Nobody cares how great you are: Writing effective back cover copy for nonfiction

After years of acquiring knowledge in your area of expertise, you’ve written a book in which you pass on what you’ve learned. You’re excited about getting it out into the world. It will go a long way toward establishing you as an authority, and you truly believe it will help the members of your target audience.

Now you just have to convince people to read it.

You’ve never been comfortable blowing your own horn, but you realize that you can’t sell what you don’t promote. With the same level of determination and angst that you put into the book itself, you turn your efforts to the back cover copy:

Armin Rosenblatt should have been satisfied with his life. An up-and-coming professor of particle physics at Harvard University, he’d published a dozen journal articles before his thirtieth birthday. But something was missing. There was, he felt, more to the universe than he could discover via the scientific method.

Shocking his colleagues and his family, Dr. Rosenblatt left academia to attend spiritual retreats throughout the world, and his latent psychic abilities awakened as he immersed himself in a variety of practices. By the time he returned to his home in Connecticut five years later, he could move objects with his mind, heal people telepathically, control the weather, and predict the stock market with 98 percent accuracy. In HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT: THE UNDISCOVERED SENSES, he shares his techniques, revealing how you can tap into your own mystical powers.

Are you ready to take the next step in your spiritual development? HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT is an amazing resource, full of wisdom and never-before-explored insights.


A common mistake in back cover copywriting is placing too much emphasis on the awesome qualities of the author or the book. That sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out. Readers, above all, want to know how your book is going to benefit them. You won’t get that across unless you make it explicit.

Compare the above book description to a more reader-focused version:

Armin Rosenblatt, an up-and-coming physics professor at Harvard University, shocked his colleagues and his family when he left academia to attend spiritual retreats throughout the world. Certain that there was more to life than he could discover via the scientific method, he spent the next five years studying with various gurus and developing his latent psychic abilities. HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT: THE UNDISCOVERED SENSES distills the wisdom he’s gained in his travels, revealing how you can tap into your own mystical powers. You’ll learn how to:

  • move objects with your mind
  • heal people telepathically
  • control the weather in your neighborhood (without starting a tsunami somewhere else)
  • predict the stock market with 98 percent accuracy
  • … and much more

Are you ready to take the next step in your spiritual development? HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT is an amazing resource, full of wisdom and never-before-explored insights.

See the difference? Both versions have something to say about the virtues of the book itself, but the second one spends far more time on what readers get if they avail themselves of the author’s expertise.

Make it about the readers. They’ll be more inclined to turn to the first page when you do.

Posted in Marketing, Self-publishing | Tagged | 1 Comment

When you disagree with the editor


What do you mean her behavior is "out of character"? I WROTE this character!

There’s nothing quite like that moment when you get a manuscript critique back from your editor. Nothing quite like that rush of exhilaration mixed with apprehension … or possibly abject terror. What will the editor say? How much will you have to go back and change?

If you’re new to the process, you might expect the following:

1. The editor loves something you did and wants you to keep it the way it is. Validation! Hooray! Whatever the editor approves of—your characterization, your structure, your word choices—it’s one less thing to worry about as you focus on the areas that didn’t work as well.

2. The editor doesn’t like some element of your writing and shows you how to improve it. Obviously, this is a lot less fun to hear. You may be disappointed in yourself for not having gotten it right to begin with. You’re probably frustrated about the amount of time and effort it will take to fix the problem. Still, the whole point of hiring an editor was to make the book better, and now you know how to do that.

But there’s a third option you may not have considered:

3. The editor makes a suggestion you don’t agree with. At all.

It happens. In fact, it’s unusual for a writer to agree with each and every suggestion the editor makes. Don’t freak out. No, really, don’t freak out. Deep breaths. It’s going to be okay.

The first thing to do when you find yourself face-to-face with questionable advice is … nothing. Don’t argue with the editor. Don’t plunge in and do what the editor tells you, either. Just let the critique sit for two or three days.

