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?

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