By Irene Watson
After seeing your book cover or hearing your book 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.
Did someone else break into the house and shoot John Rochon with his own rifle? And who but his wife would have wanted him dead? Although the town drunk claims he saw Beth drive through town just minutes before the murder, her mother claims to be her alibi. When all clues still seem to lead to Beth as the primary suspect, New York lawyer, Mark Radcliffe, recently retired to the sleepy town of Bear Dunes, decides to take one last case and defend Beth, but can even a big city lawyer create a reasonable defense in what seems like a highly calculated case of revenge? With thousands of women battered by their husbands every year, and dozens who retaliate, what jury member wouldn't think Beth guilty?
The Hook here is the difficulty of pinning the murder on Beth because she was out of town, yet the twist is that she was seen in town, although by an unreliable witness. Throw in a big city lawyer in a small town for unusual dynamics to get the reader interested. The setting builds atmosphere because it's a sleepy little town where apparently everyone knows everyone else's business-all the neighbors know John has been abusing Beth-but that the neighbors are keeping quiet leaves open the possibility that many people know things they may not be telling.
"African on the Rez" - Creating the Hook
- Relevance: New discussions into race and DNA research reflect the question of whether race truly exists. Today we pride ourselves on diversity and multi-culturalism, but diversity, tolerance, and acceptance of others has been part of American history in surprising ways since its early years.
- Credibility: Author Jane Hartwell is a professor of African American Studies at the University of Alabama. She is part-Lakota Sioux, part African-American, and part Caucasian. She spent many hours researching African slave history and visiting the reservations discussed in this book.
- Uniqueness: A story that hasn't been told before about American history. Relies upon many primary and previously unpublished sources.
New Summary of "African on the Rez"
In the decades following slavery's abolition, African Americans were still outsiders in a white man's world. As minority members of society, many found acceptance among other marginal cultures, including Native Americans. Dr. Jane Hartwell, professor of African Studies at the University of Alabama, first became interested in the relationships of African and Native Americans from stories she heard growing up on a reservation in South Dakota where her African great-grandfather had married into the tribe. As she explored her family history, she discovered other stories of Africans who were adopted by Native American tribes. These stories-of African-American acceptance by marginal cultures in an America of prejudice and bigotry-speak to the human spirit and have long deserved to be told.
Hear the stories of such fascinating people as Jonas Brown, who after fighting for the Union in the Civil War, went West to find a home after the nation he fought for would not accept him as anything more than a servant. Adopted as a member of the Lakota Sioux tribe, Joseph rose to become a tribe elder. Brown's experience is just one of several stories told in "African on the Rez" as Hartmann explores how many Africans allied themselves with Native Americans in their quest for survival and acceptance in an otherwise white man's world. Raising questions about race and what it means to be an American, "African on the Rez" recaptures a missing and integral piece of the fascinating puzzle that is American history.
The Hook here includes that this story hasn't been told before. It mentions one specific person's story. It is relevant to issues of race today and sheds new light upon them. The author is also clearly an authority with first-hand knowledge of the subject.
Be sure to write several versions of your summary and try different hooks. Look at similar books to yours and decide which summaries work. Look at books you own and try to recall what made you buy them-did the summary on the back cover help you make the decision?
In the end, selling books boils down to one thing: People won't bite (buy your book) unless there's a Hook to reel them in.
Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.