The Difficulties of the Back Cover Description

If I know an author well, I will simply pick up a copy of his or her book, confident that I’ll enjoy the read. I’ve seldom been disappointed this way.  But what if I don’t know the author? What will make me lay down my money and take the book home, or even download it at a cheaper price from Kindle? After all, this is the position I have to assume most readers will have toward me when they first discover my books.

The back cover description is the key.

It’s ridiculous, if you think about it, that an author must condense the plot, the character’s arcs, the entire novel into a paragraph or two that will entice the reader to want more. But something on that back cover has to convince me the book is worth my time. Here is the back cover from Elizabeth Peter’s first Amelia Peabody mystery. (It’s a bit of a cheat, as my mother recommended it to me.)

“Crocodile on the Sandbank”

Amelia Peabody, that indomitable product of the Victorian age, embarks on her debut Egyptian adventure armed with unshakable self-confidence, a journal to record her thoughts, and, of course, a sturdy umbrella. On her way to Cairo, Amelia rescues young Evelyn Barton-Forbes, who has been abandoned by her scoundrel lover. Together the two women sail up the Nile to an archaeological site run by the Emerson brothers – the irascible but dashing Radcliffe and the amiable Walter. Soon their little party is increased by one – one mummy, that is, and a singularly lively example of the species. Strange visitations, suspicious accidents, and a botched kidnapping convince Amelia that there is a plot afoot to harm Evelyn. Now Amelia finds herself up against an unknown enemy–and perilous forces that threaten to make her first Egyptian trip also her last…

The basic story is that a spinster goes to Egypt and runs into a lost young woman, two brothers, and a mummy, but notice the adverbs and adjectives:  irascible, suspicious, perilous, scoundrel. The verbs are strong as well: embarks, rescues, abandoned, threaten.

These word choices also work because the characters and situations are bigger than life, which I think comes through.

Radcliffe is described as “irascible but dashing”, which gives the reader a hint of fireworks and romance.

Out of this description, I’ll tell you what would have made me open the book.

“…a singularly lively example of the species.”

I LOVE dry, understated, and usually British humor. What a hysterical way to describe a mummy! That alone would convince me to open the book, because it’s my kind of writing style. I would also look inside to check out the writing style because there are only two authors who are good enough to make me suffer through present tense.

1. Condense the story into a few lines.
2. Choose strong adjectives, adverbs and verbs.
3. Make sure the description reflects the tone of the book.

 Sounds easy, right?

Take your latest tome and apply the rules. Can you improve your description?

7 thoughts on “The Difficulties of the Back Cover Description”

  1. Great post! It really resonated with me, because I agonized over the back cover blurb for “Mending Dreams” and to this day am not totally satisfied with it. I wish I'd read your post first and paid more attention to the verbs and modifiers! Next time I shall! Thanks.


  2. The book blurb is the “elevator pitch” authors need to sell their book to an agent. It has to be written like the TV Guide write-up that encapsulates an up-coming movie or television show. Easy to say, but hard to do, but oh so necessary. And when it's done well…it sells books. Great advice, Jackie.


  3. So true. I agonize over my first page and chapter, but in a sense the back cover is the true introduction to my books. Your advice reminds me that the blurb in back must be as 'eye-catching' as the picture on the front cover.


  4. All of the above are so simple in theory, aren't they? I looked at your descriptions, Bonnie and Miko. Your word choices were excellent. I think it's more difficult to write a cover description for a non-niche book, like a mystery. I thought you both did excellent jobs of taking rich, complex stories and getting them across in a paragraph.


  5. A very good post, Jackie V. Who would have thought writing about back cover copy would be so interesting (and hard)! And I have to say, sometimes, with a new author, that copy is a deal breaker/maker with me if I am looking to buy it. Of course, Amazon lets you read some inside pages too, so that's good. Have you come up with a zinger for CIVILITY RULES yet? Can't wait to read it!


  6. Excellent post, Jackie–for me back cover synopsis are the hardest part of the whole book! But your post points out how important they are. For several of my books (including my last one), I had such a hard time I used my preface as the back cover blurb. I think it worked…not sure. Anyway, great post.


  7. Some great points, Jackie. As a reader, if I am not familiar with a particular writer, I always turn to the back cover. I reckon I can tell from the style of writing if it's something I want to read. I confess I get frustrated sometimes when publishers instead put several 'blurbs' or quotes on the back cover: “Great book!” “Another success from ….”- when what I really want to read is, as Jackie says, a brief synopsis from the author, so I can also get a flavor of what's inside.


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