Selling Books in One Line or Less

Elizabeth Bluemle -- August 3rd, 2010

Most booksellers have had this experience at least once or twice in their careers: selling a book based on a single sentence uttered to a receptive ear. It’s a rare and delicious triumph of communication, a gift given by the booktalking muse, and it delights customers as much as it delights booksellers.

Sometimes, a book provides you with that magical line—often its first sentence—and all one needs to do is read it aloud to a customer and the book is sold. For instance, Frances Marie Hendry’s marvelous Quest for a Maid begins with this stunner: “When I was nine years old, I hid under a table and heard my sister kill a king.” That’s all a kid needs to hear to want to read that book. The same is true of Avi’s True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, which starts thusly: “Not every thirteen-year-old-girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty.” The reader is hooked like a pike on a piece of year-old Velveeta.

Not every great first line is enough to sell a customer on a book, though. Perhaps the most famous first line in children’s literature is “Where’s Pa going with that ax?” from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. The line certainly earns a reader’s riveted attention, but a bookseller definitely has to add a little bit about Charlotte and Wilbur to that booktalk (at least, if the customer has been living on Neptune for the past century and doesn’t already know the book). And a little extra description is required for one of my favorite first lines, from M.T. Anderson’s Feed: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” It’s a perfect piece of immediate world-building, but doesn’t give a customer a sense of the plot — so you need a second sentence. But that’s all it takes.

In our store, the most common single-sentence sales come from simply saying that one of our booksellers loved it. These aren’t bookstore-muse-inspired one-liners, but it’s certainly gratifying to make sales based on that level of trust our customers have for our staff members.

The key to the one-liner is that it has to lure the reader with something irresistible, something intriguing or powerful or magical or mysterious that invites a deeper relationship with the book. It also has to be sincere, enthusiastic, and heartfelt. I’m sure the expressions on our faces that sell books as much as the words we use. People can see it in your eyes when you’ve loved a book, lived it, want to share it with others. Here are some of the one-line (or one-phrase) descriptions we give that seem to do the trick for readers.

The Boxes, by William Sleator: “A boy’s mysterious uncle gives him a package to hide, instructing him never to open it—and then the box in his closet begins to tick.”

A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears, by Jules Feiffer: “There’s a prince so silly that everyone falls down laughing near him, so his father the king thinks he’ll make a terrible ruler someday and sends him on a quest to be serious.”

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins: “It’s got a really brutal premise, but it’s amazing.” That’s enough for kids. For writers and teachers, I add: “and it’s the most perfectly paced book I’ve ever read.”

Life as We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer: “A meteor hits the moon off-course, causing major natural disasters, and a typical teenage girl’s whole life, everything she’s ever known and counted on, begins to unravel.” That’s enough to hook a reader, and as we walk toward the front desk, we like to add that it’s a one-sitting read, and that the customer is going to start obsessing about survival supplies.

Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals: “It’s like reading bottled sunshine.”

The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas: “This is a great summer read: an epic potboiler full of betrayal, revenge, prison escapes, duels, star-crossed lovers, rags and riches.”

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, by Julie Andrews Edwards: “Three kids meet this funny little professor who needs their help to get to the magical Whangdoodleland and rescue the last whangdoodle.” For adults, I add: “And it’s by Julie Andrews, one of the few celebrities who writes beautifully for children.”

Mrs. Biddlebox, by Linda Smith and illustrated by the inimitable Marla Frazee: “It’s the perfect book for anyone who’s caught in a black cloud at the moment, and the illustrations are remarkable.” I love this book so much, and always felt it didn’t get the attention it deserved.

Weslandia, by Paul Fleischman: “A boy who’s kind of a loner, and not like most other kids, is incredibly original and starts building his own society, which unexpectedly brings him all kinds of friends.” (This one works well because every kid feels different from other kids, and wants to create a world where everyone belongs. Or, um, was that just me?)

The nearly wordless sell:

I think Josie has written about this exchange before, but it was such a funny/wonderful bookstore moment that I’m repeating it. She had recommended Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief to a customer, commenting that it was in my personal top ten or twenty favorite books of all time. The customer came up to the counter, caught my eye, and said, “It’s really that good?” All I did was look at her, my face revealing, I guess, every bit of the awe and power and compassion and sorrow and humor that book conjures up for me. “Sold!” she crowed, and plunked down her fifteen dollars. We all just laughed. That’s some book.

How Rocket Learns to Read, by Tad Hills: Show them the cover. That’s it. (It’s easy to come up with a single line to recommend this one, too, though.)

Booksellers and librarians and teachers and readers out there, what are your most successful one-line booktalks?

