Note: See Part I (PMA Newsletter, May 2003) for guidelines for nonfiction cover copy as well as points that can apply to both fiction and nonfiction.
When it comes to creating alluring cover copy for fiction, seven elements can help turn shoppers into book buyers. In this article, we’ll look at how these elements apply to both paperback fiction (where the emphasis is on the back cover) and hardcover fiction (where you also have the two jacket flaps to play with). Tip: Small presses may want to go with softcover for fiction from the start to keep down costs.
To view many of the covers mentioned below, use the “look inside this book” feature at Amazon.com.
1. Distinctive Author Bios
A major aspect of fiction cover copy is emphasizing the prestige, reputation and charisma of the author. Awards, other special recognitions, and teaching credentials all play a part in creating a sense that this writer is worth one’s precious reading time. For example, on the back of Life in the Cul-De-Sac (in softcover from Stone Bridge Press), Senji Kurio’s bio mentions his winning of the Tanizaki Prize for Literature for this book, a position as Associate Professor of Japanese Literature at the University of Arizona, and Kurio’s association with “the so-called Introspective Generation of writers of Japan.” For Six Kinds of Sky (softcover fromCinco Puntos Press), Luis Alberto Urrea’s bio on a back page of the book includes the fact that he was called one of “ten young writers to watch” by the Bloomsbury Review, his stint at Harvard University teaching Expository Writing, and prizes he has won (the Christopher Award, the American Book Award, and the Western States Book Award for Poetry).
2. Pleasing Author Photos
For fiction, an animated or powerful author photo can add plenty of sales appeal to a cover. Occasionally, with a very well known author, you may find no copy on the back of a hardcover book at all–just the writer’s intriguing image. (Examples: The amazing short story collection, t.c. boyle stories, from Viking; Michael Crichton’s timely Prey from Harper Collins.) Or the photo may be blended with other elements. For example, Perennial Classics features a dynamic photo of Zora Neale Hurston in her sly hat and beaded necklace with endorsement quotes on the back of the softcover Their Eyes Were Watching God. And Sherman Alexis’s laugh seems to jump off his picture on the back top-half of the hardcover The Ten Little Indians (Grove Press); this photo is followed by three strong review quotes. Similarly, a sophisticated and smiling image of Japanese novelist Senji Kuroi adds distinction to the back softcover of Life in the Cul-de-Sac. That cover combines a quote from the translator’s afterword (this book won a major translation award), a plot summary, and a lengthy author bio with the photograph of Kuroi.
3. & 4. Featured Awards & Other Literary Recognition
Awards and other acclaim may be featured near the top of a back cover instead of, or in addition to, being incorporated into the author bio. For instance, the softcover version of Ian McEwan’s Atonement (Anchor Books) boasts a listing of 10 publications that have chosen this title as Book of the Year. This enviable list is accompanied by the mention of a National Critics Circle Award and a Booker Prize finalist designation. Also, Senji Kuroi’s Tanizaki Prize for Literature runs as a subhead on the back of the softcover Life in the Cul-De-Sac after the headline “One of the most important Japanese novels of the last 20 years.”
5. Heavy on the Quotes
Currently there’s a heavy emphasis on using quotes for fiction covers. Often this results in the quotes being the only copy you’ll see on the backs of hardcover novels, while other elements (plot summaries, book descriptions, excerpts, bios, and photos) are dealt with on the jacket flaps. Three examples of hardcovers whose back copy consists solely of quotes are playwright Suzan-Lori Park’s debut novel Getting Mother’s Body (Random House), Margaret Atwood’s science fiction tale Oryx and Crake (Doubleday), andDennis Lehane’s suspenseful Shutter Island (William Morrow).
While you may not have quotes from The New York Times and The New Yorker to work with (as Atwood’s publisher did), it makes sense to highlight quotes from review publications that are as highly regarded as possible. Also, it’s smart to gather quotes from writers whose themes and approaches are similar to your author’s, in part to draw on their readership. For example, the Southwest publisher Cinco Puntos Press features endorsements from poetic author Demetria Martínez (Mother Tongue), gifted Native American storyteller Sherman Alexie (Ten Little Indians, The Toughest Indian in the World), and the emotionally rich writer Robert Boswell (Century’s Son) on the back cover of their “short fiction” collection Six Kinds of Sky by Luis Alberto Urrea. These quotes on the back of Urrea’s softcover book are accompanied by a one-paragraph description of the book that strongly conveys the mood of the writing.
Lee Merrill Byrd, Publisher of Cinco Puntos Press of El Paso, Texas, says that in general she would rather get an endorser’s own language than suggest wording for a quote. However she finds that shortening or polishing the wording of quotes can often strengthen them. In a pinch, if an important endorser isn’t getting around to providing a quote, she will resort to offering a sample blurb.
6. Suspenseful Plot Summaries
While nonfiction cover copy addresses benefits and content features, fiction copy will often include a brief sketch of the plot. There is an art to telling enough and not too much. Authors are sometimes anxious about the copy revealing too many plot points, notes Peter Goodman of Stone Bridge Press of Berkeley. The intention should be to intrigue a potential book purchaser but not tell so much that it might turn the person off or spoil their reading experience.
Studying plot summaries on fiction covers, it’s easy to find examples of those that were written well and others, done poorly. Conciseness can be important for the summaries on softcover back covers that also include lots of quotes, a bio, and a somewhat large author photo. (For a fun summary, see the back of the softcover Confessions of a Shopaholic [Delta Trade Paperbacks] from popular author Sophie Kinsella.)
With jacket flaps on hardcover fiction, there’s room to say more. Plot descriptions usually appear on the front flap and may spill over to part of the back flap. (For a strong example of a hardcover plot summary, see the front flap of Parks’ Getting Mother’s Body.)
Sometimes plot summaries are blended into or combined with a general description of the book. (Again, see the back of the softcover Confessions of a Shopaholic and the front flap of the hardcover Getting Mother’s Body.)
7. The Occasional Excerpt
Today most publishers are playing up plot summaries and quotes on softcover fiction back covers. But if you have an author who writes powerfully or provides a nice succinct summary within the text, the best sales pitch may be an excerpt from the work. This approach may also make your title stand out among the sea of quotes on the bookstore shelf.
One example of a nice clip that sums up the storyline is a 33-word passage on the back of the brightly colored hardcover book For Matrimonial Purposes from Kavita Daswani. This passage neatly conveys a main character’s goal of marrying before the age of 30. The front jacket flap offers a deeper plot summary; the back has an author photo and a bio.
And for In the Next Galaxy, a National Book Award-winning collection of poetry by Ruth Stone (from Copper Canyon Press), the hardcover book simply features a sample poem on the back. Quotes appear on the book’s front flap; an author bio and photo on the back flap.
Pushing for the Purchase
The much anticipated release of J.K. Rowling’s latest Harry Potter novel
demonstrates the extent to which author loyalty can be built for a writer of fiction. While your customers may not yet be lining up in such large numbers, the cover copy for your fiction titles can help stir excitement in those who do turn up. Used wisely, the cover elements I’ve described can provide the final push an indecisive shopper may need to make a happy purchase in these challenging economic times.
Since 1991, Robin Quinn has provided copywriting for clients from her Los Angeles office. Last year, she spoke at PMA University on back cover copy. This year at PMA-U, she addressed ideas for selling more books from your website, including using powerful webcopy. Among its services, Quinn’s Word for Word produces in-print and online media kits. For a free e-copy of Quinn’s Back Cover Checklist, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website is www.writingandediting.biz.