Once the initial shock has passed, you’re ready for the second step: trying to figure out why you disagree. A tip from acclaimed fantasy author Neil Gaiman will serve you well here.

When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

Say your story centers around a love triangle, and your editor objects to its resolution. Mark would never choose sincere-but-boring Laurie (your editor argues)—he’d lose interest in her within a week. It’s more realistic for him to run off with Danielle, the dangerously unpredictable Alaskan bush pilot. If you still don’t agree after a few days, go back and puzzle out what the editor is reacting to. Maybe you failed to show Laurie’s more enticing qualities. Maybe Mark’s character growth, which enables him to stop running from healthy relationships, isn’t as apparent to readers as you think. The solution: instead of changing the ending, tweak previous passages so that the ending makes more sense.

Take heart. You survived writing a whole book; you’ll survive the critique. Just remember that it’s possible to take an editor’s advice seriously without sacrificing your vision.

Posted in Editing, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Word crimes, pet peeves, and judgment calls

If you’re a self-appointed member of the grammar police, you’ve likely heard “Weird Al” Yankovic’s latest. You couldn’t miss it. All your friends and colleagues sent you a link five minutes after it was uploaded to YouTube.

The song is hilarious. It also shines a light on how arbitrary the so-called rules can be. Our notions of “proper” English change over time. Furthermore, even copyeditors take certain rules more seriously than others. Ask ten different editors which ones we can safely ignore, and you’ll get ten different answers. That’s why, when you listen to “Word Crimes,” you probably find yourself pumping your fist in solidarity with some of the lyrics—but not all.

Here are my opinions on a few of the linguistic pitfalls Weird Al takes on, in the order they appear.

I hate these word crimes
Like I could care less
That means you do care
At least a little

“I could care less” was one of my favorite put-downs when I was nine. One day it occurred to me that “I could care less” and “I couldn’t care less” meant exactly the same thing. But how could that be? I rolled both phrases around in my mind, trying to make sense of it. There was no sense to be made. They were the same because they just were.

As an adult, I discovered that a good many people get bent out of shape over “I could care less.” There are a few good arguments for why we should … er … shouldn’t care less about this, but if I’m truthful, I have to admit that my reason for not caring is because “I could care less” wore a groove in my brain before my rational self thought to question it.

Say you got an I-T
Followed by apostrophe-S
Now what does that mean?
You would not use “it’s” in this case
As a possessive
It’s a contraction

I cringe every time I see something like Its okay (missing apostrophe!) or That is it’s function (incorrect apostrophe!) in e-mail or on Facebook. If I’m editing, I fix it. But over the centuries, it and the apostrophe have had an on-again/off-again relationship. From a purely logical standpoint, there’s no reason you couldn’t use an apostrophe for both the possessive and contraction. It looks wrong to me only because I’ve been trained to believe it’s wrong.

But I don’t want your drama
If you really wanna
Leave out that Oxford comma

This is the only point where Weird Al gives a nod to personal preference, possibly because the rule depends on the medium. The Chicago Manual of Style, used by most book publishers, says to include the last comma in a series, also known as the Oxford comma (I bought bread, jam, and peanut butter). But The Associated Press Stylebook, used by most newspapers and magazines, says to leave that comma out (I bought bread, jam and peanut butter) because The Associated Press Stylebook is stupid and wrong. You might think my bias comes from working mostly in the book-publishing world for the last decade and change, but my first editing gigs were for magazines, and I hated the omission of the Oxford comma even then.

Always say “to whom”
Don’t ever say “to who”

A few months ago, a writer posed a question to a discussion group for writers and editors. Which tagline should she choose for her back cover: Who can you trust? or Whom can you trust?

A no-brainer, right? The word in question was a direct object, so whom was the grammatically correct choice. And yet, something inside of me rebelled. Whom was fine if the book was about upper-crust people who talked that way in casual conversation. “The butler did it? Whom can we trust?” But otherwise it sounded stilted. Distancing. Altogether wrong for promotional copy. Who can you trust had a punchy, informal feel that was appropriate for the occasion.

