A question I was asked: “How the flipping heck does one get noticed? What makes people go yeah, alright, I'll buy your book?”

Here are some of my thoughts on the topic. Some of it is about the writing, and some of it is the stuff around the writing.

You need ... a brilliant, on-genre cover

The cover is the first thing potential readers see. It needs to be distinctive and appealing. It also needs to make the genre of the book immediately clear via fonts, colours, layout, image elements and so on. The trick is to reinforce the message of what kind of book it is, whilst also promising something that isn't generic and copycat. It's a fine balance.

If you're trade published you'll likely have no say in the cover, but if you publish independently then you'll probably hire someone to design it. Remember that working with a cover designer is a two-way process. When you give them a description of a scene in minute detail, down to the exact design on the background teacup, and the designer says that's not necessary, and that it is better to give a general idea - they're right. We can't be too precious about it. The cover is meant to pull in new readers, not act as a catalogue of a scene.

One tip for working with designers is to show them examples of other book covers. I keep whole folders of covers I like for different genres, often subcategorised into types. I regularly add new ones, and delete those which are starting to look tired or over-used, so that my folders always include up-to-date and inspiring examples. They aren't covers I'd want to imitate, but each one probably illustrates one point, such as a painterly effect, or a font placement, or a colour scheme, or layout - I can then pick some to pass on to a cover designer.

Just one of my many cover image folders!

When you pay a designer I also recommend getting the source files. Cover designers sometimes quit their job, or die, or get abducted by aliens, or their computers blow up. The last thing you want is a book where you can't make any changes to an existing cover if any of that happens (e.g. changing a tagline, or adding a high-profile review quote or award). Likewise, if a new artist has to take over, it is much easier for them to create further designs that fit thematically if they have access to the original cover, so they can exactly match fonts and layout and colour schemes.

Talking about covers edges into the area of title selection, since it will feature so prominently. The title, too, needs to be appealing but not generic. (If I see a book beginning "The Girl in/on/with ..." I tend to run a mile.)

You need ... a wonderful hook/tagline

Most books have a hook or tagline - a few words that help clarify the content and also entice. Here's one where the punchy and concise tagline works brilliantly, and immediately makes me ask questions about the book, which is already taking me partway towards a purchase:

No nonsense. Clipped and confident and stylish. Here's another good one, that achieves a similar effect:

The tagline may reinforce the main image cover, or contrast with it. As one example, my first book has the tagline "Some islands don't welcome visitors". That would have one interpretation on a comical cartoon cover - implying comedy mishaps, maybe a humorous travel book. However, when the cover shows a blood-spattered man with a chainsaw, the context of the image forces a different interpretation on the tagline. In both cases the way it works with the rest of the cover can help to define genre at a glance.

Taglines aren't always necessary. Only use them when they work. Don't force them. I particularly dislike taglines when they're pure fluff that make assumptions about me and my abilities and preferences. A particular one that guarantees me never reading a book is something like "With a twist you won't see coming!" I am well-read and probably will see the twist, especially after the spoiler on the front cover that alerted me to it and ruined the surprise; and if I don't spot it after all that neon flashing, it will be because the twist is poorly implemented. That kind of tagline also assumes I read because I want a twist, whereas really I read because I want a great story and characters, and often a big twist can just be a gimmick. Likewise if the tagline tells me the book is a "must-read" or anything like that, then I just move on. Don't let trashy marketing get in the way.

You need ... a punchy blurb

A blurb has two different meanings, but I'm using it in the sense of the brief book description that goes on the back of a paperback book (or as an e-book description in an online store). It's meant to entice readers, whilst keeping some elements of the story as a mystery. So it is definitely not a synopsis (since a synopsis tells everything, including the ending, and is a few pages, usually for sending to a publisher or agent).

One technique is to write the blurb in the voice of the main character (if there is one with a distinctive persona). I always think a blurb that captures the speech patterns, life and flavour of a character can be striking. Or write one in the style of the book itself. That gives the reader information in terms of what is said, and how it is said, so the words work harder. They both help to pull you in and give you a taste of what the book will be like.

