Whether you self-publish or work with a publisher, it’s important to know how to create copy for your book cover that is compelling and will inspire and entice your reader to take action. There isn’t a lot of room on the back of a book, especially when you add publishing information such as an ISBN, an author bio, or testimonials from other authors, so the copy has to be tightly written without excess verbiage. I highly recommend you read or reread The Elements of Style, a short and brilliant book by Strunk and White, which shows on how to prevent yourself from using three words when one will do. If your book will be a hardcover original, you’ll have more space for text than if it’s a paperback original: You’ll actually have two panels that the reader accesses when opening the cover as well as the back of the jacket (sometimes called the back panel). However, most books today are paperback originals, and hardcovers often use the back of the book for an author photo and/or testimonials for the book or the author, so you might be stuck with just the two vertical panels for text.
Here are some tips for writing copy for book jackets or covers that will sell your book to readers:
—Research. Before you start to write, read ten book descriptions on the back of books that would appeal to your intended audience. Get a feel for the amount of detail and how the writer avoids spoilers in winding up the description and weaves in the themes. Look at the kinds of promises made in the copy. Can your book make similar promises?
—Sell it, baby. This is advertising copy, not editorial copy. Don’t go into too many details about plot or concepts. Use strong, compelling verbs and nouns. Some of the books I have on my desk use language such as “embark,” “initiate,” “embrace,” “address,” and “achieve.”
—Highlight your key ideas with a bullet point list. If yours is a work of nonfiction, think about using bullet points in your description. Start each bullet with strong words, whether verbs or nouns, pay attention to parallelism. If you have a list of nouns, be consistent and don’t mix a verb into your list: “practical solutions,” “advice on,” and “7 strategies” should not be mixed with a bullet point that starts with a verb, such as “Learn ways to…” If your bullet points are incomplete sentences, rewrite the others to make them all incomplete for consistency. Notice the parallelism in this article: I start every tip with a strong verb phrase in boldface, and use full sentences.
—Watch the hype. Don’t gush about your book or yourself to a degree that might turn off readers. The rule is “know your audience.” Maybe your followers will be excited by terms such as “earth-shattering” or “truly unique” but maybe you are better off with “groundbreaking” and “original” and “fresh approach.” Remember, too, that you can’t qualify “unique,” which means one of a kind. Nothing’s “very one of a kind” or “more one of a kind,” so don’t use “very unique” or “more unique.”
—Work your expertise into the description. Don’t just give your name and any degrees you have. You might write something like “Joe Smith, a lifelong spelunker and founder of CaveExplorers.com, the #1 spelunker’s site on the internet…”
—Grab ’em up front! Consider asking a question in the first line or setting up a very short example that will grab your reader’s attention instantly—or, make a starting statement. You want the reader to have an energetic response rather than a lukewarm one.
—Follow a “Wow! Okay… Wow!” structure. Structure your description by grabbing the reader, then explaining what’s in the book and who you are, and ending with oomph. Of course, you want your description to be engaging and energetic, too, as I’ve explained, but the energy of the reader naturally dips when you’re listing the facts about what’s in the book. Think about how a musical performance will start with an energetic song, include quieter ones in the middle, and end on an energetic note.
—Check your spelling and usage. Don’t rely on the eye, I like to say. Actually use spellchecker software, and if you really want to be picky, consult Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th Edition (the standard dictionary in book publishing) to make sure you’ve styled every word correctly (groundbreaking not ground-breaking, for example). Be consistent throughout your text (for example, don’t mix “soundboard” and “sound board,” both of which are acceptable—choose one and stick with it). Don’t use terms people might not know unless you define them (for example, people often confuse “i.e.” and “e.g.” so it’s better to use “for example”). Have someone else who is good with grammar, spelling, and mechanics proofread your copy and look over it yourself several times to catch usage errors (such as “effect” for “affect,” which spellchecker software will overlook). Be as nitpicky as you can.
I hope these tips will help you make your book jacket copy sing!