Finding Readers: Nailing the Back Cover Paragraph

My small press launches its first fiction title in September.

My small press launches its first fiction title in September.

This is part three of the Finding Readers series.

Writing back cover copy is much like writing the dreaded query letter. You have a few careful sentences to hook a reader, whether that reader is an agent, an editor, or someone browsing in the bookstore. It’s imperative to get it right or you won’t connect with your target readers.

My press, Forest Avenue Press, is launching its first fiction title in September, A Simplified Map of the Real World, a linked short story collection by debut author Stevan Allred. Fifteen stories, all so different, about rural small-town residents, plus I needed to get a sense of Stevan’s voice in there too.

Talk about intimidating. I asked myself all sorts of questions at first. Who is our audience? What would attract those people to buy our book? What stories should I highlight? What are the themes of the collection and how can I get to them without sounding obvious or boiling it down too much? How can I talk about the rural town of Renata, Oregon, Stevan’s amazingly detailed fictional community, in a way that addresses the brilliance of how he connected all these characters?

Those questions were useful in brainstorming but didn’t get me any language to use. Then I thought about comparison titles and drew a parallel between A Simplified Map of the Real World and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, which is somewhat of an outdated reference. Olive Kitteridge, the linked story collection by Elizabeth Strout, won a Pulitzer in 2009–perfect. I started referring to the book as being in the tradition of Olive Kitteridge, but with more divorce. For people who knew Olive–literary readers, booksellers, reviewers–that line drew smiles in conversation. But it wasn’t what I wanted on the back cover. It did teach me the power of a quick one-liner, though. 

Onward to the back cover paragraph: My first draft attempt looked something like this:

Fifteen linked short stories reveal the connections and miscommunications that intensify rural life. In the richly imagined town of Renata, Oregon, a man watches his neighbor’s big-screen TV through binoculars. An errant son paints himself silver. A barn reverberates with a mysterious mechanical hum. Hippies get naked at a rock festival. Christmas trees are harvested, geese get counted, people make pickles. Stevan Allred’s stunning debut introduces us to characters whose lives are linked by the stubborn geography of the human heart.

I loved the stubborn geography line, and I expressed the idea about how small-town residents who see each other all the time mistake what the others are thinking,  but it wasn’t quite there. Still, after showing it to Stevan and talking about it, I went back to editing the manuscript, until a bookseller who knew the book critiqued what I had written. For one thing, there’s no one story about Christmas trees getting harvested. It happens in backstory, and we see the trees growing, but with fifteen stories to choose from, that felt weak to this reader. I totally agreed. She also felt the trees and geese weren’t as powerful as the other lines. That’s when I realized I wasn’t finished–and went back to work with a pen and paper, doodling lines and phrases incessantly.

Here’s another related one that fixes the Christmas tree issue:

Fifteen linked short stories reveal the connections and miscommunications that intensify rural life. In the richly imagined town of Renata, Oregon, a man watches his neighbor’s big-screen TV through binoculars. An errant son paints himself silver. Christmas trees wait for harvest. A pickle crock is passed to the next generation. A barn reverberates with a mysterious mechanical hum. Hippies get naked at a rural rock festival. Couples divorce, classmates reunite, geese seek the right tailwind. Stevan Allred’s stunning debut introduces us to characters whose lives are linked by the stubborn geography of the human heart.

But it still seemed like a list, not a paragraph. Then I decided to riff on the map-ness. I started with changing the last sentence to this: Stevan Allred’s stunning debut charts a true course through the stubborn geography of the human heart. But that seemed like an awful lot going on, and I wasn’t sure about chart/heart. So I flipped that to the beginning,  and look what happened:

Fifteen linked stories chart a true course through the intertwined lives of families, farmers, former classmates, and the divorced. In the richly imagined rural town of Renata, Oregon, a man watches his neighbor’s big-screen TV through binoculars. An errant son paints himself silver. A barn reverberates with a mysterious mechanical hum. Hippies get naked at a state-sponsored rock festival, a handsome pastor kindles his congregant’s faith, and geese seek the perfect tailwind. Stevan Allred’s stunning debut deftly navigates the stubborn geography of the human heart.

I also liked topography instead of geography, but we decided geography was broader, more universal. I couldn’t figure out how to add pickles. It seemed too cutesy or too much–and likewise I couldn’t get the Christmas trees to work.

