Readers buy or borrow your book based on your cover and book description, so how can we make sure the description is the best it can be? How can we make readers want to click Buy Now and start reading immediately?
Michaelbrent Collings provides useful tips — and tough love! — for authors who struggle with book descriptions (which includes me!)
In the intro, I talk about being back in Auckland and reflect on the passing of time.
This episode is sponsored by Publisher Rocket, which will help you get your book in front of more Amazon readers so you can spend less time marketing and more time writing. I use Publisher Rocket for researching book titles, categories, and keywords — for new books and for updating my backlist. Check it out at www.PublisherRocket.com
Michaelbrent Collings is an internationally best-selling novelist, and the only author to be a finalist for a Dragon Award, Bram Stoker Award, and RONE Award. A Ranker survey recently named Michaelbrent one of the top 100 Greatest All-Time Horror Writers, but he’s written bestsellers in a dozen different genres. His latest book, Malignant, debuted on Amazon’s bestseller lists all over the world.
Michaelbrent is also a screenwriter — and helps authors with their book descriptions over on Fiverr Pro/mbcollings.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- Why is an effective book description so important?
- What authors get wrong with book descriptions
- Thinking about your book like a movie — what are the high points of the trailer?
- Tips for writing a great hook
- How a good book description can help with advertising
Transcript of Interview with Michaelbrent Collings
Joanna: Welcome back to the show, Michaelbrent.
Michaelbrent: Hello, I’m so happy to be here.
Joanna: It’s great to have you back on the show. And you have been on the show a number of times.
Joanna: So we’re not going to go into your backstory, we’re going to get straight into the topic today, which is all about book descriptions. And this is a very interesting topic. You have a ton of books, I have quite a lot of books, and I still feel this is an issue.
Why is an effective book description so important, and why are they so difficult?
Michaelbrent: Oh, my gosh, okay. Well, I think, first of all, the reason they’re super important. There’s the obvious; it’s one of the first things people see. So like, your cover, as much as authors hate to admit it, because we’re like, ‘My book should sell this book.’
People are shallow. If I go on to an Amazon book page, and the cover looks like it was done by like a five-year-old using Windows Paint on a Commodore 64, or some godawful combination like that, people are just going to be turned off, because they know you’re not operating at a level of professionality.
I compare book purchases to dating. But it’s almost worse because with a date, you’re committing to a couple of hours with a person and it goes badly, and you never have to see or think of them again. With a book, you’re committing to potentially a lifetime with that thing because if it’s good, it’s going to live in you forever.
And if it’s bad enough, you will always remember. I can tell you exactly the one book I hurled across the room because I was so upset. And that happened when I was 16, so, these things stay with you. And so the cover is a big deal.
Then the next big deal, assuming you’ve gotten them to your book page because most people buy books electronically, we just have to face that, is the book description. The difference there is you’re like, now I’m starting my job because most authors, the book cover is going to be outsourced, which is a wise thing to do.
For most authors, you get to that book description, and it’s like, here’s me, I’m appearing for the first time.
And so it’s super important because if you’re reading a book description, and it’s terrible, well, you already know the author is not a wordsmith. Because they have failed to accomplish their primary objectives in this first couple of paragraphs. Or even the first couple sentences.
I have a couple of book descriptions that are five or six sentences short. And if you can’t do that, why am I going to let you into my brain for 100,000 words?
Joanna: It just seems so unfair. It’s unfair that we have to sell ourselves, our book, not ourselves, we don’t attach ourselves to the book, obviously.
Michaelbrent: It’s not that kind of book.
Joanna: It’s so unfair that we have to write a whole thing. And then we have to come up with a pithy, whatever, book description that is the thing that represents us.
It feels so hard to me because I have written a book and it’s all this massive thing in my head, and it’s full of cool characters and great plot, loads of great writing, obviously. And now I have to boil it down to a catchy description.
So, what is a terrible book description? You pitched me with this idea, because you said you’d seen a lot of them.
What do people get wrong? What is a terrible description?
Michaelbrent: Honestly, most of them.
If you open Amazon up to a random author, you don’t know. If it’s Stephen King, and you’re buying Stephen King, you don’t really even read the book description, you’ve already decided it. So I’m not talking about your favorite author.
Go to some rando, and read the description and you’re just like, ‘Oh, this kind of sucks,’ because most of them do. And the problem is, well, first of all, most authors hate the book description, they’re like you, ‘This is unfair, I already did all this work. And now I have to do another thing.’ But that’s life.
Unlike this date analogy, if I go on a date, and we’ve all had that thing where I don’t date anymore, except for my wife, I date her regularly. But you have this thing where you’re putting on the perfect tie, or the perfect dress, and you spend 45 minutes, and I would always get there. But ultimately, in the back of my mind, I’m like, ‘But I still look like me. So there’s that chance gone.’
