Adding the Sizzle

Grilled lamb with medjara rice
My job as a publisher is to make your mouth water over that book even before you’ve opened the cover. As a writer, it’s my job to make it taste as good as it looks.

There was an advertising saying somewhen, I don’t recall where I first heard it, that you aren’t selling the steak, you’re selling the sizzle. Needless to say, making books smoke and sizzle isn’t the way to sell them, but adding some polish is.

To return to the metaphor I started exploring last week, of books being marketed not in a monolithic marketplace, but in a bazaar, a fair full of fantastic wares full of shoppers who are on visual overload – how do you make your book stand out? One of the first things I can tell you is that it’s not all about the writing.

Don’t get me wrong: I am NOT saying the story doesn’t matter. It does. It’s vital. If that steak comes out of the kitchen sizzling merrily and smelling great, the reader’s eater’s mouth starts to water. But the plate is plunked in front of him by a surly server who grunts something about gender inequality and then disappears for the rest of the meal (or worse, hovers and critiques the eater’s taste in food, apparent privilege, neo-nazism, and so on). On the plate is a paper-thin cut of meat, cooked until it’s grey all over, maybe a hunk of charcoal on one corner, and it tastes like cardboard. You can bet that eater isn’t coming back unless there are no other choices.

Fortunately for readers, there are other choices. There are books that have been edited with care, wrapped into professional-looking covers, with proper layout and design throughout. It’s the equivalent of walking through that marketplace and being offered a really great taco from a street vendor. It smells wonderful, it tastes great, and you don’t have to pay for the expensive meal with the disgusting steak.

If you’re ever near Mason OH I can tell you where to find the place…

Don’t like tacos? Or steaks? You have choices as a reader in the new marketplace. As a writer, you’ve got the readers headed toward you hungry and looking. What are you going to do?

  • Either learn how to be, or hire, a professional cover artist. No, wait, let me explain. You don’t want an artist (well, you do, but I digress) you want a designer. Beautiful design will make up for lacking art.
  • Have your book edited. Structural edits if needed, proof edits for sure, and as I mentioned last week, you can either hire someone, or you can barter for services. The book might look beautiful but if it leaves the reader with mental indigestion they won’t be coming back.
  • Learn how to make keywords work for you. Readers don’t just browse the marketplace, they search out what they want. If your wares are with, say, the taco vendors when the readers are looking at silk scarves, you’ll be left wondering why your sales are so dismal.
  • Spend time on crafting your blurb, or find someone to hire/help you with that. The MGC commenting community has been helpful to folks with this in the past, so today if you have a blurb, put it in the comments for critique.
  • Don’t make your book look too different. Readers use certain cues, often unconsciously, to assess the worth of the product in front of them. Take the time to look at the top sellers in your specific sub-genre and break apart the components which are similar, dissimilar, and then look at your book to see how you can both signal “this is a zombie romance” and still look new, different, and you.
  • Chicken Satay
    Perhaps you prefer your meat on a stick for ease of eating on the go? (click on picture for recipe)

    Don’t offer just one thing. Yes, I know everyone has to start somewhere. But be ready to keep writing once you put that first book out there, and be prepared to not sell much until you have enough to make your booth look interesting to readers who prefer to know there’s more where that came from.

  • As a corollary to that last, make your series look coherent. Covers should have a common design thread (typography and similar art styles are good ways to accomplish this). Somewhere on the book, indicate that it is part of a series. Somewhere on the sales page, let the reader know which book in the series it is – most readers hate to pick up book three and feel totally lost in the story. Amazon has gotten very good at pulling series together and offering them as a bundle, but you must make it clear in your set-up or this won’t happen.
  • Do some active marketing. It need not be time-consuming or expensive. There are many different options from blogging to buying slots on promotional mailing lists, and we have talked about them here at MGC a few times!

