Book Proposal Basics – Back-Cover Copy for Fiction

This section is literally what the reader will see on the back cover, before purchasing the book. This copy is a useful sales tool whether the reader is perusing your book in person or on the internet, so I recommend honing this section. Since the text should be no more than what can appear on the back of a book cover, tight writing is essential. Here is a basic outline I just wrote for a romance novel:

Setup:

The heroine is first and foremost in a romance novel, so the reader wants to know who she is and what her problems are. For instance:

Mariella Benson doesn’t understand why a loving God would allow her young husband to die, leaving her with four young children. God has plenty of company in Heaven. She needs her husband now! Desperate and despairing, she returns to her small hometown where her parents can assist with the kids. She hates the thought of working on staff at the church of her childhood; but with no other option in town, she agrees. She knows she must hide her doubts and sorrow under the masquerade of a perfect Christian.

Meet the Hero:

Now that the reader is intrigued by Mariella’s dilemma, she wants to meet the man Mariella will ultimately marry:

Pastor Geoff Greenfield is angry that the woman he thought would be the perfect helpmeet for him abandoned him for a wild love in the arms of another. How could he have been so wrong about her? His misjudgment about someone so close to himself has left Geoff doubtful that he can be an effective workman for Christ. Even his closest friend in the ministry has confirmed Geoff’s feelings that he could be more useful working in his father’s lumber business. Geoff is just about to write his letter of resignation when Mariella reports for her first day of work.

The Dilemma

Now that the reader has met the hero and heroine, she wants to know more about the story’s plot:

Mariella can’t believe her high school sweetheart is now her pastor. They parted on bad terms, and the last thing she wants is for him to know that her dreams of making a mark in New York failed and why. Old, familiar feelings come her way when she sees him once more. Geoff’s heart breaks anew when he eyes his old flame, yet he is drawn to her beauty that never faded and he senses her underlying strength. He decides to stay on as a pastor, at least for now. Neither Mariella or Geoff know the price they will pay for their determination to succeed at the hands of those who secretly oppose them.

Though another approach may be preferred for other types of novels, the three-paragraph structure tends to work well by discussing the problems of the main protagonists and then furthering the plot in the third paragraph. The main idea is to interest your potential reader in your book.

Epic Fail?

You may say, “Is this providing too much detail so I might lose some readers?”

Maybe.

However, that’s okay. For instance, I’m not especially attracted to novels dealing with suicide. If I see elements I’m not wild about on the back cover and decide to pass for another book, the author has done her job. Sometimes it’s just as important to help a reader eliminate your book as it is to hook a reader. The reader may well love the story and topics you approach in your next novel, and you’ll gain a fan.

Next time: back-cover copy for nonfiction.

Your turn:

How much do you depend on back-cover copy to help you decide whether or not to read a novel?

What tips can you offer to hook a reader?

__________

Steve Laube has a course on book proposals at The Christian Writers Institute that includes a one-hour lecture, a short ebook on the topic, and sample proposal templates. Click here for more information.

 

39 Responses to Book Proposal Basics – Back-Cover Copy for Fiction

  1. Avatar
    Mark Stevenson April 4, 2019 at 4:42 am #

    I always enjoy your posts Tamela! I get so much out of them. Typically, the best set ups go on the back cover and you have illustrated that well. Thanks so much.

  2. Avatar
    Lance Albury April 4, 2019 at 5:38 am #

    I rely on back-cover copy a lot, but I prefer when there’s just a short paragraph with barely enough to catch my eye without revealing too much. I find that the more I know upfront, the more likely I am to pass. But if I start reading the book, there’s a better chance I’ll finish it.

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    Loretta Eidson April 4, 2019 at 5:41 am #

    It never crossed my mind that the back cover would help the reader not read your book, but it makes sense. I was under the impression that you wanted to convince them to read your book, which goes to show that you never stop learning! Thank you for your examples.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 4, 2019 at 9:06 am #

      Loretta, of course we want everyone to read our books, so that’s still the goal. No worries if your reader waits for another book from you she likes better. I read quite a few authors who write some books I like better than others. I wouldn’t want to read the “same” book 100 times!

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    Daria Doshrelli April 4, 2019 at 6:10 am #

    Most fiction bores me (most movies, too) and for a long time I avoided it completely. For me, fiction back-cover copy reveals the tone of the story and also its pattern. If I see the same pattern as most other books, I will probably pass, but the front cover might change my mind. Do the two combined suggest a serious story? Maybe just a fun one? Also, what kind of propaganda will I see? Author, please tell me more than just the plot.

