Metadata 101: How to Write a Great Short and Long Description of your Book

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Just as important as the text inside your book are the words you choose as an introduction to potential readers.

These words appear right after the title and author on an Amazon book page. Barnes & Noble currently is calling this introductory text an “Overview” and it’s the first thing readers see after the front cover and buy buttons. Whatever the current label may be in online bookstores, publishers refer to this text as the “Description.” However, publishers know that some online bookstores will display a Long Description while others will show only a Short Description. These days, most new books are launched with at least two different lengths of this crucial text—to ensure that the best introduction is visible, no matter what a bookstore’s limitation may be.

At Front Edge Publishing, we include three lengths in our Metadata files: 350 characters, 512 and “up to 4,000.” All of those totals include letters, punctuation and spaces. It’s easy to measure your text using the options listed in the Microsoft Word Tools menu.

Larger Value of a Short Description

Before we look at the latest industry advice on writing and editing a Description, consider the larger value of perfecting such a text. And “perfecting” is an appropriate term for this important process. Before our Front Edge Publishing team polishes off a Short Description, we work extensively with the author to agree on the best way to introduce a new book. We revise that text over a number of days, because we often think of new information we want to include. Finalizing the Short Description sometimes takes as much time as the rest of the Metadata.

Here’s an important tip for authors: Start drafting your own Short Description even before your book is finished.

This suggestion goes back to my 30-plus years as a senior writer and editor for major newspapers, before we founded this publishing house in 2007. Over the years, my newspaper expertise focused on long-form journalism: major investigative projects, multi-part series and magazine stories. The challenge always was: After reporting for weeks, or occasionally for months, how could we distill the larger body of information down into a story that would grab readers and hold them to the last paragraph?

One of my most effective techniques—which I taught in workshops and writing retreats—was to sum up the entire body of research and reporting in a haiku. That’s right—the Japanese poetic style that’s limited to 17 syllables in three lines. It’s a variation on the journalistic challenge to write a headline as a way to shape—and limit—the story that will follow.

Drafting a Short Description as you finalize your book can help you tighten up your opening chapters, perhaps cut some material that takes readers off on a tangent, and help your publisher crystalize ideas for the book’s title and cover. The Short Description also is often described as your “elevator pitch” as you plan your marketing campaign.

Book Descriptions and Keywords

The second crucial consideration in drafting a Description is that it must truly reflect the final book. That may seem obvious, but your goal is a comprehensive presentation of your book so readers can find it, understand what’s inside it and be happy when they’ve bought it. The whole marketing effort surrounding a book now depends on a broad array of elements that come together in a chorus to reach potential readers. 

What are some of these elements? For example, a successful Description should rely on some of the keywords associated with your book. Also, as you select BISAC codes to signal to bookstores where to display your book, those BISAC phrases should be reflected in your Description. Ingram’s new 2018 guidebook, Metadata Essentials, puts it this way: “Your book Description should be an accurate, compelling and comprehensive guide to the inside of the book.”

There’s No Cookie Cutter for Book Descriptions

There are lots of industry tips, these days, to perfecting a Description. Here are some of them, most of which are detailed at greater length in the new Ingram guidebook.

  • Think about your description as opening with a strong first line that captures the appeal of your book. Ingram calls it a “headline.” 
  • At the end, consider your final lines as representing a “closer.” What’s the call to action? Of course, these first two tips work best in the Long Description. The Short Description allows so few words that there is scarcely room for a formal opening, middle and closing.
  • Try to think about this from the perspective of customers: They want to know the genre or style of your book. Is it a memoir? A fantasy? A mystery? A collection of recipes? Appropriate for young readers? Great for small-group discussion?
  • Have you won awards? Tell readers.
  • Are there such stellar endorsements that you don’t want readers to miss them? When we published Finding God in Unexpected Places, by Rabbi Jack Riemer, we had endorsements from bestselling author Bernie Siegel and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. Naturally, we put their words in the opening lines of Riemer’s Description.
  • Sometimes, you know that readers are facing a bewildering choice between countless books on a hot topic. Help them. That was the situation when we published Solus Jesusby Emily Swan and Ken Wilson, so we opened the Description with the line: “If you read one book this year about the future of Christianity, then choose this book.” Of course, we had to back up that claim in the balance of the Description—and the book had to deliver on that promise. We’re confident we did that.
  • Don’t waste words when you turn to the expansive Long Description. Instead, make sure you’re adding valuable content in each sentence. If your book covers many topics—tell potential readers. An extreme example of this is the Long Description in our new 100 Questions & Answers about Police. We know that customers will want to know if their questions are covered. So, we used all the space in an Amazon Long Description to list 70 of the questions that are answered in this book.
  • How could readers use your book beyond simply reading it? The last thing to consider is suggestions of added value readers might find in your book. Is this a perfect gift for a grandparent? For veterans? For teens? Is there a free “study guide” available? Is this book an ideal discussion-starter in a class or small group?

Care to Read More?

Here are the parts in this Metadata 101 series:

About David Crumm

David Crumm is founding Editor of Front Edge Publishing. Nationally, he is known as a veteran journalist—a top writer and editor—with experience both in the U.S. and overseas. He is based in Canton, Michigan, where he also serves as Editor of Read the Spirit online magazine. His columns on trends in media appear twice a month on our Front Edge Publishing website.