Sunday, March 1, 2009

Finally, the Truth About Back Cover Blurbs

Does your Blurb Work?

Okay people, listen up. For those who want to self-publish or at least those of you who want to know a good book blurb when you see one, this is what you’ve been waiting for.  Finally, you’re going to hear the raw truth like nothing you’ve ever heard before, and you’ll actually learn something valuable along the way that you can really use in your writer’s life.

Question one: 

What’s the purpose of the back cover blurb?  All those who said, to summarize the story, bend over-- you get one flog.  Those of you who said, to show off the plot--you get two flogs.  Now for those of you who said, to tell as much of the story to get people interested in buying the book, bend over and take three, ass-numbing flogs. You’re all wrong.  What?  WTF dude?  (I never say dude, but what else can possibly follow WTF?)

Okay, okay technically no one is right, although, number three comes close.  But why 3 flogs if it was the closest?  Because it breaks the most sacred “blurbing” rule of all time, and just about everyone is guilty of committing this dastardly deed.  You want to tell the whole damn story on that back cover don’t you?  Well stop frying your brains over the whole thing.

Here’s what you need to do:

First of all, the back cover blurb is sales copy. Write that down.  It’s not supposed to tell the whole story--the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And more importantly it’s not supposed to reveal too much. Otherwise what’s the point in reading the book if you’re going to give away the best parts on the back cover?  Too much detail and too much of the story, too much plot dissuades readers from delving into the book--you know, from taking that all-important second step and open the cover to the first page and continue reading. 

Don’t forget, life is short and attention spans these days, even shorter. A potential customer has already invested 3 long seconds of their time and decided that based on your magnificent title and captivating cover art (hopefully that is the case) that they will go through all the exhaustion and trouble of flipping the book over and invest another 8 very long seconds of their valuable time reading the blurb. (My goodness.) Don’t forget, readers want to get to the heart of things but they also want to be teased. They don’t want the whole truth because if you give it all, there’s nothing left for them to figure out. The mystery is over. And that applies to any story, any genre. 

Your back cover copy must convey a sense of curiosity and intrigue to your prospective customer, one step at a time. Stop trying to sell the whole store.  Sell the next step. Sell the first page. (Table of contents for non-fiction.)  That’s where you want readers to go, but of course there is a catch.  The first page must also sell the second page and the second page must sell the third page and so on, and so on. Get the picture? It’s a step-by-step process, almost a formula of sorts where all your selling points must be in place if you want to make the sale.  Once your fantastic prose hits a rut and sounds like a dead end, guess what? You’ve just lost a customer. They’re going to slam the book shut and move on to the next one.

How ruthless!  But hey, that’s life in the big city folks.  Writing is much more than just pretty words on a page. Your words must do much more than describe a character or a place. First-time novelists especially must entice the reader to want more and more. You must fascinate the reader and put them at ease and assure them they’re not wasting their valuable time and money buying your book. You have something to prove. That’s the name of the game folks. It all goes back to the domino effect where good writing, good storytelling is essential and that means to constantly build suspense and maintain conflict. That’s what sells your story to the reader. Period.

Okay, so how do you go about writing that all important 70 word blurb that’s supposed to lead an impatient reader to the next step, your first page?  Good question, and there are no easy answers but I can boil it down to this:  The back cover blurb can be fudged into killer sales copy that has little to do with your actual story.  What?  Read it again. In other words, what you want to say does not necessarily have to match word-for-word with the contents of the book--at least not in specific order.  And what that means is that you can bend the storyline a little or maybe play–up an event that has little prominence in your story but sounds good because it sensationalizes.  For instance, and pardon me for using my own novel as an example, but I can’t speak for anyone else’s book in great detail, or come up with two examples like these that show a long and short version.

My novel is set during the civil war, circa 1863, although the setting is merely a backdrop, but I can play it up on the back cover and hold the interest of civil war enthusiasts who love this era, thereby expanding my market reach.  The novel, Cold Mountain, is a good example.  It is set during the civil war, but it is really about something else altogether.  In my case, the setting is incidental, just the same, and not the focus of the story at all. It just happens to be a small part of the story by comparison to its premise, which is, the meaning of death, for lack of a better expression. You can also focus on minor or major themes in your story.  My story has many themes, among them: temptation, infidelity, and uncertainty, to name several. Take your pick. Focus on a theme in your novel and mention it in your blurb if you think it’s important. (Come on now, forget about premise and theme for a minute, I’m about to blow the proverbial lid off this blurb quiz!)

Back to Blurbs:

You see how this sales copy (blurb) thing shapes up?  By choosing your focus wisely on topics that you think are the most intriguing, you can piece together a damn good blurb that builds curiosity without giving away anything that will deter the reader from looking for more.  But of course, like many things, it’s easier said than done.  Writing a good back cover blurb, or any sales copy is hard work and you must have plenty of experience to pull it off.

I couldn’t possibly explain how to write a blurb that works for your particular story, but I’ve used two different blurbs that I wrote for my novel so you can see how different they are and judge for yourself which is better. Which one sells the book? You decide.

This is the short 45 word-count blurb:


A thought-provoking tale of courage, survival,

and dark mysteries of the heart.

Cultures will collide, ideologies will fade,

and one survivor’s belief’s will crumble,

When faced with a choice between her freedom,

and the betrayal of her beloved.

A decision that will haunt her forever.


What I like about this short blurb is that it leaves so much to the imagination. That’s what you want.  It raises more questions than answers. That’s the key to a good blurb that will encourage for readers to look for more—inside your book.


Here’s the longer version:

104 word-count:

The year is 1863, the backdrop, the hostile Civil War where this riveting and tragic story takes hold of Virginia Mae Mercy, a fanatical Christian who believes her husband's death was God’s divine justice.

But when Virginia births a stillborn she denounces her faith. Resigned, she learns to love her only surviving daughter, Triste, a prodigious child with the power to heal.   

Across this vast wasteland of severe injustice, Virginia discovers not only the startling truth about Triste’s gift, but the truth about her own fate.

A revelation that challenges her most profound beliefs—and ours.

The good thing about this blurb is that it still raises plenty of questions and although it’s longer and it gives more details, it doesn’t drown the reader with too much at once. The sense of mystery and intrigue are intact.  And although it is longer than the 50-70 word, so-called range for a back cover blurb word-count, and written in a very linear fashion, I stuck to the old axiom: the more you tell, the more you sell.

I like them both, but I went with the second, longer version because I think the short one is too short. I hope this helps you see the difference in what I call fudging and playing-up certain themes and events.  You control what you want the reader to hear, but it must be engaging and it shouldn’t reveal too many important details. 


One way to narrow down your blurb selections is to make a long list of selling points from your story, and take it from there. Remember, it must also sound natural and not like a grocery list of reasons to continue reading.  Think of an interesting hook and then work your copy, your list, into it, in the most emotional way possible. Good luck and make sure to let what you write sit for at least a day and then comb through it with any changes/improvements.



Here’s a link to a good article on Back Cover Blurbs and although it‘s geared towards non-fiction, it also covers the importance of testimonials and tips for fiction too. Which, BTW, when it comes to testimonials, the more well-known its writer is, (an actor, professional, etc.) the better your chances of making a sale.  But that’s almost a no-brainer. Testimonials are priceless and worth using.


This Blurb article is a good read. Here’s the link: