The era of the synopsis is over. If you think it is hard to boil your masterpiece down into 250 words, sit down. I’ve got some bad news. Unless you are one of the few remaining old guard still submitting works to traditional publishers, no one cares to see your 1-2 page synopsis.
The critical marketing weapon in the modern indie’s arsenal is the product description. And while some product descriptions ramble worse than my blog posts, it’s my firm opinion that 250 words is pushing the limit. While virtual shelf space on sites like Amazon’s Kindle Store is limitless, readers’ attention spans are much more finite than their options.
And let’s not forget the almighty SEO and much needed keywords that will make your metadata pop and crackle like your witty narrative. The same rules apply to your product description as to your product. Trim the fat and what you have left will pop off the page (for both humans and algorithm-driven killbots).
The All-Purpose Product Description
After going through the process over a dozen times, I’ve found a process that works for me and includes promotional copy I can cut and paste for my every marketing need. I call it my promo pack, and it includes the following:
- Tagline: Ten words or less
- Pitch/Blurb: Thirty words or less (I try to land around twenty-five.)
- Product Description (short): fifty words or less
- Product Description (long): around 150 words
- Quotes: two or three quotes from beta readers
Once I have finalized this promo pack I know I will have great promotional material ready to cut and paste for any given need that may arise. And I won’t have to worry about selling myself short with rushed or second rate blurbs. But, in order to get the promo pack up to snuff by the time I need it, I’ve learned I have to start working on it around the time I finish the second draft of my story.
How to Boil it Down
In the early going, my promo pack (PP) is a tool to ensure I’ve adequately defined the premise of my story. If my protagonists singular goal/motivation isn’t clear enough or relatable enough, I’ll struggle with formulating a sharp PP. This tells me I need to go back and work more on the story. If the PP starts to quickly come into focus, I work on it for a few hours and then let it sit while I go back for a couple more rewrites.
This process will help me emphasize key plot points within the story as I edit. Plus, after all that editing, I’ll have an even better idea of what critical plot points will best sell the reader. Before I send the manuscript to beta readers, I rework the PP again. This time I hope to land on a few grenades (volatile bits of genius I know I will keep for the end product).
Based on early reader feedback, I spend one more afternoon polishing up the PP to ensure it hits the right chords. Now I can also include beta reader quotes to give it a final zing.
The Nitty Gritty: Taglines
Now let’s put it into practice. Since I’m currently working on finishing up a promo pack for my young adult, dystopian serial The Green Ones, I’ll use that in these examples.
Taglines are the hardest for me. Ten frickin words. For real. Often I don’t land on one I like until late in the process, but you’ve gotta start somewhere. For The Green Ones, I started with a slogan of the main protagonist. Stay Alive. Stay together. Stay Family. It sucked, but I let it be while I struggled with the rest.
As I fiddled with a couple different pitches, I landed on a short sentence. It wasn’t until nearly a month later that I realized the sentence would make a much better tagline than the one I was using.
By sixteen, everyone must choose.
It isn’t as good as In space, no one can hear you scream. (Alien) But it’s pretty damn good for a couple reasons: 1.) It indicates the book is young adult and dystopian. 2.) it begs the reader to start asking questions already. Why must everyone choose? What must everyone choose? To top it all off, this choice really is central to the story.
When testing my taglines for quality and punch I refer to the media of film. Movies have been relying on taglines much longer than books, and they do a pretty damn fine job (in general). If you can’t envision using your tagline on a movie poster or on a t-shirt, then it needs improvement.
The Nitty Gritty: Pitches
Now we’ve got 25-30 words to work with. The pitch/blurb is more for those moments when someone asks you, “What’s the book about?” This one is still hard. There isn’t really room for plot, but there is room for a bit of setting. I haven’t nailed this one down yet for The Green Ones, but here’s what I’m working with:
For the telekinetic youth of New Teotihuacan’s Worker City there are two choices: an enslaved life or a free death. By sixteen, everyone must choose.