    How much do I want to know about the story before I give it a go? A lot. Not the details of the plot so much, but I want to have some assurance that I might not toss it aside after the first chapter. I’m a tough customer, but a loyal one once I convert to liking the author.

    I prefer back-cover copy tone and style that matches the writing. Even though I can get a peek at the first chapter to see for myself, I won’t even look unless the back-cover copy convinces me the book might be worth the extra clicks and scrolls.

    So, for me, back-cover copy is just one piece of the puzzle, but whether long or short, it needs to be consistent in every way with the image on the cover, whatever hook brought me to the buy-me-now page, and the story sample. If everything’s consistent and I made it this far, chances are good I’ll buy the book even at full price…and the rest of your books, too.

    • Avatar
      Jennifer Mugrage April 4, 2019 at 6:32 am #

      Daria, thanks. This is really helpful.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 4, 2019 at 9:07 am #

      Thanks for sharing, Daria. Hope you find much more fiction you enjoy in the future!

      You are right in that providing the right amount of information and style of writing helps!

  5. Avatar
    Jennifer Mugrage April 4, 2019 at 6:39 am #

    This part is challenging, Tamela. Thanks for the tips.

    As a reader, if I am not seeking out books by a particular author, I first go to the appropriate genre section. Then I go by title, then read the back cover copy, then if still undecided the first page or two.

    I don’t like back cover copy that takes you 3/4 of the way thru the book to the main conflict. I prefer it just to introduce the setup and the first major conflict. If the back cover copy tells too much, I get a sense (probably wrong) that I can guess how the book will end, and it’s no longer intriguing.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 4, 2019 at 9:09 am #

      In genres, you already know a lot of the ending in that with romance, the couple will find a happily ever after ending, and in suspense, the crime will be solved. Thanks for pointing out that the conflict is key.

  6. Avatar
    Jennifer Mugrage April 4, 2019 at 6:42 am #

    It seems redundant to me that a proposal opens with the hook (a summary), and then proceeds to the back cover copy (another summary).

    Should they flow smoothly into one another, or should we separate them with headings?

    Thanks, Tamela.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 4, 2019 at 9:09 am #

      Separate them with headings. The hook is much, much shorter than the back cover copy.

  7. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser April 4, 2019 at 7:41 am #

    Tamela, you’ve set the bar high for the ‘how does one write a sonnet about THIS???’ challenge.

    The cover calls you, from the rack;
    do mud-wrestling women hold you in thrall?
    Then you turn to read the back,
    and find it’s a devotional.
    My strategy is very simple;
    I want the book in your hands,
    and on perusing, brows a-wrinkle,
    you won’t return it to the stands.
    Perhaps the the artwork’s made you grin,
    and on seeing it, your heart’s quite glad
    and curiousity will have you look within
    to find yearnings you never knew you had.
    And thus perhaps my mud-slicked beauties
    will have done their Christian duties.

  8. Avatar
    Bryan Mitchell April 4, 2019 at 7:48 am #

    I look at the back cover every time I pull a book off the shelf. Even if it’s one of my favorite authors, I check it out. I appreciate the thought of writing a back-cover tailored to your intended audience. No one wants to be bamboozled into reading something.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 4, 2019 at 9:12 am #

      This is one reason why I favor back cover copy over simply the author’s picture taking over the entire back cover. I get it that some authors have many readers who’ll read ANYTHING by a certain author, but perhaps I’m seeing Certain Author for the first time. What can I expect in the book I’m viewing?

      • Avatar
        Carol Ashby April 4, 2019 at 9:34 am #

        I picked up a book by a well-known bestselling author at my Christian bookstore. The only thing on the back was her photo. I looked inside to see if there was a blurb in the front matter…nope. I put that puppy right back on the shelf. I’m not going to buy a book without an idea of what’s in it, and her publisher’s decision to plaster only her photo on the back cover creates the impression that the author might have an ego problem. If I didn’t already know that traditionally published authors are at the mercy of their publisher when it comes to cover content, That’s what I would have thought.

  9. Avatar
    CJ Myerly April 4, 2019 at 8:07 am #

    Thank you for this! Your posts are always helpful. For me, if it is an author I trust, I don’t read the back cover copy before buying the book. However, I do before reading it so I know the gist of the plot.

    For an author I haven’t read, the back cover copy has to leave me wanting more. I have chosen not to read a book because of a trigger. If I’m going through a difficult time, I don’t want to read a sad book so if illness is mentioned, I set it aside.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 4, 2019 at 9:13 am #

      Exactly. Lots of people have triggers, and it’s good for authors to let readers know the book’s primary topics for this reason. The author is certain to write a different book without that particular trigger that the reader can enjoy. (Except for those readers who avoid entire genres, but then there’s nothing to be done so keep writing!)