17 thoughts on “Selling Books in One Line or Less

  1. Therese Holland

    Bang! went the pistol. Eighty-four champion hippopotamuses hit the Zamboola River. The crash was like thunder! Among the swimmers was young Edward Day-synopsis

    The 27th Annual African Hippopotamus Race by Morris Lurie -A wonderful book I have read aloud to my children so many times
    I can never get enough copies
    I notice that most of the books mentioned here are for kids
    the one I always remember the opening lines of is Little Women
    Christmas won’t be Christmas without presents grumbled Jo

  2. shelftalker elizabeth

    Came across a really compelling two-line hook for a YA in today’s Booklist. It’s for a title called Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty. Neri, G. (author). Illustrated by Randy DuBurke.
    Aug. 2010. 96p. Lee & Low, paperback, $16.95 (9781584302674). Grades 8-12. 305.896.

    Here’s what immediately drew me in:

    “Robert Sandifer—called “Yummy” thanks to his sweet tooth—was born in 1984 on the South Side of Chicago. By age 11 he had become a hardened gangbanger, a killer, and, finally, a corpse.”

    I’m pretty sure that would be enough to grab the interest of a teen, too.

  3. Bina

    Here are some opening lines that I like… I have a BAD theme going here…. Enjoy.

    “The news traveled swiftly through the tunnels of the ant world.”
    Two Bad Ants by Chris Van Allsburg

    “One afternoon at an elegant gardern party, young Elbert head a word he had never heard before.”
    Elbert’s Bad Word by Audrey Wood

    “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.”
    The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket.

  4. Sarah

    My favorite recent one has been Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix-“A plane lands with babies on it and no one knows who they are or where they come from.” The tweens love it and it’s such a great sell!

  5. Sara

    When recommending Gordon Korman’s Swindle to parents (for their kids), I usually say…”It’s like Ocean’s 11, but for kids!”

  6. Lisa Schroeder

    One of my favorite books so far this year is SORTA LIKE A ROCK STAR by Matthew Quick. “Amber and her mom are homeless and stuck living in a school bus, yet Amber is one of the most hopeful and helpful characters I’ve ever met.”

  7. Kate Messner

    I love this blog post – because this is what I do all day when school starts…hold up books from my class library and deliver one-liners until a kid’s face lights up. Among my one-liners that are ready for September…

    This is one of the most disturbing, messed up books I’ve ever read.
    NOTHING by Janne Teller

    Really cool surfing and mermaids!
    THE MERMAID’S MIRROR by L.K. Madigan

    Lots of action and organized criminals who can curse people.
    THE WHITE CAT by Holly Black

    A girl who goes to a beach house every summer falls in love with one brother while another one falls in love with her.
    THE SUMMER I TURNED PRETTY by Jenny Han

    An eighth grade girl is horrified when her 7-year-old genius sister enrolls in her middle school.
    THE TOTAL TRAGEDY OF A GIRL NAMED HAMLET by Erin Dionne

    If you liked ALABAMA MOON or TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR, this has that same action and survival theme but with a girl main character and an African setting with lions.
    ESCAPE UNDER THE FOREVER SKY by Eve Yohalem

    Doesn’t that cookie on the cover look good? The book’s awesome, too.
    SWEETHEARTS by Sara Zarr

    It’s about a boy who rides horses at the Saratoga Race Track in the 1930s, and you won’t believe the stuff he goes through.
    BUG BOY by Eric Luper

    It’s a little like TWILIGHT only with bloodthirsty pixies instead of vampires and a really strong girl as the main character.
    NEED by Carrie Jones

  8. Jonathan Petersen

    Your writing style is so engaging, it drew me in and kept my attention to the end. Thank you for identifying such excellent examples. I’ve excerpted from your post onto our own blog (http://somersault.posterous.com/selling-books-in-one-line-or-less) and linked back here so our readers, who are authors, publishers, and agents, can benefit from your insights. Every author should craft their own one-liner as the perfect marketing tool for their book. Thank you for your insights.

  9. Shelftalker Elizabeth

    Ha! Angela, that’s almost verbatim my booktalk for Half Magic, too. : ) I do like to throw in the teaser about wishing for the cat to talk, and getting half of THAT wish….

  10. Angela

    A Mouse Called Wolf by Dick King-Smith
    “A piano playing mouse, named after Mozart, is called upon to save the day in this easy reader by then man who brought us Babe.”

    Works EVERY time.

    Also this one:

    Half Magic by Edward Eager
    “Some kids find a coin and get only half of what they wish for, so they have to learn to wish more smartly to get what or WHERE they want”.

  11. Eleanor

    Lest we ever forget : “Mr. & Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

  12. Miriam at Lee & Low Books

    Many of my friends are interested in LGBTQ issues, so when they ask for book recs I’ve gotten them with such lines as, “Lesbian Cinderella” (Ash), “Lesbian love story in a Victorian insane asylum” (Wildthorn), and “Gay teenage superhero” (Hero). “It’s a football book but I loved it” (Dairy Queen) tends to work when I’m recommending to someone who knows I don’t do sports. Which is most people who know me.

  13. Sam @ Parenthetical

    The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex: “At the beginning of this book, aliens invade.” (That’s enough for a lot of kids right there.) “So a girl and her cat and an outcast alien named J. Lo go on a road trip to save the world.” (“J LO????”)

    Sold!

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