Above: The Book Description field and some tips from Amazon about how to describe your book.

Above: The Book Description field and some tips from Amazon about how to describe your book.

Alright, now we’re getting serious. The book description is where you need to put in some serious thought. That’s not to say that you don’t need to think about what you put in the “Publisher” field, but I don’t think too many people on Amazon buy or don’t buy books based solely on who the publisher is. The same can’t be said for the description. A lot of people buy or don’t buy books based on that.

So what makes a good description? Well, first we must appease the Amazon gods, so let’s talk about what should not go in the description. According to Amazon, that includes the following:

• Pornographic, obscene, or offensive content.
• Phone numbers, physical mail addresses, e-mail addresses, or website URLs.
• Availability, price, alternative ordering information (such as links to other websites for placing orders)
• Reviews, quotes or testimonials.
• Solicitations for customer reviews.
• Advertisements, watermarks on images or videos, or promotional material.
• Time-sensitive information (e.g., dates of promotional tours, seminars, lectures, etc.).

Having said that, I do routinely see website URLs in book descriptions. If you want to add one and make sure yours doesn’t get caught, I’d send readers to “mywebsite dot com” instead of “mywebsite.com.” I don’t know if Amazon has software that checks descriptions and denies any that include a www. or a .com (I doubt it, actually), but I think that would be a good way to play it semi-safe.

I also very, very often see reviews, quotes, and testimonials in book descriptions. I don’t think Amazon even tries to enforce this one. In fact, I just looked at the #1 bestseller on Amazon (currently The Fault in Our Stars), and look what I see:

The Fault in Our Stars

I don’t know if you’d categorize that as a quote or a review, but either way, it technically shouldn’t be allowed.

But still, if Amazon ever does decide to go after books with reviews, quotes, or testimonials in their book descriptions, it would be great to sleep soundly knowing that your book descriptions contain nothing of the stort.

OK. We’ve not done what Amazon has asked us not to do. We’re good there. Now what? What makes for a good description? This is a huge topic, and it varies from fiction to nonfiction and genre to genre. What it really comes down to is making a potential reader want to buy the book. So how do you do that?

Go to Amazon and look at the bestselling books in your genre. Read their descriptions. What is it about them that would make someone want to click the buy button? While it’s true that an amazing and popular book can have a lousy description (and vice versa), good books usually have good descriptions. Have you ever been swayed to buy a book after reading its description? What was it that got to you? What information do you look for when you read a book’s description?

There are things that I look for in a book description when it comes to an informational nonfiction book as opposed to an naarrative nonfiction book. (Something like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is informational; Unbroken and Wild are narratives). Some of the things I look for in these informational books include:

  • Why should I listen to the author? In other words, what credentials or experience does the author have?
  • Will this book give me the information or experience I’m looking for? If it’s a how-to book for example, will it convey the information I’m looking for? If it’s something like a memoir or biography, will it entertain me and/or give me knowledge about the subject?
  • What value will I derive from this book?
  • What can I expect from this book?

As for fiction or narrative nonfiction, what you really want to do is hook the reader. I don’t read much fiction, but every one in a while, I’ll read a fiction book’s description and become hooked. The last one to do this was a book called 3:00 a.m. by Nick Pirog. The description is short and sweet, and it is formatted simply. This is the whole thing:

Henry Bins has Henry Bins.
A sleeping disorder, named after him.
He is awake for one hour a day.
He wakes up at 3 a.m. then falls asleep at 4 a.m.
Life is simple.
Until he hears the woman scream.
And sees the man leave the house across the street.
But not just any man.
The President of the United States.

Isn’t that great? How could you not want to read the book after that? Here’s another good description that left me unable to resist buying the book:

Mark Jones is a henchman for hire. He guards bunkers, patrols perimeters and stands around in a boiler suit waiting to get knocked out by Ninjas. This is his job.

He’s worked for some of the most notorious super villains the world has ever known – Doctor Thalassocrat, Victor Soliman, Polonius Crump; Mark was with each of them when they met their makers at the hands of British Secret Service super-spy, Jack Tempest and lived to tell the tale – if not pay the bills.

Still for every hour under gunfire there are weeks if not months of sitting around on monorails so Jones starts a book club with his fellow henchmen to help pass the time.

It was only meant to be a bit of fun.

