BACK YOUR BOOK! ... or... Writing Effective [Back] Cover Copy

Introduction

Your back cover copy is more than just a description of your content, whether fiction or non-fiction. Cover copy is the second most important feature in a chain of sales techniques for “product packaging.”

The first product sales feature encountered by the potential customer is the [front] cover design. This needs to capture and lead the customer to the second product sales feature: the cover copy, whether on a print book or in an online product page.

Without this connection from one dimension of product packaging to the next, many customers will not look further into purchasing the product—meaning your book.

ASIDE: Recognize a common problem in the connection between [front] cover and [back] cover copy for sales potential. This text addresses the second, so the first requires brief mention of pitfalls and their true source.

Self-publishers—and some independent authors—are their own worst enemy in product packaging. Authors are not cover designers simply because they have looked at the top selling books in their niche or genre of the marketplace. Assuming so will always fail to develop a truly effective cover, and publication sales will suffer.

Hire a professional cover designer. Present a concise concept for front cover imagery in 25 words or less. Always submit the completed back cover copy in a text file as well. After this, a professional designer will discuss with you what might work best for a general design in conjunction with:

  1. details taken from the cover copy,
  2. the targeted subcategory of the product, and
  3. the fee limit you can afford in cover design service.

WARNING: Real professionals do not work at the rates found on $5 third-party ordering systems.

Describing in detail every little thing that is to be on the front cover is a mistake. When an amateur author does this, a professional designer stops advising and gives the author whatever within time paid. The author will get what s/he deserves and have no one to blame when the cover fails to function effectively for sales.

You are not a cover designer. If you are, then you do not need to hire one. Work with your designer and acknowledge that a real professional knows what you do not. And so…

You must write your own cover copy without the support of professional and experienced personnel in a publisher’s marketing department. Pay attention to the misconceptions and blunders mentioned herein.

We will start with those common to self-publishers and some independent authors.

Not a Book

Adopt the proper perspective from the start; everything on your cover—front and back—is “product packaging,” not just a book cover. If you think the latter, then you are fixating on form rather than the underlying purpose you must address.

The function—the purpose—is what matters for sales. Forget this for an instant, and your book will sell poorly.

If you are not a seasoned author, the above statement may confuse you. Take a moment to understand intention versus assumed synonyms in the realm of authorship.

Until a book is read, it is not a “book.”

It is a “product” sought by customers of “type” book.

Yes, there is a difference.

Packaging—plus consumer or professional reviews—is all that the prospective customer has to decide which product of the specified type they will ultimately purchase. You want that customer to purchase your product.

The customer has already decided the “type” of product to purchase. Selling them on buying a product of type “book” is a waste of their time.

Don’t bore your customers by addressing the obvious.

If you ever think—let alone write—words like “book,” “story,” “character,” “setting,” etc. in attempting to sell your product, then you have immediately wasted words if not cut your sales. The same goes for any mention of another product type, such as comparing your book to works of cinema, games, TV, etc.

These are mistakes in writing cover copy within its standard components. These are never to be mentioned directly within the synopsis component of cover copy.

You need to distinguish your “product” from others of the same type—and that is all.

Not a Blurb

This term is the most commonly misused by non-professionals where cover copy is concerned. Your back cover copy as a whole is not:

  1. a “blurb,” or
  2. your “blurb.”

The first is inaccurate; the second is an oxymoron at best and charlatanism at the worst. You will shortly see why on the second; as to the first, if you look in the Oxford English Dictionary, the wording of the definition will tell you generally what it is—and thereby what it isn’t.

To simplify, a “blurb” is something positive that someone else [of note and reputation] says about your product. You cannot blurb you own work, so obviously “blurb” is not a synonym for any part of writing your own back cover copy.

What is left is everything else that should be in your copy, so let us get to it.

Synopsis

This is a description of the primary content of your publication and is the primary component of your back cover copy. By primary we mean it is required, while the others might optional, case by case. Therefor, the synopsis needs to be the strongest component. The other optional components are ones that…

  1. you may not be able to supply adequately, or
  2. may not be pertinent, or
  3. may not carry weight with the customer, until you are an established professional author, contracted and or independent.

Like all written works, cover copy takes planning and refinement. The approach is slightly different for fiction versus non-fiction. Both have some considerations in common.

First, your synopsis should be 250 words to 500 at most. Anything longer will likely lose the attention of a prospective customer, who is considering other competing products as well.

