Writing Your Book’s Back-Cover Copy

Magnifying glass by Todd Chandler via Flickr
by Todd Chandler | via Flickr

In today’s guest post, editor Jessi Rita Hoffman explains how to craft professional and compelling back-cover copy.

So you’ve written your book, you’ve chosen your title and cover design, and you’re breathing a sigh of relief. Now you have to decide what goes on the back cover. New authors sometimes rush this decision, writing the first thing that comes to mind. After all, it’s the back of the book. How important can it be?

A lot more important than a person might think. The hundred-and-fifty words you’ll place on your back cover are arguably the most important words in your entire book.

Here’s why. After the book title and front cover, the back cover is the next thing readers look at when deciding whether to make a purchase. The back-cover copy also functions as the primary ad for your book. Not only will it appear on the book itself, but you’ll probably use it as your Amazon description.

You have—at best—150 to 200 words to work with, because that’s all that will attractively fit on the back cover of most volumes. If the content is longer than that, you’ll have to make the font size so small that people will need a magnifying glass to read it. And that, of course, would not promote the sale.

Before sitting down to the task of writing your back-cover copy, examine the backs of other books in your genre for examples of how the copy should read. The examples you find will make everything you read in this article clearer.

What Novelists Should Say

If you are a novelist, your back cover should provide a short summary of what your book is about. Write only a paragraph or two, and include the hooks—the story’s most engaging plot points. If you queried agents or editors at any point, you might be able to start with the hook from your query letter.

Here is an example of back-cover copy for Loving Legit, a novel by my client Serena King:

Black businesswoman Monica Walker knows all about success. She’s transformed herself from broken-home victim to New York–magazine super-editor, and she’s only thirty at that. What she doesn’t know about is how to get a good man, a legit man who’ll put that ring on her finger. Her love life has been a series of romantic train wrecks. What disaster will her too-trusting heart lure her into next?

Monica wants to find just one good guy who will respect and love her the way she deserves—but is he out there? What’s she doing wrong, she constantly wonders. Finally, it looks like wedded bliss is just around the corner. But has Monica found true love at last or just made another mistake?

It often works well if the description ends on an intriguing question or a point of tension—something that will hook the reader on the book’s premise or the character’s central dilemma. The back cover isn’t the place to get bogged down in arcane plot details; rather, you want to sell readers on the big-picture narrative arc.

What Nonfiction Authors Should Say

Unlike novelists, nonfiction authors should make a list of bullet points about the book’s main features and actually put that list on the back cover. Use three to five bullet points only (an odd number is best, marketing research shows). With the bullets, tell what the book will do for the reader or what the reader is going to learn from your book.

Keep the syntax (style) of the bullet points consistent. This is important, or the list won’t read right. If you start out with participles, stick with participles; if you start with clauses, stick with clauses.

Example of inconsistent bullet points:

In this book you’ll learn that:

  • A rabbit can be litterbox-trained in a day
  • Feeding the right kind of diet
  • How to stop behavior problems

Example of consistent bullet points:

In this book, you’ll learn how to:

  • Litterbox-train your rabbit in a day
  • Feed a proper diet that extends your bunny’s life
  • Stop behavior problems in their tracks

See the difference? The second list sounds polished. The first one sounds like an amateur wrote it.

Put the bulleted list in the middle of the copy you write for your back cover. Above the list, speak directly to the readers, and give them the primary reason why they should read your book. This should be broader in scope than the reasons you put in your bulleted list. One way to write this primary reason is to present it as a question.

Here’s an example from It’s Your Party—Make It Epic!—a book by my client Robyn Scates:

Do you feel stuck in your own life? Are you just going through the motions and calling it living? Does chaos seem to follow you, and even know your address? In It’s Your Party—Make it Epic! motivational speaker Robyn Scates talks straight about why our lives spiral out of control and how to get back in the driver’s seat.

An attorney twice-honored as one of Maryland’s Top-100 Women, Robyn tells how she went from starring in other people’s mini-dramas to living authentically and regaining inner peace. Through stories, humor, and dozens of practical tips, she shows the way to anyone who has lost their joy and is trying to figure out why. In these pages you’ll discover:

  • How to identify and end your toxic relationships
  • How to stop saying “yes” when you mean “no”
  • How to get free from situations that own you
  • Why most people work at jobs that bore them
  • How to find and protect your inner peace

Your life is your party, but only if you control the invitation list. If you are a people-pleaser who wants to stop but doesn’t know how, this book is for you.

In this example, the back-cover copy ends with another appeal to the reader’s need, and with the personal and inviting statement, “This book is for you.”

Make sure that you aren’t the focus of the back cover. Make the focus your readers and why they should trust what you have to say. Unless you get in touch with your readers’ need for the book, and strike a chord with that, they will walk away and never open the pages, however excellent the writing and content might be.

Your Picture and a Bit about You

Besides those carefully chosen few words, your back cover should include a professional-looking photograph of you, the author. This should be a clear close-up photo of your face, and no one but you should be in the picture. You may have a cute spouse, kid, or pet, but this is not the place to show them off unless they are actually a part of the book.

Then, write a brief bio. For nonfiction authors, you should include two or three points to establish that you are an expert, with the training and/or experience that qualifies you to write about your topic.

What you say on your back cover about yourself will not take the place of your formal author bio, which should appear on a page inside the book near the back. You can go into some detail about your background there—but don’t do it on your back cover. (See my article “Writing Your Author Bio Page.”)

What Not to Say

What shouldn’t you say on your back cover? Essentially, anything not discussed above. Remember you have only 150 to 200 words in which to deliver your message. Keep it short, sweet, and focused. Cut out every bit of repetition so you can stuff lots of information into those few words.

Also, make sure the tone is understated. People know you wrote this ad for the book, and if you write about it in superlatives, it makes you look bad—either arrogant or desperate or exaggerating, depending on people’s perception. Write confidently but humbly, stating facts about the book and telling its benefits, rather than writing adjectives and adverbs of self-praise. This will win you trust rather than reap you derision.

Endorsements—or Not

The back cover is also where you can place endorsements, if you have any. If you have several, they can take the place of the book description. If you have just one or two, the endorsements can appear along with the description. An endorsement is a short, pithy statement—by someone well-known in your genre (if you’re a novelist) or your field (if you write nonfiction)—who recommends your book to prospective readers. (See my article “How to Get Endorsements for Your Book.”)

Don’t make the mistake of reeling in just anyone to write an endorsement for you. It truly does need to be a recognized name in your genre or field. Better to forego endorsements than to look like you tried to find someone important to recommend your book and no one would.

For Additional Help

If all of this sounds daunting, consider hiring an editor or marketing writer to help you craft your book’s back-cover copy in the most compelling way possible. And closely proofread the final version. Punctuation or grammar goofs in this highly visible spot broadcast the message that your book was not professionally written.

The words you place on your back cover are crucial to your book’s success. If they hook the reader, you’ve got a sale. If they don’t, then no matter how great the content is, the book will get passed over. Give your back-cover copy the time and attention required to make it the small gem it needs to be. The payoff you get will be worth it.

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