5 Adjectives That Don’t Sell a Book to Me

Whether it’s in a blurb, a social media post, an email from an author or publicist, or an advertisement, I often see adjectives used to promote books… and while some of those adjectives do their job well, I’ve noticed others immediately rub me up the wrong way. These seemingly innocuous little words provoke grimaces or eye-rolls, instead of doing what they’re presumably meant to do: make me want to read the book.

Of course, these are specific to me and my personal tastes, but I thought for some fun, and in case it helps anyone know how not to promote a book to someone like me, I’d list a few that stand out.

1. Award-winning / Best-selling

I’ve encountered authors and publishers who describe themselves or their books as “award-winning” or “best-selling”. I get why they do it, but these terms are pretty empty and meaningless to me, and make me aware of the fact I’m being advertised to.

To be fair, if a specific award is mentioned, e.g. “SPFBO finalist” or “Nebula-award-winning”, and the book has actually won it, this will work in its favour. Similarly if a specific best-seller list is mentioned it could be a positive… though again, it has to be true. If only 10 people have rated a “New York Times best-selling” book on Goodreads it’s not hard to spot the lie.

But the bottom line is I just don’t care all that much about awards beyond the few I pay attention to in the sphere of genres I prefer. An author could tell me they won the Nobel Prize for Literature and it wouldn’t sway me. I’m much more inclined to look favourably on book that’s honest about the fact it’s trying to gain more readers or acclaim, rather than one that uses a bland term like “award-winning”.

2. Life-Changing

This is the common offender in a whole category of enthusiastic self-help-type words like “inspirational”, “transformational”, “spiritual” and “journey of self-discovery” that don’t work for me, cynic that I am. I’ve read books that changed my life, but I’d like to decide which ones belong in that category… being told by someone else I’ll have my life changed kind of makes me more determined I won’t.

I can handle adjectives like these in a quote on a book cover (and of course in reviews!), since that’s clearly someone else’s opinion, but if the blurb or publisher tries to directly sell to me that way it’s not going work. Aside from sounding a bit conceited, these sorts of adjectives actually tell me very little about the book or what I might like about it… they are pretty much exaggerated variations of “good”.

3. Empowering

Don’t misunderstand: I like books that actually and genuinely are empowering. I particularly enjoy books that empower women, being a woman myself. However, the adjective in a book description is a turn-off for me.

Firstly, the emphasis is being placed on the values the book expounds rather than on the quality of the story or the way it’s told… and in my opinion if the latter isn’t great the former isn’t going to matter. It feels a bit like when an education board prescribes me a book because I should read it and will learn good moral lessons from it, rather than because I’ll enjoy reading it – and the rebel in me sets myself against it.

Secondly, if it’s said by the author or publisher it somehow feels a little conceited and patronising, and it’s one of those adjectives in the category of “life-changing” where I’d like to decide for myself if the book is empowering or not.

4. Heart-Breaking

I don’t like to have my heart broken, or wrenched, or shattered.

Actually if I’m being honest, I do, but it’s still not wise to try and sell a book to me with “heart-breaking” in the pitch. I don’t avoid all grim or depressing subject matter, but I’m also not a fan of stories that have no purpose other than exploring varying shades of misery and unhappiness… so anything that suggests it might be that kind of book makes me worried it’s not the right choice for me.

Also I feel like this adjective is a little overused and generic. All I need to do is read “a heart-breaking tale of love and loss” and my attention is drifting elsewhere.

5. Must-Read

I guess a theme of rebellion is coming through in this list, but I can’t help but react to this adjective in a book promo with “no I mustn’t!”

I suppose it also reminds me of those “100 books you must-read before you die” lists, which I’ve never really liked. In fact, must-before-you-die lists in general manage to annoy me, fill me with hope and depress me all at the same time.


So there I my top five. I suppose my adjective prejudices might mean I’m walking past lots of life-changing, empowering, heart-breaking and award-winning must-read best-sellers… but hey, I can live with that 🙂

Do you agree or disagree with me on any of these? Or are there other book-selling adjectives that would make your personal do-not-use list?  Feel free to share them in the comments!

