Making Survival First: Part 10 - The Book Description
On the back of any book cover is the the book description. It's usually the first thing people read when deciding to buy the book or move on. You can think about it as the book equivalent of a movie trailer.
Book descriptions are challenging for the same reasons movie trailers are. You have a tiny window of interest where you have to get somebody excited enough to spending their money, time, and energy on your book. It needs to be engaging, descripting, and compelling and most importantly - short.
I’ll tell you how I got to my final book description.
To help you follow along I’ve linked a Google Doc tracking the book description and revisions from beginning to end. You can open this document or stay on this article where I’ve copy-pasted the various stages.
Book Description #1 [Alexander]
Since I wrote the book I figured I would be the best person to describe it. Here’s my first draft.
Why do most entrepreneurs fail? The answer can be narrowed down to a single problem: Risk. The default approach to risk is outdated, broken, and even counterproductive which leads to bad decisions and devastating, but preventable outcomes. This book opens the space for readers to begin answering entrepreneurship's toughest questions:
How can we avoid the traps that destroy most businesses?
How do we thrive in a complex world outside our control?
How can we become our business’ greatest asset instead of its greatest risk?
Survival First presents a radical and methodical way of dissecting the traps we all face from marketing, operations, cash flow, burnout and most importantly, ourselves. These frames are simple, relatable, occasionally profound, often hilarious, but most importantly, useful. Readers will come away learning a systematic approach to resolving problems that would otherwise destroy them and discovering opportunities hiding in plain sight.
This first draft seemed reasonable. I described the book, and introduced some compelling tensions.
Eventually I realized the problem with my first book description...was that it was a book description. Contrary to what you might be thinking, the function of a book description is NOT to describe the book. Describing the book is part of the book description, but it's real function is to sell the book. My first draft did the former, but not the ladder.
This turns out to be a common problem. Authors tend to be better at describing than selling. This is why most authors work with professional copywriters for their book descriptions. I was cocky enough to try out my own description, but not cocky enough to skip hiring a pro.
My publishing team connects me with Amanda Hoppe, a copywriter with lot of experience writing book descriptions. She’s married to Chas Hoppe, the guy who helped me with my book title. In a narratively satisfying way, working with Amanda was as fruitful and procedurally identical as working with Chas on the book title. I had ideas, and she had guidance to take me where I needed to go.
I shared my book manifesto, the document containing my vision for Survival First with Amanda so could get up to speed. She comes back with a question I wasn’t expecting.
Amanda: Are you a fan of Caravaggio?
This may seem like an absurd question that has nothing to do with a business book description, but it turned out to be the perfect question.
Understanding this question's significance requires a strange, but ultimately relevant side tangent. As I was completing Survival First's manuscript I spent a month in Northern Italy and France. Because I'm sophistical and cultural and stuff I went down a deep Renaissance rabbit hole to prepare.
Along the way I fell in love with masters like Caravaggio. He was a rebel, occasional murderer, and one of the greatest painters of all time. Fans dub him the Master of Light. Scholars credit him with ushering in the ultra dramatic Baroque era. Here is one of his masterpieces, Saint Matthew and the Angel.
Look at the lighting! The drama! THE HUMANITY! Don't get me started. Go here if you want to understand why Caravaggio makes me so frothy. For me it’s his masterful grasp over the tension between darkness and light that gets me. This tension is a core theme in Survival First, and the reason he’s mentioned in my manifesto.
Amanda's question signals she knows the exact kind of dork she's dealing with and that I'm in the right hands. To complete this tangent I reply Yes, yes I am a fan of Caravaggio. I give Amanda the green light so she can work her magic.
Book Description #2 [Amanda’s Revision]
Amanda comes back with this.
Entrepreneurship is a risky proposition.
In 1602, Caravaggio painted Saint Matthew and the Angel twice. His patrons, displeased with the humility and proud bare feet of the first Matthew, demanded a redo—a haloed patriarch unbesmirched by doubt or dirty floors.
Entrepreneurs today recognize Caravaggio’s rebellion. His desire to break the mold, acknowledge both darkness and light, and create beauty. And like Caravaggio, entrepreneurs take risks that could bring it all crashing down.
Survival First illuminates the agonies and ecstasies of modern rebel entrepreneurs. Ordinary people who shrug off the dull shackles of corporate life in a bid to control their money-making destinies. These stories exemplify the radical yet practical RDEE Risk formula for decision-making that avoids destructive risk while embracing opportunities that make you rich.
Risk. Opportunity. Reward. These are the ingredients of survival. Of creation. Of immortality.
Caravaggio’s risk made him a Baroque master. What will yours do?
This was....interesting. Was I really going to make a direct comparison between myself and one of the greatest artistic souls humanity has ever produced? This was ridiculous and absurd.
Fucking of course I was. What kind of stupid question is that.
The direction was perfect. However as much as I love the absurdity of comparing myself with Caravaggio, it turned out there was a much better Renaissance artist to parallel my work to - Dante Alighieri.
The Divine Comedy
Dante's Divine Comedy is largely credited with kickstarting the Renaissance. The Divine Comedy, in overly simplistic terms, traces Dante’s path through Hell, guided by the poet Virgil, so that he can eventually reach paradise.