      • Avatar
        Daria Doshrelli April 4, 2019 at 2:55 pm #

        This is so true. I mostly avoid fiction that sounds too serious. I really don’t want to delve deeply into modern issues when I curl up with a story, but a lot of people want to read about their particular brand of whatever they’re going through. That’s fine for them, but I look for those triggers in the back-cover-copy and pass when I see them.

  10. Avatar
    Carol Ashby April 4, 2019 at 8:22 am #

    Great guidelines for romance aimed only at women. I need a different slant with my Roman-era Biblical novels that draw both male and female readers.

    The novels have an essential romance running through them, but the main theme is the spiritual transformation of a lead (male or female depending on the book) as they experience agape love and forgiveness from the Christian characters. These are quests, both in the chain of events and in the hearts of the characters. Friendships apart from the romance play vital roles, and that’s made clear in the back copy.

    So my first paragraph starts setting up the main conflict and includes both the man and woman. Usually the man is mentioned first. The covers are deliberately designed to attract men as well as women by visually suggesting action and by making the man more prominent in the image. For anyone interested in what makes the covers male-attractors, there’s an article at my website.

    The ACFW First Impressions contest requires a back-cover blurb of 200 words or less. To introduce the people and frame the conflict, I find mine are typically 170 to 200, with 2-4, usually 3, short paragraphs.

  11. Avatar
    Carol Ashby April 4, 2019 at 8:33 am #

    I make sure the back copy clearly shows that the book will be from the Christian perspective. My international sales come from my Roman history website, and the majority (>90%) of the visitors there come via search engine looking for an article about crime and punishment, slavery, chariot racing, adoption, Roman citizenship…nothing explicitly Christian. One of my books is #3 in the Amazon search on “Roman fiction” today. So there is a real risk someone who would hate reading a “religious book” might buy if I didn’t make the faith factor explicit in the back copy.

    You never want a buyer to feel there was a bait and switch. That’s a great way to make an enemy and get 1-star reviews.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 4, 2019 at 9:17 am #

      Good points, Carol, thanks!

      I would add that even authors who make their Christian content plain from the start will still sometimes find readers who rant “I didn’t know this book called JESUS LIVES Lives is about Christ! If I had known that, I would not have bought it! I’m sending it back for a refund! One Star!”

      We can only cease to worry about these readers except for praying that they can let go of their anger.

  12. Avatar
    Wendy L Macdonald April 4, 2019 at 11:36 am #

    Dear Tamela, I love this hook: Geoff is just about to write his letter of resignation when Mariella reports for her first day of work.

    Great way to teach us by example. That line makes me wish I could be a fly on the wall of that church office. 🙂

    Blessings ~ Wendy Mac

  13. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser April 4, 2019 at 11:51 am #

    Ah, well. I’ll get this back-cover copy off my chest.

    Lefty had learned a lot about cherry bombs on a distant, fateful day, but his career became a minefield when he became the right-hand man of Agnes, his old flame and new firecracker of a boss, whose eyes were like sparklers that held an explosive secret.

    Would this be the demolition of Lefty’s hopes, or could he and Agnes become dynamite together?

    Only God knew…and it was He who lit the fuse.

  14. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D April 4, 2019 at 1:28 pm #

    thanks for another great blog posting, Tamela. Yes, I do depend on the back cover to determine if I will buy a book or not. I love it when the writer uses intriguing wording to pull me into the book but I don’t want him or her to go over the top, trying to impress me with a big vocabulary.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 4, 2019 at 1:46 pm #

      Capacious lexicon should be restrained to communication that, by exigency or inclination, and perchance the compulsion to electrify, requires nebulousness.

  15. Avatar
    claire o'sullivan April 4, 2019 at 3:46 pm #

    You can indeed judge a book by its title/cover/hook/back flap. And all should be relevant to the story!

    The three points you mention are important. Not sure if this works, but I have a main character and what she has to overcome, and a second character/sidekick who also has a dilemma to resolve (usually why did God put this cantankerous person in my life?).

    I wonder if that works?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 4, 2019 at 3:50 pm #

      The sidekick is probably the secondary plot point unless the story will fall apart without her. Therefore, she would get very little play on the promos, in my opinion.

  16. Avatar
    Angela Breidenbach April 6, 2019 at 8:17 pm #

    Love this post, Tamela, thank you.

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