Evolution is Good: Twelve Years of Writing Back Cover Copy

Bethany House is a little unusual in that our editorial team has, for the most part, handled back cover copy, especially for our fiction titles.

Like many things in publishing, what qualifies as “good” back cover copy* will vary from person to person and the whole thing is a lot of art and not much science. (Or if there is a science, I haven’t seen the research.)

There are some no-brainers of course. A great review or great endorsement (if it doesn’t make the front cover.) Mentioning the awards a book or author has won. And then some attempt at summarizing the story in an engaging way. Introducing the main characters and the main conflict and coaxing the reader to finally open the book.

A personal bias through the years is that this should be done with the fewest words possible. Is there a magic number? I don’t know. I generally strive to keep it around 100 – 120 words max. If I can work with fewer, even better.

But there have been times I’ve gone very short.

One of my first attempts at keeping things brief was copy I wrote while back in marketing. Lynn Austin was about to release the first of a Civil War trilogy and, as with many of Lynn’s books, it was a wonderful, complicated, meaty story that DID NOT flow naturally into easy summary. And if there’s one reason NOT to have editor’s or author’s write their own copy it’s that when you’re too close to a story, you lose the forest for the trees. The first attempts were just tons and tons of trees. And maybe that’s what pushed me the other direction. I had read the novel and what jumped out at me was the intensity of the story, the  power and drama. I wanted something that captured that and lingering sentences didn’t seem to work. Working with editorial we chose a few key phrases and words and what we ended up with was something more akin to poetry. Or marketing copy.

After moving to editorial, it takes a bit of time to ramp up your own projects and so I had some months to try and formulate some ideas about what I was trying to do. What kind of authors I wanted. What kind of packaging.

My thoughts on brevity being a key component of back cover copy got clearer when I saw an example I didn’t like. I had tried to acquire this book and failed, so I had been particularly interested to see how the acquiring company would handle its release. (It’s gauche, I realize, to criticize a competitor, but since the book is seven years old I hope it’s alright. ) The cover fit the genre. The back cover…though was a big block of text. And I just couldn’t imagine that being helpful.

In the intervening years, I have written a lot of back cover copy. Most of it has lots of input from lots of folks–from the authors to my colleagues. A lot of it looks like the cover copy you see everyday. Blurb, headline, three paragraphs, author bio.

But every now and then I decide to try something different.

Hardcovers, when we did them, offered an easy place…because you always had the front flap to write “normal” copy.

When we worked on the cover of Siri Mitchell‘s first historical novel with us, A Constant Heart, we had a wonderful dilemma. We had too many amazing photos from which to choose. Trying to have our cake and eat it too, I worked with our art director and designer to incorporate both. One on the front and a second on the back. My promise was that I’d write copy that wouldn’t interfere with the image. (And stealing from myself, I returned to the same trope I’d tried with Lynn Austin years before by selecting a few powerful, engaging words to highlight.) If you can find a more beautiful back cover…let me know.

With Siri, then it became part of a “branding” look for the next four books, Love’s Pursuit, She Walks in Beauty, and A Heart Most Worthy.

It was also something we tried on Jody Hedlund’s debut historical novel The Preacher’s Bride. Here we were presented with a dilemma. We had two cover directions and our team was torn. One would look more “traditional” and fit the CBA market really well. The other was striking, startling, and stark. We debated it for a time and decided to go with the less risky cover…but feature the other image on the back. Did we make the right call? I don’t know, but the book made the bestseller list. We followed up with a similar attempt on Jody’s next novel The Doctor’s Lady.

And then. Then it felt like I was forcing it. If you can get trapped in the box of “normal” so too we can be trapped in the box of doing something one way just for the heck of it. Not every story can be boiled down to a few punchy lines. And really, I had no proof that this kind of copy worked any better. What if readers weren’t getting enough information about the story?

With Siri’s latest novel, The Messenger, we were again able to have a nice compromise. Our designers had a great second image from our photoshoot that still left me plenty of room to try more traditional copy.

And with Jody’s upcoming release Unending Devotion we are also reverting back to more traditional copy. (BTW: this is a WORLD-PREMIERE of this cover. The book is due out in a few months!!!)

I haven’t abandoned super short copy–my dream is one day do copy in haiku format–but it simply can’t fit in every circumstance.