When editing, I’ll only out-and-out change a who to whom if the level of formality calls for it: To whom am I speaking, but Who am I speaking to? If a technically incorrect who sounds okay in context, I’ll flag it with a comment and inform the writer that some readers may be unhappy with the grammatical incorrectness, but it reads better “wrong,” and ultimately it’s the writer’s call.

And I thought that you’d gotten it through your skull
What’s figurative and what’s literal
Oh but, just now, you said
You literally couldn’t get out of bed
That really makes me want to literally
Smack a crowbar upside your stupid head

Renowned linguist John McWhorter has this to say about the use of literally to convey emphasis:

Seeking ways of spicing up meaning is part of any language’s timeline, and literally follows the noble tradition … No one would want to speak a language where we couldn’t shine a light on a point or lend things a bit of color—and the words we do this with often come from what started as other ones. After all, we can’t just make them up out of thin air. Do we despise calling things “cool” because the word started out meaning “cold”? It’s just that, for no apparent reason, literally has been singled out as a word somehow barred from changing like other words.

I agree with McWhorter on almost all things linguistic, but … no. No no no no no. Literally hasn’t been singled out for “no apparent reason,” it’s been singled out because the new definition contradicts the real one in a way that’s too painfully ironic to bear. I don’t care what Alexander Pope and Jane Austen thought. I shall not yield.

Sigh. Nevertheless.

How about you? Which word crimes do you hate? Which ones would you legalize?

Posted in Editing | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

5 ways to get honest feedback on your manuscript

“I want your honest opinion, as long as your honest opinion is that it’s flawless and brilliant.”

In our last installment, I pointed out that friends and family members are more likely to give glowing evaluations of your work than total strangers. They can’t help it. They like you, so they want to like what you’ve done.

Does that mean you shouldn’t bother to show them anything you write? That you should skip directly to professional editing? Not at all. While you’ll need editing eventually, I recommend hitting up your buddies before hiring somebody like me. The trick is to solicit feedback in a way that inspires objectivity and honesty.

How do you do that? Glad you asked.

1. Be humble

You’re on the eleventh draft of your manuscript, and you’ve meticulously reworked and polished every sentence. Intellectually, you understand that criticism is a necessary and important part of the creative process. In your heart, you think you’re done. What could there possibly be left to change?

Hey, maybe you’re right. Time will tell. In the meanwhile, though, try to keep your glowing self-assessments to yourself. If a friend isn’t as dazzled by your writing as you show yourself to be, he won’t want to be the one who brings you crashing down to earth. If you act as though you expect suggestions for improvement, you’ll elicit more honest responses.

“I’ve gotten as far as I can on my own,” you say as you hand off the manuscript. “I need other people’s perspectives to take it to the next level.” Try as hard as you can to believe those words. They will serve you and your book well during the next round of revisions.

2. Be confident

You’re on the eleventh draft of your manuscript, and it just isn’t coming together the way you’d dreamed it would. What made you think you could do this? You need help and lots of it. Intellectually, you understand that writing takes a lot of practice, especially if it isn’t your area of expertise. Emotionally, you know that the inevitable criticism you receive will crush your soul.

You may be correct about how much work you still have ahead of you. (It’s okay! There’s no shame in that!) In the meantime, though, try not to wear your insecurities on your sleeve. If a friend realizes how much her true impression will hurt you, she may refuse to offer anything but praise.

There’s no need to pretend you have confidence in your work if you don’t. You can, however, act confident about your ability to handle negative reactions. “I know there are a bunch of things wrong with this,” you tell your prospective reader, “but I’m not sure how to fix them. Your suggestions would really help!”

3. Specify what kind of feedback you want

You’re on the eleventh draft on your manuscript, and quite a few people have already weighed in on previous iterations. Most of them hated your resolution; they thought it was too dark. But a small handful loved the way you tied everything together, and they tended to be the ones who truly understood what you were trying to accomplish. After a period of reflection, you’ve decided to keep the ending the way it is.

