Read All About It! – The Back Cover Copy

When you consider purchasing a book, either in a store or online, what do you notice first? The front cover grabs your attention. Right? After that, you might flip inside to read the first few sentences of the book, and then venture to the back cover (online the back cover is displayed as the “Description”). Or you may go to the back cover before opening the book. Regardless, the back cover copy is a critical element to selling your book once it’s available for purchase. But first, you can use it to your advantage in your proposal to sell your work to an agent or editor.

An aside: when an author is well-known, the name sells the book. Then you may see endorsements or praise (called blurbs) on both the front and back covers. Endorsements may abound on debut authors’ books, too. But I’m not writing here about endorsements. What I mean in this post is the summary of the book that will turn browsers into buyers.

For nonfiction, effective back cover copy is a quick overview of the book’s topic and goal, along with the takeaway value for the reader. Here is a made-up example:

Have you read Proverbs 31 a hundred times but still can’t relate? Or worse, you might wish she would just disappear like Jimmy Hoffa? Yet you still want to be the perfect — or at least near-perfect — wife? Married for forty years, writer and speaker Mrs. Pleasant Atalltimes shares ten keys to being perfect enough in the eyes of your audience of one – your own husband. In 10 Keys to Becoming the Perfect Woman the author shares tips on how to keep him knowing that, after God, he is the center of your universe. From the big picture, such as being prayerful and of good cheer, along with considering his needs before those of anyone else, to the everyday, such as wearing your best perfume only for him, you will learn tips that will make your marriage a happier and more God-honoring place to live.

While this example is intentionally over the top, in a few sentences, the reader can identify the author, target audience, goal, tone, and takeaway value of this book. In the next moment the potential reader will be able to decide whether or not to purchase.

Now for a fiction example:

Surrounded by cookie cutter mansions and manicured lawns, Virginia Dare is determined to live up to her name. There is no challenge she won’t risk. And that includes avoiding the dull suburban life she believes to be her destiny.

Scarred by a challenging childhood full of upheaval, Lance Bradford wants nothing more than to settle into a predictable, safe routine, and stay there. Part of that stability includes attending a large church in the suburbs, where he is a popular bachelor. But no woman catches his eye until Virginia Dare and he both sign up to help with a church mission trip fundraiser.

As they grow closer through their church work, Virginia challenges Lance to leave his comfort zone through a series of wild adventures, while he fights her restlessness. But when tragedy strikes, both of them must really learn how to live, and to rely on God for real peace as they grow together in love.

The above shows that this novel is a contemporary romance and the couple’s overarching conflicts, plus hints at the dark moment and event that will test the couple’s romantic commitment to each other and their commitment to God. Again, the reader is offered information to decide whether to buy or look at another novel instead.

So the back cover copy is a short pitch. Note that our agency’s guidelines asks for something like this. It can be critical in helping a marketing department know how to sell your book more effectively.

Don’t be surprised if you see your copy show up on the finished cover of your book. Editors will often use the material in your proposal as a basis for what they create in their own marketing copy. Don’t despair if writing such copy is not your strength. Your agent can often help you tweak the material and your editor may also help before they present the project to their committees. Thus it is worth your investment of time and effort to make this the best you can. Who knows? It just might be a key to your success!

Your turn:

What do you think is the most challenging part of writing back cover copy?
Does the back cover copy affect your decision to buy fiction? How about nonfiction?
Do you think back cover copy is as important as endorsements?

36 Responses to Read All About It! – The Back Cover Copy

  1. Sundi Jo August 23, 2012 at 3:38 am #

    I didn’t realize how hard it would be to do the back cover copy until I had to sit down and do it. It’s more challenging than I first thought, because you know that it’s an integral part of what will help to sell the book. Thanks for sharing.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray August 23, 2012 at 1:39 pm #

      Sundi Jo: You will develop the skill over time, but one thing you might try is writing two or three versions of the cover copy, let all of them sit for a day or so, and then revisiting to see which one works best. Just a thought!

  2. Dana McNeely August 23, 2012 at 4:47 am #

    Mrs. Pleasantatalltimes? Ha ha! Reading back cover copy is important to me in making my book purchases, so I know I need to get better at it. I agree with Sundi, it’s hard! Like many things in life, it only takes hard work and practice, right?

  3. Laurie Alice Eakes August 23, 2012 at 5:18 am #

    What I find challenging about back cover copy is telling enough of the story to grab interest, but not telling so much that you give away the story.

    to me as a reader, this copy is crucial. Endorsements help to some extent, and this copy is what persuades me to buy a book.

    One trend that kind of drives me crazy is the tendency toward asking questions to which the reader really already knows the answer: Can God find a way to work this out?

    Well, duh, of course God can. No tention there. The question is: How will god work this out?

    amen. that’s the fun of a book and life itself.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray August 23, 2012 at 1:41 pm #

      Laurie Alice: Exactly! I think maybe those writers expect the reader to jump to your logical question — and they will — but expressing how is indeed more accurate.

