After seeing your book cover or hearing your acim title, the first thing readers do is pick up the book and flip it over to read the back cover, or if they are online, they will look for the product description, also called a summary or synopsis (not to be confused with a chapter by chapter summary a writer would submit to a potential literary agent or publisher). We’ll refer to it as a “summary” here because it needs to be a description of your book that is relatively short. About 250 words or less.
The problem with too many books is that they don’t have proper summaries on the back. Many authors make the mistake of putting solely their biographies on their back covers. For example, I have seen crime novels where the back cover tells us how the author was a lawyer, a criminal prosecutor, etc. That might mean the author has some qualifications for writing about crime, but it doesn’t tell me what the book is about. I’ve seen other books by authors writing about marginal history and while their photos on the back might make it clear they are Native American or African American followed by their biographies, it doesn’t tell me why I would want to read their books.
Believe it or not, I’ve even seen books with blank back covers or listed at Amazon with no product description. The other day, I actually saw a copy of the bestselling book, “The Chosen” by Chaim Potok. I’ve never read it, but it’s a book I’ve heard mentioned many times although I couldn’t remember what it was about. I picked it up only to find the back cover and several inside front cover pages loaded with praise blurbs, but none told me what the book was about. It’s probably a great book, but I didn’t buy that copy-even a bestseller needs a summary. I bet a summary on earlier editions helped to make it a bestseller.
Let’s take the two examples above of crime and history novels and help these authors out by giving examples of what would be good summaries for them. We’ll call the crime novel, “He Had It Coming” and the marginal history book, “African on the Rez.” Both titles hopefully invoke a little curiosity that would encourage readers to pick up the books and read the back covers.
A few key words to keep in mind while writing your summary are to make sure it has:
- Relevancy: Why should readers care? What makes the book relevant to a reader’s life, concerns, wants, needs, interests?
- Credibility: Is the book believable? Even fantasy and science fiction needs to be plausible by setting up rules for their fantasy worlds. For crime novels, the facts of an investigation and the protocol of court trials need to be accurate. History books rely upon facts.
- Uniqueness: How is your crime novel special or different? What makes it more intriguing than the other one million crime novels? What about your history book makes it stand out? Has this story been forgotten, ignored, repressed? How does knowing this lost history change our perspective of people today as well as in the past?
- A Hook: The Hook is really the theme of the summary. The points above combine to create it. The Hook creates interest to make the reader want to read the book.
First, let’s give a couple of examples for our two books, “He Had It Coming” and “African on the Rez” of what not to write for summaries-these are summaries without hooks.
He Had It Coming
A battered wife is on trial when her husband is found murdered on their front lawn.
African on the Rez
Many escaped and former slaves, not welcomed into white society, found acceptance in Native American Tribes.
Don’t laugh. I’ve seen way too many summaries like these-short and telling us next to nothing. These types of summaries don’t move the dial on the “who-gives-a-crap” meter. Haven’t we heard enough stories about women who kill their abusive husbands? Do we really want to read one more? As for the history book, I admit it’s a bit more interesting, but still, why do I care? What does this have to do with me? I’m not descended from slaves and I’m not Native American.
Let’s apply our criteria now to show how we can create a summary for each book that does have a Hook.
He Had It Coming – Creating the Hook
- Relevance: Statistics of battered women; it’s based on a true story
- Credibility: Realistic portrayal of the defense of a woman on trial for her husband’s murder, including the ins and outs of courtroom protocol. Based on a true story of a murder and written by the lawyer who defended the murder suspect. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.
- Uniqueness: The novel is set in a remote and quirky backcountry town. The murder weapon was unique. Surprising evidence came out at the trial.
You may not use everything you list here, but it doesn’t hurt to think of everything that might hook the reader.
New Summary of “He Had It Coming”
When John Rochon was found dead Sunday morning on his front lawn, his neighbors were not surprised-only they had always somehow suspected his timid wife Beth would die first. For years, the police had come to settle John and Beth’s domestic disputes after neighbors got tired of hearing their arguments followed by Beth’s screams of terror. Yet Beth had always refused to press charges. “He had it coming,” was the general consent among the neighbors over John’s death, but what the police couldn’t figure out was how Beth could have done it when she had gone to the next state to visit her dying mother. The investigation isn’t made any easier since the neighbors are keeping their mouths shut about whether they saw or heard anything that night.