Once you are up and running in that virtual marketplace, other options become available. You can ask your regular customers what they’d like to see you offer. I did that earlier this week on my blog, asking if there was interest in an omnibus version of my completed Pixie for Hire Trilogy. You can offer wares directly from your website for more personal touches, as I’ve started to do with signed books and original art. Now, I’ve gotten some interesting suggestions, like the requests for coffee mugs and t-shirts with my artwork on them. And I have thoughts on what may be marketplace mistakes (a coloring book?). But you don’t know what will work until you try.

You can also talk to your fellow vendors. Sure, just like in a real fair environment, some of them will be paranoid and suspicious and assume you’re trying to steal customers from them. Others will be gracious and helpful, and you’ll find yourself doing what I used to do: “Oh, yes, it is a beautiful scarf, isn’t it? And so warm! You’ll find them at the book an aisle over and four booths down. Enjoy!” Only now I acquire, read, and review books I think my readers will like. I know I can’t possibly write fast enough to keep even the slowest of my fans amused all the time. So I make sure they are happy by sending them to other authors too. I’m also doing this quirky thing called Eat This While you Read That, where I highlight an author’s food suggestion along with a book to read while the meal is prepared/eaten. It’s been fun!

Your fellow marketers can also help with finessing your set-up and delivery. That’s part of our mission here at the Mad Genius Club. I can’t speak for the others, but for me, I do this to pay back, or forward (longitudinal diffusion – it goes in every which direction!) the help that has been given to me over the years. I like being helpful. Plus, in the principle of ‘see one, do one, teach one’ I am in the teaching stage, and learning as I go. It’s all good, and the new authors who come comment here make it a joyful and fulfilling experience.

Huh. I wandered a bit off track there. Ah, well! See you in the comments.

38 thoughts on “Adding the Sizzle

  1. Comment about the cover, I’d like to add that your cover should not “say” one genre while your book is another genre.

    If your book is action adventure, the cover should not look like a romance cover even if your two main characters are (or will be) in love with each other. [Smile]

    1. Yes, and this will make readers mad. It’s like ordering a custard for dessert and getting quiches. They might have the same ingredients but they aren’t the same!

      1. Even if your reader likes both custard and quiches, the reader will dislike getting one while ordering the other. [Smile]

          1. Sigh. The two of you had to remind me of the things I need to get done as a noob (and the things I almost did).

            I’ll finally have a couple of shorts going out the end of / first of the year (exact timing depends on how much machete work is needed on them, and the time I can extract from my cover artists). Those are going to be very tricky to blurb and keyword – they were fun to write, but they are very odd. (So odd that I’m putting them under a pseudonym, they are so different from the “main” work.)

            On the main line – the series that I am picking away at – um. Military and political SF. I spent almost three hours one day writing up this wonderful concept for the series covers. Looked at it two days later and wondered what got into my coffee that day. My two main characters looking at each other, turned away, looking at a third one. A wonderful set of covers – for a romance series.

            Sigh again. Adding blurbs and keyword research to the master task list. At least I had the sense to already have “finish blog setup” there; I at least need to get that done real soon now, to precede the publications. Looks like the first real post (after the “Hi There!”) is going to be “Blog Larnin'”.)

    1. Actually, I don’t 😀 But I know what you mean. The first time I had real Thai food, I was eating with tears running down my face from the spice heat level. But it was delicious! When I’m cooking it, I just add a touch of heat, enough to enhance without taking away from the dish.

  2. Now you’ve got me drooling and thinking about what to fix for dinner!

    A short blurb for critique and comments:

    A Novella. Twenty-first story in the Wine of the Gods Universe.

    Lieutenant Kara Kitha is a loyal member of the Cove Islands Navy. Military Intel. She’ll do anything to get the list of traitors back to her superiors. Including calling on the God of Spies for help.

    1. There seems to be an extraneous period after Navy, or perhaps that needs to be rephrased. Also, I’d add a little about why she’s reluctant to call on/why calling on him is a big deal. “doesn’t believe in magic” or something to that effect (I remember that story…). Set up the conflict a bit more to get the reader interested in how the problem(s) will be resolved.

