Selling a story by NOT telling a story

Don’t sell your story by telling it. Sell it by creating a question in readers’ minds, then refusing to answer any questions but simply pointing to where they can buy the book- they’ll know that’s the only way to satisfy their curiosity, and the sales will follow.

Here’s the thing with telling someone about your book – be it in person, or in an ad, or via the back cover copy you’ve spent arduous hours perfecting: almost every author is terrible at it. Because almost every author makes the horrible mistake of thinking that you sell someone on your story by telling them about your story. Nothing could be further from the truth.


You have to remember you have maybe two sentences before people get bored. So you don’t start off with your story, you start off with a BANG.


What I often tell new authors — or even old authors — is to imagine your sales pitch as pictures of your kids (if you don’t have kids, imagine you do — you’re a writer, it should be easy). Every single human above the age of 20 has had someone approach them with that person’s pictures of their kids. They start showing off the pictures and yammering on about things that matter incredibly to that person, but not at all to us.


Your story is your baby in some ways. Especially in that nobody else cares at all about it until you give them a REASON to care.


Now, if that person who can’t stop showing you their baby pictures walks up and says, “Timmy’s face caught fire yesterday,“ now you are in it for the long haul. They can actually take their time getting to the good part, because they have told you something in the first sentence that makes it clear the story is going to be worth your while.


Remember, also, that ad copy and back cover copy is NOT ABOUT TELLING THE STORY. It is about providing potential readers with an idea of the tone and genre of your book, and then the only other thing you are trying to do is pose a question in the reader’s mind that can ONLY be answered by reading the book.


The entire back cover copy of one of my books reads in its entirety:


What do you do when everyone you know — family, friends, everyone — is trying to kill you? Answer: you RUN.


It tells you almost nothing, but it gives you an idea of the tone and general genre – we’re obviously in some kind of tense thriller. More important, the strength of the question it creates is such that most readers at this point will at least click the “look inside“ option on Amazon.


The book, RUN (and yeah, even the title was designed to help set up the all important question in potential readers’ minds) sold well – it was a #1 Bestseller in Horror and Science Fiction (the top level, overall categories), got to #2 in Thrillers, and was a top 100 overall seller on Amazon – and this without any kind of promotion behind it — and a huge part of that was simply the creation of a question.


And book sales weren’t the only result of that question. Major production companies were contacting me, all of whom said the same things:


Them: Is your book available as a development property?

Me: Yep. You read it?

Them (I kid you not on this): No. But your description would make a great movie poster. Can we talk some more in person?


The lesson: jettison all thoughts of telling your story in your ads, in your back cover copy, or during the first moments of a sales pitch. Nobody cares about your story at that point. They are in it for themselves, so you have to give them something that matters to them and will improve their lives in some sense – even if that is just the promise of a rollicking rollercoaster ride of a story.


Don’t tell about Timmy being born, or his amazing childhood, or that he walked early, or how cute he is. Start off telling your reader, “So, Timmy’s face caught on fire yesterday.“ Tell them something that creates in their mind an undeniable need to know what happens next, and then REFUSE TO ANSWER ANY MORE QUESTIONS.


Now the readers will buy your work, not because you told the story, but because you DIDN’T, and they know the only way to satisfy their curiosity is to BUY THE BOOK. Doing anything more is window dressing at best, and offputting at worst.

A great irony: people looking for stories are not interested at all in your words.

Not at first. Not until you wow them with your ability to say something extraordinary — not in the course of 100,000 words, but in the course of your very first sentence.


Eric James Stone

Best back-cover copy I’ve seen was for the first book in the Honor Harrington series. I’d never even heard of the series or the author, but I was browsing in a bookstore and found the book, and after reading the back cover I had to buy it. Here’s what it said:

Having made him look the fool, Honor’s been exiled to Basilisk Station in disgrace and set up for ruin by a superior who hates her. Her demoralized crew blames her for their ship’s humiliating posting to an out-of-the-way picket station. Parliament isn’t sure it wants to keep the place; the major local industry is smuggling; the merchant cartels want her head; the star-conquering, so-called “Republic” of Haven is up to something; and Honor Harrington has a single, over-age light cruiser with an armament that doesn’t work to police the entire star system. But the people out to get her have made one mistake. They’ve made her mad.

Now, it’s not quite as succinct as your copy for RUN. But I think it admirably achieves the purposes you identified: (1) it reveals the tone and genre of the book, and (2) it poses a question in the reader’s mind: How is the main character going to solve all those problems?

Steve Mathisen

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