33 thoughts on “5 Adjectives That Don’t Sell a Book to Me

  1. Those five adjectives are turn-offs for me, too. I also find “Tolkienesque” to be a turn-off, because I can only imagine how much the story will fail to remind me of anything JRR Tolkien wrote. Also, if I want to read something like Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, I’ll reread those stories, which I have yet to do.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I agree 100% with your list and I think you read my mind! I pay very little heed to advertising adjectives because the first thing I go by when deciding whether to read a book or not is the blurb. If the subject matter, characters, and/or overall story don’t intrigue or excite me, then no amount of descriptors will convince me to change my mind. I understand why such adjectives are used, but I agree that they’ve turned into clichés due to overuse. If I may add one of my personal pet peeves along these lines, I’m not too keen on book taglines that name-drop other books or movies/TV shows. Again, I get why publishers do this as it’s a way of saying “if you like X then you’ll also like Y,” but sometimes the combinations don’t make sense. One I can immediately think of is for “Prisoner of Ice and Snow,” a middle grade fantasy novel that was marketed as “Prison Break’ meets ‘Frozen.'” I can see how the “Frozen” comparison might appeal to the book’s chief demographic (i.e. middle grade girls), but “Prison Break”? I loved that show and maybe that reference might attract other adults who are familiar with it, but I’m willing to bet that no middle grade reader is going to even get a reference to a TV-14-rated prison drama series that aired on Fox in the mid-2000s (for reference, the novel was published in 2016). So book/media comparisons for marketing purposes usually don’t appeal to me because I like seeing how a book stands on its own, not how to compares to similar works.

    Also – books that compare themselves to “Twilight.” Just don’t. 😀

    Great post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I feel that way about blurbs too – ultimately something that gives a sense of the subject, characters and story type/premise is going to be a more convincing than glowing adjectives (my only exception would be in reviews – e.g. seeing enthusiastic adjectives from a reviewer I trust might pique my interest even if a blurb hasn’t – though admittedly reviews are not book promos/advertising so it’s not really the same thing).

      And that’s a good point about the comp titles – I can see why they’re useful to target a particular audience, but they risk being off-putting if they get it wrong… that prison break one is perfect example! What a weird combo 😆 And haha yes, Twilight comparisons are best avoided – not least because they’ve been done so much I think they’d feel dated and clichéd now.

      Glad you liked the post, thanks for the comment! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m with you on these. For me, I’d add “subversive” — if the most notable thing you can say about a book is that it’s trying to tear things down, I’m not interested. I prefer books that are edifying — that build us up.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fun topic!

    On the award-winning or best-selling claim, I guess my first question is “when?” How recent was this award or nomination? Tastes change over time, and awards from more than 10 years ago may not be relevant to the author’s work now.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s an interesting point! I’ve never really thought about it, but it’s true that what won a particular award decades ago might not win the same award now, or reflect the author’s current work.

      I’m also intrigued by those books that didn’t win major awards at the time of publication, but have since become lauded “classics”, while others that did have faded to obscurity. I guess a win is not always a sign of enduring popularity.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “The new Katniss” and “the new Harry Potter”. You mean you hope it will sell as well as those two franchises? Because I have read both Harry Potter and The Hunger Games and I’m not looking to buy a retelling of the same story. I want new material!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s important to remember that the “New York Times Best-Selling” thing is based off a list that is compiled weekly. So it is possible to claim that you were on the “New York Times Best-Selling List” even if that only accounts for say, your opening week when virtually all of your books sold to wholesalers for further distribution (which are counted on that list btw). So it is very possible for that statement to be technically true without it actually meaning anything.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Nice post, however as an author i must (in my view) i find it’s important mention what your work truly should be. If it’s spiritual that shouldn’t be hidden (that’s like saying I’m ashamed of God, who i greatly believe in)!

    Now, i do agree that as an author I shoudn’t say my work is a best-seller if it is not. However, I leave my reviews up to the readers who more than often (without me self-expressing) mention that my work is a majority of the list you’ve opposed.

    Yet, that is why it’s good to have posts, discussions, and critiques because how can anyone grow from it? I will mention that I was drawn to your article because I was interested (as an author) on what to avoid. Your post is a great reminder that we all can learn something to help us progress for the better. Nice post!


    • Yes true, I’m very aware these adjectives reflect my personal preferences – I know books labelled with “spiritual” probably won’t be my kinds of books, but I’m sure other readers would feel differently. And of course, for certain genres/topics, adjectives like this might even be necessary to describe the book. So really this is mostly a list of what to avoid if you’re trying to sell to a reader like me, rather than all readers.

      And if someone uses adjectives like these in a review I wouldn’t necessarily have a problem – it’s their opinion after all (I think I’ve even used “heart-breaking” myself in a review once!). It’s mostly when they’re self-expressed in promotional material that it turns me off.

      Thanks for the comment!


  8. Yup. These are all so overused and trite they don’t mean anything anymore. Might as well just say “it’s a book, with pages and words”. Does make me wonder though: what words do sell a book to me these days? Any thoughts on what yours might be?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Funnily enough I actually began to wonder the same thing, so I’ve been putting together another post with words that might work on me. It’s proving tough, because as you say so many are overused… but I’m finding a few and will put it up soon! (One that’ll be in there and that came to mind first is “original” – of course it’s no guarantee, but if a book is described as “highly original” it does make me think it might have something new and interesting to offer).

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I, too, roll my eyes at these adjectives when it comes to books and movies. Like you said, specific award-winning titles are fine, but let me decide if a book is a must-read or if it is empowering. These words simply create hype that the book might not live up to, depending on the person.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: 5 Adjectives That Sell a Book to Me | Thoughts on Fantasy

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