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Cover Copy Primer

14 December 2012

From author and regular visitor J.M. Ney-Grimm:

I’m a writer, but I’m also a reader. I’m going to don my reader cap for a moment.

How do I choose my reading material?

When I’m lucky, a friend recommends something that’s right, but my voracity has exhausted most of my friends’ reading lists. (Grin!) More often, I must browse the shelf of new books at the library, check what my favorite authors are reading (because I’ve read all theirstories), or fish among Amazon’s recommendations (which are still very hit-or-miss for me).

All these methods, however, eventually confront me face-to-face with a book cover (I’ve blogged about cover design here) and cover copy. Sometimes cover copy might more properly be called web copy, but it’s the same stuff. That cover copy – even on the tail of a friend’s recommendation – must get me to either buy the book outright or flip to the first page of the story. (Which must then make the sale, but story openings are another blog post!)

How does the cover copy do its job? It has an underlying structure. Let’s examine it.

. . . .

Several months ago I blogged about the two most essential elements of cover copy: theme (not plot) and active verbs. If you missed that post, you’ll find it here. But what about the nitty-gritty, nuts-and-bolts of writing such copy? Theme and active verbs are necessary, but not sufficient for the job. What about the rest?

. . . .

What is the theme of the story, and what are the repercussions of this central idea?
This is the big reason a reader wants to read! Is the story about star-crossed lovers, mistaken identity, catching a dream, or what? Spell it out, but don’t descend into your plot. Stay with the big ideas; avoid the finicky details.

. . . .

What is the initial conflict?
Again, do not list plot details. What is the heart or essence of this conflict? Focusing on theme helps you avoid spoilers. You want to give a sense of the story without revealing elements best encountered within it.

. . . .

What is the hook?
A hook is something that provokes tension in the reader, often a question. Such as: how can he convince her, when she won’t even talk to him? Will her gift for improv poetry be enough to catch the god’s eye? Can he run fast enough, leap high enough, drink deep enough to surmount the walls of Olympus?

Link to the rest at J.M. Ney-Grimm


23 Comments to “Cover Copy Primer”

  1. A cover can catch my eye initially, or at least enough to get me to read the back cover. At the same time, a bad cover will make me move on without giving the book a chance. Maybe that’s all a little shallow, but it’s also the truth.

  2. Writing blurbs and cover copy is probably one of the most difficult tasks writers face. I’ve failed on any number and when I get it right, I have no idea how. 😀

  3. Cover copy is HARD!!

    This is a really helpful article, J.N. I really like your outline. 🙂

    • :: smiling ::

      Thanks, Mira. Before the workshop, my cover copy needed serious remedial help! After…well, I’ve got a grip now. But still need lots of practice. I imagine many of the writers here are better at “blurbs” than I am, but all of us seem to wrestle a bit in the marketing arena. I figure if we can learn from one another, that’s good!

  4. Now you’re in my wheelhouse. So many readers have such a hard time writing back cover copy that I started my own business doing it for them (ask if you want the address of the web site). The words used need to be compelling, enicing, “juicy” words. When writing them, I ask authors to provide me with character descriptions, and to tell me about the goals and conflicts (while most folks are familiar with GMC, Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, motivation is rarely necessary in a good back cover copy/blurb).

    I find too many authors get excited about wanting to make sure their favorite scene is included in the blurb, or get too wrapped up in the minutae. Sometimes that’s why it’s better to hire somebody like me–I don’t have favorite scenes and I’m standing far enough back to be able to see the forest instead of the moss under the trees.

    As I tell folks, the three keys to getting someone to buy your book are content (the story you wrote), an eye-catcing cover, and enticing back cover copy.

    • And if the edit function was available, that word would be enticing instead of enicing. I’m going to blame it on too many Christmas cookies.

    • Ooh! You tempt me! I’m enticed to ask for that web address. C’mon, give!

      • I was actually very tempted to take one of yours and see what I would do to change it, just for the exercise. LOL! If interested, you can find me at http://www.blurbcopy.com.

        • Which story?

          (Curiosity may kill a cat, but surely it’s a good thing in a writer! And I’m curious!))

          • Why don’t you choose one, and we can continue the conversation over on your blog. I have six others due by Monday, but I’d enjoy trying something with one of yours as well, just for fun (yes, I have a twisted sense of the word “fun”. LOL!). You already have some great back cover copy, and know what you’re doing, so it would be hard to improve on it, but I do like a challenge now and then!