Mention stuff like this to your new readers going in. “Just so you know, I’ve decided I’m happy with the conclusion and I’m not going to change it. If you could just tell me anyplace the wording seems off, or where I could flesh out the characters more, that would be great.”

Eliminating areas of potential criticism is a kindness to your readers, as it prevents them from wasting their time trying to diplomatically phrase advice you’re going to ignore anyway. It also benefits you. Some friends will be reluctant to give more criticism than praise; they understand the value of an honest appraisal, but don’t want to be too harsh. Now they can limit their negative evaluations to the elements of your manuscript you’ve identified.

4. Set the bar high

People are often predisposed to love anything their daughter/son/mother/father/spouse/friend wrote. To the best of your ability, you need to nip that instinct in the bud. Tell everybody to pretend someone else is the author. Tell them to imagine they were flipping through the pages in a bookstore. That will prime them to demand as much from your manuscript as they would any other book.

5. Be gracious

No matter how much you psych yourself up for pointed criticism, it’s not going to feel good. Resist the urge to argue. Thank your readers for their time. Tell them you’re going to let the critiques sit for a few days while you process them, and then do so. When you’re calmer, you can (nicely, calmly) ask clarifying questions about their reactions. If you handle the less-than-optimal assessments gracefully, you’ll be more likely to get honest feedback the next time you need it.

* * *

While they aren’t a substitute for professional editing, friends-and-family critiques can be highly useful. Do your best to help your first readers be objective, make them feel safe about sharing their true impressions, and thank them for their efforts. The more you use high-quality feedback to help you level up, the less work your manuscript will need at the editing stage … and the less you’ll need to spend.

Posted in Editing | Tagged | Comments Off

Why good friends make bad reviewers

“OMG, this is the best book by a close friend ever.
Five stars!”

“I had some friends read my book, and they thought it was good.”

I’ve heard this refrain many times, usually when the subject of editing comes up. Whether the author hasn’t budgeted for it or believes she doesn’t need any help beyond basic proofreading, her first line of defense is often friends-and-family feedback.

If anyone pushes the issue, the author may become irritated. “I had some friends read my book, and THEY thought it was GOOD!”

It used to baffle me. How could an author’s friends give a manuscript high marks in the face of what I considered obvious problems? Despite the praise, these works weren’t ready for prime time. Some contained a lot of spelling errors, some weren’t organized clearly, some were difficult to follow, etc.

Maybe the friends didn’t want to hurt the author’s feelings?

But a turn of the tables provided some needed insight. While visiting my parents one Thanksgiving, a close friend asked me to read the novel he’d started and tell him what I thought. My friend is a good writer, so I was happy to do it.

Sure enough, it was brilliant. The unique premise! The well-worded descriptions! The clever turns of phrase!

Then came the aha moment.

I wasn’t evaluating his work in the same way I would if I picked it up in a bookstore.

Instead, my thought process went something like, I couldn’t write science fiction in a million years. How does he come up with these ideas for his plot and his characters? It’s like magic.

So I took a step back and forced myself to read the pages again. I pretended I was in a bookstore, scanning the content to see if it was worth my time and money, expecting a certain level of quality.

I still found the story highly entertaining. But I also realized it needed work. After a great, hooky first sentence, many paragraphs of description and backstory followed. They were well-written paragraphs—which is why I didn’t notice a problem at first—but if I were skimming the first chapter in a bookstore, I’m not sure I’d have enough patience to wade through all the telling to get to the action.

The lesson? Even your most brutally honest friends and family members aren’t the best people to screen your work. They may be too dazzled by the fact that you could write a book at all to notice its flaws.

It isn’t their fault.

It isn’t your fault.

You just need to go outside the circle of people who love you best if you’re looking for unbiased reviews.