      1. Perhaps: with the God Of Spies, you’re never sure which side he(?) on?

    2. “calling on the God of Spies for help — ”

      With the knowledge that he’s hard to put back than call up?

      With the knowledge that he’s tricky/treacherous/as likely to sabotage as help her?

      And risk the disgrace if it becomes known?

      or just
      “calling on that trickster, the God of Spies, for help.”

      I mean, it’s not as if you had her calling on the Sky God, there is just a hint of it might be dangerous, but I think you have to make the peril more explicitly, even if not fully so.

    3. I’m a big fan of semi-colons, but in this case I think it shouldn’t even go that far: “… superiors, including…” Or are you trying for that dramatic pause induced by the period?

      Yay! Xen’s back! And what on earth is happening the Cove Islands? It got me.

        1. And even more I didn’t have. Bought three of them. (Now I have them all? I’m glad Amazon keeps track.) Now to find time to read them…

  3. I think I’ll take advantage of the blurb critique group. I’ve got one I think needs some work. It’s here:

    As Halloween nears, the spirits will rise…

    Evie Jones is a lawyer and a witch, not a detective, but when a young co-ed at her new job asks for help investigating a ghostly stalker, Evie can’t say no. The spirit’s strength and the magical imbalances grow as Halloween nears and natural disasters shake the valley.

    When the girl is attacked, Evie must trust the help of a new love interest to solve the mystery and stop the spirit before Halloween hits, if only her heart would let her work without clouding her mind.

    Any suggestions?

      1. Is she working at a college? Otherwise, why co-ed? Perhaps tighten up the wording? And do you need the clunker “new love interest?” Maybe something like: Evie is distracted by the handsome [insert name], but whose side is he on?

        1. I’d tighten up the disaster part: The nearer Halloween gets, the stronger the spirit grows, disturbing the balance of magic so thoroughly that (e.g.) sinkholes swallow houses, avalanches cut off roads, and the earth shakes in the valley etc. If it would up the suspense/intrigue you might also name the type of spirit: doppelganger, poltergeist, ghoul, etc.

          Also — the love interest needs a relevant introduction. Is he a warlock? Necromancer? Exorcist? A witch whisperer who will help her level up? Knowing why she needs *his* help saving the girl would make him interesting; the conflict would be in wondering if he’s the one behind the trouble or has his own agenda, etc. Otherwise he just seems to be thrown in.

          Incidentally, I am glad to see more of this type of story. I was originally introduced to urban fantasy via the Anita Blake stories. The magical detective part was fun. Then it veered off into … interesting territory 🙂 I’ll be on the look-out for your work.

          1. Ohhh, specific suggestions, thanks 🙂 and I’m up on Amazon if you want to check me out. This blurb is for the 4th in the Evie Jones series of shorts.

  4. My latest attempt:
    “In the urban jungle, this lion does not sleep.

    His parishioners call him ‘Reverend Leo’ because of his unruly hair. The nick-name comes a little too close to home, especially when willful evil threatens the innocent and the good. For Rev. James Mutai has a secret, a secret that drove him out of his village in Kenya, to Nairobi, and to the cold shore of Lake Michigan.

    Beware the Lion of Judah!”

    (For the urban fantasy short “Lion of Judah.”)

      1. It will be out early in January (to catch the gift card bounce). I’ve got another Cat Christmas story coming out on the 15th of this month, and a novel in late February, so I decided to hold this one back a little.

    1. This works. If it’s not a big deal in the story, I’d drop Nairobi. It just gave me a little pause in what had otherwise developed into a rapid, engaged read.

  5. After salivating at the picture of the food, I have to ask the name of the place in Mason. Strangely enough, I drove through Mason about 2 hours ago. 🙂

      1. Thank you. I’ve been meaning to check Treasure Aisles out again. I hadn’t noticed Quetzalcoatl before but was favorably impressed by the food options available, especially for such a venue.

