Back Cover Copy

I’m still a member of the SFBC, partly because it’s been interesting to watch it change over the past decade or so – it is far less focused on science fiction and fantasy, for one thing; now it offers lots of thrillers and nonfiction – and partly because I still find out about some interesting books from their mailings, and partly because I like seeing my own books in those mailings.

Anyway, I was looking through the materials sent in the most recent mailing and some of the blurbs – the back cover copy – caught my eye for various reasons. I want to show you four of those blurbs and see what you think of them.

1) Okay, the first blurb that stopped me was for Louise Penny’s latest Inspecter Gamache novel, Glass Houses. I liked the first couple books of the series, though I haven’t gone on with the series. Here’s the back cover blurb for this one:

When a mysterious figure appears on the village green on a November day in Three Pines, Quebec, Chief Superintendent Armand Gamache knows something is seriously wrong. Legally, he can only watch and wait – and hope his fears are not realized.

From the moment its shadow falls over Three Pines, Gamache suspects the creature has deep roots and a dark purpose. When it suddenly vanishes and a body is discovered, it falls to Gamache to discover whether a debt has been paid or levied.

From the early days of the murder investigation to the day, months later, when the trial begins in a Montreal courtroom, Gamache struggles with actions he’s set in motion. And regardless of the trial’s outcome, he will have to face his own conscience.

…And I thought: What?

So I read that again from top to bottom. Honestly, I think it is possibly the most confusing back cover blurb I have ever encountered.

A mysterious figure . . . a creature. That “appears on the village green.” Huh. Legally, Gamache can only watch and wait? … So, like, he is legally prohibited from trying to figure out who put the “creature” in place? Well, whatever. Debts paid or levied? That’s a nice phrase, but what could it mean? Are we genuinely unsure whether this “creature” signifies one or the other? Gamache set things in motion, rather than the creature? Or its, presumably, creator? I’m assuming it’s more something like a scarecrow than something like, I don’t know, a living creature made by one of the evil witches in The Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy. “Creature” encompasses quite a few possibilities for those of us who read SFF as well as mysteries.

Honestly, many sentences in that blurb seems disconnected from the sentences that precede and follow them, and many seem to introduce an idea that is disconnected from everything else in the blurb. Far from intriguing me and making me want to investigate the book, this particular blurb just leaves me baffled. It is trimmed down from this description at Goodreads, but even the (slightly) longer version is just as confusing.

Here is what I think might have worked better: if the blurb writer was trying to avoid giving stuff away or getting into complicated details, he or she should have stopped trying so hard and been more specific about the “creature.” Further, the blurb as written seems to give agency to the “creature,” though I can hardly imagine it is animate. Also, the writer of this blurb should have drawn a connection between the “creature” and the concept of debts. Also, he or she should have drawn a further connection between everything else and the dilemma(s) Inspector Gamache encounters with regard to his conscience, or else left that part out.

Having looked up reviews on Goodreads to figure out more about the “creature,” I would suggest something more like this:

Two hundred years ago in the Pyrenean Alps, someone who felt he had been wronged might set up a cobrador, a tall hooded figure robed in black, signifying the existence of the debt and an intention to collect. When such a figure appears on the village green of Three Pines, quickly followed by the discovery of a body in the church basement, many of the town’s inhabitants begun to question their own past actions and possible guilt and the debts someone might feel they owe.

Inspector Armand Gamache…and so on; I don’t know enough about the rest to tackle the part about his conscience.

What do you think? Thumbs up or thumbs down on the blurb being more specific about the “creature” and the initial situation?

2) Okay, here’s another one, for a book by Stephen King / Owen King called Sleeping Beauties. To me, in this blurb, some of the sentences seem to have been chosen at random by a blurb-generating robot:

In a future that’s all too real and too near, something happens when women go to sleep: They are shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If they are awakened, if the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed, the women become feral and spectacularly violent. And while they sleep, they go to another place.

The men of our world are left to their increasingly primal devices. However, one woman, the mysterious Evie, is immune to the curse—or blessing—?—of the sleeping disease. Is Evie a medical anomaly to be studied? Or is she a demon who must be slain?

Set in an Appalachian town whose primary employer is a women’s prison, this is a wildly provocative, chilling collaboration between Stephen King and his son Owen King.

Okay, does anything about this situation as described strike any of you as a description of a “future that’s all too real and too near”? That would fit Persona by Genevieve Valentine just fine. It absolutely does not fit this weird gauze thing in any way.

How about “wildly provocative”? What about this could possibly be described that way? Several things about this description fail to appeal to me, but it sure doesn’t help that the blurb appears to have been written with someone’s brain switched to “idle.”

3) Next, in contrast to the previous examples, I think this blurb, for a novel of Claire North’s, is not bad. It definitely put North’s book,The End of the Day, on my radar, which is fundamentally the function of back cover copy.

At the end of the day, Death visits everyone. Right before that, Charlie does. You might meat Charlie in a hospital, in a warzone, or at the scene of a traffic accident. Then again, you might meet him at the North Pole – he gets around. Would you shake him by the hand, take the gift he offers, or would you pay no attention to the words he says? Sometimes he is sent as a courtesy, sometimes as a warning. He never knows which.