  4. Jeanne August 23, 2012 at 5:53 am #

    I think a tricky part about writing back cover copy for fiction is writing it with a sense of urgency to grab a reader’s attention. :) Still working to develop this skill. As a reader, I won’t usually buy a book unless I can read the back cover copy to see what the book is about.

    Thanks for the tips to write good back cover copy. I plan to work on this today. :)

  5. Kathi Macias August 23, 2012 at 6:24 am #

    This is very interesting because–way back in the Dark Ages, when I was still getting a foothold in this business–I landed a gig where publishers hired me to write back cover copy for their upcoming releases. I thought it would be a piece of cake. Wrong! I found out I had to work very hard to get it right, but it was great experience. I learned a lot about snagging potential readers’ attention, summarizing a story without giving it away, and highlighting dramatic points. Back cover copy is definitely important!

    • Sally Bradley August 23, 2012 at 7:31 am #

      I’m with Kathi. One of my first jobs with a major publisher was writing the sales sheets for the entire company. Talk about pressure–except that I was fresh from college and didn’t realize what a big deal that was.

      Writing killer back cover copy is crucial for authors because, like me, people who create what goes on covers and sales sheets often haven’t read your book. My publisher did around 150 books a year. No way could I read even a third of them.

      So I had to use what Editorial gave me. And that was often what the writer sent Editorial.

      Writing the back cover copy isn’t throw-away work. Don’t think they’ll change my back cover copy just like they changed my title. They might. But they might not too. Make it great!

      • Tamela Hancock Murray August 23, 2012 at 1:35 pm #

        Sally, I hope our blog readers will notice that this is why they need to be very thorough when they fill out their story sheets.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray August 23, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

      Kathi, that is spot on!

  6. Melissa August 23, 2012 at 7:10 am #

    Am I the only one that doesn’t think endorsements are worth anything? The only time I look at endorsements is on the back of a book of a theological nature to see if the endorsers are authors of whose theology I already approve or not. Fiction? I could care less about endorsers, I’ve learned that I don’t trust them to like what I like necessarily.

    Back cover copy? Essential. A cover might get my attention, or not, but it’s the back cover copy that really makes my decision. Prior to being a reader I chose to buy or not from the back cover copy. Now, I’ve had to add reading the first few pages because non-excellent writing skills bother me. Sigh. I definitely ruined my reading habit by becoming a writer.

    • Jeanne August 23, 2012 at 9:41 am #

      I agree, Melissa. ;) Back cover copy is the determining factor in whether or not I buy a book. Half the time I don’t know the authors endorsing the book I’m considering. :)

    • Tamela Hancock Murray August 23, 2012 at 1:34 pm #

      Melissa, I do the same thing with nonfiction!

  7. Melissa August 23, 2012 at 7:13 am #

    Ha ha, that comment was riddled with so many typo problems. Like, I was never not a reader. Sigh. “Prior to being a writer” I don’t think I should be writing right now, if I drank coffee, I’d be in search for some….

  8. Kimberly Rose Johnson August 23, 2012 at 7:15 am #

    For me as a reader the back cover copy is everything. Even if it’s an author I typically enjoy if the summary doesn’t grab me I won’t spend the money.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray August 23, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

      Kimberly, I can see that. I like certain bands, but not all of their recordings are created equal.

  9. Jennifer Major @Jjumping August 23, 2012 at 7:39 am #

    Mrs Pleasant Atalltimes annoys me. I will never read her book, unless I’m allowed to smack Mr Atalltimes with it.

    Yet, sadly, there ARE people who actually think like that.

    Now, back cover is essential for me. I want a book to grab me and not let go. I’m beginning my queries very soon and I want to be able to summarize (the greatest novel that has ever come out of my computer so far!!!) the heart and soul of the book into a few paragraphs, enough so that readers turf the book in their other hand in favour of mine.

    Piece of cake!!

    29 layer meringue cake with finely carved lime slices delicately placed in the shape of the Eiffel Tower.

    Endorsements? If Jeannette Windle or Dee Henderson even looked at my book, I’d need a short hospital stay.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray August 23, 2012 at 8:55 am #

      Jennifer, your observation about Pleasant’s book illustrate that her back cover copy did the job it needed to do since immediately, you knew her book isn’t for you. Of course, authors and publishers want to sell books, but I believe most would rather readers appreciate their work instead of ending up with something they wish they hadn’t bought. God is good! Many publishing professionals serve Him, so we have a wide variety of CBA books from which to choose.

      Have fun writing your back cover copy! :)

  10. Kristen G. Johnson August 23, 2012 at 8:21 am #

    The boiling a 80k-90k word novel into 100 words is very challenging to me. Even trying to write a synopsis is hard. I want to include too much of the detail.