It was never meant to save the world.

That’s the description for The Henchmen’s Book Club. I guess I’m a sucker for outlandish plots.

The goal here is to hook your potential readers. Walk them through a synopsis of the story (or just part of it) and then leave them with a cliffhanger. Leave them wanting more. Leave them with the desire to find out what comes next. Leave them with no other option but to buy your book. Include enough details (settling, plot, characters, etc.) to whet the appetite.

Here are some other things you could put in the description:

  • Benefits of reading the book
  • The tone of the book
  • The tone of the writing in the book (not the same as the tone of the book)
  • An excerpt from the book (i.e., a writing sample)
  • Quotes from reviewers or well-known people in your niche or industry
  • What readers can expect from the book (e.g., how many words or chapters, the table of contents, what the reader’s end result or state will be, etc.)
  • Your background or experience
  • Other books you’ve written (especially ones in the same series)

Whether or how much you talk about the above things will depend on the type of book you’ve got (and in the case of some of them, how willing you are to bend Amazon’s official rules a bit). No one will care much about your background as an IT consultant if your book is a cozy mystery novel set in the Florida Everglades. But if your book is a medical thriller, stating that you’re a heart surgeon (if it’s true) will be a point in your favor. When I wrote my book about rock climbing tips, you better believe I mentioned my extensive rock climbing experience. The fact that I’ve been climbing for nearly two decades and have established a ton of new climbs is a selling point that not all authors of similar books will have.

One thing I’ve seen authors do is to fill the description space up with nothing but quotes that praise the book. I don’t know about you, but this is supremely annoying to me. If I wanted to know what other people had to say about the book, I’d be looking at the reviews, not the description.

Keep in mind that your book description doesn’t have to be long. A couple sentences can be enough to convince the reader to buy if they are the right sentences.

Fancier book descriptions

It is possible to make your book descriptions “fancy” by having various font sizes, bolded and italicized text, and so on. This is done with html, but only certain html tags are allowed. Below complete list of 18 supported tags, straight from the horse’s (Amazon’s) mouth. Unless tagged with an asterisk (*), all tags need to be closed as well.

 

HTML Tag Description
<b> Formats enclosed text as bold.
<br> *Creates a line break.
<em> Emphasizes the enclosed text; generally formatted as italic.
<font> Determines the appearance of the enclosed text.
<h1> to <h6> Formats enclosed text as a section heading: <h1> (largest) through <h6> (smallest).
<hr> *Creates a horizontal “rule” or line. Often used to divide sections of text.
<i> Formats enclosed text as italic.
<li> Identifies an item in an ordered (numbered) or unordered (bulleted) list.
<ol> Creates a numbered list from enclosed items, each of which is identified by a <li> tag.
<p> Defines a paragraph of text with the first line indented; creates a line break at the end of the enclosed text.
<pre> Defines preformatted text.
<s> Formats text as strikethrough. See also, <strike>.
<strike> Formats text as strikethrough. See also, <s>.
<strong> Formats enclosed text as bold. See also, <b>.
<sub> Formats enclosed text as subscript: reduces the font size and drops it below the baseline.
<sup> Formats enclosed text as superscript: reduces the font size and places it above the baseline.
<u> Formats enclosed text as underlined.
<ul> Creates a bulleted list from enclosed items, each of which is identified by a <li> tag.

In addition to those tags, I’ve found that you can use the <center> tag to center align headlines.

So how do you use these tags? Well, let’s say you want a sentence in your description to be bold. You would use the following in your description:

<b>This is the sentence I want to be bold.</b>

Make sense? (The </b> part is what I meant when I said that most of the tags need to be closed.)

It’s all well and good to see that list of html tags, but what do they actually look like when used in a book description? I, too, wanted a more visual look at what each tag does, so I ended up using all of the tags in a dummy book description, publishing it, and then seeing what each tag turned out to be. Below is the result. Click the image for the full-size version.

Annotated html list

Above: What the html tags look like in action

Here is the plain text that I used in the book description to get that formatting. (That link is to a .txt file.)

In my opinion, you can ignore the <strong>, <i>, <p>, and <strike> tags. Don’t worry about those. They are either redundant or don’t really do anything.

Further reading

If you want to read more about writing fiction book descriptions, check out the following:

 

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