Home / Writing / The First- Versus Third-Person Debate

The First- Versus Third-Person Debate

A few months ago, in response to a personal conundrum I shared with you, we debated the merits of wrestling a novel that wanted to be written in first-person into third, and whether that would be wise from a marketing perspective. Positions were expounded, personal research advanced, and a few minds possibly changed or stretched. Well, my friends, if you are an indie writer, or traditionally published but able to influence your book’s marketing campaign, the first-third debate doesn’t end there.

You have yet another decision to make.

To wit, have you noticed the accelerating trend toward first-person marketing copy? i.e. taglines or back cover copy written from within the point of view of one or more characters? (Click here for a peek at the current #6 book in the Kindle US store.)

At the time I was putting out Cold and Hottie, given its frequent use by some of contemporary romance’s bestselling authors, I certainly did. But would it be the right move?

To get a handle on best practices, I did an unofficial survey of followers on my Facebook page—presumably people open to my fiction—and asked them what they thought of first-person book blurbs. Before I summarize what they said, I should make it clear that my author page skews heavily toward other writers. Their collective wisdom, therefore, might not extend to readers in general or your genre’s readers in particular. As you might have noticed, a good number of us get hung up on rules that readers don’t see as necessary.

With that said, here are the results:

  • First, the response to my question was, shall we say, passionate. In fact, comments came with such speed and enthusiasm that Facebook stopped throttling the post’s exposure (!), making it one of my most viewed and active posts ever.
  • A sizable number of commenters weren’t aware that first-person blurbs are a thing. Upon discussion, some were intrigued but most thought it a strange and misguided trend.
  • Conversely, for a cadre of readers who dwell within specific genres, first-person blurbs had become the norm. In fact, one commenter knew of a publishing house that finds it to be such an effective sales tool it has become their default choice.
  • A small group said they found first-person blurbs intrusive. Like the author was trying too hard. Of note, I had no mechanism for teasing out whether these people would have been hostile to a first-person book. In other words, perhaps a first-person blurb would actually help filter out readers unlikely to enjoy the novel while successfully targeting the book’s niche readership.
  • A sizable number of people don’t care about mechanics. They just want a good story and see the rest as background noise.
  • Some people feel that a blurb’s voice should always reflect the voice of the book, and feel duped if they differ. (Of note, it’s a common practice to sell books written in first- using a third-person blurb; nobody objected to this. But they did object to a first-person blurb for a third-person book. This makes me wonder if the real issue is their unfamiliarity with the practice. Also, how many people one-click based on the blurb and don’t take a moment to read inside, to ensure the voice and editing is to their taste? Surely this is a case of once bitten, twice shy…)
  • Several people theorized that the blurb was intended to speak to bookstore acquisitions staff, rather than readers. As such, they felt it would benefit from the big-picture editorial perspective of third-person.

In summary, I discovered that some people ardently love blurbs in first. Some people vehemently oppose them. Many people don’t appear to care.

Given the lack of clear direction, what’s an author to do?

Here are my thoughts.

As of April 2018, consider trying a first-person blurb if:

  • You write in a niche where this is already fairly common. e.g. New Adult, Steamy Contemporary Romance, Erotic Contemporary Romance, or Young Adult genres and sub-subgenres
  • Your narrative is also written in first person, especially if relayed in present-tense. This allows readers to seamlessly move from book cover to book interior. It also allows the marketing copy to become a more emotional experience.
  • Your book’s ideal reader is younger, meaning they have probably been exposed to first-person present-tense stories within YA.
  • Your book’s ideal reader is likely to be edgier or attracted to current story trends. For example, in the romance world, Reverse Harem is a super popular sub-subgenre right now. A quick glance at the lists confirms that first-person blurbs are common in these storylines. (Click here for an description of the Reverse Harem story type.)  Meanwhile, readers who crave secret baby stories set in small towns are unlikely to feel the same way.
  • If the bulk of your sales are digital, you have control over your copy, and you possess an entrepreneurial mindset. This way, you can test multiple blurbs relatively cheaply until you find the best pitch-content combination.

You might best avoid first-person blurbs if:

  • You can’t pitch the story in first-person without using more than two points of view.
  • You have a high concept or plot-driven story that doesn’t rely upon character or interiority for its ultimate appeal—for example, the book version of Hot Tub Time Machine or a James Bondesque thriller.
  • Your storyline, narrative structure, or genres are more traditional than trendy. For example, it’s hard to see how a first-person blurb would appeal to readers seeking epic fantasy written in omniscient.
  • Your readership is known to be paper- or bookstore-centric, where you can’t exactly reprint the back cover copy if it falls flat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen literary fiction with a first-person blurb, for instance.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, I’d encourage you to do your own market research for the type of book you’re writing, and the subset of readers you are serving. Then if you can afford the time, energy and expense, do market testing to see what works. After all, what people say and how they act aren’t always aligned. For example, those people who think they hate your first-person blurb? Perhaps they will be like the internet browsers who come to your website and excoriate you for your pop-up, even as they use it to sign onto your newsletter list.

By the way, in case you’re wondering what route I chose, I kept my book’s blurb in third. Though I made multiple attempts at a first-person blurb and ran it past people who would be open to the experience, consensus was that my third-person version did a better job. (Which Blurb Wore It Better?)

And now, for a discussion of all things related to first-person marketing copy, I’ll turn it over to you, Unboxeders. How do you feel about first-person blurbs? Have you bought a book with one yet? Will you try it with your fiction? And if you clicked on the above link and read both versions of my blurb, did I make the right choice? I value your opinion.

About Jan O’Hara

A former family physician and academic, Jan O’Hara left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories (Opposite of Frozen; Cold and Hottie) and contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer’s Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.

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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.