Our graphic designer Gigi Little challenged me to vary sentence structure more. Note how while the wording is in the zone, it still feels a bit flat. While I was excited to sneak in divorce, it struck Gigi wrong in that placement–alongside farmers and former classmates–and I agreed. The intended humor didn’t quite work. 

That critique led to this:

Fifteen linked stories chart a true course through the lives of families, farmers, and former classmates.  In the richly imagined rural town of Renata, Oregon, a man watches his neighbor’s big-screen TV through binoculars. An errant son paints himself silver. A barn reverberates with a mysterious mechanical hum. An abortion from thirty years ago gets a sudden, public airing. Intimate boundaries are loosened by divorce and death in a landscape peopled with thrill seekers, loggers, cattlemen, widows, visiting hippies, and the occasional stripper, where even an old pickle crock has a complicated history, and above the hope and the strife and the oddly ridiculous, geese seek the perfect tailwind. Stevan Allred’s stunning debut deftly navigates the stubborn geography of the human heart.

And finally this, where I made Gigi’s sentence structure variation idea pay off, and note the switch from “complicated” to “unsettling” for the pickle crock:

Fifteen linked stories chart a true course through the lives of families, farmers, loggers, former classmates, and the occasional stripper. In the richly imagined town of Renata, Oregon, a man watches his neighbor’s big-screen TV through binoculars. An errant son paints himself silver. Mysterious electrical humming emanates from an enormous barn. A secret abortion from three decades ago gets a public airing. In A Simplified Map of the Real World, intimate boundaries are loosened by divorce and death in a rural community where even an old pickle crock has an unsettling history—and high above the strife and the hope and the often hilarious, geese seek the perfect tailwind. Stevan Allred’s stunning debut deftly navigates the stubborn geography of the human heart.

Later still, we cut the abortion line and made a few tweaks based on layout, but that’s basically what you’ll see on our back cover, thanks to a lot of input.

In order to have readers find your book, pay particular attention to this paragraph. Here are some tips, distilled:

  • Write, revise, and revise again.
  • Show it to your friends and colleagues and other writers with a focus on sentence structure.
  • Ask yourself: What work is each word doing? Is there a stronger, less obvious word that will make the paragraph seem less generic?
  • Does the tone/voice of the paragraph reflect the writing inside?
  • Ask for input from people who have read the book; do those beautiful sentences you’ve revised and revised actually relate well enough to the content? Are they accurate? It’s easy to make a mistake on accuracy when reaching to get a sense of drama (or place, as in my Christmas tree line). I recently read a back cover blurb about a man holding a guitar in the first scene as he makes a dramatic entrance, only to read the book itself and find out he left that instrument in the car.
  • In the case of query letters, and conversational pitches, if one doesn’t work, you can rework it and try again, but in the case of the back cover, what’s there is there. And it’ll likely get picked up and used in marketing copy too–press releases, calendar events, etc.–so my final piece of advice is not to rush.

Questions? Have a back cover paragraph you want to share? Please leave a comment!

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Books, Fiction, Finding Readers, small press and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Finding Readers: Nailing the Back Cover Paragraph

  1. janbaross says:

    Hi DidI read somewhere you are taking short stories for a collection by July 31? If so I may have one you like. And how are you? xoJan

  2. Emily J. says:

    I’m in the middle of Stevan’s book right now (thanks for the copy!) and it is fabulous. I am loving every minute of it. I can’t wait to write a review on my blog and to read more of his work.

    • I’m so glad, Emily! It’s such an amazing collection. Can you imagine my delight when it was the first manuscript submitted to Forest Avenue Press? I knew right away it’d the the perfect launch for the press.

  3. Laura,

    What a pleasure to accompany you on your back-cover revision journey. Your final copy (and your care in creating it–it’s beautiful to read) attest to the quality of what sounds like a remarkable collection. This book is sure to find its readers with you leading the way.

    For even the most experienced writers, it’s hard to believe how much twisting and turning and redoubling it takes (to borrow your navigation metaphor) to arrive at what finally seems like the inevitable destination: “Of course that’s how the back cover for this book would read.”

