How to Answer the Question, “What’s Your Book About?” (Fiction)
There’s no shortage of professional book marketing advice out there. But despite volumes of recommendations about author websites, social media, newsletters, and public relations, one author dilemma rarely gets addressed, and it’s the most simple and basic of them all.
It’s when another person — perhaps a relative, colleague, newspaper writer, or book reviewer — looks you in the eye and asks:
So, what’s your book about?
Seems like a softball: How can you not know what your book is about? You wrote it! But many authors have trouble with this question because there are so many possible answers… most of them wrong. Authors will often respond by rambling, digressing, and focusing on the wrong aspects because they’re describing their book instead of selling their book.
Describing conveys “what.” Selling conveys “why.”
Describing promotes inventory. Selling promotes a point.
Describing is the table of contents. Selling is the blurb on the inside cover.
Knowing the difference between describing and selling your book is one thing, but turning your hundreds of pages of story, exposition, and dialogue into a concise, effective pitch is another. This is not just about cutting words; this is about reimagining your story as a single important point. And as Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Below are five critical recommendations to help you understand, tighten, and sell the POINT behind your story.
1. Identify Your Point
To truly champion your story, you need to understand its point — which is different from its plot, category, title, story origin, or theme.
Get started by filling in the blanks in this sentence:
“My story is about a [person] who overcomes [adversity] to attain [the most valuable thing to them].”
This is a standard formula that, with just a bit of tweaking, should apply to your book, assuming your story is about a protagonist driven by a personal objective.
Notice how this framework avoids a scene-by-scene retelling of the narrative and character description. It also skips the genre and even the title. That’s important because those items are generic details that won’t sell your book. Focusing on scenes, characters, genre, and the title is like describing a toaster by saying it has a door, a heating element, and a tray — but not saying it turns bread to toast.
The point of your book is not the main character, but what drives that character. It’s not even the story, but what drives the story.
Stephen King’s “Christine” isn’t about a teenager and a haunted car, but a man who must contend with the empowerment he feels when possessed by a car’s evil spirit.
Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” isn’t about a man who steals a loaf of bread and evades the law, but a man struggling to define his purpose when he gets a second chance at life.
Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” isn’t about a YA science fiction story about a family and three witches. It’s about a girl who must fight through time and space to save her family.
2. Don’t Get Distracted
Once authors know their point, they should stick to it and keep supporting it. But instead, many authors spend time discussing what the book is not as well as peripheral and irrelevant details.
Imagine, for example, a book about a time-traveling YouTube star trying to save the boy she loves — and the world — from a path of self-destruction.
This is a strong point. As a listener or reader, you’re engaged.
But instead of making this resonant point, the author talks about the science behind time travel, the popularity of internet celebrities, the likelihood of environmental catastrophe, and how much this story isn’t like “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”
Each of these concepts is included in your book and relevant on some level, but when you’re asked, “what is your book about?” it’s crucial to not only express your point but stick to it.
3. Avoid Adjectives as Answers
It may surprise you to know that these sentences have little if any value when heard or read:
- The story is great.
- The characters are amazing.
- The action is excellent.
- The mystery is compelling.
Good journalists know that adjectives are the least powerful way to describe something important, and you should know that too. These words — great, amazing, excellent, compelling, as well as adventurous, incredible, unbelievable, and awesome — can be said about nearly every fiction book on Amazon.
Use the same rules of good fiction writing to champion your book. You know:
- Show, don’t tell.
- Be unique, not cliché
- Share character traits through action, not exposition
4. Know Why You Wrote It
The strength of your point dramatically increases if it seems powered by your life experiences or personal passion. Explore and identify what internal forces inspired you to write it: perhaps an interest you’ve had for decades, a pivotal experience in your history, or a deep connection to your protagonist’s driving forces.
Then — after you’ve expressed your book’s driving point — explain why that personal connection makes you the best person in the world to tell this particular story.
“I’ve been interested in time travel ever since I was a kid and am also a social media addict. So, the intersection of celebrity culture, technology, and social media seemed like a perfect setting to tell a unique time-traveling love story.”
5. Start Strong, End Strong
Even with all of this understood, you can still sabotage your sale with a weak start or finish.
“So, um, my book is about… well, you’re familiar with time travel, right? So, this book, you see… Umm… Sorry, I’m just not very good at this part. Here’s let me read you from the back…”
“So… I guess that’s what it’s about, at least the gist of it. That wasn’t really the best description, but it’s cool, right?”
These are not just weak but destructive starts and finishes because they don’t express or reinforce your points well and also display a lack of confidence that can sabotage your reputation as an author. Apologizing and admitting failure are the sharpest daggers of all.
Remember: You’re not just the writer of your story; you’re an expert on this story — as if it actually happened and you are the preeminent historian on that event. That expertise relies on projecting confidence and clarity.
You may not like it, but being an author also means being a marketer. You work in Sales the moment someone asks you, “Hey, what’s your book about?” Deal with it.
The good news is that you now have a roadmap to answer the question. If you know your story’s point, start and end confidently, and respond to questions (and #WritersLifts!) with these ideas in mind, you’ll present yourself as not just the author of a book but a champion of its most powerful idea.
Joel Schwartzberg is the author of Get to the Point! Sharpen Your Message and Make Your Words Matter and has been teaching effective presentation and messaging techniques since 2006. A former national champion public speaker and competitive speech coach, Joel has written for Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Toastmaster Magazine, and The New York Times Magazine, and is currently Senior Director of Strategic and Executive Communications for the ASPCA in NYC.
Originally published at the Stoney deGeyter blog.