The Importance of a Book Summary

One of my main jobs at Ulysses is writing catalog copies, so I thought I’d talk about that today, because I think it’s a fascinating example of how a lot of work goes into a very little part of a book that you take for granted.
What’s a catalog copy, you ask? In the old days, before there were huge book buyers like Amazona and Barnes & Noble, people bought there books from a ton of independent, small bookstores. Some of these still exist, but they’re pretty rare. Publishing companies would inform the bookstores of their upcoming titles by sending out a catalog containing all the books they planned on publishing in the next seasons. This catalog had a picture of the book cover, a headline, marketing bullets, and a few paragraphs describing the book. Booksellers would show off these catalog copies, and bookstore owners would select the books that sounded interesting and order them.
Nowadays, things are a bit different. There are a few, very large book-selling companies for publishing houses to show off to. Catalogs aren’t needed so much. However, many companies still use them with the few independent bookstores that still exist, book reviewers (if a reviewer is willing to review one book, then you send them the catalog in the hopes that they’ll choose more to review), and some book-selling conferences. The descriptions of the books used in these copies can also be shortened and changed from third person to second person in order to be used as Amazon product summaries.
I’ll give an example from a Ulysses book that will be coming out and that I helped write the catalog copy for – Crazy for Cakepops

Catalog copy:

Title: Crazy for Cake Pops
Subtitle: 50 All-New Delicious and Adorable Creations

Headline: Fun and Exciting Designs for Gorgeous, Creative, and Delicious Cake Pops

Body: Cake pops are the hottest trend in baking and it’s easy to see why. With creative shapes and delightful flavors, they’re as fun to make as they are to eat. Crazy for Cake Pops teaches you the secrets for creating these mouthwatering mini treats like a professional baker. Packed with over 75 color photos, Crazy for Cake Pops leaves nothing to chance as it guides you step by step through each part of the process including baking, crumbling, shaping, frosting, and decorating.

Plus, it offers loads of different frosting and cake flavors from classic vanilla, chocolate, and lemon to adventurous red velvet, toffee, and peanut butter cake. With tips, tricks, and techniques for foolproof pops, this book provides everything you need to bake child-pleasing, guest-impressing, cute-as-can-be, cake-on-a-stick creations. And with so my styles to choose from, no matter what the occasion, you’ll have the perfect handheld dessert option, like:

Tricolor Dips
• Marbled

• Clouds

• Gift Boxes

• Bird Pops

• Tropical Fish

• Purses

• Ice Cream Cones

• Tea Pots and Cups

• Flowers

• Sheep Pops

• Teddie Bears

• Poker Chip and Dice Pops

• Valentine Hearts

• Easter Eggs

• Pumpkin and Skull Pops

• Christmas Snowmen

As opposed to the Amazon description, which is simply…


Packed with 50 designs and 70 color photos, this book shows how to make cake pops that are incredibly cute and amazingly delicious.

Everyone loves a beautifully decorated cake. And there’s nothing more fun than food on a stick. Combine the two and you have the perfect sweet treat that’s as fun to make as it is to eat. With a wide range of exciting shapes and delightful flavors, Crazy for Cake Pops has the perfect pop for any occasion, including:

• Animals for a kid’s party

• Gift-wrapped boxes for a birthday bash

• Teddy bears for a baby shower

• Poker chips for game night

• Kettles and cups for tea time

• Decorated eggs for Easter

• Jack-o’-Lanterns for Halloween

• Snowmen for Christmas

Crazy for Cake Pops teaches you the secrets for creating these mouthwatering mini desserts with professional results. The author leaves nothing to chance as she guides you step by step through baking, crumbling, shaping, frosting and decorating.

As you can see, the Amazon description is just the body copy, and it’s written in the second person. The catalog copy is more formal, and so should be written in the third person.

Now, you may think all this is really boring, and I apologize for that, but I’m just trying to give you all an idea of what I’m talking about so that I can get into what I consider to be the more interesting stuff. You also may think that these summaries take about ten minutes to write. You would be wrong. Each catalog copy takes me about a half hour to 45 minutes to write, and I get each draft edited by my boss. Why does so much effort go into one little summary? Well, there are a few reasons.

