Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The 34-second Rule for Writers

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

How do people buy books? Even though we may not be aware of it, we all use the 34-second rule.

Here’s how it works:
Step 1.   Pick a genre
 Most of us know what type of book we want when we’re browsing shelves in a book store or surfing the web. Maybe we want a mystery, something scary. We know where to go to find one on the internet or in the book store, so pretend your reader is standing in front of the shelf. (If the reader has a favorite author, he or she will probably start there but pretend they are searching for something new.)

Step 2. Pick a cover
The first thing that attracts a reader is the cover. Colors, clarity, titles – all of these are hand-picked by a publisher to convince that reader to select that particular book. It’s a real science, one that only a very few are really good at. 

Step 3. Pick a pitch 
Next, the reader turns the book over and reads the back-of-the-book blurb. In How to Write a Synopsis Without Turning Homicidal,Gracie O’Neill says “Your back-of-the-book blurb is a filter, an advertisement, a need generator.” (Italics mine.) When a potential buyer picks up your book, a decision is being made as to whether money will be exchanged. So, what does your blurb say to that reader? They will be asking themselves, “Do I NEED this book? Has my curiosity been aroused enough to lay that money down?” If the answer is no, the book will go back on the shelf.

Step 4. Pick a first paragraph
The first paragraph is the clincher. If a reader has gotten that far, they’re interested. But if that first paragraph doesn’t hook them, it doesn’t matter how good the rest of the book is.

Do you know how long this usually takes? 34-seconds. Just a little over half a minute. The decision is made and the book either goes into the shopping cart or back on the shelf. 

And that makes the difference as to whether the author makes money from it. 

Of course, it’s a little different when someone is purchasing a book online – they have access to reviews and a little bit more copy. But it still is the same process. 

Most buyers make quick decisions based on a small amount of information.

So, how can you make your book as attractive as possible to those buyers?

Let’s follow the same basic steps:

Step 1. Clarify your genre
With the advent of online book stores, we’re able to use many more ‘modifiers’, i.e., sub-genres. Instead of a rack where suspense thrillers and cozy mysteries – basically the polar opposites of each other – line up side by side, now we can define our books by any of the twenty-two (or more) types of mystery genre fiction. A little research into these sub-genres can give our readers the ability to choose Sherlock Holmes-type mysteries as opposed to Nero Wolfe-type mysteries. So, be sure to know exactly who your target audience is, and what they will be interested in. If you’re selling a steam-punk historical, for instance, make sure everything about your book screams ‘steam-punk’ so your ideal reader can find it.

Step 2. Find a cover
If you’re publishing through an established house, you probably won’t have a lot of say in your cover. Unless it’s absolutely horrible, I suggest you trust them to choose, based on their market research, something that will work. 

If, instead, you’re publishing your own book, I recommend you hire a cover artist. Even though Aunt Josie can draw a good picture or take a beautiful photograph, it may not be appropriate for cover art. 

Remember, when the book cover is displayed online, it needs to be clear and uncluttered, with the title and your name prominently displayed, and exactly on target for what you’re selling. If it’s muddled or amateurish, it’s very easy for the buyer to click on the next one.

Step 3. Write your back-of-the-book blurb
Can you tell your story in fifty words or less? If you need help, check out my 2-part blog on How to Write a Synopsis without Turning Homicidal. The process for a blurb is very similar. The things to look for are clarity, brevity, and emotional punch. Remember, it’s a need generator. The buyer has to discover a NEED to buy your book and the blurb is your best-selling tool.

Step 4. Make the first paragraph the best first paragraph ever
Evaluate your beginning. Is it the strongest it can be? Can you make it better? Does it create a question in your reader’s mind that makes them want to buy the book so they can find out what happens? (Then, make sure the rest of the book is as good!)

The more you know about the psychology of selling books, the better your books will sell. It’s not that hard. You can do your own research no farther away than your own bookshelf. Something attracted you to spend your hard-earned money on the books you own. Check out the covers. Read the blurbs. Read as many first paragraphs as you can. Why did you buy those books? 

Then, armed with knowledge, you can make sure the books you write are just as attractive to readers.

What kind of covers attract you? What is your favorite blurb? Or first paragraph?

The 34-second rule for writers - tips from @SarahSallyHamer on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

34-seconds is all the time an author has to interest a reader - @SarahSallyHamer on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in good stories. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over twelve years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. You can find her at or on Twitter @sarahsallyhamer.

