One of a potential reader’s biggest “sell” points is your book description. Sadly, it’s also one of the things that I most often see get mangled by authors. But fear no more! I’m going to give you a quick rundown on the elements you need for great cover copy.
To establish my bona fides: I’m an internationally-bestselling author in everything from horror to science fiction and fantasy to (I kid you not) Western Romance. I’ve sold hundreds of thousands of books on the strength of my back cover copy. I have literally had Hollywood producers call me with variations on this conversation:
Producer: Hey, are the rights for [cool Michaelbrent book title here] available?
Me (in needy tones, because Author): You bet. Did you like the book? My mom liked it and she says I’m handsome and talented and –
Producer: What, you think I’ve read it? [Sharp, barking laughter.] No, I just read the description. That’d make a great movie tagline! So is it available or not? Answer quick, ‘cause I have to go for a swim in my McDuck-style pool of ducats.
This should clue you in on how critical back cover copy is.
But too many authors don’t know how to do it. In fact, when I go to comic cons and writing conferences one of the first things I notice is that few authors know how to sell a book. They know how to tell their story, but guess what (and this is important): no one cares about your story. Not yet.
Your story is the equivalent of baby photos by that obnoxious coworker you barely know. Sure, they’re kids. Sure, they probably have some level of worth. But you don’t know them. You don’t care about them. You have no stake, and just want the microwave burrito calling your name in the break room.
But what if that same coworker sidles up to you and says, “So Little Timmy’s face spontaneously caught on fire yesterday.”
Now you’re in. The coworker can say, “The story starts with Little Timmy in his mother’s fallopian tube,” and go through every day of Little Timmy’s life in agonizing detail and you will hang on every word because HOW DID LITTLE TIMMY’S FACE CATCH FIRE?!
Note that the thing that worked wasn’t the story. It was a) the hook, and b) the emotional attachment that created.
That’s good back cover copy, which does three things:
A quick example:
You wake up in the morning to discover that you have been sealed into your home.
The doors are locked, the windows are barred.
THERE’S NO WAY OUT.
A madman is playing a deadly game with you and your family.
A game with no rules, only consequences.
So what do you do? Do you run? Do you hide?
OR DO YOU DIE?
The above is the entirety of the description to my novel, Strangers. It immediately shows what the hook is – a family that’s been sealed in their home with a killer. It draws in the reader emotionally, both by providing a quick snapshot of the stakes (“DO YOU DIE”) and also, in this case, by the sneaky, underhanded author making the story aboutthe reader (not only is Little Timmy’s face on fire, but it turns out Little Timmy is yoursecret love child! Oh no, poor baby! Poor me!).
62 words, and I’ve got ‘em.
A lot of authors don’t want to reveal their hook, because they’re “giving away the coolest thing.” But that just means you need to retool your book/story, because your hook should not be the only – or even the most important – twist and turn in your story.
With Strangers I’ve told you the most basic part of the first hundred pages of the novel. But you don’t know the mechanics of how the killer got in, or why he chose this particular family, or whether they get out, or, or, or, or…
Your hook isn’t the story. What it is, is the thing that tells your reader that there’s something in it for them. That they can plunk over five bucks and get a good value, because in here is something they’ve never seen (or never seen done this way).
Then you set that hook good and tight by making them feel. You don’t have to write the story as actually happeningto them to do this. The tried-and-true way is to describe the characters in a way that makes them important/sympathetic/relatable to the reader. Another example, this time from my book Predators:
She is one of the only animals
who can chase a lion from its kill …
Evie Childs hoped the all-expense-paid trip to Africa would give her a chance at adventure. Maybe it would even let her forget a past that haunts her, and find safety from a husband who abuses her.
Her jaws can crush bone to powder…
But when a group of “freedom fighters” kidnaps her safari tour group, intent on holding them for ransom, the adventure turns to nightmare.
She knows no mercy, only hunger…
Now, Evie and the rest of the survivors must travel across miles of the harshest, most dangerous environment on Earth. No food. No water. No communications.
And they’re being hunted.
She is the only animal alive
who laughs as she hunts…
A pack of Africa’s top predators have smelled the blood of the survivors, and will not stop until they have fed. Because in this place, you can be either one of the prey, or one of the…
Again, it’s short (167 words). Again, it sets a hook (“What kinda scary animal can chase away a lion?”), then invests the reader emotionally (a woman with an abusive husband and secrets from her past, we’re already torn between rooting for her and being curious). It then sets the hook even tighter (“You mean they got kidnapped and thenthings got bad?”), and gets us further invested when it talks about Evie and “the survivors” (a phrase we are hard-wired to root for and you bet I used it on purpose!).
Too many authors resist “giving away the good parts” without telling the whole story. So at those comic cons and conventions that I mention, I’ve run through descriptions – a quick hook, a brush stroke of the characters and stakes – of all forty or so of my books before the author at the next table has gotten through chapter one.
Who do you think gets the sale?
I’m not boring them with baby pictures. I’m quietly setting Little Timmy’s face on fire, then pointing out the blaze.
Set the hook. Make it matter to the reader.
And sell that book.
I'm Michaelbrent Collings, an international bestseller and produced screenwriter, as well as a multiple Bram Stoker Award and Dragon Award finalist, and maker of a fair-to-middling chocolate chip waffle.
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