  6. One thing I can take away from my fiction sales is I probably need blurb work. Of course, they are short stories, but still . . .

    Here’s one I did while pressed for time for a short story A Carol for Christmas. Wanted it up by Black Friday, and things ran close. You can tell by the cover. Cough.

    Anyway, below are two versions of the same blurb. The first is what’s on Amazon now. The second is a revision. What do you think?


    In the years since the visit by the three spirits, Ebenezer Scrooge has made good on the promises he made that Christmas morning. Bob Cratchet is now his partner; Tim a bright young man at Eaton; and Scrooge is active in charities and improving the condition of the poor.

    Yet this Christmas Scrooge faces his most difficult task: One of the spirits has sunk into despair, placing the redemption of many at peril, and Ebenezer must convince him of the good the spirit has accomplished. Yet before the night is out Scrooge must face his darkest question: Has his own efforts only made things worse than if he had never changed at all?

    The fate of the spirit and all he holds dear hangs on the answer. And he has only ’til dawn to find it.


    “He looks in a bad way.”
    “He is, and the redemption of many is in peril.”

    In the years since the visit by the three spirits, Ebenezer Scrooge had made good on the promises he made that Christmas morning. Bob Cratchet is his partner; Tim a bright young man at Eaton; and Scrooge is active in charities.

    Yet all may not be as it seems. For one of the spirits is convinced that no good comes of what they do, and Scrooge must convince him otherwise. Yet before this night is out, Scrooge will face his darkest question: Has his efforts made things worse than if he had never changed?

    The fate of not only the spirit but all Scrooge holds dear depends on the answer. And he has only until dawn to find it.

    1. What Cedar says. One of the BIG things I took from Dean Wesley Smith’s “Pitches and Blurbs” course was that the blurb needs to be tight, punchy, and (if possible) read like a movie promo. You can wander a little on the back-cover copy, but the blurb has to be tight. Especially now that Amazon’s putting in a fold on the blurb.

      1. Thanks all. Something I noticed on Amazon today: Unless a blurb is very short, the reader doesn’t see the entire thing. So we have to grab their attention enough that they’re willing to click to read the rest of it.

        1. Just like writing the story itself – you have to hook them with the first line, then the first paragraph… and with the blurb you don’t have the luxury of anything more than that.

    2. “question: Has” should be “question: Have”

      Bad grammar bounces me right out of a blurb. And takes my finger off the “buy” button.

  7. My serial in Sci Phi Journal (Beyond the Mist, a mystery/philosophical journey of discovery that one reviewer described as being like a ‘science-fictional Pilgrim’s Progress) is soon going to be released as a standalone book, so it’s blurb refining time:

    Am I falling or flying?

    Powerless or mighty?

    Imprisoned or free?

    I have nothing: no possessions, no memories, no reference points or even solid ground to stand on; just falling (or is it flying?) through an endless mist. A voice beside me says this is the last free place in a world of slavery and suffering; another that it’s a self-imposed prison from a world of beauty and adventure. Who should I believe? What is waiting for me out there?

    I make my choice and begin to discover what lies beyond the mist.

    1. Due the space constraints, I’d reverse the paragraph and the questions. Maybe remove the linefeeds, but I like whitespace.

      1. I like whitespace too, but there does need to be room for some reviewer quotes on there. I’m not sure the questions work well after the paragraph, since they are expanded on in the paragraph, so its either put them all on one line before the paragraph as a hook, or leave them out altogether.

        [i]Am I falling or flying? Powerless or mighty? Imprisoned or free?[/i]

        I have nothing: no possessions, no memories, no reference points or even solid ground to stand on; just falling (or is it flying?) through an endless mist. A voice beside me says this is the last free space in a world of slavery and suffering; another that it’s a self-imposed prison from a world of beauty and adventure. Who should I believe? What is waiting for me out there?

        I make my choice and begin to discover what lies beyond the mist.

        With or without the first line?

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