    As for reading them, I do think they play a significant part in my decision making. What I don’t like is when they give away some of the plot twists. For sure the back cover plays a huge role in my buying nonfiction.

    Thanks for the post. Now I suppose I should go write a back cover copy for my WIP! :) Have a great day

    • Tamela Hancock Murray August 23, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

      Kristen, how is your copy coming along? Take comfort in the fact you don’t have to summarize your whole plot in three paragraphs. Instead, you can summarize the setup and conflict, then present the problem, leaving the reader eager to see what happens.

      Have fun!

  11. Ann Shorey August 23, 2012 at 8:30 am #

    I have a terrible time condensing my novels to a few words. It’s hard to write a compelling overview without giving away plot secrets. Fortunately, my publisher usually writes them then sends the draft for my approval. :) As a reader, I do read back covers to decide whether I want to read the book. Mostly I read endorsements just to see who did the endorsing. That carries more weight with me than what they say. Of course they’re going to say something positive. I agree with Laurie Alice, those rhetorical questions are annoying. “Will she overcome the obstacles and find true love?” Of course she will–we just want to know how.

  12. Becky Doughty August 23, 2012 at 8:44 am #

    Jennifer – you SLAY me!

    Melissa – I’m with you. I’ve been duped too many times by the sweet word of an endorsement. I do almost always ONLY read them after I’ve read a book though… because then I know whether or not to read the endorser’s writing!

    Back cover copy. Ugh. Can I say it again? UGH! How do you condense 90,000 words into 150? My first drafts end up sounding like Dick and Jane.

    The worst is when I put my query or proposal together, think it sounds great, send it out, and then a week later (because I’m too impatient to wait for the rejections to start rolling in) I go back and read it and realize my pitch is HORRIBLE!

    When I win the lottery, I’m going to hire someone else (Kathy? Sally?) to write it for me. Then I can just lounge on my chaise and eat bon-bons. And write prolifically, of course.

    Thanks for the great post today!
    Becky

  13. Meghan Carver August 23, 2012 at 8:49 am #

    The back cover copy is what sells me on any book, fiction or nonfiction. That’s why it’s so terrifying — and exhilarating — to try to write it.

  14. Lindsay Harrel August 23, 2012 at 9:16 am #

    Back cover copy is really important to me, though still not as important as a friend’s recommendation. :)

    And the hardest part about writing it is summarizing your entire book in three short paragraphs.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray August 23, 2012 at 1:29 pm #

      Lindsay, the idea of a friend recommendation is a good one. You also have the advantage of discussing the book with your friend to see why she liked it, whereas an endorsement, no matter how wonderful, is stagnant.

  15. JKW August 23, 2012 at 10:17 am #

    Tamela, you have it correctly. . . . I, for one, do not write the same type of book, therefore, Jennifer not liking that book but buying it may never buy that authors books again, missing out on a real treat.
    Thank you so much for this wonderful article. I am involved with SCWBI and cannot ‘get it’ from people who are published. I see exactly what I need to do – this article needs to be seen by every author who wants to be published. Again, Thank you Tamela. Blessings, Janet

  16. Ginny Bryce August 23, 2012 at 10:56 am #

    Tough job. Writing a back cover in a small space for my novel Terra Feliz, represented a problem as it is a historical novel set in 1820 England and North America, combining commerce, the sea, a love story and terror on an island.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray August 23, 2012 at 1:25 pm #

      Ginny, you just wrote your back cover copy in five phrases. Now you just need to add the main conflicts. Of course, you’ll want the writing to be zippy, but you can do it!

  17. Iola August 23, 2012 at 4:22 pm #

    Yes, back cover copy is important. Which is why I don’t like those books by bestselling authors where this valuable space is taken up by… a full-page photo of the author. Then I have to skim through several pages of endorsements and author comments before I might be lucky enough to get the pitch… if there is one. Usually I’ve put the book down before this.

    Don’t publishers ever think that this might be why people are doing their book shopping on Amazon? Because on Amazon (or other online retailers) the book description is easy to find and always in the same place?

    • Tamela Hancock Murray August 24, 2012 at 10:19 am #

      Iola, I imagine the publishers who place large photos of an author on the cover are capturing the segment of the population who’ll buy ANYTHING that author writes. Those consumers don’t care about back cover copy. The author’s photo makes the sale.

      As for Amazon, I never thought about information placement as a reason to shop Amazon, although you make a good point. I shop Amazon because I can find almost any existing book on their site and they lead me to other books I might like. But I also enjoy buying from brick-and-mortar stores. I love to see and hold books, and can peruse books more quickly and easily than on Amazon, whose “Look inside” system is excellent but flawed. Plus, the feature is not available for every book. And if you are considering a heavily-illustrated book, there just isn’t anything comparable to seeing how the artwork appears in the physical book before you decide to buy.

      Maybe some of our faithful blog readers can add insight to your question — it’s a good one!

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