Things I like: It’s exactly 25 words. It references telekinetic youth, the Aztec underpinnings, and the dystopian setting. It also mentions a life or death choice. I hope it pricks readers’ curiosity about the story world.
Things I don’t like: I’m not convinced it will prick readers’ curiosity. There are no power words. The only verbs are, “are” and “choose.”
So, what is the story about? It’s about telekinetic teenagers in a dystopian alternate universe who are faced with a tough decision to either live life as slaves or to accept an early death brought on by the deadly retrovirus that enables their telekinesis. In this sense, my current pitch gets the job done. But maybe I’ll come up with a better one before it’s all said and done.
The Nitty Gritty: Product Descriptions
Here is where you can begin to explore the main plot (resist the urge to include subplots, please!). This is where I will often begin the process, because it gives me the most space to experiment and make notes. Keep in mind two critical things at the single word level: metadata keywords and power words.
Metadata keywords: This includes stuff like: page-turner, thriller, beach-read, paranormal, heroine etc. What keywords will readers use to try to find your book? What niche audiences do you want to make sure you reach?
I haven’t started this process for The Green Ones yet, but I know I want to include words like: telekinesis, paranormal, dystopian, heroine, adventure, page-turner, and Hunger Games. One great way to ensure these keywords are included in your product description is to make sure they show up in your quotes. Don’t be afraid to approach/coach your beta readers. Sometimes I simply ask someone if they are comfortable with me adding some stuff into their quote. If they feel it represents their thoughts about the book, everyone’s happy.
Power words: These are exactly what they sound like. Words such as, destroy, punish, cherish, compelling, secret, unleashed, wanton, etc. The more of these is typically the better (as long as they aren’t simply tacked on). In a fifty word description I like to use at least 3-5 of them.
Here is what I have for The Green Ones so far:
On an earth rampant with telekinesis, Calli Bluehair lives within one isolated city-state among many. New Teotihuacan’s protective dome preserves not only its strict social classes, but also a terrible secret.
After her parents are disintegrated in a telekinetic storm unleashed accidentally by her own brother, Calli’s only hope of saving her and her brother’s lives is to join New Teo’s infamous teenage fighting force known as masazin. But to some, Masa Academy is an option worse than death.
Determined not to suffer a violent and purposeless death amongst the self-indulgent chadzitzin of New Teo’s underground, Calli finds herself the leader of a ragtag band. Each with separate motives and allegiances, the only thing the teens share in common is their soon-to-be-status as Masa Academy’s newest recruits into its most powerful dormitory–the green serpent.
Things I like: at 140 words it’s concise. It starts with the protagonist and the setting without letting go of the “terrible secret.” Assuming I open up my product page on Amazon with the tagline, this description should fall in line nicely. It is dystopian. It introduces the tension between the main character and her brother (who accidentally killed their parents). While the description comes largely from Calli’s perspective, it still includes the fact that Masa Academy may not be all it’s cracked up to be. It ends by creating an expectation that the book is not only about Calli, but about a “band” of teens who will eventually become known as “the green ones.” It includes power words such as: rampant, terrible, secret, disintegrated, storm, unleashed, infamous, force, violent and powerful.
Things I don’t like: The structure of the second sentence could be misleading. “The dome” is not preserving a “terrible secret.” (The regime running the dome is.) A couple of the sentences are too long. I haven’t worked in hardly any of my metadata keywords.
I might have to include a paragraph that starts something like, “Brown’s page-turning, dystopian adventure revolves around a heroine who picks up where The Hunger Game’s Katniss leaves off.” This type of thing can also be accomplished via quotes. Here are a couple for The Green Ones:
Fans of The Hunger Games have just found their newest obsession.
Stunningly atmospheric and emotional at the same time. It’s like reading in 3D.
Putting it All Together
Hopefully, by this point, all you will need is a quality story, good editing and a professional cover. But hey, that’s the easy part. With the help of your new promo pack, you’ll be able to catch the eye of book bloggers, potential readers, and possibly key individuals within the industry! The Industry!
Here’s to hoping.
If I left anything out, or you have suggestions for improving my promo pack for The Green Ones, let me know!