What makes good back cover copy?


Good question! Here’s what I think:




–Also, it’s nice if the back cover copy also gives a sense of the “feel” of the story.

I think it’s almost impossible to provide more than the most basic suggestion of the initial problem the main character is facing, and a mistake to try. It’s a worse mistake to throw a bunch of names in the back cover copy, even if a bunch of characters are important.

That’s basically what I think, I guess. I believe I’ve posted before that the basic structure is pretty much like this:

When [Character] faces [Problem], can she overcome [Challenge] in order to [Resolve the problem]?

To which the astute reader assumes the answer is yes.

Here’s a longer and funnier fill-in-the-blank version based on one I saw a long time ago, in a post that appears to have since been deleted:

(Main Character name) is a ____________. She lives in ________ and what she wants most in the world is _________. But that’s not possible because ________. So she ______. However, that didn’t work out very well because_______ and ______. Then along came _________. He/she/they did ___________ and __________ and ______. That made things even worse because _________. Now it looked like (Main Character name) would never get what she wanted. But then, one day, __________happened. Would (Main Character name) finally find the __________ she was seeking? This (suspenseful, gripping, lyrical) story of (intrigue, mystery, romance), captures the spirit of (setting or tone) and confirms the power of (theme or message).

It’s funny to think how close a lot of back covers come to that basic pattern. Break that into SHORTER PARAGRAPHS and it would basically work.

Shorter paragraphs are a lot easier to read online than longer paragraphs. That’s basically why I would suggest breaking up back cover copy into short, one- or two-sentence paragraphs.

Well, okay, that’s what I think. Let’s see what Book Riot thinks.

Here’s the editorial director of Graywolf Press:

“It’s essentially advertising copy, and during my attempts early in my career I felt like I was learning a new language. There’s definitely an art to it: you want to, in some ways, channel the tone or mood or style of the book while doing some very concrete things very quickly to catch a potential reader’s interest. There are also shoals to avoid: empty adjectives and adverbs, dead words, words that only ever appear in the context of catalog or jacket copy, transparent hyperbole.”

That sounds basically right, but what are those “very concrete things”?

Ethan then shared ­with me Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino, a recently published Graywolf book, as an example of jacket copy he finds enticing. …

Okay, let’s take a look!

In this madcap, insatiably inventive, bravura story collection, Julián Herbert brings to vivid life people who struggle to retain a measure of sanity in an insane world. Here we become acquainted with a vengeful “personal memories coach” who tries to get even with his delinquent clients; a former journalist with a cocaine habit who travels through northern Mexico impersonating a famous author of Westerns; the ghost of Juan Rulfo; a man who discovers music in his teeth; and, in the deliriously pulpy title story, a drug lord who looks just like Quentin Tarantino, who kidnaps a mopey film critic to discuss Tarantino’s films while he sends his goons to find and kill the doppelgänger that has colonized his consciousness. Herbert’s astute observations about human nature in extremis feel like the reader’s own revelations.

The antic and often dire stories in Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino depict the violence and corruption that plague Mexico today, but they are also deeply ruminative and layered explorations of the narrative impulse and the ethics of art making. Herbert asks: Where are the lines between fiction, memory, and reality? What is the relationship between power, corruption, and survival? How much violence can a person (and a country) take? The stories in this explosive collection showcase the fevered imagination of a significant contemporary writer.

Okay, well, I think that is pretty long, BUT it’s hard not to write longer jacket copy if you’re doing it for a collection of short stories.

I do think the above is very good back cover copy. I am not at all interested in reading these stories, but obviously this description does a great job of advertising the collection to the readers who would be interested.

I would not, however, use the phrase “fevered imagination” except perhaps ironically. Or to discuss cliched phrases. “Ruminative” is a great word, so that at least partly makes up for the use of “fevered imagination.”

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4 thoughts on “What makes good back cover copy?”

  1. I was in nitpick mode anyway, so add salt…

    Madcap, insatiably inventive, bravura as the opening put me off very strongly. Reading further, given that to ME ‘madcap’ signals fast and funny (or supposed to be) the indications of actually grim and depressing stories within makes all three of those descriptives look like: “empty adjectives and adverbs, dead words, words that only ever appear in the context of catalog or jacket copy, transparent hyperbole.” Add ‘antic in the second paragraph and the mismatch intensifies.

    I will never pick up this book, the cover copy is trying way too hard

  2. When I do collections, I pick the three stories that sound the liveliest when I pick out the highlights in a sentence.

  3. I’d agree that back cover copy with a lot of names is an instant turn-off. Names don’t matter to me in cover copy, except as a way of distinguishing characters. On the other hand, cover copy that tells me all about the backstory of a terrible world without telling me anything about the characters is a pretty good sign to me that the author is less interested in the characters than the world/plot, in which case it’s not a book for me.

  4. You’re right, Elaine, a lot about that copy looks a bit over the top.

    Also, yes, Mary Beth, I agree that I would prefer to hear about a character and a problem rather than much about the world and the backstory.

    It’s a fine line to walk, that’s for sure. Especially when you are trying to get across something important about the story, but not put in any important spoilers.

    Mary Catelli, that makes sense, except that making a sentence sound lively is kind of a knack on its own!

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