Because here’s the thing. Eventually you’ll want individuals other than your friends to read your book. You’ll send it to agents in the hope of getting it published, or you’ll skip that step and make it available to the masses yourself. And they’ll decide whether they think it’s worth their time.

If you’ve done your homework, sought out objective criticism, and eliminated the flaws based on that criticism, you’ll have a much better shot of convincing those total strangers that the answer is yes.

* * *

An earlier version of this article originally appeared on the Wheatmark blog.

Posted in Editing | Tagged | 1 Comment

Readers rule: Elizabeth Gilbert and the crowdsourced cover

The readers weigh in
In my last installment, I warned against clinging too tightly to your one and only book cover idea. It’s dangerous to be so invested in your own aesthetic preferences that you lose sight of what will sell your book. It’s good to keep an open mind and ask for your friendly cover designer’s input.

But … BUT …

That doesn’t mean you should unthinkingly go with your designer’s choices either.

Back in March, Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame was battling her publisher over the design of her latest book, The Signature of All Things. The situation was somewhat unusual. While traditional publishers have final say over book design, Gilbert has a bit of leverage as a bestselling author. They wouldn’t want her running to another publishing company as soon as her contract was up. Still, they didn’t think Gilbert’s first choice would compel readers to buy, and that was a problem.

With three covers up for consideration and no resolution in sight, Gilbert and Viking Press agreed to let the masses decide. From Gilbert’s Facebook page, March 21, 2013:

I got so tired of debating over “what the reader wants” that I decided instead to just try asking you guys directly.

So tell me, valued readers … what do you want?

Which one of these three beautiful book jackets do you most like?

Which design would most draw you in, if you were browsing a bookstore?

Which is the one that makes you say, “My goodness, I will certainly have to buy THAT book!”?

You can see the choices here.

Gilbert preferred the beige cover in the middle. So, as it turned out, did most of the 8,500 people who voted. By a ridiculously wide margin.

The takeaway: It doesn’t matter what I think. It doesn’t matter what you think. It matters very much what your readers think. Find out, and everybody wins.

Posted in Design, Working with a publishing team | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

You better shop around

Say you’ve decided to join a dating site. Shortly after signing up, you find a profile that intrigues you. The person is interested in the same things you are, seems intelligent, has a great sense of humor, the works. Do you:

      (a)  Introduce yourself and say you’d like to meet for coffee
      (b)  Propose marriage

It sounds like a silly question, but file it away. We’ll come back to it.

* * *

Not long ago on a LinkedIn discussion group, a bunch of writers were talking about how to obtain a professional-looking book cover on a budget. One participant—we’ll call him Lloyd—said his strategy was to figure out exactly what he wanted his cover to look like before he hired a designer. The more specific he was, the easier and cheaper it would be for the designer to do the work.

Jim Hayes of Ha! Yes! Graphic Design had this to say about Lloyd’s approach:

Lloyd mentions that he got a good deal by having already mentally designed the cover. In my 30 years designing, I’ve found this to be a dangerous talent in a client. I love to hear and utilize their ideas and integrate their desires when possible, but designers come up with several ideas, some of which will not work out. Non-designers typically come up with one idea. When I used to accept that type of job, I often found myself trying to make a dead-end idea work. Designers come up with dead-end ideas, too, but they get thrown away.


Jim nailed it.

I’ve produced many design drafts that, despite my best efforts, were never going to look as cool in print or onscreen as they did in my head. Those drafts got tossed onto the scrap heap.* Frustrating, but no biggie. Ideas that don’t work are part of the creative process.

When a non-designer only has one idea and it doesn’t work, that’s okay. The problem arises when the non-designer refuses to consider any other possibilities. When the cover needs to look just like they mocked it up in MS Word, sometimes right down to the fonts, and they will not budge from their vision regardless of how many other ideas you pitch.

