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How I Wrote and RE-WROTE Cover Copy for My Novel

11 December 2015

From TPV regular J.M. Ney-Grimm:

I recently read How to Write Fiction Sales Copy by Dean Wesley Smith, and it is excellent. Excellent! I can’t say enough good things about it.

In the course of writing “blurbs” or cover copy for my own stories, I’ve perused a lot of how-to advice for same. Some advice proved helpful. (And I needed a lot of help! Marketing does not come naturally to me.) Some of it sounded reasonable, but when I followed the instructions, I generated some of the worst copy of my life. And most of the advice available was geared toward non-fiction.

But Dean has succeeded in bottling lightning – or come very close to it, indeed.

In How to Write Fiction Sales Copy, he lays out two general guiding principles and then proceeds to describe seven patterns or “formulas” – the structural bones – for writing sales copy. He includes numerous examples (for real stories destined for the marketplace) illustrating each approach.

I learn best by example, so this was pure gold for me.

But the bottled lightning? After reading the 32 example blurbs, I wanted to go buy and read every single story they presented. Every single one! Now that’s successful sales copy!

. . . .

1 • Stay out of the story’s plot.

Readers read a book to experience the plot in all its magnificence, told with all the skill that the storyteller can manifest. Regurgitating the plot in the sales copy will do nothing but wipe the wonder from it. It certainly won’t sell the story. There are better ways.

How do you know you are down in the plot? Your copy will have a lot of what boils down to “and then this happened.”

If you see a lot of “and then this happened,” you’ve done it wrong. Delete and start over.

. . . .

2 • Use active verbs; avoid the passive tense like the plague.

That means avoiding verb constructions that require “is,” was,” “had,” “have,” and the like.

I’m lucky enough to possess a knack for avoiding passive verbs when I write sales copy. Occasionally an “is” sneaks by me, but that’s rare. However, most fiction writers, when they start writing sales copy, fall into either the trap of focusing on the plot of their stories, or the trap of using passive verbs, or both.

Link to the rest at J.M. Ney-Grimm

Here’s a link to J.M. Ney-Grimm’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

PG had a brain freeze and forgot to insert a link to the author’s books earlier. Check them out.


18 Comments to “How I Wrote and RE-WROTE Cover Copy for My Novel”

  1. Excellent advice, all of it – J.M.’s and Dean’s.

    Summary is not cover copy or book description. I think it arises because that is how writing query letters runs: tell the agent the whole story as quickly and efficiently as possible. (That’s the stay out of the plot bit.)

    Agents and publishers might need that; readers do NOT. Why should they buy a book when they already know what happens?

    And that’s my problem when I read many book descriptions: oh, that’s what it’s about? Not interested.

    When almost anything can be fascinating as a story. Millions of readers still get pulled in the story of the governess named Jane Eyre who had a hard childhood and ended up marrying the boss. It’s the TELLING that makes it, and the first paragraphs that tell you the storyteller knows what she’s doing.

    • It seems a lot like the difference between a good and bad movie trailer. The good ones show you enough to make you to watch the movie. The bad ones show you so much that you no longer feel a need to watch the movie, as you’ve seen the whole story already.

      That said, I’ve noticed that a lot of trade-published book descriptions do go into the plot.

      • Yeah, but they shouldn’t. I really just want the back copy to tell me who is the protagonist, what is their conflict, what are the stakes, and depending on genre, where is this happening? I’m looking for the blurb to promise me that the problem will matter and the character is going to do something about it.

        I hope Dean covered loglines, too. Those are the 2-3 sentence blurbs you see in the BookBub etc. newsletters. I think I’m getting the hang of those.

        • I write back cover copy for authors. In fiction, I rely on the GMC – Goal, Motivation, Conflict formula. Enough setting so the reader knows a contemporary romance from a historical mystery. I rely on the first five pages of the novel to give me an idea of the authors tone and style so I can match the voice of the blurb to the voice of the story. And I can’t tell you how often authors respond with “I didn’t even see that about my own story!” because they were so excited about all the awesome little “trees” they wrote that they failed to see the beautiful forest they’d grown. Sometimes that’s why it’s a good idea to hire an outsider. We’re probably one of the least expensive things you can hire out, and the one that has the most impact, second only to the cover.

  2. I’ll join the chorus about the value of Dean’s class. It also works for non-fiction (in terms of selling the sizzle and hinting at the steak). I ended up writing the PR material and back cover copy for a history book, and Dean’s points still applied.

    And heavens, yes, please do not tell me the plot in the blurb. Tease about it on the back cover, give me enough to be really interested, but don’t summarize the story. Imagine a movie-trailer voice reading your blurb. (Well, you might avoid the _Kung-fu Panda_ tone if you write sweet romance, but you get the idea. 🙂 )

  3. Thanks for the kind comments. Glad the book helped. Great to hear.

    Most of the book is still in posts on my web site for free. I wrote it that way. So you can still read it for free if you want to follow the posts along. They cover about ten or so days in August.

    Link to the first chapter and introduction is

    Or you can buy the book in paper or electronic. (grin) Thanks again, J.M. Really glad it helped.

  4. Readers will love blah-blah-blah. It will make you laugh, make you cry, make you puke a bit at the end. What’s actually in there? I don’t know, you’ll have to buy it and see for yourself.

    Dang it all, maybe it is possible to leave plot out of product descriptions…

    • Books with cover copy that tells me nothing about the story besides how I’m instructed to react to it don’t get my money. Same goes for books that have as cover copy a bunch of pull quotes from other writers who have no inkling of my reading desires. I don’t assume that just because any of my favorite authors like a book I will too.

  5. I’m not sure I agree that you should totally stay out of the plot. As a reader I definitely like to know in what kind of direction the plot is going to go. I don’t want a blow by blow account, but I do want some hints. I get really annoyed when product descriptions don’t tell me ANYTHING about what is going to happen in the story. And I also HATE being told why I want to read something or how I will feel when I read something.

    So, I guess, I’m sure Dean’s way appeals to a certain type of reader, but not the type I am. And there have to be more like me out there. Maybe the kind of reader Dean’s way appeals to is the majority. But I guess I’d still rather write something that appeals to me and other readers like me, because that is also the kind of reader I’m writing for in general.

    • Sarah, I’m with you in disliking blurbs that convey nothing of the plot and that tell me how I will feel.

      But I also dislike blurbs that essentially tell the whole story. Why would I want to read the book, when I already know what happens?

      Dean’s approach to sales copy limits plot elements to the presentation of the story problem, which I find appealing and interesting.

      • I also said I don’t like blurbs that tell the whole story. There is a great deal of room in between “tells me nothing except the premise” and “tells me everything”. I want some indication of where the story is going to go from the initial story problem. Dean’s approach seems to be to avoid plot entirely. That just doesn’t work for me as a reader. It doesn’t tell me enough.

  6. Joanna Penn hosted Bryan Cohen on The Creative Penn a couple of months ago: How To Write Your Book Sales Description With Bryan Cohen. It changed my thinking about ‘the book description’.

    What is the purpose of the ‘description’? Is it to summarize the book? Or to sell the book?

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