Blurbs, Ad Copy, and Cover Copy

First, let’s establish terms, because they’ve gotten muddled. “Blurb” used to mean a pull quote on the cover of a book. “This is the greatest thing since sliced bread! –Famous Author in Same Genre.” Pull quotes are a journalistic device of lifting selective quotations out of an interview, article, or review, and highlighting them to make the article or item being reviewed sound really juicy.

Now, “blurb” has become a term for the Ad Copy, or Cover Copy, which means the one to three paragraphs of “What’s it about?” on the back of the book, on the website under description, and right next to the cover thumbnail on promotional emails.

Sarah tackled this subject on Wednesday, under And then she tackled me, and said I had to explain how I do the voodoo that I do so well.

Now, I personally feel that’s about like asking all y’all “how do you write stories?” There are a lot of guidelines, but no hard and fast rules beyond it must be truthful about the contents, and hook the reader’s attention.

Interestingly enough, those of you who have written poetry will be at an advantage here, because you’re familiar with making every syllable, much less every word, count.

Like haiku, there are length constraints. Some promotional emails are very specific about the character limit (letters and spaces) you may use. Other places, like Amazon, will let you ramble on and on, but they cut the “above the fold” that browsers see to only 3-4 lines.

I recommend that you try to keep your blurb to the promotional length, so that you don’t have to come up with a new one for every promotion you want to run. Functionally, this means you’ll want to keep it within 300 characters. This will also force you to write long, then cut it down to something short enough to be exciting, picking and choosing each word for best effect.

Now, what words do you write?
First, We’re going to go to the heart, the core of your story, and break it down.

1.) A Character
2.) wants something
3.) But something opposes them.
4.) The stakes if they fail are: —-

Note: This should all be information the reader will have by Chapter 3.

But, you say, I have three people, and this one wants this, and that one wants that, and this other wants… Yes, true, most stories have more than the protagonist and the antagonist. However, unless you’re doing an epic fantasy, there’s one (or at most two) central protagonists whose actions and choices drive the plot. As Harlan Ellison says: Who does the story hurt? That’s who it’s about.

Epic fantasy breaks this guideline, because it generally has three to five separate viewpoints and storylines, not necessarily going on at the same point in history. Thus, you’ll end up doing a one-sentence-per-storyline to keep it in the limit.

Returning to that list, sometimes you’ll also add:

5.) What is the first plot twist?

And, especially for SF/F stories:

6.) What are the 3-5 most important unique names involved? Use 3 of them.

(This is because people tend to tune out after 3-5 unfamiliar terms. So, if you start with “Xaarath Fthagn of Marakis Prime is a gleeple of the Tuurathi”… you’ve already lost a chunk of readers.)

Finally, the best piece of advice: when you think you have a good piece of ad copy, try reading it out loud, and then saying it like you’re answering the question “What’s it about?” at a party.

You’ll probably find yourself hesitating before words, dropping them, changing phrases, possibly even skipping and combining entire sentences. This is normal and good. Write down the spoken version, and it’ll be smoother on the reading as well as the delivery.

Now, on to examples. I warn you, they’re going to be rather rough, because composing a blurb usually takes me two to three days, and I need to get this done by Saturday night for the post to go up.


Ella’s sheltered world died with her father, leaving her a refugee on her step-mother’s estates. Now exiled to kitchen servitude to hide the reminder of the unpopular and doomed marriage alliance, she must dodge her increasingly paranoid sisters and parlay old ties with the Fae to win back her rightful place in the palace. Unfortunately, every gift from the Fae comes with a cost, and midnight is coming all too soon…

Science Fiction:

It’s just a temp job, right?

Stranded on Chimera5 among the indentured servants, Ella and her shipmates must cater to the increasingly bizarre demands of the galactic upper class, while seeking a new captain, contracts, and alien allies to find a way back to the stars!

Romance – Science Fiction

Stranded on Chimera5 among the indentured servants, Ella must move among the galactic upper class while avoiding being fined . Getting back to the stars never seemed so far away, until a favor given freely to the local aliens is repayed in the oddest way. In the middle of a ball, Ella’s won not just the prince’s assistance, but his heart.

With freedom in her grasp, she must choose between the stars, or love…


Time is ticking away…

Caught between a malevolent murderer and an enigmatic conspiracy, Ella must find out who killed her father. All signs point toward something happening at the palace ball, and the prince may be the author of the conspiracies – or it’s next victim!

A few notes – if you’re going to have more than four lines of test, break it up into multiple paragraphs. When viewed on a small screen (kindle fire, iPad, phone…), even a normal-looking paragraph becomes a wall-o-text.

Taglines- sure, knock yourself out.

I’m at work today, but I’ll be checking in. What are your blurbs?


