After writing a book, many authors are surprised by how hard it is to create a few engaging paragraphs for the “blurb” on the back cover.
In traditional bookstores, the book’s cover attracts readers. Inspired by the back cover blurb, they thumb through a few pages and hopefully buy the book. But the majority of books never make it to a bookstore. The role and placement of the blurb—or back cover copy—in this day of digital publishing requires careful thought. The traditional formulas rarely apply.
In e-Bookstores, tiny book covers are displayed in a corner of the screen. Originally used as a bridge between the art and the text, the book description has become the single most prominent source of information—more so than the cover itself. Many “back cover blurbs” will never be seen on the back of a physical book.
Traditional publishers and publicists usually know how to position a book. Publishers select cover images and compose blurbs based on proven marketing strategies. Authors don’t have much input. If you’re still reading, you’re probably an indie author whose work is unlikely to be displayed in a bookstore.
The back cover blurb’s primary purpose is to tell the reader what to expect from the book. Why she should part with twenty bucks and ten hours of her life to listen to you? The reasons vary from book to book. Consider your book’s retail environment, your goals as a publisher, and the needs of your reader.
Be realistic about publishing goals and prospects. Are you an author who wants to sell or an artist who wants to share? You can be both artist and entrepreneur, but be honest with yourself about whether you’re selling literary art or a practical product. Well-written books don’t necessarily sell; top-selling books aren’t always written well.
Non-fiction writers generally have a clear understanding of what needs their book will serve for well-identified reader groups. They define what the book’s value proposition is—learn how to write PHP scripts, understand global finance, study for a professional certification. These books offer practical outcomes that far exceed the value of their cover prices.
Fiction readers want aesthetic experiences. When the product is entertainment, the book’s value is more difficult to quantify. Cost-justifying a book that teaches a marketable skill is easy, but reading literature is more like attending a show; the experience has to be worth the cost of the ticket.
Be clear about the value proposition—“the takeaway.” Too many cover blurbs are a mish-mash of factoids that fail to answer the question: why should someone buy this book?
Writing the Cover Blurb: Who, What, When, Where, Why?
How can you distill the value proposition of your book into a few enticing paragraphs? Focusing exercises that anticipate readers’ questions are the first steps toward answering them successfully.
Begin with the five basic “W” questions (consider including “how?” as a sixth question). Expand the questions and compile a list of responses:
- Who is your reader? (Profession, age, gender, psychographics, demographics)
- Why is your book better than/different from the other million books released this year?
- Who is the writer? (Credentials, background, experience, other books)
- What is your category or genre?
- Who are similar authors? (If the reader likes Shakespeare, will they like your writing, too?)
- What can the reader expect to take away from reading your book (value proposition)?
- When does the story happen? Is your information current and up-to-date?
- How soon can the reader expect to see results if he follows your advice?
- Where do the events in your book happen? Is it about or intended for readers in a particular part of the world?
- Why should you and your book be trusted as a source of entertainment or information?
Cover Blurb Tips and Tricks
- The more interesting and engaging your blurb is, the more likely it is to be read.
- Keep the blurb short. The longer it is, the less likely it is to be read.
- The Book Industry Study Group defines hundreds of major categories for books. Conduct an online search for relevant category codes to see what other publishers do to reach your readers.
- Typos and style errors in your cover blurb are unacceptable. Pass or fail.
- Define your audience–don’t sell elegant prose to readers who consume romance novels like popcorn. Don’t sell mass-market novels to literature snobs.
- Testimonials from credible sources that address substantive strengths and value are much more compelling than you vouching for your own greatness.
- Manage your reader’s expectations. What can she expect to get out of your book for her time and money? Whether the benefits are practical or aesthetic, your book blurb should present a clearly stated value proposition.
- Kill fluff. If any word in your blurb isn’t either red hot or performing a useful function, cut it.
- Don’t turn the back of your book into a billboard unless it’s a commercial product.
- If you’re stuck, ask someone else to read your book and write your blurb. Trade-published authors do not write many of their own book blurbs.
- Compile a short list of words and phrases that characterize your book: funny, shocking, intellectual, poignant, tragic, visionary, motivating, etc.
- Compile a short list of words and phrases that describe your reader: intelligent, under 40, male, college-educated, loves math and science, reads historical novels, read all the Hardy Boys books, wants new programming skills.
- Find relationships between the two lists.
You’ll find as many approaches to writing your cover blurb as you will books and writers. Consider your publishing goals, your audience, and your book’s market positioning and commercial potential. Make your blurb informative, engaging, short, and technically perfect. Your book’s success may very well depend on a few, well-crafted paragraphs.
Dave Bricker, MFA is a publishing consultant and a professor of graphic design in Miami, Florida. He designs rich, experiential websites, creates beautiful book covers, and produces classic book typography. His popular blog http://www.theworldsgreatestbook.com – is loaded with straight talk about publishing, writing, and book design. Dave Bricker is the author of The Dance, Waves, Currents, The One-Hour Guide to Self-Publishing, and The Blue Monk, a colorful memoir of his solo sailing experiences. He is currently working on a magic eBook formula that marries design and technology in unique and engaging ways.