as best as possible. She even used the same cover artist who had done many of the best-selling books within that niche.

Lakin wrote and published her book under a pen name, and she made sure the pen name had no real platform. She released the book and waited to see what would happen. Strangely enough, the book sold, and it sold far better than some of her own titles.

Lakin concluded that certain audiences buy books simply because those books are in the preferred genre.

It seems that, for some genres, the product WILL sell itself, as long as you follow the genre’s rules and use genre-specific packaging techniques, (cover art, pricing, and a proper description). Granted, you still need a good product, but Lakin’s experiment has seriously made me question how much time and energy I want to put into building my platform.

I still think aspects of platforming are important. Once your books do sell, fans will want to have a relationship with you, and they can do so through social media sites, your web site, etc.. In other words, eventually you HAVE to have a platform if you want a good relationship with your readers. However, you don’t have to spend exorbitant amounts of money and time to build that platform.

After reading Lakin’s article, I found her method of reviewing book descriptions quite intriguing. Most other experts have said that writers need to know their audience, and reviewing book descriptions within a specific genre is a good place to start.

mad-scientistTherefore, I decided to do my own mini-experiment.

Step 1 — look at the best-selling books on the Amazon Kindle store. My search criteria was as follows:

  • Genre: supernatural horror, supernatural fantasy
  • Price range: Less than $3.99

Genres tend to blur into one another, but stores sell books in strict categories — catch 22. To find the information I was looking for, I had to look under the pages for horror, supernatural horror, and fantasy.

My price range was set as such, because I only wanted to look at Kindle books that were produced by self-published writers, and most of these writers sell their books for $3.99 or less.

Step 2 – I clicked on a bunch of the different books that fit within my criteria, and then I copied their descriptions into a blank document.

Step 3 – I read through all the descriptions and looked for stylistic commonalities. Sure enough, the descriptions had many factors in common.

  • Length: the majority of descriptions were between 120-180 words.
  • Main Character Name Usage: 85% of descriptions used the main protagonist’s name within the first sentence.
  • Key Term Drop: more than half of the descriptions immediately let the reader know if the book was about zombies, vampires, ghosts, werewolves, etc.
  • Phrasing Style: 60-70% of descriptions included questions within the description as a way to intrigue readers.
  • Jargon Simplification: no matter how complex the world of the story, nearly all descriptions tried to use commonplace terms instead of special names unique to the narrative. Descriptions that did use special names immediately attached those names to common terms to provide contextual definitions.

After I completed this experiment, I decided to look up instructions on how to write book descriptions to see if the professional and semi-professional advice matched what I was seeing in the real world.

On Catherine Ryan Howard’s blog, “Catherine, Caffeinated,”  best-selling writer Mark Edwards did a guest blog entitled “The 11 Ingredients of the Sizzling Book Description.” Much of my findings matched the information he provided in his 11 ingredients. A few of his stronger points not mentioned in my observations included the following:

  • Mention other writers – if you’re writing within a genre, chances are there are big recognizable names in that genre. If your writing style is similar to one of those names, it’s okay to name drop.
  • Bank on emotions – people buy stuff because it speaks to them on an emotional level. Use the emotions of your book to connect to those readers. Whatever emotional response you want people to get from your story, make sure they get that from your description.
  • Always leave them wanting more – you want to tell your readers enough to get them hooked, but you don’t want to tell them everything. Nevertheless, if you’re too vague, people won’t care what happens. The idea is to get them so interested that they almost have to buy just to find out what happens.

On the Indie Writing Blog, professional book reviewer Kara’s blog post, entitled “How to Write a Book Description That Doesn’t Suck,” includes nine excellent tips on the process. Again, much of her advice matches what I saw during my experiment. Some of her additional tips included:

  • Try writing a headline – condensing your whole book down into a couple hundred words can drive you crazy. If you think of your description in terms of a newspaper headline, however, it may help you get in that brevity mindset.
  • Go right to the inciting incident – whatever event(s) gets the ball rolling in your story, mention that right away. Something has to set your characters on their path, and that is what usually tells people a lot about your character’s motivation, which may attract or deter readers.
  • What does your character have to lose? – briefly let your readers know what your characters will lose if they fail. Will someone die? Will the world end? Whatever the consequence, put it in the description, because it builds tension and makes your reader want to know more.

Kara and Mark recommended that writers should review book descriptions within their genre for both self-published books as well as books produced by big publishers. I did not do so for my experiment, but it is something I will do for later research.

After reading all this, you might be asking yourself why people want their descriptions to look similar to other people’s descriptions. Don’t you want to stand out?

raw_buyer-psych-260x195As a quick answer, it’s all a matter of buyer psychology. People who read within a particular genre are looking for certain elements that excite them. They read the descriptions to make sure those elements are included. They also read descriptions to see if the story seems new and exciting. I realize these two sentences probably seem contradictory. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that people want new content, but they still want it presented in a way they recognize. That genre style recognition, that brand recognition, is what you want to focus on when you write your book description.

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