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.
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.
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.