When I used to work for Bantam Books, I occasionally was tasked with writing back cover copy for books that I had edited. I should say, rewriting. Bantam did have copywriters, but my boss, Carolyn, was a perfectionist when it came to back cover copy. After all, along with a book’s title and the cover, copy is vital to convincing a customer to carry that book she just picked up over to the cash register and buy it. So sometimes, Carolyn was dissatisfied with the cover copy she received from the copy department, and she’d hand it off to me to fix.
I’d do my best and carry it back across the hall to her. She’d read it, usually with pen in hand, delete, rework, add, or sometimes just thank me and then ask someone else to work on it. Of our staff of five, I was considered the least able to write good cover copy.
That was many years ago, though, and I have improved. Many of my clients are self-published, and writing back cover copy for their books is often their task. So my clients will ask me to write it for them, or at least edit what they have written. They learn that, along with query letters and synopses, good back cover copy—or jacket flap copy if they are publishing in hardcover—is one of the most difficult things to write. (When clients finish writing their books and ask me what’s next, I usually respond with, “Now that you’ve done the easy part …”)
If you are among the self-published, be aware that writing back cover copy is something you’ll be adding to your résumé. It might seem simple at first—just tell what the book is about. But readers will only stand there for so long reading jacket or back cover copy, so you’ll need to make sure you grab them with the first phrase or sentence. And then the next one. And the next.
Before you begin, look at other books, particularly books that are similar to yours, and study how the copy is constructed. You can also write down key words that you should use, words that are descriptive and powerful and will snag a reader’s attention. You can’t name every character or describe every plot complication, so figure out who gets mentioned and what isn’t that important.
When you’ve reworked your copy three or four times, give it to someone else to read, preferably someone who hasn’t read your book. Ask if the copy is engaging. Is it confusing? Is it too short?
Once you have copy that you like, let it sit for a few days and then read it again, red pencil in hand. I guarantee you will find words that could be stronger, passive-voice phrases that snuck in when you weren’t looking, and maybe a misspelling or two.
Since I am self-publishing some of my books this year, starting with Lost Mothers and Every New Beginning, available on March 21, 2016, I am writing my own back cover copy. Yesterday I went to my favorite café, which has the best atmosphere for working (not to mention the best coffee), ordered a cappuccino, and wrote and crossed out and rewrote and added and deleted. Then I came home, typed up the copy, and sent it to my mother. She is an excellent writer who has published several books, and so I trust her to tell me whether the copy works or not, and to help me fix any weak spots.
Think of the books you’ve bought based on the power of this all-important description. That’s what you want for your book, and it’s worth the time and effort to write the best copy you can.