I wish to express gratitude to the giants whose shoulders I stand on, from whom I learned the craft of writing. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. Recently I'd been buying books based on reviews and recommendations by Locus magazine. I trust their judgement.
    Nominees for the Hugo and Nebula awards are automatic purchases for me.
    However, like you indicated, it is a catchy cover and the back of the book blurb which sells it for me.
    If I love a book from a new author, I will buy everything they write. If I don't, you bet I would stay away from the following ones.
    I have noticed I love certain authors in one particular genre but not when the same author writes in a different one.
    Then there are those who can write anything and don't lose what makes them special.
    Another thoughtful and informative post, Sally.

    1. All good points, Ingmar - there are probably a million different ways that people decide how to spend their money. Or more!

      And, just as many people who try to figure out how to market products to us. :)

      Thanks for the post.

  2. Thanks so much Ms. Sally. I've applied that rule as a reader/purchaser, but never knew it had a name. So much to learn. God's blessings ma'am. One question; what's more important inside front cover or back cover? And why?

    1. Hi, Jim! I'm sorry, I don't quite understand your question. "what's more important inside front cover or back cover?"
      I'm going to guess you mean whether the front cover or the back cover is more important. If that's the case, the answer is 'yes'. :)

      What I mean is that both front and back are equally important in the ultimate information the reader/buyer is looking for. But, I think the front edges the back out by 1%, because it's normally the first thing the buyer sees.

      Let me tell you a story - years ago, I was in a book store standing in front of the romance section. Two boys came rushing in, wanting to buy a book for their mother's birthday. They knew she read romance, so they were very excited about buying her something she'd like. They stared at the shelf, which reached from floor to ceiling in dismay. 'They all look alike!' one of the boys said. And, when I looked at the books with 'their eyes', I could see exactly what they meant - every book had a partially undressed woman being held in a man's arms. The boys found a cover with a rose on it - something different - and that's the one they bought. But it was only because of the cover, because they weren't interested in anything else about it.

      If their mother had come in herself to choose, the covers wouldn't have put her off. She would have been expecting the 'clinches' and would have used different criteria to choose the book. So, in that case, the back cover would have been more important.

      So, we don't know who will pick our books up in that 34-seconds, and what criteria will guide them. We just have to make each book the best we can.

      Does that help?

      Thanks for the post!

    2. Great answer Ms. Sally. Better than I had hoped for. Thanks so much for your willingness to help and explaining things. God's blessings ma'am...

    3. Good! Let me know if I can help anymore. I'm always glad to answer questions.

  3. Sally, I always enjoy your posts. You have such good information to share. Thank you!

  4. Great advice, Sally! This is especially useful for authors today since the market has become so crowded. Readers have small attention spans now, too, thanks to 3-min YouTube videos. Thanks for sharing!


  5. Good points. I'm struggling with the first paragraph... actually the first chapter. It really needs to be an introduction to the rest of the book (upper elementary kids, stories from Africa by Missionary Kids). Help!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Jackie, there are lots of resources to help with that first paragraph. For fiction (I can't tell if your story is fiction or not but it sounds like it), I recommend Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages. But remember, writing the rest of the book is as important!

  6. Thank you for this post, and for backing up what we must share with writers often. It is good for it to come from someone else in the know and to be succinctly put like this is gold.I also enjoyed the comments and your responses. :-)

    1. Thank you, Diana. We all, even those 'old-timers', need to be reminded of what readers look for.

      Appreciate it!

  7. I look first at the title- and subsequently the front cover, which I'm thinking most people do as well. When I was a youngster we used to buy comic books--one every week. As our laundry was washing in the laundry mat we'd take our quarter go read through the comic we thought we wanted to buy, take it to the soda counter and buy our cherry cokes, drink them then take our book home and add it to our pile. I don't know why we always read it first, but we always bought it. I wish I still had those comic books. LOL Good to know this rule.

    1. I loved comic books as a kid too! And I couldn't wait for the next one to come out. Covers sell books, don't they?
      Thanks, Donevy.

  8. This is very helpful! I need to be thinking more in terms of what will grab a reader first the first 34 seconds!

  9. I'm glad you got something from it! Thanks!

  10. Sarah, I know I'm getting back to this late, but yes, covers do sell, and titles do too. If it's in a genre I gravitate to, and especially if I'm in a hurry. I've on occasion grabbed it off the shelf for those two reasons only. (Sometimes regrettably--LOL). Donevy~