Nuts & Bolts – Back Cover Copy and Why Yours Is Bad

John G. Hartness
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There might be a little hyperbole in the title, but probably not much. A friend who self-publishes posted her new cover on Facebook this morning, and it was beautiful. A striking image on the front, very nice typography, it looked good in a thumbnail (which many, many major publishers are terrible about, especially in urban fantasy, BTW. Those incredible dark, moody, painted covers look like nothing but black and blue blobs when shrunk down to Amazon thumbnail sizing. That’s why the author names have to be so big, so the consumer has SOME way to figure out what the book is!), until I started reading the back cover matter. 

Back cover copy is critically important for any book, but it’s only really relevant to a self-published or small press author. Most major publishers A) Do back cover copy pretty well most of the time and B) won’t give you any input in the first place, because they have marketing professionals to write that stuff. But in the small press and self-pub world it’s often either entirely up to the author (or anthology editor) or at least partially your responsibility.

So let’s look at some things to do, and some things not to do. 

Do - Have a hook. The back cover of Gail Z. Martin’s new book Deadly Curiosities says “Welcome to Trifles & Folly, a store with a dark secret.” That sentence makes me want to read more of the back cover material, which will lead me to wanting to read the book (you hope!). 

Don’t – Fill up the entire back cover of the book with a plot synopsis. First off, most people don’t care that much about every little thing that happens in your book. And if they do, it’s because they are reading it! Secondly, most plot synopses are incredibly boring. So give me the highlights, and punch it up. If it takes more than 1/3 of the cover to tell the story, then you need to read this post David wrote a couple of years ago about writing a tight elevator pitch. I’m not saying your elevator pitch becomes your back cover copy, but there are a lot worse things that you could put on there. I use this process of David’s all the time and think this blog post is one of the most useful things written on the subject. Just don’t tell David I said so. :) 

Do – Find someone else to tell me how amazing your book is. Find a published author friend who will read it and give a cover blurb. Find someone who has published with your same publisher and get them to blurb your book. Faith blurbed Book 4 of the Black Knight Chronicles. I blurbed Gail’s book Deadly Curiosities. I just blurbed Diana Pharaoh Francis’ next book that my publisher, Bell Bridge Books is putting out later this year. You can pull from reviews of other books if you need to, but have someone endorse you. The good things other people say about you mean a thousand times more than the good things you say about yourself. 

Don’t – Make it hard to read. I don’t care how spectacular the art is, if it blurs through the text and I can’t read the copy, I’m probably not buying the book. Don’t make the type too small, and don’t be afraid of making the type large. Some of us are getting older and are still too vain to buy reading glasses. 

There are a lot of resources out there for small press and self-pub authors now. The Writer’s Cafe at Kboards.com is very helpful for getting people to critique your cover blurbs and see what works and doesn’t. Like everything, it’s opinion, but he more eyeballs you get on your work the better, and the better the back cover copy, the more eyeballs you’ll get on your work. 

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4 comments to Nuts & Bolts – Back Cover Copy and Why Yours Is Bad

  • Ken

    Those are some great tips, John. And thanks for the link to David’s post. I (Somehow) missed that one. Don’t worry, your secret’s safe :)

  • Here’s an article I wrote on writing back cover copy. It’s now used by several publishing programs.

    http://www.marilynnbyerly.com/blurb.html

  • John, what a timely post! I am one of the few traditionally published writers who gets to take gander at cover copy and actually contribute. My editor jots down a few thoughts and sends it to me. I re-write it and ask questions and make suggestions. Wonder-editor then takes my work and re-edits it, and when we are both happy, she send it to marketing. Because like you said — bad copy can sink a book.

    And today? I got cover copy for book JY 9. And I think I’m gonna liiiiike it! You know. When we all finish re-doing it!

  • Thanks for the mention, John. The process of distilling an elevator pitch from a plot synopsis produces some pretty useful versions of the plot summary in between. And using one of them for back copy is a great idea. Like Faith, I have been given the opportunity to tweak and even create back copy by Tor and now by Baen. I like having the input, but I will admit that it is much harder to write good, tight, compelling copy than I ever would have imagined.