NOTE: A customer is not a “reader” until (1) the product is purchased and (2) becomes a book by being “read.”

This is truer now than ever in the field of self-publishing. Like it or not, your prospective customer is looking at multiple products of type “book” in the growing glut within the marketplace. Accept this and make every word count. Do not be lured into an excess of words in cover copy.

Quality and not quantity is what will sell your product.

Second, your synopsis should be written in present tense for immediacy of impact, as if you were selling the product face-to-face with the customer.

Third, as implied and stated so far, you are selling the product; you are not selling yourself. The place to establish your authority for the content of your product is in a “bio,” which comes later as one of the other optional components of back cover copy.

Do not try to sell yourself in your synopsis. Doing so is pretentious and will lose customers who thereby never become your readers. Established professional authors never do this.

Do not think that copying one of the exceptions will work for you. Doing so can kill your career as an author before you have that actual career.

Fiction

NOTE: Non-fiction is a nebulous and worthless term; it says what a book “is not” rather than what it “is.” Hence, we will not address how to synopsize such works… for indeed, there are many subcategories.

Character, plot and setting—these are the components of fiction, and therefore the same for a fiction synopsis. Some might argue that “plot” comes first; they are half-correct. Use “character” first with a slant towards “plot.”

Character

One way or another, the customer—not your “reader” as yet—will engage the fiction through characters. Thereby, this is how they are most effectively engaged by a synopsis.

“Who” is doing “what” and “why”?

The “who” always takes precedence.

If the fiction has more than one protagonist, then start with the most primary one. This may not be the first character encountered in the fiction, so reflect and choose the most important one to start the synopsis.

You may need to add mention of other characters. Leave out named mention of ones not needed in quick review to maintain the customer’s focus. Too many names will work against a sale.

Your customer is considering competing products before purchasing one. Give them something precise to remember by limiting the number of names needed to distinctly recall your product among others. The title is not enough for this.

Plot

Relate events of the primary plot as experienced by the primary character(s) according to individual motivation. The customer—still not a “reader” as yet—wants to know why the character engages the events described.

If the fiction has more than one main plot, determine which is primary. Do not confuse subplots—or especially “threads”—with plots, even if such are contributors to the primary plot(s).

That a (sub)plot contributes in part to another plot is an indicator that it is not primary. That contributory (sub)plot will be a nice surprise for customers who become readers.

Setting, etc.

Avoid description except for elements necessary to understand the primary plot(s). When description seems needed, think twice. If used, avoid all descriptive adjectives not absolutely necessary.

The front cover imagery combined with genre of classification provides general description of content. Do not duplicate such information in your synopsis.

Stick to minimum detail; rethink again and cut more, if possible. Continue until you have the entire primary plot(s) described as concisely as possible from primary character(s) perspective, as if telling the entire fiction in 250+ words.

This will not be your final synopsis.

Refinement

Cut all adjectives where possible without misleading the customer. Avoid adverbs, and where they occur, consider instead alternative verbs for better precision of meaning that is not misleading. If uncertain among multiple verbs, stick to the more commonly known and generic.

Once all of the above is complete, only then is it time to determine where and how the synopsis should really end.

No, your synopsis is not yet complete.

The Hook

It is time to cut the ending of your synopsis and create what some call a “hook.” The ending of a full synopsis includes the outcome. In packaging for sales, the uncertainty of outcome must be maintained.

Does your reader really want to know “what happens next?”

You cannot set a hook properly until you see the whole main story—plot—in a complete synopsis. If you tried to write / choose / create the hook in your first pass, 10 to 1 you failed or chose the wrong one.

Setting the hook is the most difficult part of a synopsis and critical to a sale. In other words, it is how you convert a “customer” into a “reader.” Until you are proficient in writing a complete synopsis with conclusion, you will not have the right focus to create the correct hook by default.

WARNING: You did not write the fiction in one pass (or at least you should not have done so); the same is truer for its synopsis. Thinking otherwise is a common mistakes among self-publishers, especially those who listen to the rush-rush hype of some self-publishing “gurus.”

Having—needing—to write a later new synopsis in an attempt to improve poor sales is a sure sign that you did not address the synopsis correctly the first time. It can also be a sign that you did not set the hook correctly.

Or that you did not identify the right hook.

The best hook is always found in starting with a complete synopsis. There is no exception to this.

Questions?