If in the voice of a character, it can be first person ("I was beaten. I was chained. But when I find him I'll get my revenge.") or third person, depending on what perspective the novel takes: though the perspective doesn't have to be the same as the story. It's just meant to catch the style.

An example might be a comic first person protagonist who is a cheesy and crap superhero vigilante; maybe in the blurb it would then be better to replace the rather flat and generic:

"Underpant Man must find the villain and clear his name."


"Holy Justice! Underpant Man is going to track down his nemesis if it's the last thing he does (it may well be), and then it will be Kapow! time for sure."

(as long as that captured the tone of the novel).

That's what I mean by the voice of the book appearing in the blurb. I should add that writing a blurb in character is a lot more fun to do, as well.

I try and limit blurb to 140 words, in order to keep them punchier, though sometimes cutting down a blurb can seem like harder work than writing the book in the first place!

You need ... an exciting or interesting premise for the story

The trick with telling stories is to try and avoid the obvious, well-trodden path, and to find more original and interesting things. That can apply to the plot just as much as it can to writing style. Freshness is a massive selling point. It's not enough to just write a basic zombie survival novel, or a "boy meets girl, has a few tribulations, then they get together romantically" novel. They've been done millions of times. We need to combine ideas in new and exciting ways, such as boy zombie meets human girl, has a few tribulations, then they get together romantically.

The concept itself can also be used to hook the reader. Something about it that makes them wonder what would happen next, what they would do in those circumstances. Something they haven't read or seen before. Here's a few film examples with high concepts.

Buried is about a guy buried alive and waking in the coffin, with the film in real time in that one location as he tries to work out what is going on, and how he can escape, before his air runs out. I'd never come across that concept before, and was full of interest and questions. I had to watch it.

Would You Rather takes a common children's game and extends it into a sadistic version with high stakes. Then imagine you have to keep playing, even after you realise what you've been trapped in. There's already a huge amount of intrigue there.

We want the reader to think "I have to read this".

While I'm talking about trying to make things fresher - remember settings too. Don't generally set all your scenes in the same place. For example, suppose you're writing a dating novel. If every scene is set in a coffee shop, it will already feel like a rehash of other works. You've just made your job harder. Would a bucket list be so boring? No. So think of interesting locations, and variety, and places we don't often see. Love blossoming in a nuclear reactor. Deep feelings during a subaquatic archaeological dig below a waterfall. A series of dates where the only interactions take place during sky diving. Go wild. No doubt you will love writing the story because it will interest you too; and that will come through for the reader.

You need ... good writing and style

It's a given, but it's worth stating because it is a prerequisite. No point wasting money and time wrapping a turd in a shiny box. You need the basics, the foundation, and everything else that is required for a great book builds on that. Good writing. A perfectly formatted and presented interior, with no errors.

The whole book should be good. Gripping opening, unputdownable middle, amazing ending. Still, the beginning is a place to spend a lot of time polishing, since a potential reader might skim it. Make it shine. Strip out the infodumps. People want to be pulled into a character's story, not the character's (or world's) history.

You need ... to write more books!

Some authors are lucky - by which I mean they have done a huge amount of hard work and it has clicked with the zeitgeist in some way. But for most authors it's a case of working hard, and working hard again. Recognition increases with each book. Sales increase with each book. The number of chances of clicking increase with each book. For many authors it takes at least four books before they start to see any success. So time and patience and perseverance is important. Don't expect miracles with one book. Get working on your next.

Writing further books also hones your skill. You get better at each aspect of craft with practice: writing, plotting, reversals and beats, characterisation, stylistic decisions.

In a 9-5 job you go into work every day. You finish a task and start the next. You don't write a report or stack a shelf or serve a pint and then sit back and wait for the adulation. You do it again.

And the next time, we do better. :-)

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!