Book Descriptions and Broken Promises

crossed-fingers lying book descriptionRecently I was beta-reading a book for a friend. He had told me before I began reading that it was a “new-age thriller.” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but it sounded intriguing, so I was all in. As I read, though, and the story unfolded, I kept looking for those thriller sequences but they were nowhere to be found. I found myself getting frustrated, wanting to get into the meat of the genre, but the narrative was taking its sweet time. Finally it became clear to me that this book was not a thriller. It had a very few thriller elements, but they actually only occurred in the last 10% of the book and they were not anywhere near the fast-paced, clock-ticking, heart-pounding sequences I was used to (and expected). While the book was good as far as it went, and well-written, it was decidedly miscategorized, and I told him so.

We had quite a back-and-forth over this; he made his case for the category, I came back with, “Yeah, but…” It was obvious that he really, really wanted to categorize his book that way, and yet I explained to him how frustrated I got when my expectations were not met. Having a few of the genre elements in a fraction of the book was not enough for me to substantiate that designation.

Somewhere along the line, this all brought the O.J. Simpson trial back to my mind. Huh? Let me explain. If you were around then, watching TV, you might remember mention of the “spaghetti defense.” This consisted of the defense team throwing everything they had against the wall and seeing what stuck. What this author wanted to do was the same — he wanted to tag his book with every genre that might apply, hoping he could pull in readers across the board. Actually sounds like it might be a good idea, right?


Readers are smart. They know when they’re being tricked. They know when they’re being teased, and they don’t like it much. I don’t blame them. You think you’ve bought a blue fleece blanket and when you get home, you realize it’s a purple pillow cover. Not a happy camper.

I actually made this same mistake early on. I have several romances on my back list, plus one that’s a totally over-the-top, irreverent satire that makes fun of every cliché of that beloved genre. (Even the bad guy had alabaster thighs.) The mistake I made was not making that clear in the book description. Instead of highlighting the satiric nature of the book, I described it like any other sweeping, epic saga of love and lust. To my mind, it sounded over-the-top and I thought that would be enough of a tip-off, but one reader clearly did not feel the same. She slammed me with a one-star review. After reading her review and re-reading my description, I realized where the disconnect was. She was expecting a regular romance. She got x-rated puns and gleeful lampooning. Yeah, not happy.

And I don’t blame her. That was my error. I’ve since changed the description so it’s really clear what the book is like, but of course that one-star review still stands. A testament to my neglect.

So back to my friend. I’m not sure what he’s going to do. I made my pitch, and now it’s up to him. But I really hope he reconsiders. Trying to pull a fast one on readers never works. My hard-won advice, both as a writer and as a reader, is to describe and categorize a book as it is, using the strength of its true genre and not the weakness of what blurred lines it might cross over. Save the spaghetti defense for the courtroom. You and your readers will thank me.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

22 thoughts on “Book Descriptions and Broken Promises”

  1. Great advice. But I know if can be really hard to categorize your own books. I resisted the label “women’s fiction” for my stuff for a long time, mostly because I think it’s a sexist concept and I don’t think of myself as writing only for women, though I know most readers ARE women. (Where’s “men’s fiction”? THAT would just be called commercial literary fiction.) But agents tell me that’s what my stuff is, and they know a lot better than I do.

    I recently had one of those phone calls we all get (once we’re known in our community) from someone who wanted me to help him publish his memoir — which he told me was completely unlike any other book ever written. I told him that if true it was doomed, because nobody would know where to find it and thus it would never sell. Labels are necessary, even if they annoy the hell out of us.

    But for indies there is at least the fun (and danger) of playing with our categories to see what will happen. My stuff might not be called literary in traditional publishing, but that’s probably its most comfortable niche on Amazon, where “women’s fiction” searches bring up lots of racy romance novels.

    1. Sandra, your war with your book’s category is almost exactly the opposite of the one I wrote about: not wanting to use what is probably the best category because of your own response to the category name and definition. I’ve had my own private wars of the same nature (and I’m with you on the sexism there), so the question becomes: do we want to give our book the best category and the best chance for selling, or do we want to take a stand and resist pigeon-holing? Obviously there are a lot of factors at play here, and so we all have to make our own decisions on that score. But you’re absolutely right about indies being able to respond and change categories if we find something’s not working. I think many of us write across category lines, so we can experiment with one or the other and see what happens. We just have to hope our readers agree with our choices.

  2. I’m with you on this one, Melissa. I think poor labeling is the cause of the majority of 1-star reviews.
    However, it’s really difficult to label your own book, especially when you know exactly what it is and Amazon doesn’t have that category.
    I’m giving up and writing a Historical Fiction about the French Revolution. For once, everyone will know where to put it!

    1. You know, Gordon, I hadn’t thought about this confusion being the basis for most 1-star reviews, but that’s certainly possible. What is certain is the limitation of Amazon’s category system. Every time I put up a new book, I agonize over this because I may find three or four categories that sorta-kinda fit, but none that really hit the nail on the head. So many of mine are slash (not slasher) books–paranormal/romance/suspense–so any one category doesn’t do it justice. So we’ve got two battles here, one for our own idea of what the category should be, then another to match that up with Amazon’s idea. (And we won’t even get into the many times Amazon puts a book in a wrong category.) Tough sledding!

  3. Melissa, thanks for touching on this very important topic. It’s not just writing an “honest description,” but rather one that embodies the concept of your book. I’ve run into similar problems with my vampire romance series, which is more family-oriented than traditional vampire fare. I changed the last sentence of the blurb to indicate what the story is actually about, and I added a From the Author on my page, explaining the series in more detail. The last thing I want to do is mislead or disappoint readers looking for something else…

    1. Good for you, Linda. I can see where you could run into problems; how many family-oriented vampire books are out there? I had a similar problem with my ghost stories. When I selected Ghost for a category, I found Amazon puts that in the Horror genre, and my books are most decidedly not horror. Haven’t they heard of friendly ghosts??

  4. Thank you, Melissa. Oh, boy, have I been smacked around on this one! I have a tough time categorizing my books. They just don’t slot so neatly into the categories. Sometimes I wish I could poke over the potential reader’s shoulder and say, “Well, it’s a love story but it’s not a romance novel…” Beta readers are wonderful for trying to keep me out of trouble. 😀

    1. Exactly, Laurie. If we don’t write formula that fits neatly inside the lines, there’s always that, “… but really, it’s …” Yes, it would be wonderful to be able to explain it, but again, we’re up against Amazon’s limitations. Just have to make the best of it.

  5. Oddly enough, crossing genre lines is one of the things that make Indie writing so innovative. Selling it, however, is another matter. There we have to shoe-horn our stories into the fit that hurts the least.

    1. Thanks, TD. Yup. If we can negotiate the shoals and leave buoys in our wake, we’re doing our job. Just being successful in our own passage is not enough. We need to give back.

  6. Agreed, Melissa. I’ve had much the same problems with my books. I’ve been putting them in urban fantasy/paranormal romance, but I don’t have any werewolves/vampires/fae, and I didn’t even really have a shapeshifter in the “Land Sea Sky” books. Metaphysical fiction sounds kind of pretentious, though, and Amazon doesn’t have a category for magic realism — and I’m not sure whether my books fit there, either. It is a puzzlement…

    1. True enough, Lynne. I think the only thing we have going for us is the fact that Amazon continues to evolve, so we might get lucky one day and have them add a perfect category for us.

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