Book Summaries: The One Mistake (Almost) Every New Author Makes

This is a detail that seems almost not worth mentioning, but when looking through books from independent or self publishers, and some small press works, there is one glaring problem that keeps me (and many other potential readers) from giving it a try. People might see your book, pick it up, and then decide to put it down again without even opening the cover or downloading a preview. What am I talking about? The book summary.

The idea of the book summary is simple–just describe the book in a few sentences or paragraphs and try to get people hooked. But it’s also very hard to write. How can you show off your great novel if your confined to only a back cover? How can you give a tantalizing preview for your story without giving too much away? More importantly, just how important is a book summary in the grand scheme of things?

668_wpm_lowresLet’s look at that last question first. How important is it that you write a good book summary? For one thing, it’s usually the first thing that people read when they’re interested in your book. But that’s not all. If you’re trying to publish through a traditional publishing house and looking for an agent to help you out, you need to try to grab their attention too! Believe it or not, the best way to start a letter to a prospective agent is with a brief summary of your book just like the one you would find on the back cover or an inside jacket. In other words, the summary could be the big thing that’s keeping you from getting an agent and from there, getting published. On the other hand, as you know if you’ve ever read a really good summary, it can also be the thing that makes your book a hit. There have been several cases when I picked up a book out of curiosity and read the summary, and then knew I had to get it or check it out of a library. Summaries can be the life or death of your novel!

Now that the importance has been established, how can you make sure that your summaries are good, and how can you write a good one if the very idea of it makes you cringe with fear? Here’s a brief list of do’s and don’t’s that will hopefully be helpful:

  • Do spend some time thinking about it before hand. The first thing you type up probably won’t be any good if you don’t know exactly where to go with it!
  • Do read other book summaries. They’re easy to find both online and on books. Look up some of your favorites or some that you want to read and make a note of everything that grabs your attention.
  • Do focus on what makes your book unique. Do you blend genres in a way that no one else does? Are your characters the craziest in the literary world? Is your imaginary universe something the reader will never forget? Drive that point home!
  • Do include details specific to your story. A lot of people get carried away with this, but just make sure that your characters and locations have names and memorable quirks that might make a reader want to give it a try.
  • Don’t give it all away. This is perhaps the biggest mistake I’ve seen people make. Don’t try to cram everything into a few paragraphs because this doesn’t work. It’s a summary, not a miniaturization!
  • Don’t simply state the facts. Remember that this is a sample of your writing as well–you need to sell it!
  • Don’t use cliches. This should be obvious, but a lot of people forget it. “Classic battle between good and evil,” “unforgettable love story,” and “a matter of literal life or death” should all be banned.
  • Don’t dawdle. A bit of chit-chat is one thing, but remember that this is supposed to give your readers a taste of the story!
  • 12275_wpm_lowresDon’t lie. Another one that should be obvious, but if you feel like you need to stretch the truth of your story to make the summary sound interesting, maybe you should stop writing and spend some time thinking about what makes your story really unique.

Following these steps will not guarantee you a bestseller. If they did, I’d probably be ironing out a fancy book deal or author-signing tour instead of sitting by a living room window typing this. But it can give you credibility as a writer and make people much more interested and willing to read what you have to say. You never know how close you are to catching one more person’s devotion to your work!

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