Despite all the benefits – travel, vacation time, decent pay, and meeting interesting people – Charlie’s job is about to get much more complicated. The end of all things is coming and Charlie’s boss, along with his three associates, are riding out. It’s Charlie’s job to get there first.

Now, this also has some confusing elements, plus awkward phrasing in one sentence (top of second paragraph; it should have been “a chance to meet” or something like that). Nevertheless, the initial setup is clear and fascinating. There’s no problem leaving the “gift” mysterious; that mystery is a feature, not a bug, in this description. Those first two sentences are certainly not the least bit generic. In fact, they’re so catchy, they make up for any flaws that might be noticed in this blurb. Plus the last two sentences are pretty darn catchy as well, even though we have to wonder where “there” might be. “All things” covers a lot of territory.

Okay, one more that I think is quite good:

4) This blurb is for a book by Mike Bockoven called FantasticLand.

Since the 1970s, FantasticLand has been the theme park where “Fun is Guaranteed!” But when a hurricane ravages the Florida coast and isolates the park, the employees find it anything but fun. Five weeks later, the authorities who rescue the survivors encounter a scene of horror. Photos soon emerge online of heads on spikes outside of rides and viscera and human bones littering the gift shops, breaking records for hits, views, likes, clicks, and shares. How could a group of survivors, mostly teenagers, commit such terrible acts?

Presented as a fact-finding investigation and a series of first-person interviews, this chilling and thought-provoking novel probes the consequences of a social civilization built online.

First, that’s very clear. Every sentence works to establish the story and draw in the potential reader, provided the reader is into realistic horror. One sentence does strike me as somewhat awkward: Photos soon emerge online of heads on spikes outside of rides and viscera and human bones littering the gift shops, breaking records for hits, views, likes, clicks, and shares. I might have written that more like this: As soon as photos appear on social media, the images of heads on spikes and viscera draped across dolls in gift shops break records for hits, views, likes, clicks, and shares. But the blurb basically works well, I think.

Also, the thing about the “consequences of a social civilization built online” seems topical and relevant.

For certain values of “realistic” and “relevant” anyway. We’ve all seen recently how social media in Houston enabled efficient rescue efforts, directing efforts toward the people who needed help the most. I’m sure we’ve all seen those pictures of the nursing home residents, first in water up to their waists and then, following a Twitter and Facebook call for attention, of the residents safe and warm in a new location. I understand the authorities later began using social media extensively to help direct rescue efforts, and no wonder. Also, we’ve definitely seen how heroic and selfless and caring people are in emergencies.

So the thesis of FantasticLand, where I suppose a horribleLord of the Flies thing happens instead, seems a trifle iffy to me. Whether you’d call it realistic and believable or not, I hate that kind of scenario, so I don’t think I’m likely to read this one, even though the format sounds like something I’d like. Regardless, I would say that is good back cover copy. Especially when contrasted with the first two examples above.

Okay, what do you think? Which, if any, of the above examples would work for you?

I’m also particularly curious about whether awkward phrasing in blurbs bothers you or whether you pass right over it. I don’t tend to consciously notice it unless I’m typing in a blurb, and I don’t think I’d be inclined to judge a book harshly for that kind of thing. Back cover copy is hard to write, and for traditionally published books, the author probably didn’t write it anyway.

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7 thoughts on “Back Cover Copy”

  1. Awkward phrasing is a problem for me mostly when it creates unintended meanings, or even just ambiguity. In your first example, I almost always see “creature” used to mean living creatures, so I thought they were talking about a human being. (If it were in the FSF section, I would probably assume it was some sort of monster.)

    OTOH, the bit in #3 didn’t particularly trigger me, and if it had been in a different order — say, “travel, meeting interesting people, decent pay and vacation time” — I don’t think I’d even have noticed.

    By far the worst offender is the first sentence of that second blurb, which gave me semantic whiplash — I started off assuming it would be some sort of dystopia (hence probably unrealistic), but a supernatural menace was way outside the bounds of expectation.

  2. I know, right? I was like . . . Yep, that’s definitely all too real, getting covered by gauze while sleeping. You know, cause that just keeps happening.

    I kept wanting “creature” to mean monster, as in a living monster, and having to haul myself back to the contemporary mystery where that just did not seem likely.

  3. I usually have a hive-reaction to cover-copy. Supposedly the marketing department knows what they’re doing, but it always seems that what they’re doing is not marketing to me. I only scan for certain words or phrases that may indicate that the inside is not what it presents to be on the cover and leave it at that.

    #4 FantasticLand is the most useful for me because it explains what’s inside. “Presented as a fact-finding investigation and a series of first-person interviews, this [chilling and thought-provoking] (I’d remove this. Seriously, no one is going to say the novel is bad when promoting it so these are empty adjectives) novel probes the consequences of a social civilization built online.” My initial assumption, based on the title, would be that it is an aesthetic gory horror (else why bother with the creepy funpark setting?) and I would adjust my interest in that based on the cover art. This copy lets me know that that might not be exactly what to expect, and that maybe it’s more on the mystery or thriller end of things. (This is useful to me regardless of if my interpretation is correct.)