That’s okay though, you’re ultimately on the date. It’s you. And that’s what the book description really is. Don’t think of it as now I have to try on a million dresses. It’s now I get to show them upfront you can have confidence in me.
And you can do that. If you are a good enough author to write all of these words that make sense and keep all the plots together, have a little confidence. You can do a good book description.
The biggest mistake that most authors make is exactly something you said; I have it full of all these cool characters and cool ideas. And you have these fun complicated plots, and you want to put it all down.
Joanna: I really do.
Michaelbrent: You’re like I spent so much time, people should know —
The only job of a cover and description is to create a question. Take notes, people: create a question that can only be answered by reading the book.
A great cover description creates a question that the reader has to have answered, and can only get an answer by reading the book. So most authors want to put everything and the reality is the best cover descriptions for a new author for someone you’re unfamiliar with, tells you very little.
It will give you a sense of the genre, you want them to know that, and then it will give them a basic setup, and then it will leave them with some questions in their head. You don’t have to actually ask questions, although I do in a lot of my book descriptions, I find it effective. But you want them to go, ‘Wait, then what happens?’ And, of course, they have to read it.
Joanna: I completely agree with you, and then it’s really hard to actually put into action. So we’re going to try and talk about the actual process of doing it because, we’re going to take it from two angles.
The first angle is the person like me, who is a discovery writer, doesn’t really know what they’re writing. Knows it’s a thriller, for example, knows the genre, writes the book, and then has to come up with the book description. Or someone who already has a book, and they have a book description, and they want to rewrite it or write it from scratch.
If we are someone who already has the book and has to now write this description, how do we go about it? Do we just write everything down we possibly can and then narrow it down? How do we go about it if we have the book already?
Michaelbrent: That’s a super good question. I’m going to back it up even a step before that and encourage people.
You can be a discovery writer and still have a great hook in mind.
So I’m going to use one of my books that’s really easy is ‘Strangers.’
I didn’t know where it was going to lead or how it was going to end or anything when I started writing it. But I knew the hook, which is a family wakes up in their own home, discovers that all the doors have been jammed closed from the outside. And all the windows are covered with sheet metal, and there’s a killer inside with them who wants some alone time.
I still got to discover everything. But I started from a point where I was like, ‘Okay, that would make a cool movie poster.’ And that’s where I encourage people to start with when they’re beginning, think, ‘Is this a cool movie poster?’
Movie posters encapsulate all of the basic elements of a good cover description for me. They have a central image that tells you like, ‘Oh, it’s a slasher, or oh, this is a romance.’
It gives you that sense, here’s what I’m getting into, and then it shows you enough cool imagery that you see a few money shots. You know Kylo Ren is going to fight with Rey because they’re standing next to each other with their lightsabers crossed.
So you can discovery write, but it’s not mutually exclusive from saying when you start, think to yourself, is there a hook here? Because audiences really like hooks, it excites them.
One of the easiest sells in a movie was ‘Underworld,’ which was a vampire movie 20 years ago, and I was working in Hollywood at the time. And it was like Romeo and Juliet with vampires and werewolves and everyone went, ‘Oh,’ immediately, obviously, that’s going to make a million dollars. And now there’s been five movies in that series.
So you want to hopefully start and if you can’t figure out that hook, maybe rethink your project, maybe think, ‘Okay, is there something else I could do?’ Because it’s just the reality, if you want to be selling books, you have to do things that sell books.
Joanna: You’ve jumped into my alternate thing, which is coming up with the hook early. So let’s stay on that then and we’ll come back to the other one.
Because I feel like you’re completely right, I would love to come up with a hook before I write something. And I feel like that answers the question of what to do with the book description. But the fact is that most of us can’t come up with hooks beforehand.
What are some of your tips for coming up with those hooks?
Michaelbrent: First of all, don’t fight it. So many writers and artists, in general, feel like, my universe should be boundless. My universe should be without rules, but no, your universe functions within rules. And if you want to be an artist and make things that are aesthetically pleasing to your muse, that’s cool.
I’m not knocking that but that’s very different from I want to be a published author and make enough money to put food on the table for me and my family. And in that case, you have to go in it from that mindset.
I don’t mind that. At first, I was like everybody else, why should I have to do that? But now I really enjoy it. It’s a process that I get a kick out of.
So, if you want to write something with a hook, basically, you want to be able to explain it in that sentence or two. I put like a 50 or 60 word limit on myself. And if I can’t explain it to my nine-year-old…or seven-year-old and have him get stoked about it, I’m going, ‘This probably isn’t great.’
And it’s not because I’m saying that the average market has a seven-year-old mental capacity. But kids are great litmus tests for cool. They see Disneyland and know it’s cool. They see school and immediately there is nothing here that I’m going to be excited about.
