Good Copy, Bad Copy

This week I’ve been thinking about cover copy. What makes good back cover copy for a book? Is it all subjective, or is there really an art to it?

In my trawls around the Amazonsphere I’ve noticed a number of books where the cover copy looks like an afterthought. Which is strange. There are thousands of internet pages devoted to honing query letters and writing the killer synopsis, but back cover copy – not so much. Probably because it was always seen as a job the publisher would do – though I always wrote my Baen copy, and I know I wasn’t the only one. Now, with the great surge in self-pubbing and publishing cut backs, back cover copy is becoming something all authors have to consider.

Which isn’t always that easy. Some authors hate writing queries, synopses and cover blurbs. Some can write copy for other people’s books but cringe at the thought of writing copy for their own work – it feels wrong, it feels like bragging. This is one of the advantages of belonging to a co-op – we can find someone else to write our copy or workshop it.

But… is there a right way to write copy? There’s certainly a wrong way. The dry single sentence. The over-the-top stream of consciousness that sounds like it was written by a teen whose first language wasn’t even a distant cousin of the language the copy was written in.

But good copy…

Perhaps we should look at the unexpected bestsellers – the unknown authors whose books come out of nowhere – did the back cover description contribute to their success? Or was it publisher hype and celebrity endorsement?

I don’t know if anyone’s ever conducted an experiment as to what constitutes good copy but it would be an interesting exercise.

My gut feeling is that it’s similar to the query letter writers use to pitch their book to agents. You need to sell the agent the idea of your book – and why they should read it – in around three paragraphs.

And, for cover copy, you need to visualise your target reader and tailor your pitch accordingly. What’s going to hook your target reader? Characters, plot, science? Conventional wisdom says a Romance novel needs a different pitch to a hard SF one. Start with a one line description or tag line for your book then expand from there.

Here’s an example from Medium Dead:

Medium Dead is the first book in a fun urban fantasy series chronicling the crime fighting adventures of Brenda – a reluctant medium – and Brian – a Vigilante Demon with an impish sense of humour. Think Stephanie Plum with magic and a dash of Carl Hiaasen.

Brenda Steele is smart, funny and out of her depth. A Vigilante Demon called Brian wants her to find murdered spirits and help him track down their killers. But Brian doesn’t just catch criminals, he likes to play with them first, and make the punishment fit the crime. As he tells Brenda, “if all you did was turn up, capture the bad guy then leave – century after century – you’d die of boredom.”

He’s also reckless – his last partner died during one of his takedowns.

Along the way, Brenda discovers that Brian isn’t as old, or as powerful, as he led her to believe. He might even be human. Whereas the murderer they’re hunting, and the child he’s holding prisoner, might not.

I like to present the reader with all the salient info in the first sentence. Is it a novel? An anthology? What’s the genre and who are the main characters? It’s something I, as a reader, like to know up front.  Then I cement that with a comparison to books the reader is likely to know.  And, finally, I give a flavour of what’s going to happen. I don’t go into too much detail as the idea is to pique the reader’s interest, not summarise the plot.

Does it work? I think so. Could I have written it differently? Yes, there is no ‘one way’ to write copy. I also think that, like most things in life, there are going to be plenty of examples of cover copy that breaks every rule and yet works.

So, let’s conduct an experiment. Post examples of cover copy that made you buy a book recently – and tell me why.

Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .

Out Now!
Medium Dead – a fun urban fantasy chronicling the crime fighting adventures of Brenda – a reluctant medium – and Brian – a Vigilante Demon with an impish sense of humour. Think Stephanie Plum with magic and a dash of Carl Hiaasen.
What Ho, Automaton! – Wodehouse Steampunk. Follow the adventures of Reggie Worcester, consulting detective, and his gentleman’s personal gentle-automaton, Reeves. It’s set in an alternative 1903 where an augmented Queen Victoria is still on the throne and automata are a common sight below stairs. Humour, Mystery, Aunts and Zeppelins!
French Fried true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.

International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth.

Coming Soon! An Unsafe Pair of Hands




Good Copy, Bad Copy — 10 Comments

  1. I don’t know if it helps your experiment, but back cover copy never makes me buy books. I’ll look at the book if the cover and/or title looks interesting (provided, that is, that I haven’t previously heard about it or the author in some way) and then I want to see the first few pages, and perhaps a few pages from somewhere around the middle. I’m probably not a typical example, but, as far as I’m concerned, back cover copy is just letters messing up the wrap-around cover illos.

