Writing Back Cover Copy: A Secret for Your Novel’s Success

by Abigail K. Perry
published in Writing

I don’t know why it took me so long to read James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self Editing for Publication (it’s incredible!) but I do know it changed the way I looked at my story, my characters, and what really mattered in my plot. What did Bell say about back cover copy?

Not too much…other than writing it is one of the best ways to excite your publishers and readers. It will “serve you well for the entire writing project,” and likely target the ideas working well in your novel, and the ones that don’t.

Sweet Moses, that’s a lot of pressure on a small chunk of description – one hundred and fifty to two hundred words, to be exact. Hence, why I’d like to dedicate this article to strengthening a crucial part of your novel—The Pitch—which can, not ironically, influence your back cover.

Let’s Talk Books 

Objective:

Write a one hundred and fifty to two hundred word pitch that illustrates a character to root for, large canvas of emotions, incidents, and high stakes.

Discussion Questions:

  • How do I make my readers care about my protagonist?
  • What are the stakes? Are they high enough?
  • Do I avoid arcane backstory and plot?
  • What is my inciting incident? Is it obvious in my pitch?
  • Does my pitch excite me? Will it excite others?

Resources:

James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self Editing for Publication and Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven

Writing Your Pitch

Before writing your pitch, examine the back covers for books in your novel’s category and genre – at least ten. Go ahead, grab them. Hop on Amazon. Do your research. Sit down. Relax. Read them over. Take your time. Don’t worry, I won’t go anywhere.

All set? Awesome! Now, did you find a back cover that struck your interest more than the others? Take it out again. What do you notice? Is there a character you want to learn more about? Do the stakes feel exciting and impossible to pass up? I bet there was – and here’s why.

What Strong Back Covers Include

Back cover should provide about a paragraph or two of your story’s protagonist, what they yearn for, and the obstacles that are certain to get in their way.

What Strong Back Covers Don’t Include

Lots and lots of backstory! You don’t want to drag down exciting hooks with arcane plot and other unnecessary details. Keep your back-cover copy in the moment. Doing so will keep the reader excited, which will sell your book!

How Can You Write a Strong Back Cover?

Writing a strong back cover is – yes; I’ll say it – impossible, without examining dust jackets from successful novels, that is. It’s why I’ve pulled the back cover for Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven for us to examine.See if you can pin what works well in this description, and that would work as a killer pitch!

The Five People You Meet in Heaven

“Eddie is a grizzled war veteran who feels trapped in a meaningless life of fixing rides at a seaside amusement park. As the park has changed over the years – from the Loop-the-Loop to the Pipeline Plunge – so, too, has Eddie changed, from optimistic youth to embittered old age. His days are dull routine work, loneliness, and regret.

Then, on his 83rd birthday, Eddie dies in a tragic accident, trying to save a little girl from a falling cart. With his final breath, he feels two small hands in his – and then nothing. He awakens in the afterlife, where he learns that heaven is nut a lush Garden of Eden, but a place where your earthly life is explained to you by five people who were in it. These people may have been loved ones or distant strangers. Yet each of them changed your path forever.

One by one, Eddie’s five people illuminate the unseen connections of his earthly life. As the story builds to its stunning conclusion, Eddie desperately seeks redemption in the still-unknown last act of his life: Was it a heroic success or devastating failure? The answer, which comes from the most unlikely sources, is an inspirational glimpse of heaven itself.”

Why This Description Sells

Take a second to look back at this blog’s discussion questions. Does Mitch Albom’s back cover copy meet all the proposed standards? Heck yes! I’ll tell you why in three smart steps…

1) It Gives Us a Reason to Root for the Protagonist

Notice the first paragraph describes Eddie, an eighty-three year old “grizzled war veteran who feels trapped in a meaningless life” and his day-to-day work. What makes this description so striking is that a) he’s super relatable and b) he creates empathy.

I mean, the poor guy is eighty-three and still working at an old amusement park – he feels trapped in his meaningless work. He’s lonely, he’s regretful. Who hasn’t doubted his self-value before? Who hasn’t felt trapped at some point in their life and would die for a way out?

Unfortunately for Eddie, dying is his exact way out. If not in the way he expected…  

2) It Suggests Potential for Lots of Emotions and Conflict

We move on to paragraph two, entering our first major plot point – in other words, the inciting incident. What happens to poor Eddie? He enters heaven after trying to save a little girl from a terrible accident. He enters, let’s say, an unordinary world and leaves the first act’s ordinary one.

Quick notes on some details that make this second paragraph a major success: a) we have even more reason to love and root for Eddie: he gives his life to save an innocent child, and b) we don’t know if he saved that child.

Remember, all great stories thrive on a secret that is mentioned in the first act of the book. What is your secret that takes a novel-length book to answer? How do you draw this out in your back-cover copy?For Albom, he mentioned that the last thing Eddie feels before death is “two small hands in his”…but whose hands are these? And did he save them, or not? Two very captivating questions that will take several pages to answer.

3) It Raises the Stakes

We come to it at last: the third paragraph, the whipped cream on this back-cover copy’s ice cream sundae, the sweet hook that raises the stakes and motivates readers to purchase the book. By the third paragraph, we know this story’s lead character – Eddie – and we have a reason to root for him – he finds his life meaningless, and he sacrificed his life to save a little girl…who we don’t know if he saved or not. If we read on we know we’ll also learn (as Eddie will) the meaning of his life, told by five people he meets in heaven. A meaning that he questioned as meaningless when he was alive.  

Is he right?

Great pitches like this one crank up the tension on the previously stated question or secret and excite the readers by – that’s right – raising the stakes. Act Two, which is quickly summarized in the last two paragraphs of this pitch, is a muddle of incidents and obstacles, of decisions and reactions, of snatching what the lead character yearns for the most over and over again.

We see this in Albom’s back-cover as Eddie “seeks redemption in the still-unknown last act of his life”. In the last lines of his back-cover, Albom is strategic by proposing a question – was it a heroic success of devastating failure? Questions inevitably make readers think about the character and story more and more.

Writing Challenge

Write your own back cover copy and share it in the discussion section for other column readers to give feedback. Ask yourself:

  • Do I open my copy with my protagonist, and do I give my readers a reason to root for her? Like her? Relate to her?
  • Do I include the inciting incident in my novel but avoid arcane plot details and heavy backstory?
  • Do I propose an unresolved dilemma for my protagonist? Something to excite readers and publishers? That excites me?

The last of these questions, of course, you won’t know unless you share it with other readers. Lucky for you, we have the discussion column below. Use the hashtag #LetsTalkBooks to get conversations rolling! Have fun with it, and good luck!


Abigail K. Perry is a commercial fiction writer living in Massachusetts where she teaches creative writing and film production. She received her B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film from Syracuse University and her Master’s in Education from Endicott College, and has worked as a creative production intern in for Overbrook Entertainment and as a marketing and sales intern for Charlesbridge Publishing.

In addition to writing, Abigail plans to teach screenwriting at An Unlikely Story (the priceless local bookstore owned by Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s Jeff Kinney) in Plainville, MA. This class is in development and will launch soon!

Abigail is a member of the DIY MFA street team and a loyal follower of Writer’s Digest. You can read more about her work on this website or follow her on Twitter @A_K_Perry 

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