How to write a book description that sells for a published or an in progress book

This is the first post in a four-part miniseries covering what web and email content authors need to be ready to build a large following of readers hungry for their book, whether it's their first book, or their seventeenth. 

In Part 1, we're covering how to write a book description that sells. We'll start by researching keywords and categories, look at the typical structure of a book description, and see how to use descriptions from comparable books to find the details that are important for our genre. Finally we'll take a mediocre book description headline and edit it so it's much harder to resist.

In Part 2, we’ll recap why email lists are important for authors and see how to use a book description to get new email list subscribers from your website.

In Part 3, we’ll look at how to turn those new email subscribers into instant fans. Plus, if you’ve already written several books, we’ll cover how to turn those new subscribers into backlist sales.

In Part 4, we’ll cover the tech basics of email list software and go over the specifics of how things work in Mailchimp (the email list software I recommend to get started.)

Why book descriptions matter

With a published book, your book description helps your book get found on Amazon and other book sale sites. It is also your chance to persuade a reader that they should choose your book over someone else's. Your description plus a cover image are deciding factors in whether your book ends up on a 'someday, maybe' wishlist versus in a reader's cart.

With an in progress book, your book description should be one of the key elements that you use to get interested readers onto your email list. Getting them onto your email list is important because emails are 40X more effective than Facebook or Twitter at generating sales. 

The minimum you need to know about keywords and categories

According to Joanna Penn’s latest edition of How to Market a Book, readers find your book through one of two ways. First, through you: through your networking, public speaking, and marketing. Second, through your book: through searching on Amazon and other bookselling sites. Keywords and categories are the ways that readers on Amazon (and its competitors) can find your books.

Keywords are words or phrases that a reader would use in the search box in Amazon to find what they’re looking for. For example: “steamy romantic suspense,” “how to stop procrastinating,” or “action adventure books for teens.” Categories are exactly what they sound like. They include top-level categories like Biographies & Memoirs as well as the subcategories and additional options that show up on the left navigation of Amazon when you click into a category.

Top-level Categories on Amazon

Top-level Categories on Amazon

Subcategories and options for the Romance category

Subcategories and options for the Romance category

In this post on what readers want, we learned that readers get super annoyed when they get certain expectations from a book’s description and then the story doesn’t fulfill those expectations. So, whether we’re writing hard-boiled crime, steamy romance, or practical self-help, we want to research what clues other authors use to broadcast the right expectations for their book. What words do they use in their titles? What phrases come up in their book descriptions? What kinds of images do they use on their covers?

How to find keywords and categories

I'm writing a memoir, so let's walk through keywords and categories for memoirs as an example. Because memoirs are a smaller category than say, romance fiction, they don’t have as many search options. They’ve got their own category on Amazon - Biographies & Memoir: Memoirs — or you can find them by the type of person the book is about. That means I looked beyond the memoir subcategory to find comparable books. Amazon’s auto suggestion isn’t going to give me a bunch of search terms that other people use, because there just aren’t enough people searching for specific types of memoirs.

To find keywords I need to use, I went through this list of Amazon categories that require specific keywords and looked at the subcategories for Biographies & Memoirs. None of them applied to my memoir! Thankfully, the Literature & Fiction subcategories were more helpful. I wrote down eleven that were the most relevant to my book. Of that group, love, marriage, divorce, career, loss, and school or university seem most important to include in a description. They’re closely related to key turning points in my story.

Amazon Kindle subcategories that require keywords and relate to my book

Amazon Kindle subcategories that require keywords and relate to my book

What turning points should be in your book description?

Joanna Penn did a great interview with the copywriter Bryan Cohen, in which they went over the structure of book descriptions for nonfiction and fiction books. Even though a memoir can sort of fall into both, my research (below) suggests that the bestselling memoirs use the fiction format for structuring their book descriptions.

According to that interview, a fiction book description starts with an emotional hook which is usually the headline. It's followed by a paragraph that starts by describing the inciting incident of the story. From there it describes the emotional arc of the protagonist and includes specific details about them.

How do bestselling memoir writers describe their stories?

