How To Write Effective Book Descriptions

by Craig Stark

#27, 20 September 2004

I'm not sure how it is for most booksellers, but one of the most tiring and least interesting bookselling activities for me is writing book descriptions. Fixed-price descriptions are bad enough; auction descriptions, which by necessity are more detailed, are worse. There have been times when I've put off selling a book because I dreaded having to write a description for it. The problem is that so much of the description is typically focused on condition and publication data - two inherently dull topics - and describing contents, the part that offers at least some hope of being interesting (but at times isn't), can be difficult to do quickly and well.

Still, if you aren't any good at writing descriptions, your sales will suffer. Buyers may not have a clear idea of what they're getting. They may not trust the description - or you. Worst of all, they may not be intrigued by a book that should by all rights be very intriguing. But there's a bright side to this too: if you're very, very good at writing descriptions, you'll consistently outsell the competition, sometimes by leaps and bounds.

Today I'm going to discuss one aspect of writing descriptions - condition. (Later articles will focus on publication data and contents.) When you've read as many condition descriptions by other booksellers as I have, especially from the perspective of a potential buyer, you notice patterns. Weaknesses. As I see it, there are two that come up much too often.

One, many condition descriptions are imprecise.

Precision, in my opinion, is very much dependent on your command of bookselling terminology. Using correct terminology to describe faults and other condition points will give you the best chance of successfully communicating with your buyers. Using correct terminology is also efficient. "Shaken," for example, is a reasonably precise term that describes a condition that would otherwise take a number of words to explain in so-called plain English.

Many book condition terms are intuitive and will likely be understood by most, but in many cases it's still important to use them and not close synonyms that aren't typically used to describe books. Example: "soiled." We all know that (differing connotations aside), "soiled" means dirty, but if a book is dirty, don't say it's dirty. In the first place, "dirty" sounds dirtier than "soiled." In the second place, this kind of terminology is, in bookselling circles, amateurish. This may be no big deal if you're selling a common book with content value only. Most buyers won't care how it's described. It may be a very big deal indeed, however, if you're selling an uncommon first edition by a collectible author. The more professional your presentation, the more likely your buyer will trust your description - and the fact that it's a first edition at all.

This leaves us with non-intuitive terms. Fortunately, there aren't a lot of these. Here's a list of 15 important ones:


This is by no means a complete list, but learn these, and, along with the intuitive terms you already know or will soon know, you'll be able to precisely describe 99% of the flaws you'll encounter in books. I'm deliberately not including definitions for these terms because vocabulary building is an active, not a passive, undertaking, and the more you're involved in getting at meanings, the more likely you'll be to retain them. If you can't afford to purchase one of the dictionaries discussed in the previous article, there are a number of good online glossaries that can be accessed from BookThink's BookLinks page

If you're looking up a term that you're especially or totally unfamiliar with, it's a good idea to consult more than one reference, preferable three or more. Definitions don't always line up like good soldiers in identical uniforms, and if you can get a consensus meaning, chances are it'll be the right meaning.

Two, many condition descriptions focus on negatives.

When you get right down to it, most books that booksellers come across (and to a lesser extent most dust jackets) are in pretty good shape. More often than not, they are more or less clean, have tight bindings and unmarked interiors. Faults must be noted in condition descriptions, of course, but I think it's prudent to give them only the weight they deserve and no more. If you list only faults in a condition description, you're giving them every ounce of weight that they can possibly have. You may feel that you're being honest with this approach, but if it ignores what's right about the book, is it really? If you've ever had a buyer leave you this kind of feedback - "book better than described" - this is a clear signal that you've fallen into the honesty trap. It may give you a warm feeling inside to know that you've made your buyer especially happy, but what this also means is that you've focused unduly on negatives and perhaps could have sold the book for a better price.

Be positive. If the book has a tight, square binding, say so up front. Lead with it. "Tight" has a good sound to it. A bright and clean interior - ditto. Sharp corners, definitely. These are positive selling points that, if mentioned, will help get your book sold for the best price. If you get tired of typing this stuff out every time, make a template with the most likely description you'll encounter. It can then be modified quickly to fit the book at hand.

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