The craft and business of writing and self publishing

Cover Copy: a Must-Have for the Novelist’s Toolbox

By Chris Mandeville

Cover copy is the brief summary of a novel found on the back cover of a paperback. When this summary is inside the jacket of a hard cover it’s called “jacket copy,” and it’s essentially the same as cover copy only longer. Why is cover copy important? Because once a cover image and title have grabbed the attention of a shopper, it’s the job of the cover copy to get that person to open the book. This is true no matter the format of the book or the venue, so it applies to ebooks sold online as well as paper copies in a bookstore or library.

In the old days of traditional publishing, most authors had little to no say in their cover copy. But things have changed. Self-published authors, as well as many who publish through smaller presses, have control over their cover copy. Recently I’ve heard of bigger publishers allowing authors to give input—and not just big-name authors. So it behooves all of us to learn how to make the most of the real estate on the back of the book.

What are the magic words to include in your cover copy? Truthfully I don’t know if I can help you produce “magic” words, but I can definitely get you started on the right track. Here’s what I expect good cover copy to do:

  1. Introduce the hero
  2. Convey the plot via one of the hero’s major goals
  3. Include some of the obstacles in the hero’s way
  4. Show what’s at stake for the hero if s/he fails
  5. Provide genre indicators
  6. Use the voice of the novel (in third person, present tense)
  7. Hook the reader into wanting more

Let’s take a look at each of these elements.

  1. Introduce the hero

This seems pretty easy, but you’d be surprised how it can stump writers because we are so close to our own work. Introducing the hero doesn’t mean to give a physical rundown, their backstory, or their thoughts on global warming. It simply means you provide a character for the reader to latch on to. This should be the point of view (POV) character, the protagonist. If you have multiple POV characters, pick the primary one. If you’re writing romance, you have two “love interest” POV characters, and in this case you’ll include information about both.

  1. Convey the plot via one of the hero’s major goals

Here’s where you give the reader the all-important information about the plot. What does your POV character want? This is the BIG want, the major goal of the plot. It’s something real-world like “to rescue her father from the mob” rather than something internal like “to be loved.” Your character likely has multiple goals, both internal and external, but it’s your job here to boil it down to the biggest, most important goal of the book. If your hero’s main goal changes during the story, it’s likely that providing the new goal would be a spoiler, so use the initial one in the cover copy.

  1. Include some of the obstacles in the hero’s way

It’s important to tell the reader a few things that are in your hero’s way in order to a) show that achieving his/her goal won’t be easy, and b) give a sense of what the course of the book will be like. To begin I suggest making a comprehensive list of all the obstacles in your hero’s way. The antagonist is often the hero’s biggest obstacle, so don’t neglect to include him/her. Next, delete from your list obstacles that are spoilers, are boring, or are too complicated to explain succinctly. After narrowing it down, pick a few favorites and see how they sound together. I usually don’t have trouble selecting my top two; I then pick a third based on what flows with them.

  1. Show what’s at stake for the hero if s/he fails

This is important because it lets the reader know the gravity of the situation. If the hero has nothing at stake, it’s like playing poker without money—it’s not “real” if there’s nothing to lose. The bigger the stakes, the more tension, so when you reveal big stakes in the cover copy, the reader knows to expect a tension-filled read. Depending on the genre, there are some stakes that are typically implicit: for romance, it’s “will the hero lose the love of his/her life;” for thrillers, there are usually actual lives at stake. If your story has implicit stakes, don’t use it as a free pass when writing cover copy. Include what else is at stake—does your hero stand to lose the family business as well as true love? Is your detective’s job on the line? When the reader knows the stakes, s/he becomes more invested in finding out if the hero will be successful, hopefully enough so to open the book.

  1. Provide genre indicators

“Genre indicators” are elements that telegraph what flavor of story it’s going to be. If it’s a crime mystery, the cover copy should contain words like “clue,” “investigate,” “crime,” and “suspect.” If it’s a fantasy quest with magic and dragons, there’d better be magic and/or dragons and/or a quest in the cover copy. Why? Because the reader picked up your book based in large part on the category it’s “shelved in.” Your cover copy should include key words and phrases firmly rooted in that genre to reassure the reader that the story belongs in the category s/he was attracted to.

