So What? yellow sticker

The “So What?” Factor

When I read brief descriptions of books, I must admit my first reaction is often, “So what?” So what if young Miranda and her cat must save the world from the ultimate evil? So what if Devon Hope has stumbled on a secret that will mean the end of the world if he can’t find a missing artifact before someone kills him. Meh.

So what?

The problem here might be failure to engage. For me, and maybe for other readers, it takes more than the bare bones of a dire situation to pique interest, especially when that situation is just another variation on a well-worn theme. Saving the world while escaping death — what’s more dire than that? Except generic peril is as bland as no peril at all.

But it might be something else.

Observing myself while reading book descriptions, I think the reason for “blurb failure” is not always the fault of the person (author or publisher) who wrote it. The real problem is what used to be called an “embarrassment of riches.” There’s a deluge of information coming at us all the time. Posts, tweets, ads, promos, news, views, warnings, tips, tricks, sounds, images, etc., etc. Aaaaargh, I can’t take any more!

When the brain is overloaded and distracted, not even the most artfully created blurb will do the trick. The eye skips, the brain misses, and the conclusion (barely registered by the person who experiences it) is “Sure, okay, seen it before. So what? Next!”

Image by Audrey Driscoll using Canva. “Big Data” image from Pixabay.

In this environment, it takes more than a well-written blurb to bring a potential reader to “Yes, I’m going to buy this book.” Maybe it’s repetition; if someone sees a cover image and description twenty times or a hundred times, eventually the tipping point is achieved. Maybe if it arrives via a personal recommendation from a trusted friend. Or maybe it’s a totally random conjunction of temperature, air pressure, hormones, and the angle of the light coming through the window.

So what’s an author to do?

Authors sweat blood writing the brief descriptions (“blurbs”) that appear next to their book’s cover image and on the back cover or jacket flap. They have to be short and intriguing. “So what?” is absolutely NOT the reaction a book description should provoke.

And a book description is absolutely necessary, despite the fact that it will be another drop in the flood. When I see book recommendations by bloggers, without even a brief indication of what the book is about, I pass them by.

If nothing else, creating a book description is a good writing exercise. It demands effective word choices constructed into powerful sentences. It’s a distillation of a book’s essence, an enticing whiff that makes the reader want more.

A book description may be field-tested by running different versions past critique partners, blog readers, or even friends and family. Along with the question “Would any of these make you want to read the book?”

Turning the topic over again, when I take the time to read a book description carefully, giving it my full attention, I’m not always inclined to think “So what?” Hmm, how would Miranda’s cat help her save the world? What sort of person is Devon Hope, and what is the crucial artifact he has to find?

Dang! Neither of those books exists; they’re just examples I made up.

How do you read book descriptions? Do you ever get the “So what?” feeling? Do you have any tips for writing an effective blurb?

Featured image by S K from Pixabay.

91 comments

  1. I find that reading lots of book descriptions, one after another and (particularly when you are tired), is a recipe for thinking “so what?”. One description soon merges with another and its a good idea to take a break or just go to bed. I agree with you about how we are all bombarded with information. Again turning off those notifications from Twitter and other social media is a great idea! Best wishes, Kevin

    Liked by 3 people

  2. You raise some good points here, Audrey. ‘So what?’ generally sums up my reaction to blurb for online material. Like jenanita, I also recognise I’m poor at writing blurb myself, and often want to say: just read the novel! Never could sell myself. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Most writers aren’t good at selling. That’s the job of agents and publishers. Or was. Now they aren’t buying much either. At least we can change our blurbs and descriptions easily now, if we think of a fresh angle.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I feel like they sound similar to each other. Especially those in the crime genre….’Detective Blah uncovers the truth after chilling murder of Meh, a crime committed over 40 years ago in the small town of Moo’ I’m generalising obviously and the books are usually really good but the blurb often isn’t a seller.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Good point Audrey:
      Rather than ‘so what’ my response is ‘like I cared’
      My current pet hate is the blurb about the murder mystery book. Or is it the lack of imagination by authors?
      “Dective Freggish Spoondiddle tortured over the death of their daughter, who two years they accidentally shot in a drug bust and getting over the messy divorce returns to their hometown to find a serial killer is slaying girls the same way he accidentally shot his daughter. Is this some coincidence or is someone seeking revenge for the first arrest they made as a rookie cop”
      Are there hundreds of authors writing the same plot? Or just the same blurb?