* * *

Let’s replay that initial scenario in a publishing context. You rack your brain for cover ideas until you hit upon one you like. In your head it looks professional, accurately represents your book, compels readers to pick it up, the works. Do you:

      a)  Have a designer mock up your idea so you can see what it really looks like
      b)  Decide this will be your cover no matter what

By no means are all amateur cover ideas destined to fail. If you have a concept in mind, you should absolutely share it with your designer and see how it goes.

Just don’t be married to it, is all I’m saying.

* * *

* This works in reverse, too. I’ve had clients pitch ideas that sounded awful at first, but kicked serious butt when I played around with them in Photoshop.

Posted in Design, Working with a publishing team | Tagged | 2 Comments

The right question: How to make sure you get the editing you need

Wow, I didn't expect quite that much red ink ...Not long ago, a first-time author listed a job on an editorial freelancing site that I frequent. His manuscript had already been edited, he said, so all he needed was for someone to catch the leftover errors in spelling and punctuation. He asked bidders to go to his website and read the chapters he’d posted there.

A few days later, the author did something unusual. He sent e-mail to the editors he didn’t pick and offered detailed feedback on how he’d gone about choosing one person out of many qualified candidates.

He said he was pleased with the responses he received … mostly. The exception was a woman who provided “discouraging” comments and told him the story needed more work than he thought it did. At first this distressed him quite a bit. Then he shook it off. The majority of other bidders had said the manuscript was in pretty good shape—that, in fact, it looked better than most. Why believe the lone naysayer?

His logic was sound. Just one problem: the naysayer was right.

* * *

It’s not uncommon for writers to tell prospective editors that their manuscript needs “just a light edit.” It’s not uncommon for them to be overly optimistic. When that happens, we as editors have a couple of options.

  1. Point out the flaws.
  2. Say nothing.

#1 is the more ethical response. Authors expect publishable work out of the editing process. If the level of editing they’re asking for won’t get them there, they need to know that. They need us to tell them.*

Unfortunately, there’s a sort of natural selection at play that favors option #2. Writers are more likely to hire us when we don’t hurt their feelings, and option #1 will hurt their feelings no matter how diplomatic we try to be. Furthermore, option #1 may lead them to suspect that we’re being mercenary, pushing more expensive services than (they think) they need. This is why I won’t outright condemn those who don’t press the issue. After enough authors refuse to hire us because we’re honest, it’s understandable for some of us to conclude that we shouldn’t bother.

It probably sounds as though I’m blaming writers for this state of affairs. I’m not. In the example above, the author had good reason to believe his manuscript didn’t need substantive revisions. He’d done his due diligence by getting it edited once. He likely had a group of first readers, friends and family, who were more eager to focus on the genuinely praiseworthy aspects of his book than have an awkward conversation about things that could be improved.

Sometimes the people who seek our services really are egomaniacs who believe they can do no wrong, but that’s rare. Most overconfident authors simply aren’t getting enough accurate feedback early in the process.

* * *

What does all of this mean for you, the writer? How can you ensure that you’ll get an honest assessment from potentially gun-shy editors?

Ask for it.

Instead of “I only need proofreading” or “How much do you charge for a light edit,” say, “What kind of editing do you think this manuscript needs?”

Do this even if it’s been professionally edited seven times.

You may not always be happy with the answer, but I promise you, you’ll be happier with the results.

* Though I didn’t inform this author that he needed more than proofreading, I did offer him a free three-page sample edit. If he’d taken me up on it, I would have shown him what a higher level of editing could do for his book. Telling him before he requested a sample edit, I predicted, would end badly—as it did for the other editor.

Posted in Editing, Working with a publishing team | Tagged | 3 Comments

What it’s about: Blurbs and the character-driven novel

Hi! We're the characters.

“My book is about … um … these guys!”

Last week I offered tips on how to write compelling back cover copy for your novel. The trick is distilling your story down to its essence, telling potential readers about your characters and the challenges they face.

