A great book description is like a frozen yogurt sample: once you've gotten a taste, you crave more.
So, what's the best way for writers to write delicious book descriptions? Keep reading!
Start by Reading Existing Descriptions
Before you wrote your book, I’m guessing you read a lot of other books. Likewise, you should read several book descriptions before writing your own. This will give you an idea of what good descriptions look like.
Note the components and how they’re sequenced. Highlight what you like. Mark details that don't compel you to read more.
To get you started, let's look at a few examples. We'll start with the description for A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan:
"Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption."
Concise, yet detailed. We get a glimpse of two key characters, plus a hint at the book's tone and underlying themes. I'd say the only thing we're missing here is setting. Nevertheless, the description accomplished its objective. I read the book! (It's outstanding, by the way.)
"Following a terrible fight with her mother over her boyfriend, fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes slams the door on her family and her old life. But Holly is no typical teenage runaway: A sensitive child once contacted by voices she knew only as “the radio people,” Holly is a lightning rod for psychic phenomena. Now, as she wanders deeper into the English countryside, visions and coincidences reorder her reality until they assume the aura of a nightmare brought to life."
This is a nice start. Here we get character (Holly Sykes), plot (running away from home), and setting (the English countryside). In addition, this description does perhaps the most important function of all: it invites us to read more!
However, if you clicked the link above, you probably noticed how lengthy the full description is. I'd recommend against being that verbose. I love David Mitchell's work, but I'm not going to read a description that dense. Don't expect your readers to, either. Roughly three paragraphs is a good rule of thumb.
Finally, let's check out the description for Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses (one of my favorite novels). I won't provide the full description here, but I'll hit the important points.
First, you'll notice the #1 New York Times Bestseller marker (is every book on every shelf a #1 New York Times Bestseller?). Then a quote from a Newsday reviewer, then a mention that the novel is the winner of the Whitbread Prize.
This lesson might not apply to all books, but I think it's worth mentioning: don't be afraid to brag. If your book earns a spectacular review, add it to your description. If it achieves outstanding sales, note it. If you or your novel won any kind of award, tell your readers. These details provide further proof of the quality of your work, so use them!
That said, unless you're a household literary name, I recommend against leading your description with reviews and such. It works for Rushdie because he's Rushdie. For the majority of other authors, readers care more about the book itself and less about who wrote it.
Focus on the Essentials
Now that we've examined a few descriptions, let's take a test. What am I missing from this description?
"Some coffee is strong. But only one coffee is strong enough to wake the dead." So begins the story of Revitalize, the new horror-thriller from Kyle A. Massa. Set in a world where FDA caffeine restrictions are a distant memory and Keurigs produce coffee in mere seconds, one new brand of coffee is taking the living world (and the undead one) by storm. The question is, will there be anyone left to enjoy it?
So, what am I missing?
You got it... character! (And setting, though that's a little less important.)
This is a problem I’ve noticed in my book descriptions, as well as those of my peers. Fantasy and science fiction writers are especially guilty of it, particularly when we’re writing a description for the first entry in a larger series. We tend to focus on the magic system, the overarching conflict, or the world of the story rather than the basic elements.
As you know, every story needs character, setting, and plot. Likewise, every book description should include these elements.
Yes, there are exceptions to every rule. As previously noted, the description of A Visit from the Goon Squad lacked any mention of setting. But generally speaking, you can only benefit by including it. Who, what, and where? Those are the questions readers want answered before they'll buy a book.
Finally, invite your reader to read more. Every book description needs some sort of intriguing tag at the end, one that readers will crave an answer for. You've probably noticed many descriptions end with a question—and that's because it works!
Will they arrive in time to thwart the dastardly plan?
Can two people still learn to love, even after death?
What will our hero learn about her family? And what will she learn about herself in the process?
Questions like these spark interest. As you've seen in the above descriptions, they need not always be questions. But that's a great place to start.
Read as many book descriptions as you can. Analyze what works and what doesn't, then practice writing your own.
Like your book, you probably won't get it exactly right on the first try. Write, revise, share with others, then revise more. A great book description is worth the time.