There are quirks and irregularities and exceptions, Disneyland has terrible lines, the school has recess and lunchtime, they discover, but they are good. They can tell, overall, I’m going to like this, overall, I’m not.
So I will pitch my kids, I’ll say, ‘Here’s some thoughts.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, that one’s great and that one’s not.’ So find a disinterested person who’s enthusiastic and say, ‘I’ve got 50 words.’ and look at them. And at the end, if they’re not going like, ‘Yeah, and?’ Then go back to the drawing board.
That’s hard because people come up with an idea and they’re really excited. And that’s the easiest part to write for every writer. It’s like, I came up with the beginning and I’m 20 pages in because that’s exciting and that’s fun, and then the work starts.
And here, Michaelbrent is saying only now throw away the fun part because you’re going to do work right at the beginning. But you have to do it if you’re going to write to your market, you’re thinking, ‘What do they like?’ And then you’re thinking, ‘How can I grab them quickly?’
So I try desperately not to go into a book unless I can have 60 words that explain the overarching concept, not the theme, because themes are subtle, and themes tease out over time, and not all the characters and not all their interactions. But the basic idea, strangers, a family is trapped in their own home with a serial killer, boom. And everyone’s like, ‘Okay, I know what that is.’
Joanna: So, in that situation, this hook needs to have some idea of the character, it doesn’t need to be their name, or whatever.
We need to have a person or an alien, whatever that character is, and then we need to have a setting, and then we need to have a situation.
Michaelbrent: Yes. And that’s it, Joanna, those are the things. And they should all three come together enough that you’re like, ‘That is going to be exciting.’ And the way you get there, people will sit there and go, ‘Hooks and hook writing is really difficult.’
It is and it isn’t. You can go into any part of writing, saying, ‘Well, this part’s really difficult.’ Or you can go into it and say, ‘But it’s writing and I love writing.’
So hooks are part of your writing. And that’s part of standing out from the market. There are at least 10 million books on Amazon now. So you want to stand out, you want to have that hook immediately.
It’s a process of asking questions. You want to ask, ‘What’s my situation? What’s my setting? What are the characters?’ And the way you can go about that is just say, start with the one that’s interesting.
I wrote a book called The Loon with the process.
Joanna: I read that one. It’s great!
Michaelbrent: Oh, good. Okay. So the process for that was really a matter of questions. I literally sat down and went, ‘What’s a scary place? A haunted house? No, I did one of those recently. Okay, what else? Prison. Oh, those are scary.’ And then I went, ‘What is scarier? A prison full of crazy people. What’s scarier than that? Mental health institution with the lights out. Oh, What’s scarier than that? What if there’s a monster in the basement that wants to eat everyone?’
Now I have a really fun setting that grew into a situation. And my last question becomes, ‘Who would that hurt the most? The staff. Who in particular in the staff? The guy in charge because he feels responsible. Why does he feel responsible? Oh, he actually lost a child, like through his own self-perceived negligence, his own son was killed.’
And that was literally what I did. It took about a day and a half. I was walking tight little circles in the middle of the living room. I’m not exaggerating, super inconvenient for my wife. She’s like, ‘Get out of the way I’m trying to watch TV,’ and I’m just mumbling to myself.
It boiled down to those questions. And it ends up in The Loon, which is the pitch. A maximum-security penitentiary for the criminally insane gets hit by a blizzard so severe all communications with the outside world is cut off. And the inmates are able to escape but cannot leave, which is a problem for the staff. But the bigger problem is the monster in the basement that wants to eat all of them.
And at this point, what have I told you about the main character? Nothing really. What have I told you about the monster? Nothing really. What about the details of the layout of The Loon, which is the facility itself, which is a cool facility, like I could tell you all the research and stuff I did about that, and it was super fun. But you don’t know anything about it. I haven’t told you the cool things.
So that’s the tough thing for any writer trying to design their cover description, you have to be able to say, ‘I’m not going to tell them all the cool things. If I did that, why would they read my book?’
So that you get to the end of the pitch and the person who’s reading the cover description of The Loon is like, ‘What kind of prison is that? Wait, what? A monster? Who’s in the basement? Tell me more.’
You’ve created those questions that must be answered. These are serious questions.
A really good analogy for cover descriptions is we’ve all had that co-worker who comes up to us and pulls out baby photos. And I love babies. But as important as babies are, your random baby has no place in my heart.
So as soon as they pull out the pictures, you’re like, ‘Oh, baby with no relationship to me, no importance in my life, no real impact. I’m going to sit here and try and look interested because all babies that aren’t mine kind of look alike.’
That’s how most people tell their cover descriptions. They intrude into your life and tell you a long series of facts that don’t matter to you.
If the same person walks up and grabs his wallet, and as he’s opening it, says, ‘So, little Timmy’s face caught fire yesterday.’ ‘What?’ And now he can open or she can open their wallet and they’re like, ‘Okay, we’re going to start, he was as an egg cell.