With that interview in mind, let’s look at the book descriptions for three bestselling memoirs that share common themes and plot points to the one I’m writing: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, Dry by Augusten Burroughs, and The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch. In each of these memoirs, the author experiences personal growth and there’s a prominent love story.

Description for Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert from Amazon:

The 10th anniversary edition of one of the most iconic, beloved, and bestselling books of our time.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love touched the world and changed countless lives, inspiring and empowering millions of readers to search for their own best selves. Now, this beloved and iconic book returns in a beautiful 10th anniversary edition, complete with an updated introduction from the author, to launch a whole new generation of fans.

In her early thirties, Elizabeth Gilbert had everything a modern American woman was supposed to want—husband, country home, successful career—but instead of feeling happy and fulfilled, she was consumed by panic and confusion. This wise and rapturous book is the story of how she left behind all these outward marks of success, and set out to explore three different aspects of her nature, against the backdrop of three different cultures: pleasure in Italy, devotion in India, and on the Indonesian island of Bali, a balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence.

162 words

What can we learn here?

  • First two paragraphs are impressive book accomplishments, but not super relevant to me as my book is still in progress.
  • Third paragraph starts with inciting incident - Gilbert is miserable even though she has everything she’s supposed to want.
  • Mentions Gilbert’s age. Which BookBub says is important for Chicklit.
  • Most of the action takes places in her travels through three different cultures in Italy, India, and Bali
  • Suggests the emotional arc and key question for the rest of the story - Will Gilbert find balance and peace as she travels to these three countries?

The description for Dry by Augusten Burroughs from Amazon:

From the New York Times Bestselling author of Running With Scissors comes the story of one man trying to out-drink his memories, outlast his demons, and outrun his past.

“I was addicted to “Bewitched” as a kid. I worshipped Darren Stevens the First. When he’d come home from work and Samantha would say, ‘Darren, would you like me to fix you a drink?’ He’d always rest his briefcase on the table below the mirror in the foyer, wipe his forehead with a monogrammed handkerchief and say, ‘Better make it a double.’” (from Chapter Two)

You may not know it, but you’ve met Augusten Burroughs. You’ve seen him on the street, in bars, on the subway, at restaurants: a twentysomething guy, nice suit, works in advertising. Regular. Ordinary. But when the ordinary person had two drinks, Augusten was circling the drain by having twelve; when the ordinary person went home at midnight, Augusten never went home at all. Loud, distracting ties, automated wake-up calls and cologne on the tongue could only hide so much for so long. At the request (well, it wasn’t really a request) of his employers, Augusten lands in rehab, where his dreams of group therapy with Robert Downey Jr. are immediately dashed by grim reality of fluorescent lighting and paper hospital slippers. But when Augusten is forced to examine himself, something actually starts to click and that’s when he finds himself in the worst trouble of all. Because when his thirty days are up, he has to return to his same drunken Manhattan life—and live it sober. What follows is a memoir that’s as moving as it is funny, as heartbreaking as it is true. Dry is the story of love, loss, and Starbucks as a Higher Power.

291 words

What can we learn here?

  • Great hook that establishes author credibility as an NYT bestseller and gives the whole story in an emotional sentence.
  • Second paragraph is an interesting quote from the book that gives us details about the protagonist.
  • Third paragraph makes Burroughs seem relatable before mentioning the inciting incident, since hopefully, being forced to go to rehab by your job and using cologne on your tongue is a rare experience!
  • Mentions his age, which suggests the memoir covers a few years and not his whole life
  • Has great details about how unrealistic Burroughs expectations are about rehab: dreams of group therapy with Robert Downey Jr and also lets us know that the action will take place in rehab and in Manhattan
  • Suggests the emotional arc and key question of the story — will Burroughs change enough in rehab to be able to return to Manhattan and face his troubles without drinking?