As thoughts and ideas occasionally do, they cross pollinate in unpredictable and interesting ways. It wasn't until long after I read the Divine Comedy did I realize the near-perfect thematic parallel between the Divine Comedy and Survival First. My book is a journey through the darkness of risk so that we as entrepreneurs can better reach paradisal glories of wealth, freedom, and meaning.
Comparing Survival First with the book that literally (in the literal sense) kicked off the greatest cultural explosion in human history seemed reasonable. So I pitched it to Amanda and waited for her next draft.
Book Description #3 [Amanda’s 2nd Revision]
Here’s what she comes back with.
Risk is the key to survival. It can also burn like a Carolina Reaper.
This is the core dilemma for entrepreneurs.
Like Dante, whose Divine Comedy kicked off the Renaissance, entrepreneurs abandon the hope of employed certainty to follow their desires: break the mold, create beauty, leave a legacy.
Rest assured, modern Dantes, to be a master of risk all you need is a guide.
Survival First kicks off a new entrepreneurial renaissance by retooling the hellscape of risk. It illuminates the agonies and ecstasies of rebel entrepreneurs—ordinary people who shrugged off the dull shackles of corporate life in a bid to control their money-making destinies. Their stories exemplify the radical yet practical RDEE Risk formula for decision-making that avoids destructive risk while embracing opportunities that make you rich.
Risk. Opportunity. Reward. These are the ingredients of creation. Of survival. Of immortality.
With risk you don’t just survive. You thrive.
I got that fuzzy feely feel that signaled we were getting hotter. We were close, but not quite there. For better and worse I need everything I put out into the world to feel like me, so I went back and tinkered.
Book Description #4 [Alexander’s Revision]
In the Renaissance-sparking Divine Comedy Virgil guides Dante through Hell's rings so that he may reach paradise. Entrepreneurs, like Dante, journey along a dangerous path so they may find wealth, freedom, and meaning. Survival First ushers in a new Renaissance by re-tracing Virgil's path through the entrepreneurial hell-scape of risk.
Survival First humanizes risk by discarding academic jargon and complex formulas for simple logic and the stories of ordinary people who bet on themselves. Readers learn to not merely confront risk, but dance with it. Embodied in the radical-yet-practical RDEE RISK formula is an eternally applicable framework for avoiding ruin and unlocking riches.
Readers leave with fresh approaches to our hardest problems. How do we adapt to a world outside our control? How do we build resilient businesses? How do we become our businesses greatest asset instead of its greatest risk?
Risk. Uncertainty. Riches. These are the elements of survival. Of creation. Of immortality.
This felt much closer. Amanda has fewer comments, signaling I’m close to the bulls-eye. She points out things I’m missing standard book description stuff like a line hook and introductory question. These were parts of the standard book description formula that made sense to me, so I added them.
Book Description #5 [Alexander’s FINAL Revision]
Entrepreneurship can be hell.
Most quit, scarred by financial ruin, emotional trauma and broken dreams. So how do we defy the odds and win this great bet on ourselves?
In Dante’s Renaissance-sparking Divine Comedy, Virgil guides the hero Dante through the many layers of Hell to reach paradise. Entrepreneurs, too, walk through a hellscape of risk so they may create wealth, freedom and meaning. Survival First ushers in a new Renaissance by guiding modern Dantes through this hellscape.
Survival First humanizes risk by discarding academic jargon and complex formulas for simple logic, emotional realism and the stories of ordinary entrepreneurs. Readers learn how to not merely confront risk but dance with it. Inside is the radical-yet-practical RDEE RISK formula—an eternally applicable framework for avoiding ruin and unlocking riches.
Risk. Uncertainty. Riches. These are the elements of survival. Of creation. Of immortality.
Dare to seek paradise? Come walk with me.
This final version is mostly the same, but with a few differences. I added a catchy introductory line, described some core tensions my audience feels, and combined the three book-specific questions into one general question. This made the intro tighter and punchier and gave me more words to add elsewhere. I tightened up some sentences so I could add previews to more compelling ideas.
I traded some neutral words for more dramatic action-oriented words. For example, I changed "Ready for paradise?" to “Dare to seek Paradise?” and "Then walk with me to "Come walk with me".
After this revision Amanda didn’t have any more notes signaling we were done. More importantly, It felt right. I sensed these words captured the essence of the book and described it’s journey in a bold way. I was happy.
As we were wrapping up Amanda explained why our book description process was unusual. I did what seemed obvious to me and put my paws all over it. It turns out this was not normal. I learned the “normal” thing for authors to do was to hand their book description off entirely to a copywriter like Amanda to do.
Amanda explains some of her suspicions for this. According to her, most authors don't see book descriptions as "creative". Instead, they see it as strict marketing copy (which it is) which requires a strict/boring formula best left for copywriters. The book cover description isn't as creatively glamorous as the rest of the book, and there’s usually a chief editor directing the process.
In sum, I followed some standards, broke some rules, bent conventional norms, did things my way, and made something awesome.
Exactly as I wanted.
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