50 Words or Fewer: The Art of Writing Shelf Talkers

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"Word-for-word a well-crafted shelf talker can be the most effective means of recommending a book to an avid reader," said Joe Drabyak of Chester County Book & Music Company in West Chester, Pennsylvania. To help other booksellers write the best possible shelf talker in 50 words or fewer, BTW spoke to Drabyak; Suzanna Hermans of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, New York; and Carol Schneck of Schuler Books & Music in Okemos, Michigan, to get their best tips for the 5 1/8" X 2 3/8" workhorse.

Drabyak is a veteran writer of shelf talkers. He has fine-tuned and developed his strategy over the years at Chester County Book & Music Company, and summarized it this way: "Being both a sports fan and a dedicated bookseller, I use what I tend to think of as an 'ESPN' approach in creating my shelf talkers. Each should be Erudite, Succinct, Personable, and Noteworthy."

The tag should immediately engage, and provide a jumping off point for further discussion, said Drabyak. "I need to provide an intriguing summation without drowning the effort in meaningless superlatives. It needs to be short -- I am not writing a long-form analysis for publication in the New York Review of Books. It needs to reflect my own opinion and personality. And it needs to include some noteworthy elements that will speak as well to both the intelligence and experience of other avid readers."

Schneck agreed that less is always more. "You want to give a sense of the book's appeal in a few sentences," said Schneck. "A shelf talker needs to be more concise than a review."

Drabyak provided an example of a short shelf talker that helped sell thousands of copies, and he explained why it worked so well:


"Attorney William Lashner, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop -- for my money, one of the best creative writing programs in the country -- debuts with this compelling legal thriller set in and around the Philadelphia area. It easily rivals anything created by John Grisham."


Drabyak said, "It's less than 50 words but there is a lot going on in this citation." He mentions that Lashner is an attorney because his experience "would lend veracity to fiction set in the courtroom." He cites one of the top graduate writing programs, the setting of the novel, which is nearby, and points out that the title is a debut, for readers looking for a new voice. Finally, Drabyak editorialized to "offer a touch point and comparison to a highly popular author…."

The results? Chester County Books & Music sold 200 hardcovers and 4,223 copies in mass market of Lashner's debut. Subsequent shelf talkers mentioned that the book had become the overall sales leader in the store's 25-year history. At one point, the bookstore had literally sold a ton of Hostile Witness, and they noted that too.

Drabyak said sometimes the cover art or a jacket blurb works well enough to grab attention. "My task in those instances is to personalize and supplement the material already at play." In the case of The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread (Don Robertson, Harper), Drabyak omitted a description of the book and author:


"This volume -- first published in 1965 and long out-of-print -- was one of the most memorable reads of my young life and a big part of why I took such an interest in literature and the power of story. It was a great book then and 45 years later it is still one of my treasures."


"The intent here," he said, "was to convey the emotional connection between this book and myself -- a deep and profound sentiment that anyone who has really loved a book can relate to."  It sold 100 copies.

The position of the shelf talker affects sales, too. Hermans at Oblong Books said, "In an idea lifted from Book People in Austin, shelf talkers in the fiction section are at eye level, so every book at eye level is a face out staff pick. We've been doing it for just over a year, and sales of these books are phenomenal."

Oblong sold 81 copies of Obedience (Will Lavender, Pan Publishing) with this eye-level tag:

"A college logic course unlike any other: no tests or papers, just an assignment to find a 'hypothetically' missing girl. As each clue to the mystery gets stranger and stranger, the students must question the game. Is it fact of fiction?"

Regarding the age-old question, handwritten or print, booksellers who spoke with BTW favored the more personal. "Handwritten is definitely best," said Schneck. "It makes it obvious that a real person cared enough about this book to draw it to your attention."

At Oblong, they also prefer handwritten. "It can be challenging for those of us with bad handwriting, but we make do!" said Hermans. "Handwritten shelf talkers certainly show off more personality. Tags must have the title and author, and a (usually short) blurb from the staff member."

To counter the problem of messy handwriting, Chester County has one staff member ("a talented soul with artistic ability and great penmanship") write all shelf talkers.

Summing up the art of the shelf talker, Drabyak compared them with haiku. "You have a limited amount of syllables to paint a picture or convey an emotion," he said. "It's not just a matter of slapping words onto the paper. In most cases you want to offer a summation -- blessed with insight and brevity -- without overplaying it or offering too many details. You want the shelf talker to reflect your thoughtfulness and care particularly in the selection of your adjectives. And just like a writer, you need to outline, draft, and revise. You are working with 50 words or less so make them count."

Drabyak underscored another use for shelf talkers -- helping other booksellers. "Always submit your citations to the Indie Next list! I can't tell you the number of great books that I have been directed to by way of some well-crafted citations from other independent booksellers. And those citations from others can also serve as a handy reference when you are confronted with a customer inquiry about a volume that you have not personally read. I will preface my handselling efforts by indicating that, 'While I haven't personally read this, my good friend (insert name) at (insert bookstore location) had this to say and I trust their judgment.'"

The best reason for the shelf talker, of course, is serving as a proxy for the bookseller. "My best experience with shelf talkers was when I had a customer, who I didn't know at all, call me because he had bought a book on Buddhism (The Joy of Living by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, Three Rivers) after reading my recommendation on the shelf talker," said Schneck. "The book was for his son, who was undergoing treatment for drug addiction, and his son liked the book so much that he wanted more recommendations." --Karen Schechner

More shelf talker resources:

More examples of booksellers' favorite shelf talkers:

  • Chester County Books & Music Company

    "Little Bee by Chris Cleave is a beautifully haunting tale involving a severed finger; a teenaged, female, Nigerian refugee; and a four-year-old British boy who believes that he is Batman. This is a most rewarding read!"

  • Oblong

    Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry
    "Zombies are the new vampires! In this fast-paced thriller, Joe Ledger, leader of a super-secret rapid response group, kicks some serious zombie butt. The perfect escapist read, and lots of fun, too!"

    Disgraceby J.M. Coetzee
    "At first, this is a story of a professor's affair with his student. But it quickly becomes much more. With a backdrop of South Africa,
    Disgraceis a compelling read with strong characters and a plot that draws you in and doesn't let go."

  • Schuler Books & Music

    Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey
    "How a book this dark can be this much fun to read is just one of many things that will amaze you about Sandman Slim. After surviving eleven years in Hell -- literally -- Stark is ready for vengeance on the magicians who killed his girlfriend and sent him there. If he happens to avert the Apocalypse while he's doing it, that will be icing on the cake. Good Omens meets Raymond Chandler!"

    The Book of Joe by Jonathan Tropper
    "This hilarious and touching novel is the story of Joe, who wrote a bestseller that savaged everyone in his hometown. When his estranged father has a stroke, he returns, and has to deal with the town's wrath while coming to terms with parts of his past he thought he'd left behind him. If you like Richard Russo, you'll love The Book of Joe."