It doesn’t matter you’re totally in because you’re like, I know there’s value at the end of this story. There’s a kid with his face on fire, and that’s terrible but awesome. What’s the story here?
That’s your cover description. You don’t want to walk up and tell them all your baby facts about your baby that they don’t know and don’t care about yet. You want to give them something huge that slams into them, ‘Hey, Little Timmy’s face caught on fire.’
Joanna: So obviously, this is genre-specific. You write horror, which has plot and character and setting, it has the same as everything else. But I also feel like, with series descriptions, it’s also slightly different because you’re addressing new readers, but you’re also addressing readers who already know who your characters are.
What about series descriptions?
Joanna: So you always need to mention your character names or what they do, because they want to know those characters back and kind of doing their thing. Can we go back to this question?
I absolutely think your process is the best process. But the truth is a lot of us don’t do that.
Michaelbrent: We are already there.
Joanna: We’ve already got the book. What is the trick then to find the key place where things get excited and focus on that. But also, in action-adventure books like mine or a thriller, that’s what we’re searching for, and that might be part of a mystery.
How do we do it when we need to keep the coolest things hidden rather than emphasize them?
Michaelbrent: That’s a great question. And the answer is, look at a movie trailer.
In the movie trailers, they give you all the money shots.
You go to a movie and you realize that the movie trailer showed the climax. But you don’t know that in the movie trailer because you’re giving it without super amounts of context as to what’s happening.
You can do that in a book description. So, as far as like reintroducing new readers and keeping old readers, your main character in a thriller or in any series, they should be somebody who’s interesting and likable to everybody.
In the Stranger book, which is actually a series, the bad guy in that evolves and is over time actually becoming a good guy who’s hunting down bad guys. His name is Legion. And so you can say for your old readers, ‘Legion is back.’
They know they know who Legion is. And for the new readers, you can say, ‘A psychopath on the hunt for other psychopaths with his two dead brothers calling the shots.’ My old readers know exactly what I’m talking about now, and the new readers should be going, ‘Wait, what the what? He’s a killer hunting killers? That’s cool. And his two dead brothers are involved, so what’s…?’ And now you’ve noticed they’ve already got those questions.
So you can update the new readers very quickly. And if your character was cool enough to pitch in that first book, you can pitch them again every book. Because you’re going to do it so quickly and efficiently that your old readers aren’t going to have to spend a page on it. They’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m stoked. Oh, it’s still Legion.’
And then you get into the next question. You’re going to be showing big moments. Again, bear in mind, if every one of your big moments can fit into a 2 or 3 or 10 paragraph description, you already are in trouble because you don’t have enough cool moments for a 100,000-word book, or even a 50,000 or 30,000 word novella.
Cool moments don’t have to be explosions, or stabs, or anything like that, again, you think of the romantic melodrama trailers. ‘He’s standing in the rain, pleading, I love you, and you complete me.’ They’re all these moments that are enough to get the watcher invested.
And also go, ‘That’s so cool. Oh, I’m in love again’. But when you get to the movie, the movie isn’t about those big moments, it becomes about how they are threaded together, and the same as with any book.
So of course, if you’re writing about a romance, it’s going to be a different tack on the book cover. You’re not going to write, spend quite so much time on the action necessarily, as on the melodrama between the two.
I write Western romances under a pen name, Angelica Hart. ‘Grace Isabella is a woman on the run, haunted by her past, and the only man she loved still after her.’
I’m making that up kind of off the top of my head off of a very old memory. But you see we’ve been told there’s loving in this, Grace Isabella is on the run from the only man she loves and it’s created, again, these questions.
It’s told a really cool thing, which is, the guy that she married is still after her. And he’s trying to make her life miserable. He’s doing all these awful things. And then you say, ‘But Paul, a lonely ranch hand with secrets of his own.’ ‘What secret?’ says the reader at this point. You’re creating these compelling questions within the framework of your book.
So if you are done with your book, just look at it and go, ‘What are the awesomest parts of my book?’
Well, there’s a fight with Ninja robots on top of the Eiffel Tower. That’s cool. The Earth blows up, that’s an interesting moment. Oh, yeah, it turns out the main character is half a snake. And those are your three big huge moments.
Can you tell them in the book cover without revealing your story? Yeah, I mean, just right now, if I told you those three things, nobody listening to that, I bet you, aren’t going, ‘Oh, yeah, I see exactly how those three things tie together. I totally know this story.’
You’re like, ‘Wait, what? There’s robot ninja fighting and there’s a guy who’s a snake and…? Wait, wait, back up. Tell me more.’ And that’s where I’m like, ‘Ha-ha, I refuse, click Buy now. One click.’ And that’s your job.