The description of The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch from Amazon:

This is not your mother’s memoir. In The Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch expertly moves the reader through issues of gender, sexuality, violence, and the family from the point of view of a lifelong swimmer turned artist. In writing that explores the nature of memoir itself, her story traces the effect of extreme grief on a young woman’s developing sexuality that some define as untraditional because of her attraction to both men and women. Her emergence as a writer evolves at the same time and takes the narrator on a journey of addiction, self-destruction, and ultimately survival that finally comes in the shape of love and motherhood.

107 words

What can we learn here?

  • The story has violence and adult themes and probably isn’t for the faint of heart
  • Suggests that whatever terrible things happened to the author were enough to drive her to addiction and self-destructive behaviors to escape
  • The author is attracted to men and women which lets anyone interested in stories of LGBTQ folks know this book is for them
  • States that the author survives, finds love, and becomes a mother which lets us know that even though the themes are dark, there is hope. That’s important because nobody wants to read a book without hope.
  • The author is a swimmer turned artist which means that action will definitely take place in water or near water
  • Suggests the emotional arc of the story - what terrible things happened to Lidia Yuknavitch, and how does she eventually make peace with them?

How do you write your own book description?

Based on the comparable descriptions above, I know that I want to write a book description that is somewhere between 100-200 words, has a strong emotional hook, starts with the inciting incident, gives the emotional arc of the story,  suggests the setting where the main action takes place and includes specific details about me — including my age at the time — and uses these keywords: love, marriage, divorce, career, loss, school or university.

In addition, I made a list of all the qualities that I want in my description.

  • Education plot (protagonist experiences personal growth)
  • Love story
  • Overachieving protagonist
  • Perfectionism as theme
  • Sarcastic sense of humor
  • Protagonist is fish out of water outside of school
  • Much of action is based on conversations, many of which happen in communication classes
  • Skepticism about the woo-woo parts of the communication classes (but willing to do anything if it works)

Then I started writing.

Communication: A Love Story

At twenty-nine, on the cusp of earning a PhD, Lori is smart, bitter, and restless. Eager to get out of graduate school and into the real world she refuses to do some of the work that’s expected of her after graduation and ignites a huge fight with her advisor. Desperate to persuade the advisor to see things her way, Lori turns to communication classes for help. There she meets Evan, the nerdy, yet sincere trainer, who instantly seems like trouble. As she starts to fall for him, she’s faced with tough choices about divorce, her career, and ultimately, love.

I sent this version to a writer friend for feedback. He loved the paragraph, but not the title. Not only was it a "soft" title, it wasn’t a very good headline. There was no emotional hook. So I went to work improving the title, the subtitle, and creating a headline with an emotional hook. I also wanted to make my skepticism and sarcasm about some aspects of the communication classes more obvious in the description.

How I Improved a Crappy Title

In marketing, there are several characteristics you want in a name or title:

  • Unique
  • Intriguing
  • Emotional
  • Googleable
  • Not too long

And for books, we also want that name to be genre-specific.

My original title of - Communication: A Love Story is unique, Googleable, and not too long, but it’s not intriguing, or emotional. I think it could also be misleading. I also thought I could use a subtitle to add some of the humor back.

Here are titles I tried and why I threw them out.

Titles I tried

The Winner: Throwing Out Plans

I went through the same process with the subtitle.

Subtitles tried

The winner: A Memoir about Love, Success, and How to Look Hot Wearing a Headband with Fur Giraffe Horns
 

Last up is a headline.

Headlines tried

The winner: Need motivation? Try humiliating public disgrace.



Here’s what the title and description look like altogether on the landing page. We’ll talk about what a landing page and why they're important next week.

Landing page for Throwing Out Plans

Landing page for Throwing Out Plans

Recap

Today we learned how readers find you on Amazon – through keywords and categories  and how to find keywords we want to use in our book. We also looked at the typical structure of book descriptions for fiction and memoir. It starts with a strong emotional hook, followed by the inciting incident, and progresses and then concludes with the emotional arc of the story.

We also took a look at three bestselling books to get an idea of what kinds of details are important to include. Finally, we started with a draft book description and tweaked its title, subtitle, and headline to make it more emotional and therefore more likely to sell. We humans buy on emotion and rationalize our decisions later. Next week, we'll learn how to use our current book description to get subscribers to our email list.