Ending a synopsis with a question is lazy writing.

Do not do this.

Each customer as a potential reader should have their own question about the fiction’s outcome when finished reading your synopsis. Do not try to tell the reader… ahem, customer… what that question should be. If you wrote the synopsis and hook correctly, then all customers should think of the same question, in one form or another. You can test this.

Give your completed synopsis with hook to others who know nothing about the fiction in question. When they are finished reading the synopsis, ask them what first question came to mind, aside from “what happened next?”

If you wish, allow them three questions. If at least one question is common in most responses—and it is the one you want—then you know you have a focused synopsis and hook.

For those questions that did not match up…

Note if differing questions were focused on plot elements in your synopsis, either in general or through primary character(s) presented. Most questions should be focused to these, or something is wrong.

If none of your testers came up with a common question, or most questions were not focus on plot through character, then you have further work to do on your synopsis. Do so now before publishing, or the wrong first impression will not be correctable by reworking your synopsis later.

Bio[graphy]

This is the only part of back cover copy where you should place any information about yourself as the author.

Never apply some type of author’s name / signature to the end of the synopsis. Yes, some have done this, and it always looks amateurish.

In general, your bio should be no more than one third of the length of your final synopsis. At your discretion, there are three types of information that might be placed in your “bio”:

  1. Personal
  2. Professional
  3. Anecdotal

Personal

Age, gender, etc. are acceptable, though if you include an author’s photo on the cover (or interior), then none of this is needed.

You can include a significant other with whom you live, your children, pets, etc. First names only to protect their privacy; more generally, avoid any names at all.

Where you live should be no more than country, state or province and [maybe] city—in declining necessity. Never include your street address or even your county. If you live in a town instead of a city, leave out your town. If significant somehow, you can mention other major regions or countries where you have lived for at least one whole year. And that is all.

Customers converted to readers may not be interested in any of this. If they are, they will not be interested in more. In general, all of this should truly be left for an interior Bio, but if short enough, it can be place at the end of back cover copy.

Professional

The only professional information you should share is that which connects pertinently to the content of the product to be purchased. Avoid irrelevant mentions, and if still desired, stick to five words or less.

If you are or have become a full-time professional author—contracted and or independent—then you might say so, though it isn’t necessary. And look up the real definition of “professional” in the Oxford English Dictionary. 9 out of 10 people do not know what it really means.

Do not get called out in using such a term in a populist fashion. This will negatively impact your reputation for years.

If you work in an industry related to the publication’s topic which lends credence to your opinions as authoritative or at least knowledgeable, then mention this.

That is all; keep it brief and succinct.

Do not stoop to mentioning titles of other works published unless one—and only one—novel or series title is well known as a current market bestseller. In other words, one that people might know right now, even if they have not read it. 99.9+% of self-published authors are not in this category.

NOTE: The proper place to mention other works not current and selling profoundly is in an “Also by” or “Other Works” page placed in:

  1. the FrontMatter [unnumbered pages before the Table of Contents], or
  2. the Back Matter [numbered or unnumbered pages following the end of numbered main content].

Experienced and or professional authors who have such other published works do not use the Bio area for this. There are places on the front cover better suited to singular mentions, and only if this can produce a positive influence upon sales of the new product.

For example, mentioning a successful non-fiction work about self-help is of no use on the cover of a fantasy novel. Mentioning an advanced degree in psychology or a career in clinical counseling might have a connection. A career in aerospace might connect to an off-world SF title, etc., but not to a self-help book.

For all things used in a Bio, remember that the data you provide can be used to find you. Yes! Protect your privacy and that of any others you reference.

A final detail might be a website domain name but never [ever] an email address or a phone number. The latter two are dangerous as well as the marks of an amateur.

Anecdotal

Mentioning personal pursuits, pastimes, etc. is okay, though these will not interest most customers. Such information can bring you “down to earth” for the everyday reader. It might make you seem familiar and real, like a neighbor nearby or the storyteller right there in the room reading to them.

This only counts if they have purchased the product. Hence it has zero impact on sales. The opposite if used incorrectly.

If this works for you personally, then proceed. Keep it brief and succinct.

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Follow these principles and, in the majority of cases, you will develop effective—and professional—cover copy. At the very least, you will not undercut your book’s—your product's—sales through [too] common mistakes and misguided advice as hearsay.

—J.C. Hendee, proprietor, NDAS

N.D. Author Services [NDAS]

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