You haven’t given away the awesomeness of your story. Because the genius of your story isn’t the cool moments, it’s the fact that you, the author, have come up with so very many cool moments, and then made them all make sense together.
Joanna: And that can also apply to literary fiction that don’t have massive plot details.
Joanna: Just to be clear, people!
Michaelbrent: Yes, anything, whatever it is, there’s a framework, and for your audience, they’re going to go, ‘This is the coolest moment. This is the second coolest moment. This is the third coolest moment.’
You’ve got 20 cool moments, you can pull three out of them, and mention them quickly. And you should still have enough left over that your audience is enraptured every page. Do you want to be the author who’s like, ‘I am great at coming up with one idea. And I spent a page on that and the other 399 are just boring and crappy.’
No, of course not. You are an awesome author, especially like Joanna Penn, folks, I’m serious. Like the Mapwalker series is just so much fun, I tell people about it all the time.
Joanna: Thank you.
Michaelbrent: And, oh, so good.
Joanna: We’ll come into that. So basically what you’re saying is, if we’ve written the book already, we get the coolest things in the book, and instead of having a more sort of introductory paragraph, which is what a lot of people do, including myself. We put the coolest things on and then we also make sure we’ve put questions into the heads of the reader. Whether or not it’s an actual question or not is fine.
The reader should read it and have just a ton of questions that now need to be answered by reading the book, essentially.
Michaelbrent: Yeah. Pitching ‘Mapwalkers,’ I would say, I would not talk about all the depth of character, there’s tons of characters. It’s a cool fantasy, but I’d be like, ‘Okay, I’m talking to Ralph.’ I’m using that name because nobody’s named Ralph anymore. My grandpa was Ralph though, so it’s still a cool name.
‘Ralph, have you read the Mapwalkers?’ ‘No.’ ‘Okay. Oh, my, gosh, dude, what if you could draw maps and they came true. Okay? And oh, and what if like the most powerful maps you drew like they were tattooed on you, Ralph? And in human blood,’ okay.
I’m not even telling accurately the story anymore, but I’m excited about it. And Ralph’s going, ‘Wait, how does that work?’
Because and I’ve told him two big things about your series. Does anybody going into your series on page one go, ‘Oh, yeah, I know exactly what to expect?’ No. But they’ve got this really cool framework. It’s obviously fantasy because there’s magic involved.
Things come to pass, kind of creatio ex-nihilo in some ways, but they don’t know all these details. They don’t know what happens to maps that are forgotten. They don’t know the details of all the dark shadowlands that the characters will enter and the forgotten places and things. There’s so many things that you can get into with ‘The Mapwalker’ series I just touched on two big ones, they still don’t have a context. And so you’re not giving away a secret.
Now, in a mystery book, obviously, you’re not going to want to start out with the whole point of the MacGuffin is finding out who did it. You’re not going to want to say, ‘The Butler did it. But detective Max Stone doesn’t know that yet.’ That’s not how you go about it.
You’ve actually just given a question away. And so you don’t want to answer that. You’re going to say, ‘A body was found in a car in a locked room, in a locked house that had been surrounded by concrete. Max Driver is on the case.’ And people are already like, ‘Oh, okay, I know what I’m getting into. And wait, what? First of all, how did that happen? And second of all, what kind of person would encase an entire home in concrete?’
I’ve told some really bitchin’ stuff that Max Driver is going to spend 200 pages even getting through the concrete. Like he’s like, ‘Oh, we finally got to the house.’ Twist, ‘The house is locked, what do we do?’ And so Max is still having all these twists and also, you have to remember, here’s one thing in a good book readers do, they read it and they get involved, and they forget about the world.
Here’s one thing about the way people read books that no one ever does. Book open in the right hand, in the left the cover description. Me matching facts like, ‘Oh, okay, yeah, that happened? Okay, good. Good. I was waiting. Oh, I see.’
If you’re doing your job, by page one, they’ve forgotten about the cover blurb and they’re just all in on your book, even if you did tell them, ‘The Butler did it.’ By page 10 they’re going, ‘How, though? How did the butler do it, this is an impossible situation.’
No matter how much you’ve told them, they should still have more, you’re only working with a page here. So have a little confidence in your own work.
But the shorter you can get it, the more respectful you are of them as well, of their time. You’re saying, ‘You don’t know me, I don’t know you, here’s three sentences, interested?’ And they’ll either walk on happy, or they’ll buy your book.
But if you capture them and hold them against their will, like, I’m going to drag you through all of this, whether you want it or not. They’re going to go away and say, not only, ‘Eh, not interested, but oh, stay away from that Amazon page, it’s the worst.’
Joanna: You’ve obviously been writing for many years now.
If you were to go back to one of your older books, do you rewrite blurbs?
Michaelbrent: Oh, yeah.
Joanna: Do you take one and tinker with it? In my situation would you say start from a blank page, don’t tinker with the one you’ve already written, come up with a blank page and start afresh?