  1. Use the voice of the novel (in third person, present tense)

Voice in this context refers to the author’s tone and style—the quality that makes his or her writing unique. Voice is important in cover copy because a reader expects that if s/he likes that voice, s/he will also like the voice of the prose. When writing cover copy, in addition to trying to capture the voice of your story, you have the added challenge of having to do it using the third person. Yes, you heard me correctly: no matter the POV of the narrative (first person, third person, or heaven forbid second person), the cover copy is always third person. And further, even if your story is told in past tense, cover copy is always in present tense. The exception comes when you include an excerpt from the text—this stays in the POV and tense of the book, whatever that is.

  1. Hook the reader into wanting more

A hook is what makes the reader want to open the book to find out what happens. Hopefully the hook in your cover copy is compelling enough to get a “browser” to buy or borrow the book. A good hook is perhaps the most critical part of cover copy because without it the browser will move on to other books, never to return to yours again. In order not to lose that fish, you need a really good hook, one that resonates emotionally and raises a big story question that s/he wants the answer to.

So how do all these elements come together to form cohesive and enticing cover copy?

cover

Let’s use The Hunger Games to illustrate. Here’s what I’ve identified as the seven cover copy elements discussed above:

  1. Hero: Katniss, a brave, desperate sixteen-year-old who loves her sister more than anything
  2. Hero’s goal: to be the sole survivor in a fight to the death with other teens
  3. Obstacles: arena dangers, other players trying to kill her
  4. Stakes: her life and her humanity
  5. Genre indicators:

Speculative Fiction: Panem, TV death games

Young Adult: ages of characters, budding romance

  1. Voice: should be same tone as prose, and in third person, present tense
  2. Hook: Katniss volunteers to enter a fight to the death on live TV to save her sister. She’s the underdog—will she survive? Will she have to sacrifice her humanity in order to win?

paper

Now let’s see how my list compares with the actual cover copy on the paperback:

In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.

Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister’s place in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before—and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.

I think all the elements are there, though some are just hinted at (romance) while others are more emphasized (Panem). But note that it’s not a laundry list of the elements. The parts are strung together in a way that makes sense as well as “sounds good.” So when you take your own elements and plop them into your cover copy, spend some time massaging and finessing them so they flow. While you’re at it, try your best to capture the voice of your novel.

Once you have a draft of your cover copy, check it over to see if you’ve made any of these common cover copy mistakes:

  • Giving away too much information (spoilers)
  • Being vague or confusing
  • Using a bunch of names and/or jargon
  • Text that is too long or too short
  • Text that doesn’t accurately represent the content of the book

A quick word on spoilers: it may go without saying, but don’t include the ending of your story in your cover copy. In fact, you want to leave out the answers to all critical story questions so your reader must read the book to answer them. The exception to this is that cover copy often includes the inciting incident—the story trigger without which there is no story. For The Hunger Games this is when Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the games—a spoiler that is indeed included in the actual cover copy. Remember, you want to entice your reader without spoiling the story by revealing too much.

The final step in creating good cover copy is essential: enlist help. Test your cover copy on people who know your story, and importantly on people who don’t know your story. Ask if they felt an emotional pull or resonance with the content. Ask what they were worried about, wondering about. Are there elements included that aren’t needed? Are there enough genre indicators that they can identify the genre without you telling them what it is? Did you capture the voice? Is there a sufficient hook???

Refine and revise your cover copy, then test it again. Repeat until you have it right. If you still can’t quite get the hang of it, practice dissecting others’ cover copy that you deem effective in the way we did here with The Hunger Games. If you ultimately decide you’re too close to your own story to nail the cover text, ask your critique partners or beta readers to take a stab at writing it for you. You may find that you fare better editing someone else’s version of your cover copy than you do at creating it yourself from scratch.

Your cover copy is perhaps your greatest tool for turning a potential reader into a reader, so don’t slough it off as just another paragraph. By giving it the time and attention necessary to make it great, you’ll turn lots more browsers into readers and fans.

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Tools for Writers

Photo credit: Jared Hagan

Photo credit: Jared Hagan

Chris Mandeville writes science fiction and fantasy, as well as nonfiction for writers. Her books include Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure and 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s BlockYou can find out more about her on her website: chrismandeville.com.

5 Responses to “Cover Copy: a Must-Have for the Novelist’s Toolbox”

  1. katsheridan

    Great article, and pretty much the formula I follow. There are also services out there for self pubbed authors (like mine> BlurbCopy.com) that can be hired to create the copy for you. The most important part to me to get right is number 6, to be sure I’ve matched the author’s voice as much as possible. That’s SO important!

    Reply
  2. Metadata 101 | Kobo Writing Life

    […] your reader to buy your book but you don’t want to give too much of the storyline away. (Here is a great post about how to write the best cover copy.) What you should keep in mind when writing […]

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