I’m never going to go with the big block of text though. With headlines and blurbs and subheaders, I think a talented designer can turn those words into something appealing for a reader to find. Something that will get them to open the book and  get immersed in your story.

Do you have any favorite back cover copy that you remember? A favorite headline or blurb?

*This post intentionally ignores the fact that back cover copy is irrelevant in ebooks. I’m aware of that. We can debate that at another time.


13 responses to “Evolution is Good: Twelve Years of Writing Back Cover Copy

  1. Very fun to see the back cover of my next release here on your blog, Dave! Love how you guys incorporated one of the other front cover choices for the back, leaving enough room to try a more traditional blurb. I may have to ask my readers at some point which back cover they like best–the bold picture with less description of the story. Or the more traditional back cover! Thanks for all your hard work in putting them together!

  2. The back cover copy is usually what goes in the book summary in metadata and is not at all irrelevant when it comes to ebooks. I came here because I’m considering getting some serious help with having mine written, and the title was an instant match for my current publishing goals.

    • Thanks, Liana. Wonderful point. And probably a good reason to write fuller but still concise back cover copy. Alas, it won’t be so pretty or enticing anymore. Metadata, frankly, may be the least “pretty” word out there.

      • Metadata still gives me the creepy crawlies. And tags: the horror! Some days, I do wish I could just hire someone to deal with categorization and tags and summaries.

  3. Bethany House, I have to say does some very inventive back covers. Great to know the name and face behind so many of them!

    One of the things that frustrates me as a reader browsing a book store is a CHUNK of back cover copy. I tend to skip it and put the book back unless it is a name I love. I have adored what BH did for Siri Mitchell’s books and Jody Hedlund’s titles. Gives a wonderful teaser in a very gripping manner. Can’t wait for these new releases, they sound awesome!

  4. I remember being captivated by Lynn Austin’s back cover. It was just enough to wet my appetite and set the stage for a compelling novel. A Candle in the Darkness still remains one of my favorites. I read Jody Hedlund’s The Preacher’s Bride on my Kindle and have never seen the back cover copy. I choose a book based on setting and basic story line. By the way, I loved Jody’s book, too!

    This has been fun getting an insider’s look at the evolution of back cover copy on some of my favorite books!

    • Thanks, Gabrielle. And I’ll reiterate that even the best copy would be boring and plain without awesome designers behind the scenes and our terrific cover team led by Paul Higdon our art director.

  5. I am currently in love with the back cover trends at Bethany. The one for Elizabeth Camden’s The Lady of Bolton Hill blew me away! I still swear it’s more beautiful than the front.

  6. I think that is great that editors get so involved in the story that they, like the authors, have a difficult time distilling a book down into a short summary. I prefer audiobooks and so I rarely see paperback covers and as a writer I normally read comparative books rather than something that draws me because of the back copy. On occasion I read super copy on Amazon or blogs that entices me to order a Kindle copy to read. And I think most readers do want to see what is on the back cover before they will buy at a book store. I got to read the physical copy of Lisa Norato’s release, before I ordered it in Kindle, and the cover, front and back, were lovely! Wonder how the Dutch will do theirs?

  7. I agree with Casey – brief and enticing is best! I also enjoy a different picture on the back cover like BH have done with Siri’s books. Zondervan did a similar thing with Elizabeth White’s books some years back – Off the Record had the heroine on the front and the hero on the back. It told you more about the story without words!

  8. Interesting post! I found it via Rel Mollet’s blog and read it because I am entering a contest that requires I write my own back cover copy. I like the less is more philosophy. As a Kindle reader I don’t see as many
    covers as I used to but in a traditional store or the library I always read the back. I like that the new releases and coming releases are showing some new trends, a few edgier covers. Growing weary of the bonnet fiction look.

  9. Those are some gorgeous back covers! Great concept and design! I say this as owner of a small publishing house who does not consider herself a designer but who has written and designed some of her own back covers. You’re an inspiration! Thank you for sharing this thoughtful post. I found it when looking for advice about correlating back cover copy on the print edition with metadata for the ebook. You didn’t specifically answer that question, but you’ve made me eager to improve my back cover designs. My first one was a disaster that POD is going to help me redo one day, soon as I finish the nonfiction cover I’m working on. Any advice for those?

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