I feel like many of us have tinkered with book descriptions in order to maybe put some genre-specific words in or we’ve just tinkered a little bit. Might a fresh page approach be better?
Michaelbrent: I used to be an attorney, so I will give you an attorney answer, which is, maybe you can do both things and try them both. And incidentally, you mentioned something about genre-specific wording, and we’re talking now about Amazon’s algorithm and things like that. I would counsel you, don’t have that in mind at this point.
SEO search terms can always be added in, and if you’ve done your job describing it to market, they shouldn’t be hard to add in. If you spend six pages talking about the love story on your cover description, and then you’re like, ‘Oh, how do I work in the word serial killer?’ Well, first of all, you’ve already screwed up the description. You’re not even describing it as a serial killer book.
So I would say do both. There’s some that I have looked at. And at the time, they are great. I’ll tell you one of my shortest blurbs or cover descriptions I ever had was for a book called Run. And it did really well. It was the number one thriller and sci-fi and horror, a bunch of big categories.
The cover description was definitely part of it at the time, because it was, gosh, I can almost do it probably by heart, even though it was 10 years ago. ‘What do you do if everyone you know, family, friends, everyone, is trying to kill you? Answer, you run.’
I’ve created a lot of questions. I directly asked a question. But the questions that should spring to mind in the reader’s head are like, ‘Wait, why would your friends and family and everyone want to kill you?’ It was a very effective cover description to the point that I got a phone call from a major Hollywood studio. And he’s like, ‘Are the rights for that available?’
I said, ‘Yeah, they are. So you are interested?’ He said, ‘Yeah, it’s kick-ass, man,’ and I’m actually editing for content there. And I said, ‘Oh, what did you like about it?’ He goes, ‘Oh, I’ve never read the book,’ like, ‘Who has time for a 400-page book, the description was awesome. That’s a total movie.’
But over time, it didn’t work as well, because the market shifts. And now the description is more detailed. And it says basically, the main character is a man who has never left his little tiny hometown his entire life, except for once when he went overseas for war and saw a man graphically murdered, and 10 years later, that man shows up in the town. Everyone the main character asks about it tries to kill him. And by the end of the day, the whole town’s after him.
So the new one is completely different, but if you look at it the same core elements are still there. It’s about everyone he asks is trying to kill him. And by the end of the day, he’s on the run. I’ve still kept those money shots from the trailer.
I’ve added information because audiences, A, like if you’re going to one of my book pages, chances are now you’ve at least heard of me, just because my name shows up in horror lists a lot. If only subconsciously you are like, ‘Oh, yeah, I think I’ve seen this guy.’ And so I can afford a little bit more time to show even more cool parts. But I’m not going to show all of them.
Joanna: On the sales page, I’m looking at Run now. So you…
Michaelbrent: Oh, no!
Joanna: As you said, now you are emphasizing something about yourself as a multiple Bram Stoker Award finalist. Because you know that your potential audience understand what that means and the quality of the book.
You’ve also included review quotes, which I also noticed on Malignant, which is one of your current ones. And this is a question that a lot of writers have, which is, there is this obsession in traditional publishing with asking other authors for blurbs or getting quotes to go on the cover.
Most authors are not Bram Stoker nominees, or multi-award-winning writers like yourself. Should we just leave all that stuff off and not worry about that until potentially later and just go with the book, actual book description?
How important are those accolades and awards?
Michaelbrent: Excellent question. Here’s why I include them. And I do that with all my books. I include blurbs in the middle. I’m a fan of movies, I think in movie terms. And again, you think of that trailer, it’s like the money shot, and the guy is walking away from the car as it explodes because he’s so cool.
And then it goes, big words, ‘Jaw-dropping. Variety,’ and then the next money shot. You don’t get taken out of it. That’s just social proof that they’re injecting into the trailer itself.
You see this particularly on Oscar bait, it shows Tom Hanks, and Minnie Driver, and Michael Keaton and all these big names, standing, yelling at each other, ‘I will tell the truth, then you’re fired.’ ‘Fantastic, says the Hollywood Reporter.’
It doesn’t pull you out of the storyline because people can take that kind of multiple, nonlinear storytelling. They’re telling two stories. One is the story of the book, and one is the story of everyone’s response to the book is amazing, folks. But if you don’t have that, you don’t need it.
You don’t have to do it. It doesn’t hurt it if you’ve done your job. So I will inject them if they’re really good, or if they’re important in some way. But they are primarily there for people who maybe have heard of me or seen one of my ads, and they’re clicking. They don’t know anything about me but they see, oh, ‘A Master, Scream Magazine,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, well, this guy, okay, somebody likes him.’