But what do you do if you’ve written one of those slice-of-life books—the kind where the characters and setting are the main focus, and there is no overarching plot? Conflicts exist, but they aren’t the story, and most of them get resolved long before the final page. If you try basing your description on the plot, you’re left with, “There are a bunch of people. Stuff happens to them.”

Don’t worry. You can do better than that. The thing to remember is that your book is about something, even if you can’t easily sum it up. Here are a couple of strategies.

Describe the characters

You’ve let your characters drive your novel, so they’re probably pretty interesting. Tell us about them. What are their personality quirks? How do they deal with the world around them?

This book description for Fannie Flagg’s bestseller Standing in the Rainbow is a nice example of a character blurb:

Along with Neighbor Dorothy, the lady with the smile in her voice, whose daily radio broadcasts keep us delightfully informed on all the local news, we also meet Bobby, her ten-year-old son, destined to live a thousand lives, most of them in his imagination; Norma and Macky Warren and their ninety-eight-year-old Aunt Elner; the oddly sexy and charismatic Hamm Sparks, who starts off in life as a tractor salesman and ends up selling himself to the whole state and almost the entire country; and the two women who love him as differently as night and day. Then there is Tot Whooten, the beautician whose luck is as bad as her hairdressing skills; Beatrice Woods, the Little Blind Songbird; Cecil Figgs, the Funeral King; and the fabulous Minnie Oatman, lead vocalist of the Oatman Family Gospel Singers.

Readers who like character-driven novels will want to get to know these people.

Describe the action

But wait, you cry. Didn’t we agree that it’s pointless to summarize the plot? Yep. That’s why you don’t describe “the plot.” You pick a few subplots and run with them.

Not long ago I wrote a blurb for The Longest Year by Stan Crader. If I had focused on the book’s central conflict, it would have gone something like, “There’s this kid who really, really wants to drive, but he can’t yet because he’s fifteen, so he has to wait.”

That makes the story sound boring. It isn’t.

Here’s the actual blurb:

Like all of his friends, Tommy Thompson dreams of obtaining the ultimate ticket to freedom: a driver’s license.

Unlike all of his friends, Tommy has just turned fifteen. He’ll have to watch everybody else pass their tests before he’s old enough to take his.

But life goes on for the band of boys despite Tommy’s consuming obsession. His best friend, Booger, takes up the guitar. His buddy Everett dates a girl from a rival school and discovers that her classmates aren’t altogether happy about it. Longtime romantic interest Melody tests her newly minted driving skills on the railroad tracks. And Tommy receives an unexpected gift—one that just might make the longest year of his life go by a little quicker.

The third in Stan Crader’s Colby series, THE LONGEST YEAR will bring a smile to your face as you remember the trials and tribulations of your own youth.

The book isn’t about any of these subplots. But when you see them recounted together in this way, a picture forms in your mind. It’s about growing up. It’s about the the challenges you face as you navigate the journey from childhood to adulthood.

(Also notice that when you describe subplots, you can sneak in techniques for plot-driven blurbs. What gift did Tommy receive and why did it have such a big impact? You have to read the book to find out!)

In the end, all back cover copy serves the same purpose: to tell potential readers how the book will benefit them. If you can convey why they’ll enjoy getting to know the people who populate your story, your job is done.

Posted in Marketing | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

What it’s about: How to write enticing back cover copy for your novel

So, what's it about?
You stand at the doorway of your favorite coffeehouse, scanning the area for your friend. Julie is tucked away at a corner table, reading a paperback. She doesn’t notice you until you take the seat across from her.

“Oh, sorry!” she says. “I’ve been completely engrossed in this novel. It’s really good!”

“Cool. What’s it about?” you ask.

“It starts out in Baltimore, when Lisel—that’s the main character—is fourteen. Her parents pretty much ignore her because they’re so focused on her older brother. The brother’s name is Carl, and he’s really smart. All he’s ever wanted to do when he grows up is become a doctor. The parents are immigrants, and they’ve done okay given that their English isn’t great, but they really want Carl to achieve the American dream.