  1. Rada thinks she’s fine.

    Her wounds are healing and her mind works as well as it ever did. She resumes her duties, breaking a new commanding officer with the 58th Regiment of Foot, keeping the Azdhag Prince Imperial out of trouble – mostly. But when tragedy and an invasion force Rada and her old friend Joschka to confront their feelings, Rada’s fury leads her, and those with her, into depths from which none of them may return.

    How do you survive a broken soul?

    1. Yep, I can tell you took Dean’s blurb class. 😛

      The only thing I might add is a hint of what broke her, and how long it’s been. “Six months after the assassination attempt on the emperor at Argon IV, her wounds are healing, and…”

      This serves two purposes. It focuses the reader on the current action instead of wondering “What happened before?” Also, it provides a strong hint of “If you’re reading this out of order, hey, the one before this has awesome action and an assassination attempt!”

  2. OK – For Sunset & Steel Rails the back cover blurb is “On a mild spring morning in 1884, just short of her 21st birthday, the ordered and respectable life of Sophia Brewer fell apart, without any warning. The orphaned daughter of a well-established old Boston family fallen on difficult times, she thought herself cherished by her older brother, and loved for herself by the fiancée who abruptly broke their engagement. But worse was yet to come. Within the space of weeks, Sophia – abandoned by fiancée, friends and family, threatened by unwilling confinement to the insane asylum – had only one chance at escape and survival. That was to travel the steel rails towards the sunset; a journey into the newly-tamed Wild West, working for the Fred Harvey Company as a waitress in a railroad restaurant concession on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. Finding freedom and independence as a Harvey Girl comes at a cost for Sophia; she must break with her background of privilege. But even out in the West, there are still decades-old scandalous family secrets … secrets and events which might still threaten Sophia Brewer and the man who means to court her, and give her the life that she had once expected.”

    1. Pretty good blurb, but it’s very long and has a slow start, with a lot of time setting up the character before we get to what they want, and why we should care.

      Here’s a roughed-out version of how I’d break that up:

      Sophia Brewer’s old-money life just came off the rails. Abandoned by her fiancé, surrounded with rumor and scandal, and threatened with commitment to an asylum, she’s running from everything she knows.

      A new life calls in the Wild West, working as a mere waitress on the railroad concession for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad. As one of the Harvey girls, she’s found a freedom and independence she’s never known.

      But even being on the move can’t keep old secrets from catching up, and threatening her new-found happiness and the man who means to court her…

  3. 1.) A Character
    2.) wants something
    3.) But something opposes them.
    4.) The stakes if they fail are: —-

    What you’ve just described here, with the addition of a setting, is the “Starting line up” from Swain’s “Techniques of the Selling Writer”. He recommends having that to start writing and it’s largely what I like to have at least in my head before I start on a new story.

    Epic fantasy breaks this guideline, because it generally has three to five separate viewpoints and storylines, not necessarily going on at the same point in history.

    Some Science Fiction has the same format as well, kind of “Epic Science Fiction” 😉

    My own tentative cover/promotional text from my own forthcoming novel “The Hordes of Chanakra”:
    Kreg found himself pulled into a world stuck in the Middle Ages, a world where magic works.
    Befriended by the rough swordsmistress Kaila and her father, the wizard Shillond, he soon finds himself caught up in a war with the seemingly numberless forces of the small nation of Schah.
    Where does Schah find these forces and what is their connection to the even smaller nation of Chanakra?
    Can Kreg find the answers before everythign he has come to care about is torn from him and he loses any chance of ever returning home?

    1. While you’ve got an interesting scenario, there are two major things you’ll want to fix here: passive voice, and unusual terms.

      Passive voice is… passive. It doesn’t interest or excite the reader. Make all of the verbs active, and the ad copy will come alive. When it comes to unique terms, optimally you shouldn’t throw more than 3 at the reader. You want to suck them into the story, not throw them with a bunch of unfamiliar words. (Especially for folks who leaned whole-word spelling; it discourages them from trying.)

      Here’s a rough version of a slightly more active version, with fewer terms:

      Pulled into an alternate world mired in the middle ages, Kreg finds allies in Kaila, a rough swordmistress, and her wizardly father. He’s also found their foes – an unending horde pouring forth from the small nation next door.

      Now, he’s in a race against time to find the true source, before everything he cares about ends in fire and death!

      1. pedant hat on

        Not a single sentence in the original blurb was in passive voice. Just because the character was more acted upon than acting doesn’t mean the sentence is in the passive voice.

        1. Kreg found himself pulled into a world stuck in the Middle Ages, a world where magic works.
          Befriended by the rough swordsmistress Kaila and her father, the wizard Shillond, he soon finds himself caught up in a war with the seemingly numberless forces of the small nation of Schah.

          Technically, yes, he found himself, or he finds himself are not passive voice (he was found…) but it’s sure similar. Kreg found himself… I’d even go with the passive Kreg was pulled into… Instead of finding himself. Kreg fell into, Kreg slipped into, something where he seems to be acting, instead of just noticing that something is happening to him. Interesting. While that construction isn’t strictly passive voice, it certainly makes the protagonist a passive voyeur just watching what’s going on, and you don’t want a passenger, you want someone driving!