If you don’t have that, of course, don’t put it, or if your only review is literally like, ‘I thought this book definitely had words in it, Mom and pops podcast, podcast number one for mom’s basement,’ that’s not going to be a super helpful one, leave it out. But your cover blurb should still be super, super cool.
Joanna: I think that’s important. I don’t really seek out quotes at this point. But I can see why they’re useful, something I might get into. You did mention ads there, the hook, or the one or two sentences.
Are you using that part of the description in more places than the book sales page? For example, in ads, in emails, and social media?
Michaelbrent: Definitely. And that’s why it’s important to get it short, too. Because you think about the average ad, how much you care about it. You don’t, unless there’s something incredibly compelling really, really fast. And you can complain about this if you want to.
I find it kind of funny when authors complain about reality. It’s like, well, we’re really glad no one has to write like Dickens anymore, because Dickens writing is really hard. But I’m going to be upset, because along with all of this freedom comes the reality that people expect some interesting stuff to happen right away.
Dickens could lay out 472 character names, and then be like, ‘And now page 87, we begin the setting description,’ and you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ We get to jump right into stuff, we’re much more immediate. It starts out with, ‘The bullet tore through her forearm, entering her radius, exiting her ulna, and really screwing up her day.’
That’s so fun, we get to have a cool opening. But that also means we’re training our readers to want stuff fast. So like a good example is, I wrote a book called Terminal and it did really well. The hook is, and I would do this on a Facebook ad. ‘Ten strangers in a bus terminal are forced by a supernatural entity to choose one among them to survive, all the others will be murdered. The vote must be unanimous.’
At this point, they should be like, ‘What?’ And then I hit the kicker, which is, ‘And they quickly realized the best way to get a unanimous vote is to kill everyone else.’
I’ve said two sentences. The opening was strangers in a bus terminal, which is kind of evocative. It might not be of interest to you, but a lot of people found it evocative. And I front-loaded everything awesome about the setup there. Did I front-load all the awesome details? No, I couldn’t have, I had two sentences.
These descriptions show up everywhere. And again, if you can winnow them out and find that description, it’s going to help your ads because, instead of having to figure out some new, compelling copy every time, you’ve already got all the elements.
It doesn’t matter if it’s Facebook, if it’s Amazon, if it’s a TikTok ad. It doesn’t matter. You know the basic elements, and you’re going to be able to get them in a single sentence, two sentences, or a 10-second video ad, you’re going to be able to do that.
It makes marketing much more compelling, and much easier because I can port everything.
My Amazon description for Terminal – Amazon ads are very short. And it’s like, ‘Ten strangers in a bus terminal, forced to decide who lives. Let the killing begin,’ something like that. It’s super fast and super easy because I’ve already created it at a base level very short.
Joanna: I think the overarching message here is to try and spend some time upfront coming up with a good hook. I think it’s because I like spending time on research, for example, is how to spend the time. And I also think the amount of time is exactly the point, it sounds like you spend, as you said, you spent like a day and a half walking around in circles, thinking about the hook.
Even if it’s after the book is written, it’s the amount of time you spend on it, I have to admit to just doing my descriptions as a sort of, they just have to be done. Whereas, I think what you’re really saying is to spend time on that.
It might take a day and a half to write two lines, but so be it.
Michaelbrent: Yes. And think of it this way; a day and a half. Who here, I say, you’re going to spend two solid days, you’re going to spend a week, eight hours a day thinking of nothing but your description? I’m going to make you do it kind of to your head and everybody goes, ‘Oh, forget it.’
Alternate situation. You don’t have to, but if you do, at the end of the week, you get $30,000.
Everybody does it now.
And that’s kind of the mindset that’s more helpful to have because your book description is so important.
Again, I had one of the people who produce ‘The Matrix’ call me up based on a book description. It really impressed upon me the importance of this. And then also, when I go to new pages, even with authors I do know, I look at that book description. And I’m like, ‘Wow, this is a muddled mess. I am going to pass on this one. I’m too busy.’
Joanna: I think your analogy there of, it’s basically spend the time and get the money.
The reader is actually buying the book description. They don’t know what’s in the book, they’re buying the cover plus the book description.
And like you say, I think a lot of us outsource the cover. And some people do outsource the book description. But when you do outsource it, you still have to tell people the gist of it because they won’t read the book either. So I think it’s a very interesting challenge.
I have one more question for you, because last year, you came on the show, and you talked about rebooting an author career. And that was pretty much, COVID had only really just started. Also, traditional publishing had not really discovered digital. They’d started to.
I feel like in the last year, things have really changed in that traditional publishers have really muscled in on a lot of things that indie authors have been doing for years, for example, ads and all of these things.
What do you think has changed in the last year? And in terms of what you’re doing now has anything changed? Or are you finding things more challenging?
What does the reboot your author career look like this year?
Michaelbrent: Oh, I’m rebooting it again. Luckily, it’s not at the same place I rebooted it last time, but I had to reboot then and I’m still rebooting.