One, there are a lot of different parts to the copy. The subtitle can’t use the same words as the title, the headline can’t sound like the subtitle, the marketing bullets must talk about different things than the headline, and even the body paragraphs should try to avoid using any of the description words or phrases already mentioned. Since each title is decided in a meeting, sometimes I’ll write the copy before the official title to the book has been chosen. And then, once it’s known, I usually have to go back and change the headline, because the subtitle ends up using the same words.

Two, putting the most attention into the right parts. My instinct with this is to write the body paragraphs first, but that’s the wrong choice, because people spend very little time looking at those. Typically about 35% of attention is spent reading the title, 25% is spent on the headline, 15% is spent on the marketing bullets, and 7.5% is spent on the first two sentences of the paragraphs, and the other 7.5% is spent on the rest of the body copy. People look at things in layers, and so you want to focus most of your attention on making that first, title layer great and just use write fluff for the bottom of the summary. (I’m talking about mainly non fiction books. With fiction books, the whole summary does matter more, since people tend to read the whole thing since it tells a story. However, the paragraphs are still what is read last.)

Three, it’s important to keep the audience in mind. The other day I wrote a copy for a book that will be a blank journal with prompts for mothers to fill out, answering questions about their lives and their time with their children so that when they’re dead and buried, their kids can read the journal. It’s a really cheesy idea, and not really anything I’m a fan of, but I had to get super sentimental and heartwarming with the catalog copy, because that’s what the mothers and kids buying this book want. When I wrote a copy (need to finish it on Monday, actually) for dog military heroes, I focused on the heroism of the dogs and on their loyalty to their masters, since those are the things people care about when they’re reading these kinds of books. And when I wrote a copy for a book on sadistic kidnappers, I played up the innocent victims more than the horrible kidnappers, since the majority of people that buy these books are young women that identify with the victims. It’s all about tailoring the copy to the correct audience.

Four, you might assume, as I did before I began working for Ulysses, that whoever is writing one of those Amazon summaries for the book has read it. You would assuming incorrectly. I can’t speak for all publishing houses, but at Ulysses I write the copies for books I’ve never read. I usually get an author summary or possibly a website the book is based on, but sometimes I get even less. With the kidnappers book, literally all I had was a list of kidnappings that would be featured in the book. I have to start from scratch, figuring out how to sell what I have. Sometimes it takes a little bit of research to see how similar titles or websites have pitched the idea.

To point some things out, I’ll take a closer look at the Cake Pop copy.

It starts with a title, Crazy for Cake Pops: 50 All-New Delicious and Adorable Creations

Then a headline — Fun and Exciting Designs for Gorgeous, Creative, and Delicious Cake Pops. Really great adjectives are usually good for a headline, as well lists. But as you can see, the headline and the subtitle are quite different. If the subtitle had had a list, the headline probably wouldn’t have ended up with one. Actually, now that I’m looking at it, they both use the word “Delicious,” which is probably a mistake.

Marketing bullets would be next, but I’m too lazy to log on to the distributor website to find them. Marketing bullets are all about the facts, not the fluff. No froo-froo adjectives allowed. They can either refer to numbers or to book content. For example, listing the number of copies the author has sold of a similar book (don’t do this unless it’s over 20,000) would be a number, while explaining it includes an 8-week program to better abs would be book content. I tend to have a really hard time with these.

Next is the body copy. I’ll just repost the first few sentences of this, because those are the most important part.

Cake pops are the hottest trend in baking and it’s easy to see why. With creative shapes and delightful flavors, they’re as fun to make as they are to eat. Crazy for Cake Pops teaches you the secrets for creating these mouthwatering mini treats like a professional baker.

As you can see, the first sentence is some kind of hook to get the reader’s attention. The part right after the hook almost always contains the title of the book.

You all probably find this stuff really dull, so sorry if I’ve bored you. I’m just so interested in how much effort and thought goes into such a small piece of writing. But it makes sense – the better the catalog copy (or Amazon description), the more books Ulysses sells. It’s just odd to realize that there’s such a science to writing one. It has forced me, a writer who thinks in the size of novels, write convincing and persuasive pieces using as few words as possible.

3 thoughts on “The Importance of a Book Summary

  1. This is really cool! I've actually never realized that people write those summaries or that they could be different! I have been to a few independent bookstores before (I just went to one yesterday at a fair).

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