Pretend you’re a fly on the wall of a big bookstore.
Enter reader. His first stop is the café, where he orders a double skinny mocha latte. A teenage barista begins to steam milk for this drink. The latte will be ready in three minutes, so in that time the reader needs to find a book to skim with his cherished elixir. The reader walks to a bookshelf. With each book, he scans the front and then flips it over to the back. Some back covers grab him for a few seconds, while others barely solicit a glance.
But look! Now he’s smiling. The reader likes this one. He’s been looking at it for at least 30 seconds. “Yes!” he says and then proceeds to carry the book to the café. Later he’ll bring it to the cash register.
What made that reader put down the others yet keep this book? You guessed it!–a strong back cover. Here are seven approaches for writing back covers that have pushed books into bags for years.
1. The Question Approach
Good questions are for a marketer what nails are to a carpenter. Why? Because questions work! They capture the reader’s interest. Good questions give voice to unspoken, yet real needs, and customers want what will meet their needs.
Some books, like Change Your Life by Becky Tirabassi, use several questions to rivet the reader’s attention: “Do you struggle with a weight problem, an addiction, or a bad habit?” “Do you feel any¼tuck’ in an unhealthy relationship?” “Do you have an unfulfilled dream?” Suchquestions beg for the answer “Yes!” and thereby forge a relationship between the reader and your product.
2. The Life-Changer Approach
Books, especially the self-help variety, are unlike any other product a customer spends money on. People buy cars to change the way they get around, to project a certain image–or both. People purchase clothes primarily to change the way they look. But people buy books to revolutionize their lives, holistically and forever. They do this because that is exactly what good books do. And the back cover is the publisher’s opportunity to explain how a book will do this.
Richard Carlson’s best-seller says on the back cover, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff . . . and it’s all small stuff is a book that shows you how to keep from letting the little things in life drive you crazy…” The author “reveals ways to calm down in the midst of your incredibly hurried, stress-filled life.”
You’ll find the following on the back cover of a different best-seller: “In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz reveals the source of self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering. Based on ancient Toltec wisdom, the Four Agreements offer a powerful code of conduct that can rapidly transform our lives to a new experience of freedom, true happiness, and love.”
In both of these examples, the copy answers the question, “How will this book change my life?” By so doing, it prompts the reader to ask a related question, “Where’s my wallet?”
3. The Succinct Approach
Books without a lot of cover copy have a certain confidence about themselves that remind me of people like tennis great Steffi Graf and former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne. I like to think Graf and Osborne don’t say much because they truly have nothing to prove. They have a persona that does all the speaking for them: “I’m good at what I do. If you don’t see it, that’s your loss.” So it is with back covers that follow the succinct approach.
Back covers that contain a brief amount of type also have a certain dramatic effect. The text becomes like the little girl’s red dress in Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. It stands out!
Unless you can fill the back cover with endorsements from Joe Celebrity and Sue Expert, cover copy should be tight and brief. It should steal from the reader any second’s chance of putting the book down. “This book sums up the life’s work of an exceptional individual” is the first sentence on the back cover of Open Society: Reforming Global Capitalism by George Soros. “George Soros is the best fund manager in history, a stateless statesman, and an original thinker.” Two sentences. That’s it!
One sentence is enough for Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation: “They came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War and went on to build modern America–men and women whose everyday lives of duty, honor, achievement, and courage gave us the world we have today.”
4. The List Approach
Lists are a fast way to tell readers exactly what they can expect–full disclosure, right up front. If readers have to hunt for the book’s offerings, your product will likely be reshelved faster than you can yell, “Check the Table of Contents!”
Lists are especially helpful in informational books. Most if not all the Dummies and Idiot’s Guide books, for example, use lists to tell readers bullet-by-bullet what they’ll learn. For instance, the back cover of PCs for Dummies reads, “You’ll learn the basic stuff you need to know like:
• How to set up your computer and printer without becoming a tech-head
• Common computer tasks explained in everyday language
• Painless information about disks, disk drives, monitors, and printers…”
Bill Moyers’ Fooling with Words: A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft pulls the reader in with a list on the back cover of the represented poets.
5. The Excerpt Approach
This approach requires an excerpt that is both good enough to seize the reader’s attention and short enough to fit on the back cover. Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft proffers an excerpt that is worth at least half the book’s list price. It’s about his first writing desk–what it looked like and where he put it. King goes on to describe how his second writing desk was different from the first, and the piece ends with what the transition taught King about the relationship between art and life.
Here is an excerpt from the back cover of Richard F. Newcomb’s Abandon Ship! The Death of the USS Indianapolis: “Every day the sharks came around; there were fins all around. The exposure and dehydration were worse than the sharks. We were blistered like prunes. One guy said, ‘I’ll see you, good buddies,’ and he swam away and was gone.” This quote, identified as coming from a survivor of the USS Indianapolis, creates a cliffhanger effect that leaves the reader stunned. “What? How can that be?” he might think. To get the answer, of course, the reader has only to dole out the dollars.
6. The Endorsement Approach
Spend two minutes looking at back covers in the best-seller section, and you’ll find at least 90% of them include quotes from well-known authors, actors, and pundits–all of whom willingly thrust the credibility and notoriety of their names and words behind the merit of the book.
Endorsements are word-of-mouth advertising in the sense that they are recommendations from people that potential readers trust. If you have any remaining questions about the power of word-of-mouth marketing, listen to George Silverman, President of Market Navigation, Inc., a New York-based marketing consulting firm: “Word of mouth is far and away the most powerful force in the marketplace… Chances are, your product is more influenced by word of mouth than anything else.”
Publishers, marketers, or authors should seek endorsements from reputable people whose fields coincide with the book’s content. Seeking endorsements from people who have recently written books that will directly compete with the title to be endorsed is normally a waste of time.
7. The Photo Approach
Good photos suggest something about the book that is beyond words. For example, the back cover of In America by Susan Sontag displays a photo of a railroad that narrows into the distance. On one side of the railroad is a still body of water; on the other, a dark cliff rises out of the ground for what looks like hundreds of feet. There are no words, only this image. It inspires curiosity. “Where is that railroad going to?” It’s an intriguing shot, one that invites further exploration.
If authors aren’t pictured on the front cover, back-cover author photos are a smart addition. Readers want to relate to whoever is behind the pages; an author picture helps them do that. Some marketers are so committed to this approach that they use the entire back cover for a jumbo headshot. For an example, see Four Blondes by Candace Bushnell, whose sex appeal is obviously being exploited as another of this book’s commodities.
This is, by no means, an exhaustive list of back cover approaches. Others include “The Big Headline Approach,” whereby a catchy phrase or question is set in large, bold type; and “The Letter Approach,” which essentially turns the back cover into stationery for the author. The above seven approaches are, however, some of the most common ones used by best-sellers. Hopefully, they’ll keep your readers saying “Yes!” time and time again.
Chad Allen is a writer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He is also Senior Editor for Starburst Publishers, an inspirational and self-help publishing company. Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; visit the Starburst Publishers’ Web site at