Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Back cover blurb

By Jenny Hilborne
Author of mysteries and thrillers

I consider myself fortunate.

For the past eight months, I've been reading and reviewing pre-publication novels for the New York Journal of Books. Every month, NYJB reviewers get a lengthy list of books to peruse. Anything containing great suspense and great storytelling grabs my attention, but with only a few lines of back cover blurb to go on, making a decision is still a bit of a gamble. I don't have time to waste and once I've selected a book I'm committed to reading the whole thing, whether I like it or not.

Usually, I'm not disappointed with my choice. Only one book I've read for NYJB has received an unfavorable review (I'm not going to name it, but the review will post on the NYJB site upon the books release in September). This is the book that prompted my little outburst in my last CFC blog post. Quite frankly, the book sucked, but I credit the author for the incredible back cover blurb that pulled me in. If the blurb had been written in the vein of the book, I'd have skipped right past it on the list.

Of course, back cover blurb isn't enough on its own. The cover is the mannequin in the window, the thing that gets readers to stop. Once they have stopped and picked the book up, the blurb is what keeps it in their hand and propels them to look inside. Authors can give a great pitch at book festivals, but the blurb is usually what sells (or doesn't) the book. It hurts when a reader decides to pass and sets it back on the shelf, or the table. Yes, that's happened to me in the past, and I questioned if it was my pitch or my blurb that failed me.

At book events, I love and loathe the question: "What's your book about?" Mostly, I love it, but I get that panicky feeling inside: how do I condense the whole 300+ pages into a succinct ten second pitch? It's the same thing authors face when writing the blurb. It's tough.

I've been asked by other authors about writing a back cover blurb, and I hesitate to give advice, usually because I don't know their story. All I can say is, the blurb that pulled me in on the aforementioned sucky book included emotion, intrigue and suspense. The plot seemed simple and told me a little about the victim. It hooked me and roused my curiosity.

When I write my own blurbs, I find the best hook in my story and use it on the back cover. I think a good blurb includes conflict and identifies the main character. It must speak to the intended audience. A reader looking for romance won't be happy with a romantic blurb that disguises a thriller. If the book includes both, make it clear.

Back cover blurb is as much of an art as the novel itself. A tight, crisp blurb makes it easier to pitch at a book festival. It makes it easier to love it when a reader asks that question: What's your book about?


  1. As a writer, I long to ask the person who comes up to my booth, reads my jacket blurbs and walks away, "What wasn't compelling enough to make you read more?" But I don't, mainly because people act like you've just requested one of their kidneys.

    As a reader, I have been sucked into bad books with good book cover design/blurbage. If they're a self-pubbed author, then I'm guessing there's a real reason for the disconnect. If they've got a publisher behind them (big or small), then I'm going to call it false advertising.

    1. Good comments, Gayle. I don't ask either. Sometimes, the book a reader has in their hand just isn't what they are looking for, no matter how good the blurb, but it's hard for authors to not question why the reader passed on it. What's great is that they picked it up to look at in the first place. I'll always remember the lady at out Murder We Wrote booth who gasped at every paragraph on the blurb - that's the reaction we want :-)

  2. I'm lousy at writing back cover copy. Every once in a while I find one that completely wows me and I try and figure out why. So far… not so good. But I like the idea of emotion, intrigue and suspense.

    1. Back cover blurb is hard work, Peg. When I find a gripping back cover blurb, I study it to see what the author did and which bit made me look inside or buy. I've noticed it's the strong words that create an image in my mind that convince me - if I feel the core of the conflict in the blurb.

  3. Good post, Jenny. James Scott Bell has some stellar advice for writing back cover copy in Appendix B of his excellent book, PLOT & STRUCTURE. I advise anyone who wants to learn to write more compelling back cover copy to read his step-by-step advice.

    1. Thanks for the tip, Jodie. I'm going to check out his book.

    2. Okay, Jodie. Just pulled it off my shelf. Thanks!

  4. Back Cover Blurb - or BCB - wait! Didn't they ban that as bad for the ozone? Oh, that's CFC. That can't be right. That's you (us), and we're all about atmosphere. We're very good with atmosphere.

    OK, Jodie, JSB's book is on the list.

    Yes, BCB is an art. In old-fashioned publishing (OFB), someone in-house usually did it, not the author. (There's your false advertising, Gayle.)

    I look at BCB's but I don't think one has ever convinced me to buy a book I wouldn't have bought otherwise. If there's a recommendation from an author I like or respect, then maybe. For me, the BCB does give a sense of content (I guess that's emotion, intrigue, suspense - EIS).

    But how do we get a BCB on an e-book? I guess we can't really call it a blurb - maybe a Description. So if we get Amazon to agree, it would be an Amazon Back Cover Description for an Ebook or an ABCDE.

    (See what happens after a 5 mile walk?)

    Seriously, Jenny, thanks for raising the topic. It's important on many levels and one that does require art, craft, dedication and attention.


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