  4. I still need so much help in this area 🙂 This is the ad copy for The Gods Defense. The one on Amazon goes into more of the story after this, but I think I’m going to cut all of that out and have just this part, or an edited version.

    In a world of magic, even gods have something to fear…

    When the gods woke and brought magic back to the world, society held it together. Sure, now people suddenly have powers, plants can talk and the laws have to change to accommodate the paranormal, but the world goes on… at least until the reason the gods went to sleep in the first place comes around.

    Prosecutor Cassandra Berry isn’t a fan of the gods gathering naïve people into their new religions (cults) and doesn’t like that they won’t tell people why they’ve been asleep for thousands of years, but her latest assault case has hit a wall.

    The defendant is claiming the new “Gods Defense,” that Dionysus made him do it, and the judge is actually allowing it! Cassandra knows Dionysus will ignore a subpoena and pulls the only string she has, Apollo, the god who has been trying to get her to be his personal lawyer since she graduated last year just because she’s a powerful psychic.

    If only that were Apollo’s true goal.

    1. Here’s an effort to shorten it, by cutting out backstory the reader doesn’t need:

      In a world where the gods have returned, enforcing justice just got a lot more hazardous!

      Cassandra Berry is a prosecutor with a problem; her latest case is claiming Dionysus made him do it. In order to get a god to answer a subpoena, she asks Apollo for help.

      But dealing with divine favors always comes with strings attached…

      1. See, this is why I need you 🙂 Thanks. I’ll see what I can do with this.

  5. This is one for the first book of that series I came up with to entertain the kids. I’m not happy with it, but it stinks less than previous attempts for this book. I’m not happy with the first line. The target audience is advanced elementary school readers through early middle school.

    Misfortunes of War

    In less than a day, Princess Gwenhevare goes from pampered princess to running for her life. Alone, her only chance is to hide her identity, work as a scullery maid, and hope for rescue. But her hope crumbles as she learns her parents may not be able to even save themselves. As war swirls around her, Gwen is faced with a terrible question: How can a mere scullery maid possibly save her family and kingdom?

    Gwen isn’t sure, but she’s determined to find out.

    1. I think that first sentence feels awkward because you have <adjective><noun> compared to <participle><clause>.

      Try the same construction on both sides of the “from … to …”.

      “from idling away her days to running for her life.” or “from pampered princess to furtive fugitive”.

  6. The real fun is blurbing a collection — I usually end up doing a sentence describing the three or four stories most intriguing in sentence form.

    Not that the longer ones are fun, on the individual ones. Like “Winter’s Curse”

    Who but a fool would linger after Zavrien laid his curse? Ill luck can kill – and all the more in Zavrien’s enchanted, endless winter, haunted with ice giants and frost fairies.

    When the soldier Gareth is cursed, the young wizard Perriel learns how dangerous lingering can be.

    But she can hold out a sliver of hope for breaking the curse – if it doesn’t break them first.

    Or “The Witch Child and the Scarlet Fleet”

    Trapped in a pirate port. . .

    Caught between pirates who would force him to use wizardry in their aid, and a king who would force him to spy, Alik will need every scrap of wits and wizardry to forge his own path.

  7. Four dragon tales?
    From a missing hiker (with really bad taste) in the Appalachians to WYRD and Drako’s Dark Roast all-night show, to a water-expert with a talon-t for trouble and a tale of medieval justice, this quartet of stories explore life in a world where dragons and humans live side-by-side.

    Mischief, murder, mayhem, and music to rock the night away!

    (Pssst, coming out this weekend, along with a different story set on free!)

  8. “Lydia escaped from her tower room one early spring night, hoping to seek protection from her brother in the far-off capitol. But when rebellion forces her to conceal her identity, and she somehow ends up in a position to advise the king, she has to learn to determine the truth of her forebodings before they threaten the young king’s reign… even if it will cost her life.”

    I was *really* tired when I wrote that.

    Other potentially relevant information: YA, fantasy (no magic)*, girl dressed as boy trope, and yes, “conceal her identity” is pretty important and has to remain.

    *I point at Cynthia Voight’s _Jackaroo_ in my defense of the use of the term “fantasy” for a world that has no obvious magic.

  9. I’m late here … and the book’s a long way from done. But let’s try:

    15-year old Merran wants only to master the family trade–Sorcery. But when their shop is invaded and her father kidnapped by a rogue sorcerer Merran must seek shelter and a place to continue her training, while her mother hunts for Merran’s father and the child that Shogran also kidnapped.

    But adventure awaits the traveling sorcerer, and on the other side of that adventure Merran, her family, and her friends will find the first hints of a threat to the millenia-old Covenant that protects Civilization from Sorcery–and Sorcery from Civilization.

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