      Liked by 2 people

        1. And a father they cannot connect with anymore? 🀭.
          I mean are these the folk we want investigating crimes, you got to call into question their judgement?
          Suppose they picked me up as a suspect and I happen to remind them of their father who they now subconsciously blame for the mess in their life….What are my chances?

          Liked by 2 people

              1. I’m chuffed that readers of this post have had some nice back and forth discussion before I got around to reading and replying to your comments. Sort of like being late to one’s own party and finding it going along nicely.

                Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, there are hundreds (thousands) of authors writing mysteries, romance, fantasy, etc. And it’s inevitable that the same devices show up. Multiply that by 100 and run them by your tired brain in rapid succession and “Like I cared” becomes the logical response. I guess that’s why some readers stick to a limited number of authors, as long as they keep cranking out semi-palatable stuff.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Taking your last sentence…Very true. In recent years with the waves of very disappointing trends in politics and the attendant anger and unhappiness my audio library is beginning to display more than a few happy-ending romances. Apparently this is Chick-Lit….so sue me!

          Liked by 1 person

    2. Exactly….only…..
      If that was the Blurb I would buy the book! (The contents certainly sound more interesting than the usual fare being churned out these days)
      While we’re on the subject …..What happended to detectives without serious personal problems?

      Liked by 1 person

          1. I haven’t read too many of the Poirot books, but I don’t seem to remember that he had heavy personal problems. And P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh did have a dead wife and child, but his only problem was a melancholy that he dealt with by writing poetry. And then there’s Sherlock Holmes. OK, the cocaine habit, but it didn’t seem to slow him down.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Dalgliesh was someone of a pioneer character wasn’t he? Someone who the reader could sympathise with. The tragedy was part of his life and not laid on with the proverbial trowel.
              Holmes was of course Holmes. If you have a character who announces he is indifferent as to whether The Earth goes around the Sun or the Sun goes around The Earth, then I guess you will also find he can take or leave cocaine, apparently he only used it when he was ‘bored’- Watson used to lecture him about it.

              Liked by 2 people

        1. You’re right! Kurt Wallander comes to mind. Funny thing is, the crime elements of those books have sort of faded from my memory; what remains is his struggles with laundry, his terrible diet, and his attempts to reconnect with his daughter.

          Liked by 2 people

    3. I’m thinking crime fiction is sort of like romance, in that the basic elements are the same. And with so many people writing and publishing now, there’s a flood of similar “products.” Too many choices with too little to distinguish between them is paralyzing.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. If the title or cover doesn’t grab me, then I never get to the blurb. There, I admit it, I do judge a book by its cover.

    I get the “so what” feeling when it’s a book from a popular market, say, YA fantasy. On the other hand, when the blurb sounds bizarre or somehow different, I’m more likely to read the book. Two blurbs that caught my attention recently are from The Elementals by McDowell and The Black Dog Eats the City by Kelso.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Bizarre is attention-getting, for sure. The trick is to deliver the weirdo elements that attract the reader without alienating them. The way it should work is the cover makes the reader notice the book and read the description, which intrigues them enough to read a few pages, which gets them to the “Yes!” moment. Making those three jumps is tricky, though. Especially the last one.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I definitely get a so-what? feeling after reading a lot of book blurbs. I wonder if the character-with-a-past/conflict/question(s) trope may be getting a little stale. On the other hand, is this structure what readers of particular genres have come to expect? When I stop to think about what book blurbs have prompted me to buy a book, it’s usually a combination of a character I’d like to know more about and a plot related to a subject area I’m interested in. As for my writing of blurbs, I am not good at it at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In a way it’s like meeting new people at a party or other event. The things that elicit a positive, negative, or indifferent response are probably so subtle we don’t even identify them. It could be something like a character’s name or a word used to describe them that does the trick.

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  6. If we were still able to go to writing groups it would be a fun exercise to write a blurb that would be sure to put people off – that would probably be easier than writing a good blurb. Brain overload is no doubt part of the problem. If we were really in lock down with no radio, TV or books, the first blurb we read o release would fill us with excitement.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sort of like when you’re dying of thirst, murky water will do. It would be an interesting exercise to deliberately write an off-putting blurb. I wonder if it would yield any insights into doing it right. Might be a future blog post there!

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  7. Here’s my best advice for writing book description: write down how you’d describe the book to your best friend. Use the most informal language possible to summarize it. What always tripped me up in writing these things was that I’d try to write in a pseudo-ad copy tone, and it was incredibly grating and hard to do. Much easier to describe the book as you would in casual conversation, and then refine it until it’s formal enough to serve as an actual description.

    Whether this actually makes for a *good* description, or one that solves the “So What” problem, I don’t know; but it definitely made the process easier for me.