The biggest changes I’ve noticed with traditional muscling in is, number one, ads are much more expensive. So it used to be the way Amazon works is there’s kind of a bidding war that goes on behind the scenes digitally. Instead of an auctioneer you’re going, ‘Oh, give me 5 by 5, 4,’ it’s just their computer going zap, you’ve got the high bid. Traditional publishing is doing a lot more of digital ads and so it makes the bids higher.
The biggest problem I found in the last year has actually not been issues with traditional publishers, but the privacy rules on platforms like Facebook, and Twitter, and even Google and things like that. They’ve really tightened up on privacy, which is a good thing for everybody except someone trying to sell an ad to a specific person.
So I’m going for somebody who reads Stephen King, and Dean Koontz, and Clive Barker, and likes these seven things, and lives in this area. I used to be able to winnow it down really specifically and get inexpensive ads to the right people. And now it’s a lot harder. So that’s the biggest difference.
I continually reboot, so you have to get more creative.
It is difficult, I don’t want to paint a picture like, ‘Oh, but no matter what, I’m smiling.’ Because one of my other podcasts with you is about depression, I have severe depressive disorder and a couple of other fun little mental things. And so this isn’t easy, but it can also be kind of, I want to say joyous in a way because you are coming up with new ideas that nobody else has ever thought of in your books.
Now you get to do the same thing as a marketer, you’re still engaging your creativity, which in a way is really fun. So what are new creative ideas I can come up with?
There’s definitely a lot more what can I do that’s different? Thought, versus, what is everyone doing that works? Because if everyone’s doing it and it works, it’s probably too expensive for an indie. So, once again, as authors, as artistic, creative, awesome people, it stands to us to go, ‘All right, I’m going to do something different, something fun. I’m going to do a video, I’m going to do giveaways for this and that and the other thing.’
The fun part of it is, it does engage your audience and it makes it really delightful. I had a fan reach out and say it was something like, ‘You know what I like? I like that your books are good, but I love that I go to your Facebook page and everyone is nice and happy.’ And that was a really cool thing. I was like, ‘Oh, rad, screw being a writer, I made somebody’s day good.’
Joanna: I think what is important also, and I think you’re very good at this, is nurturing your existing fans, and I feel like that’s something that a lot of people forget.
The fact is you don’t need to do Amazon ads necessarily to the people who already are on your email list because you can email them.
Or people will get that pushed into their recommendation list, for example. And with your emails, you do talk quite openly about some of your challenges, and also the books and also the giveaways.
I feel like that nurturing your existing fan base actually generates more word-of-mouth, it generates podcast opportunities, it generates them to buy your next book.
And perhaps that’s what we’re coming back to, perhaps we’re coming back to word-of-mouth and nurturing our existing fan base. The basics that have always worked, email marketing, all have always worked.
Michaelbrent: Yes. And here’s an important thing too that I really encourage, especially since I had that reboot. You reached out and I like to think part of why you reached out to me and a couple of other people did.
I like to think part of it’s because like, you were going, ‘You’re a good author, you should still write,’ but I know part of it too is we’re just friends, and you’re a nice person. When you’re friends with nice people, and they view you as a nice person, you help each other through the tough times.
That’s something that I do encourage as far as marketing, you cannot say to yourself, ‘I’m going to be the most successful person in my field.’ You can’t, you’ll be lying because there’s always someone who’s more successful on some level. And there’s just too many variables.
It’s impossible to predict that or to demand it of yourself. But you can say, ‘I am going to strive every day to be the nicest and most professional acting person in my field’. And that reaps benefits, not just with your peers, but with your fans.
Joanna: I think that’s super important.
If people want to try your books, or check out what you do online, where can people find you and everything you do?
Michaelbrent: First of all, just enter my first name in Google. Michaelbrent is actually my first name. I’m the only Michaelbrent in the world. You can go to my website, writteninsomnia.com. Written Insomnia, stories that keep you up all night, or novelthrills.com.
If you go there, you can get one of my books for free, sign up for my newsletter. I try and keep my newsletters entertaining, there are commercials in them, but I try and make them not the main thing, because I’m a writer, so I should entertain you.
And if you want help on this particular subject, I’m actually what’s called a Fiverr Pro. So if you go to fiverr.com/mbcollings, which is like an outsourcing thing, they have certain people that they actually reach out to and say, ‘You’re a professional in this field, would you be interested in working through us?’
So if you want help with your cover description, you can find me on fiverr.com and reach out to me there and I can give you some assistance.
Joanna: Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time as ever, Michaelbrent, that was great.
Michaelbrent: Thank you, Joanna. You are awesome.
The post Writing Hooks And Improving Your Fiction Book Description With Michaelbrent Collings first appeared on The Creative Penn.
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Author: Joanna Penn