It’s one of the most challenging tasks that can be asked of an author, to choose a passage from their book that represents, better yet, encapsulates its essence. When I owned a PR firm, most of my clients were authors, and I’d select their excerpts all the time. Piece of cake! Then I became an author, and soon discovered, it’s much harder when it’s your book.
I remember the first time I had to do it for myself. My publisher wanted an excerpt for their website, something that would make people want to buy the book, they said. The marketing director gave me a word count and advised me not to “overthink.” Me, overthink? Never. That was a long time ago, and here's what I’ve learned about the art and science of excerpt selection, both from my experience as an author/speaker/consultant and my previous incarnation as a publicist.
Not All Book Excerpts are Created Equal
Each book excerpt has its own purpose, and it’s important you carefully consider what you want a particular excerpt to achieve before you begin the selection process. A simple rule of thumb is that longer excerpts (200 words or more) should pass the “stand-alone” test, meaning that whatever is contained within those words has the potential to spark a debate, ignite thoughtful discussion on the subject, or reveal something about the book that sets it apart. Brief excerpts (a signature phrase or sentence or two), should be reflective of a key message or theme in the book, a defining philosophy or take-away for the reader. Whether you’re searching for the long excerpt or its brief counterpart, think of each and every excerpt like the riff of a favorite song—it lingers in the mind of the affected.
Tell a Story
Another litmus test for the ideal excerpt, is that it has its own narrative arc and tells a story that begs to be continued. Even one sentence can accomplish this, if it’s the right sentence. For example, one of my favorite excerpts from my memoir is, “the bully never remembers, the outcast never forgets.” It was one line somewhere in the middle of the book that when excerpted, generated so much word of mouth, it became its own moniker. Another excerpt that achieved similar results, “bullying isn’t just the mean things you do, it’s all the nice things you never do.” Each was a fresh take on a basic concept, immediately relatable to my target audience and easy to remember.
Whatever length the excerpt, it should resonate. A tip on what makes something resonate? It usually falls into two categories: courageous, meaning you’ve articulated something other people might think but are afraid to say; or an original take on the familiar, that inspires reflection or a personal or professional revelation.
How to Use Excerpts in Book Marketing
Here are some ways that you can use excerpts as a book marketing tool:
- blog posts
- social media pages
- press kits (when I was a publicist, I always had a Selected Excerpts one-sheet in every press kit that featured provocative pull-quotes from the book to entice media interest)
- your author website
- email blasts
- digital newsletters
A word to the wise—be prudent. A few excerpts, strategically placed across multiple-platforms can generate demand. Too many too often can decrease it because if someone thinks they already know enough about your book from reading the excerpts it can deter them from purchasing it. Excerpts should whet the reader’s appetite, not fill their belly.
Picking the Right Book Excerpt for Author Speaking
The criteria on this one is straight-forward. For your speaking engagement, choose something that moves YOU, that when you read it aloud, it touches the same part of you that you want to reach in your audience. Whether your book is personal, professional, a how-to, a guidebook, a manual, novel, or memoir, whatever you plan on reading must speak to YOU first. Think of it as your icebreaker. Sometimes, it’s good to choose a humorous or self-deprecating excerpt, that pulls your audience in with laughter and warmth. Whatever you pick, it has to be real, it has to be YOU.
Keep in mind that the audience of your author event has come to hear you speak, not just read. I recommend allotting no more than 10% of your speaking time to a book excerpt. For example, a one-hour keynote would include a maximum of a six-minute excerpt, etc. You can begin or conclude with an excerpt, or insert it during the talk. Whatever feels most natural will work best because the more comfortable you are, the stronger your connection with the audience.
Grab your highlighter and let’s get started!