Slow Words: Some Thoughts About Self-Blurbing and Self-Promotion

Over on John Scalzi's Whatever blog, this week features his annual Holiday Shopping Guide, where he lets people post promotional comments and suggestions for holiday gifts.  Tuesday's category, 12/3/13, was for Non-Traditionally Published books.

Reading over the comments posted there by writers trying to promote their books, one thing is certain:  Writing blurbs is hard work.

From nearly 300 suggestions, I came up with a list of slightly over a dozen books that I'll probably take to Amazon and use its Look Inside! feature to get a closer look at before I decide to take a chance or not on actually buying any.

(With some traditional publishers and/or established authors, their previous track record can probably give a measure of reassurance that a book will be competently written and edited.  With so many writers in the self-publishing explosion of the past few years having only been self-published, doing a double-check to make sure they can write and spell on a non-embarrassing level is probably a good idea.  If you've been reading my occasional "The Brave Free Books" review posts, you know that some of the self-published books out there can get pretty, umm, non-rewarding to read.)

So only about 1 in 20 of the promos on Whatever caught my interest enough to want to check them out a bit more.  Not a great success rate, and I suspect I'm probably more generous than most in making such a follow-up list.  Why did one blurb work in catching my interest, and another nineteen didn't?

I'm an old, grumpy guy who's been reading SF and Fantasy for over fifty years.  So I'm kinda familiar with the standard plots and characters and tropes that have been used over and over in the field for generations.  What I try to look for these days, what I still hope for, is those works where the writer still manages to make a story seem fresh and different from the same old same old that constitutes the majority of books and stories published.

Sometimes that happens because a writer manages to present an especially vivid character or setting.  Sometimes it's because a plot takes unexpected twists and turns.  Sometimes it's because of a writer's particular "voice" or style in the sentence by sentence presentation.  Sometimes it's because of an injection of sheer what-the-fuckery and I just want to see if the writer can actually pull it off.

(Think of an average novel as a high-dive into a swimming pool.  Think of a better-than-average novel as a high-dive with a triple somersault on the way down.  Think of a novel with that WTFery I mentioned as a high-dive with a triple somersault while the diver also  sets themselves on fire and play "In-A-Gadda-La-Vida" on an accordion on the way down.  That last diver might crash spectacularly, but damn, I want to watch them try.)

So when I read a book blurb, I don't want to just be told what genre it is, I don't want just a general outline of the plot or a quick description of the main character, I don't just want to know what the book is like.   I want to know how a book is going to be different, I want to know how it's going to surprise me, how it's going to be something new for me.

Those nineteen-out-of-twenty failed blurbs?  When you come right down to it, they failed because they didn't communicate that difference or freshness I look for.  They failed because they bored me.

So how do you write a blurb that isn't boring?  Hey, I said it was hard, didn't I?

(One specific suggestion though:  Don't compare your book to other writer's books.  If you tell me your book is "like" someone else's, I'm probably going to think you're still searching for a voice and style of your own.  And if you tell me your book is like Fifty Shades of Grey... well, thanks for the warning.)

One of the other common suggestions found on self-promotion articles and blog posts is that you not only need to promote the actual book, but also promote yourself as an interesting person and writer.  Most of the self-blurbs made to the Whatever post failed to do this.  The best self-blurb there, though, the one that most caught my interest, did it very well indeed.  B. Thorn's post there said:

My e-novel “A Stringed Instrument” is up on Smashwords ($4.99, first 25% available as a free sample). It’s a modern-day romance story about two Australian women who fall into bed first and in love afterwards. 
You should buy it if you’re interested in the tensions of a closeted relationship and the contradictions of falling in love with somebody outside your orientation. Or if you want a story that combines affectionate erotica with plot and a little bit of humour. Or if you want my recipe for chicken soup. 
But the #1 reason you should buy it is that somebody told my very respectable aunt about it, and she bought it, and her first words to me were “So THAT’S what lesbians do in bed. I always wondered.” If enough of you buy it, that will help me live with the knowledge that somewhere out there my aunt is reading this and learning far too much about my personal life.  
P.S. Having lunch with my aunt on December 29. No pressure.

It tells enough, but not too much, about the plot.  And then it adds that little bit of WTF with the mention of "my recipe for chicken soup."  And then B. Thorn tells the anecdote about her aunt.  That not only establishes a bit of connection to B. Thorn's personal life, but it's so charmingly and amusingly told that it lets me know B. Thorn can  a) tell a good story, and b) that she has a "voice" of her own.  Contemporary romance is not a genre I usually read, but this particular post piqued my interest enough that I'll definitely check into the book a bit more.

(I've decided to use "Slow Words" as an uber-label for posts about writing and self-publishing for a while.  As always, I reserve the right to be inconsistent and changeable.)

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