“Okay …”

“Lisel resents this a little, but it’s the way it’s always been, right? So she doesn’t think about it much. But then the whole family takes a trip to Boston so Carl can do a college interview, and while they’re driving there they get blindsided by an out-of-control driver. Carl ends up with permanent brain damage. He has to relearn how to tie his shoes.”

You nod, grateful that Julie has gotten to the point. “So it’s about how the family copes with this.”

“Well, not exactly. The book skips ahead to when Lisel is in medical school. See, her parents transfer all their ambitions for Carl onto her, and she doesn’t want to disappoint them. She gets into Harvard, and she meets this guy who seems perfect …”

Your friend tells of Lisel’s struggles to get through medical school, her painful breakup with the aforementioned guy after she discovers he’s been cheating, and the challenges of building a practice. Your mind begins to wander as she describes, in intricate detail, Lisel’s attempts at a love life.

“So she agrees to a blind date set up by her mom, and she totally doesn’t want to go,” says Julie. “But he actually turns out to be really cool, maybe someone she can trust. She tells him she used to like acting in high school, before the thing with her brother, and he convinces her to audition for this theater group really close to where she lives—”

“Okay, okay,” you say, waving your hands desperately. “But what is the book ABOUT?”

“That’s what I’ve been telling you for the last seven minutes.” She blinks a few times, clearly mystified. “Hey, I’ve gotta use the restroom. Could you watch my stuff?”

As Julie cheerfully makes her way to the other side of the coffeehouse, you pick up the book, flip to the back cover, and read this:

Most of Lisel’s childhood was spent in the shadow of her brilliant and ambitious older brother, Carl. When a car accident left Carl severely brain damaged at the age of seventeen, she quietly took on the dreams he would never fulfill in an attempt to ease her parents’ grief. She went to medical school, graduated with honors, and now maintains a thriving practice.

But cracks appear in Lisel’s seemingly perfect life. The only human beings she interacts with on a regular basis are her patients and the men she meets on disastrous dates. When she joins a community theater group, she finds that rekindling her interest in acting only magnifies her dissatisfaction with everything else.

Should the choices we make in high school determine the course of our entire life? Are parental approval and the trappings of success enough to sustain us? In turns heartbreaking and hilarious, A HAND-ME-DOWN LIFE is a deeply satisfying story about one woman’s quest to find her own path.

Here’s the million dollar question. Assuming this is the kind of book you might enjoy, which description is more likely to make you want to read it: the blurb on the back cover, or the blurb as Julie might have written it?

* * *

I’ve encountered many authors who are capable of penning interesting books, but become absolutely lost when it comes time to create the promotional copy for those books. Too close to their own work to know how to sell it, they often fall back on Julie’s rambling monologue approach to plot summary.

If you’ve run into the same problem, take a few deep breaths and relax. I’m here to help.

The key thing is to keep it simple. Pare it down. Don’t tell the entire story in your blurb.

That’s great, you say, but how do I know what to leave out?

Good question. There are actually many ways to summarize any given plot, and the one you choose should depend on who you think will read it.

For instance, the Hand-Me-Down Life blurb is geared toward readers who like stories about quarter-life or mid-life crises. If we wanted to hook people who are into family dramas, we could play up the pressure Lisel’s parents put on her to fill her brother’s shoes. If the overall tone of the book is light and humorous despite the serious subject matter, we might emphasize the romantic interests—neither of whom even get a mention in the current blurb.

Obviously, you shouldn’t make your book out to be something it’s not. You just need to focus on certain elements of what it is so you can present a coherent narrative.

Still don’t know which plot points to highlight? Try writing different versions of the blurb. Put the samples up on your blog (if you don’t have one, you should) and show them to friends. Which version makes people want to flip open to the first page?

If you’ve done your job, then readers will want to know the whole story. And to find out, they’ll read the whole story!

* * *

An earlier version of this article originally appeared on the Wheatmark blog.

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