  2. Milena, it does help and you’re not the first person I’ve heard say this. I know some readers also avoid the cover copy in case it gives too much of the plot away.

  3. I’m afraid I don’t read back cover copy either. I also skip prologues, introductions, and the long quotation from the Encylopaedia Galactica that may preface the work. Page 1, the first real sentence: that’s the one that has to sell the work to me.

  4. I always read the cover copy. Why would I waste time looking through a book I have no interest in? The first page has to be interesting, but it doesn’t tell me where the story is going. The cover copy gives me an idea of what the book is about. I’ve never read one that gave away too much of the plot, either.

    So I pick up a book based on either the cover, title, or author, then I read the back cover. If that piques my interest, I’ll go on the first page or two.

    I am not impressed with comparisons to other books or authors, and I never read the blurbs from other authors or reviewers. I hate it when the entire back cover is filled with these quotes and never tells me what the book is about. I don’t buy those books.

    Here’s an example of a cover copy I liked. I picked this one because I’d never heard of this author before – it was the copy that made want to read it. I like the way the copy showed the protag’s choices, and also how she was trapped. Plus, the idea was totally new. I’d never read a book where the protagonist was a female food taster. I’ve since read the other books in the series and loved them all. The book is Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder.

    “About to be executed for murder, Yelena is offered an extraordinary reprieve. She’ll eat the best meals, have rooms in the palace—and risk assassination by anyone trying to kill the Commander of Ixia.

    And so Yelena chooses to become a food taster. But the chief of security, leaving nothing to chance, deliberately feeds her Butterfly’s Dust—and only by appearing for her daily antidote will she delay an agonizing death from the poison.

    As Yelena tries to escape her new dilemma, disasters keep mounting. Rebels plot to seize Ixia and Yelena develops magical powers she can’t control. Her life is threatened again and choices must be made. But this time the outcomes aren’t so clear…”

  5. Back copy has, from time to time, made me glance over the book some more, or conversely, put it back.

    Me, I’d slice off your first paragraph, or at the very least, shift it to the end.

  6. Having spent the last hour or so doing bookstore browsing, there are definitely some things that will make me open the book. An awesome, classy looking cover helps, but if the back copy is dull, I’ll put it right back down.

    It seems like it’s just like a query letter pitch. You need to suck the reader in, and to do that, you start with a character, and you show us what’s going on with that character. Describing the character isn’t going to make us like the character, we have to invest. And you want some idea of the action, at least the first disaster that really outlines the conflict.

    I agree that the first paragraph doesn’t work as cover copy. It’s a logline. The logline says ‘hey, look at me, I’m totally up your alley.’ The back cover says, ‘I’m different, and all these cool things will happen!’ (‘fun’ is a little subjective.)

    What’s the real drama? I’m not yet convinced to shell out the $3.99.

  7. ” … back cover copy never makes me buy books.”

    Me either, though it has indeed kept me from buying on many occasions.

    Love, C.

  8. I read back cover copy but I tend to take it with a lot of salt: some cover copy is spot on, some isn’t. I don’t like being told a story what a story is, qualitatively (“a groundbreaking work of troll-on-werewolf forbidden love!” “clever” “deeply tragic.”)–I’ll get that sense from the blurbs, if any. I want a quick precis of the setup, and maybe a word about the world of the story.

    If the copy is interesting, I might flip to the first page. If the cover art is interesting, I might flip to the first page. If I like the title, I might flip to the first page. But it’s the first page that convinces me I want to read further.

  9. For what it is worth, I wrote a back cover blurb tutorial for writers having problems creating their own. It’s since been used by three university publishing programs and has been reprinted in several books for public school teachers to use instead of writing the dreaded book report.

    And, yes, its method also works to create a book description for a query.

    Here’s a link:

  10. I actually enjoy writing cover copy for my books. I think of such copy as an advertisement, not a synopsis, though I do try to give a prospective reader some idea of the story. If they dislike the kind of thing I write, they’ll dislike the book and feel they’ve wasted their money. This does not produce happy fans.