    The copy for The End of the Day is a little less successful. I would have cut it at least in half and simply said, “At the end of the day, Death visits everyone. Right before that, Charlie does. Sometimes he is sent as a courtesy — sometimes as a warning. He never knows which. When you meet him, would you heed his words and take the gift he offers?” At this point I’m interested, because I like stories where death is personified, however the follow up paragraph makes me think it’s a modern urban fantasy, which is too mystery/procedural for me to enjoy and such it lost me right there.

    For recent cover-copy that has worked for me, I encountered River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey which says, “In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.

    Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.

    This was a terrible plan.

    Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge.”

    Historical fiction is a turn-off for me, but the way that this was presented read more hippo than historical, so it went straight onto my wishlist. (A+ cover too).

  4. Kevin Bartolotta

    Personal favorite bad back cover summary for me was Perdido Street Station. Gives the impression the book is ‘weird’, and beyond that I don’t think whoever wrote the summary finished reading well. Well, to be fair, it is a rather odd book, and having read it I’m not sure I could do better.

  5. None of them would get me to give the books a closer look, and the last one would have me putting it down hastily – Lord of the Flies clone isn’t to my taste. So the marketing would have done its job: I’m not the right reader for that book.

    That first one is really confusing. Is the ‘figure’ the “creature’ and how does it relate to legality, and nothing indicates that the Gamache character could have anything to do with the deaths, debts, and whatnot. I might look further, but probably not. Your rewrite would have me looking further, as it gives me an Andrea Host sort of vibe.

    Nothing to add to the other comments on the other blurbs.
    I did try the hippo book due to blurb, cover and word of mouth, but didn’t finish the sample. My suspension of disbelief was precipitating out way too fast.

  6. Blurb 1: I’d never heard of a cobrador, so I thought it would be a deal with the devil type of situation – the figure = creature (= not necessarily something created, but something alive/animated) can’t be a fantasy monster or SF alien because it’s in a detective series; but those do sometimes use dr.Faust type scenarios of deals with the supernatural going badly.
    From your version of the blurb, it appears to have been an effigy meant to warn or threaten, causing the inspector to dig much deeper into the (possibly ‘ethnic’ (Basque?) ) roots for the murder, and thus unearthing more than simply the murderer; probably more than he or otgers in town wanted to confront about the history of the people in their community. Considering ‘legality’, that might be something like people-smuggling, impressment, anything where well-respected members of the community have shady pasts.
    Considering the inspector’s doubts, uncovering those pasts probably harms innocent people, like the vulnerable victims of people smugglers, working in sweatshops for peanuts.
    So that blurb did give me a wrong impression, though I didn’t stumble on the same aspects of it that bothered you.

    Blurb 2: I had no problems with that one. I took “all too real and too near” to mean set in a present-day setting in a familiar/close to home part of our world, with – this being Stephen King – one thing changed to create horror.
    The one thing changed is this strange illness, is what I get from the blurb, so that doesn’t throw me. Maybe if I’d never heard of the author, and didn’t know about the kind of horror he writes (i.e. not real-world Pol Pot but sentient cars or dolls or whatever) the combination of real & near-time with this weird disease would have given me the same disconnect it did you, but who doesn’t know what to expect of a Stephen King novel by now? For those who don’t, the blurb contains the word “chilling”, signifying it is horror – a sign for me that I don’t want to read it, so a useful part of that blurb.
    I think the “provocative” bit means they take an unfavorable look at how men would function if left without women , as the earlier sentence says; and considering the sad/rabid puppy quarrels about the Hugo awards being too inclusive and not enough about manly men heroically saving the universe or whatever (and the present-day backlash in the US to gender-equality and LGBTQ issues), looking at gender issues in a book (and portraying the need for women in a well-balanced society) could certainly be called provocative in some circles, depending on how it’s worked out. To me, that word signifies that they are probably going to be looking at gender roles from a fairly progressive/modern point of view, and illustrating that in ways that will irritate the “rabid puppy” crowd. Maybe if I’d never heard of the Hugo kerfluffle I’d miss that point, but it would still work if all you know about is the conservative Republican backlash against gay marriage, bathroom bills and transgender people serving in the military, defunding Planned Parenthood and taking away women’s access to health care, attempts to take contraceptives and other female issues out of health insurance (while leaving Viagra in) and making a lot of predominantly or specifically female things into pre-existing conditions for which health-insurance can be denied or made prohibitively expensive (including PMS, postnatal depression and other consequences of giving birth, and rape). Even on the other side of the world I’ve heard something about all the attempts at creating rules in the US that would disproportionally impact women and minorities negatively, so treating women as essential to civilization could be called provocative to some, I’d think.

  7. Interesting how differently some of us read these blurbs.

    Perdido Street Station is on my TBR pile, but I don’t believe I actually read the back cover blurb before picking it up. It’s probably tricky to write back cover copy for most of Mieville’s books…

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