    • Unless a book comes highly and personally recommended I’m one of those shallow people who go cover-blurb-meh or cover blurb-sample-buy.

      On the other hand, I never buy a second book from an author unless the first one was addicting.

      I guess there’s no way but to aim for getting it all right and keep trying.

  5. Excellent post, JM.

    Cover copy is a nightmare for me because I tend to write ensemble pieces (I don’t mean to but that’s what happens 🙂 )

    • Thank you!

      May I ask a question? What’s an ensemble piece? (There’s that curiosity again! Along with a dash of ignorance! :O)

      • It’s a theatrical term, which I have purloined (I don’t write plays, dear god I’d have to deal with actors and directors and producers and all those other egos. Mine is the only ego in the room when I write 🙂 )

        What I mean by it is that all characters (particularly in multi-POVs) have equally important story arcs. They do all tend to end up in the same place at the climax, but they all have equal importance in the story.

        You mentioned something about it in your blog post, about finding the ‘right’ character to focus your cover copy on.

        It is a natural function of how I write. I treat the characters as real people (no, they do not speak to me, they are characters they are not real but I treat them as real) which is — of course — a good thing, but it does mean that writing a story focussed on a singular protagonist is quite hard for me. I always end up giving them connections and lovers and side kicks and homes and children and parents and…so it goes on.

        It’s taken me the best part of three decades to finally come up with a barbarian (heroic) fantasy character. I’d start one in all good faith and then he’d end up…I had one a year ago, all going well, then I made the bugger a noble which automatically locks him into a social structure. I finally managed to write a barbarian short by killing everybody else in the story, pretty much, so all his connections –literally — burned. Now I’ve just got to stop him making new ones 🙂

        It’s not really a problem, but it does make my stuff a tad hard to distil down to a single arc.

  6. .
    I’ve always put jacket copy in the same category as Poetry. Every, every, word counts. Minimalism in content but overreaching and embracing in effect. Very difficult.
    One thing I’ve been trying lately is including a highly active dialogue segment plucked from the story. I do this before going into the typical “the hero wants to reach a goal but the villain puts up these conflicts” part. Tease the reader into the story up front and then drop them into the copy. Is it effective? Don’t know for sure but it seems more entertaining than starting with glowing reviewers’ quips.

  7. I know excellent writers who can’t write cover copy that will move a reader along to the first page. It’s a specialized skill, and one worth developing. J.M.’s article is a lovely mini-education in the art of cover copy, and I hope it’s widely read and learned-from.

  8. I love writing cover copy… have always enjoyed the fun short stuff. Titles, blurbs, etc. I used to be the Query Queen for my friends. Also good at Match.com profiles — that’s how I found my husband!

    I’d be interested in the best advice as to book descriptions on Amazon. Mine includes a quick line enticing the reader, a mini-review, a mention of the 50,000 downloads, then a synopsis of the beginning action. Trying to be “juicy,” as advised!

    • I think the standard is to make the book description the same as the back cover copy. It substitutes for being able to flip the book over and look at the back. For consistant branding, I recommend that authors I work with use the exact same description on their web sites, on any blog tours, on any promotional material, etc.

      I’d recommend putting the description first. I can see the rating myself, and frankly, don’t care about the number of downloads. Just like with a query, you maybe have one or two sentences to capture someone’s attention and starting with statistics can be boring.

      I like book descriptions that include a “praise for the book” section AFTER the descrition that includes a blurb from another author, although I’m not wild about seeing too much of that splashed all over covers, and the “praising author” should be someone who’s name I’d recognize if I read the genre. And I’m not wild about seeing a mind-numbing string of excerpts from reviews, especially if they are from places like the “Hooterville Feed & Grain Gazette” or something.

      Plus, I never trust review excerpts anyway. The author may choose the line that says “Most interesting heroine I’ve ever seen!”, even though the rest of the review says “Too bad she was plopped down in the most craptastic, poorly written, implausible plot ever dreamed of.”

      For an example of description followed by praise, see Chain of Command, an example of back cover copy I wrote. http://www.amazon.com/Chain-Command-Colby-Marshall/dp/098490705X/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1355609628&sr=8-3&keywords=chain+of+command .

      First comes the blurb, then quick praise from R.L. Stine and Jon Land. (the book has only been out a week or two, hence the dearth of reviews). The “look inside” feature then allows the reader to see the beginning action.

      I like JM’s advice to look at the theme and conflict and go from there.

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