    Also, too bad the book about Miranda and her cat doesn’t exist; I’d totally read that. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 4 people

    1. That’s a good point, Berthold. If it sounds like insincere ad copy, it will probably be off-putting. I’ll keep that in mind next time I have to write one of these. Who knows–maybe for the Miranda and cat story!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I think I get the “so what” reaction to reading book blurbs frequently also. The quick hit summary just isn’t a thing that works for me. Which is why I struggle with writing blurbs for my own books. I think what I try to do with my blurbs is to provide enough of an idea of the story that the potential reader will be able to say yay or nay.

    What really bothers me is when the blurb overstates or somehow misses on what the story actually is.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Overstating, definitely. Descriptions like “stunning” and “heart-stopping” come to mind. I think those turn up in blurbs written by someone other than the author of the book, though. I see lots of reviewers disappointed when books don’t live up to the hype.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Another thought provoking topic. Failure to Blurb. Thanks Audrey.

    Blurbs. Yeah. And then there’s these even more insidious #PitMads. Pubs and Lit. Agents suck, they really do. “Here’s a treat Fido, if you’re dance around on your hind legs and bark like Pavarotti.”

    I think I’ll write my next blurb in Klingon, even though the story will be about a magic realm where only young children have power and lose it by age five. (Kidding.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey–publishers and agents are the ones writers “submit” to, aren’t they. “Here’s my submission.” Sounds like S&M. That’s why there are so many self-pubbed authors. But it still boils down to enticing someone. At least readers’ rejections are of the silent variety.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I hate spoilers, so I hate blurbs that include a synopsis of the story. I prefer to skip to the sample chapter to see if I want to read more. And even then, I’ll usually read a library book of an unfamiliar author, so that making a bad choice costs me nothing. All in all, blurbs don’t matter to me as a reader. As a writer, I shoot for a clever tag line, a brief statement of the story’s premise, and then a general statement of the type of stories I write. Does it work? Who knows? At least I can’t be accused of overselling my stories…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Adjusting expectations and defining what constitutes “success” are crucial for us indie authors. Libraries are wonderful for testing new authors, and some actually stock self-published books by locals. I want to have some idea about a book’s genre before I look inside it, though.

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  11. In my editing work, I find all too often that newer authors write blurbs in passive voice instead of active (“It was a scorching summer day when Lulu…” vs. “Scorching summer heat beat down on Lulu as she…”OR “Lulu ACTION in spite of the scorching summer heat that beat down on her”). It can make a big difference in effectiveness!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. In a brief description, especially one that allows only a fixed number of characters, every word must count. It is a good exercise that forces one to get from passive to active, eliminate modifiers, etc. Thanks for your comment, Becky!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I have to confess I don’t spend much time on my blurbs. I have a tendency to end them with a question or some kind of cliff-hanger. Both of these were true in the blurb for Part 7 of The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars: “Will Ian’s self-sacrifice come in time, or will the ship run out of oxygen before the Dauntless can come to its rescue?
    Meanwhile, it seems Earthers are not the only interstellar travelers voyaging in the vicinity …”
    The blurb is usually the last thing I write right before I publish. If you publish on Smashwords, they require a short version and I’ve found being forced to cut down the longer version helps to hone it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I’ve seen descriptions on Smashwords where the person who wrote them didn’t know or care that they were cut off in mid-sentence. I think it’s good to have a really brief description as well as one or even two longer ones that can be used in different situations. The cliff-hanger question is a good trick, especially when the answer isn’t obvious to the reader. And the mention of “Ian’s self-sacrifice” certainly would strike a chord with any reader of the earlier books. I do see some of those types of questions (Can Miranda and her cat save the world?) where the answer is obvious. Of course they can! So the real question is How do they do it?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I wouldn’t have thought Smashwords would allow a short description to cut off in mid-sentence. Apparently some of the associated EPUB publishers require a shorter blurb.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I just looked through about 10 screens of the most recently published books on Smashwords (using the Classic interface) and saw only one whose description appeared to have been cut off in the middle of a word. So maybe it doesn’t happen as often as it used to.

          Liked by 1 person

  13. You raise a good point about information overload that trickles into everything we read, Audrey. If we’re just talking about books, there are simply so many that my eyes glaze over the book blurbs and reviews. I see them in the many blogs I follow, and on FB & Twitter seven days a week and maybe that’s part of the problem for me. If I just took one hour a week to really pay attention, maybe I’d feel more engaged as well. Something to ponder…

    Liked by 1 person

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