    You ask for our back-cover paragraphs, so I’m sharing mine at the end here. The book in question is “Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them)” [http://howtowriteeverything.com]. The back-cover iterations that you don’t see, and all the feedback that went with them, would reveal a struggle to accomplish four things:

    (a) establish the intended audience, namely, people who already write well, who enjoy writing—and reading—and who want to continue growing in the craft (the who)

    (b) articulate the book’s value for that audience (the why)

    (c) convey what makes this book different from other books on writing (the what)

    (d) do so in a way that demonstrates the very principles that the book talks about (the how)

    If the back-cover description reads as if it took no effort to write, I will have met my goal. Okay. Here it is, the “Word Up!” back-cover copy:
    ——-
    [headline] Want to write more powerfully?

    You’ve come to the right book. “Word Up!”—an eclectic collection of essays, more
    inspiration guide than style guide—serves up tips and insights for anyone who
    wants to write with more umph.

    “Word Up!” does what too few writing books do: it practices while preaching,
    shows while telling, uses powerful writing to talk about powerful writing.

    “Word Up!” explores the perplexities and celebrates the pleasures of the English language.
    It leaves you smiling—and ready to conquer your next blank (or blah) page.
    ——
    Thanks again for this thoughtful post. Best to you and Stevan in your Forest Avenue Press debut!

    Marcia

    • I love this, Marcia, its playfulness, its voicey sound, its wonderful word-ishness. Your list of four components is really informative; I bet it would be applicable to fiction too. Did you then use this blurb as part of your marketing materials and Amazon description?

      • Yep, this blurb became part of the press kit, and it also appears on the Amazon description (in the section called “From the Back Cover”).

        BTW, I recently talked with someone at Amazon’s Author Central who told me that they’ve stopped including images of books’ back cover. They did it for a few months, and they may start doing it again, but–for now–no more back-cover images. Amazon has also stopped allowing people to upload their own book-cover images (front or back).

        • That’s fascinating about Amazon and the back covers, Marcia. I was thinking about our back cover and how to use it best, because it includes blurbs from Brian Doyle, Scott Nadelson, and Tom Spanbauer. So far we haven’t released the image online anywhere; I guess we won’t put it up on Amazon, but maybe I’ll share it here or on the Forest Ave. site.

          • It seems inevitable that Amazon will get back to showing back covers. Authors are requesting this feature, anyhow, and why not? Why would an online bookseller leave the back cover out? I’ve always liked looking at back covers. I don’t know if other authors do this, but in my interactive PDF I put the back cover right after the front cover because that’s the way I like to look at printed books: front, back, then open it up. It surprises me that Kindle books leave the back covers off altogether.

  4. A fascinating look into the process, Laura. You made some wise choices.

    • Thanks, Michael. Editing is so much fun, although this particular one–the stakes being so high–drove me nuts for a few weeks until I nailed it. Finding the right words to describe someone else’s words is exciting and terrifying–especially when the words in the book are so incredible.

  5. I should add that we received an advance review today, a passionate, amazing advance review, which also incorporated elements of this blurb (the pickle crock, for instance). So that’s another reason this kind of marketing copy has to be solid; who knows where it will be picked up, repeated, or echoed. It’s a useful tool.

  6. Laura, reading your posts is like an education for me. Thanks 🙂 BTW love the blurbs.

  7. jmmcdowell says:

    I loved seeing the process of taking the back cover from initial draft to final, polished copy. You really drew me into the book and have me wanting to read it now!

  8. I thought I finished writing my back cover to the book I’m working on. But now, I think I’ll go over it again and maybe again. I too like the editing process. Thanks for showing us. It’s always reassuring to know that someone else goes over their work again and again and again too. I appreciate that yours was even more difficult because of someone else’s words inside. Your result was worth all your effort!

    • It never hurts, Judy, to go over it one more time! And yes, I love revising (and revising), because I think it shows in the authority the final product has. There’s definitely a lot of pressure about these from my perspective; I have to woo readers but also honor the authors. My next one is percolating in my head, a very different sort of book, and a novel, so it should be easier, since there’s a linear arc, but we’ll see. It might be harder because of that!

  9. I’ve never done a back cover blurb, but I did do an “About” page for A Sane Woman:
    http://u-town.com/jansleet/?page_id=2

    In addition to your excellent points, I would also add this: don’t be a movie trailer — in other words, don’t give away too much. There’s a lot about ASW that is not covered in my little blurb there (in both form and content). I did reveal Jan Sleet, who only comes in near the end, because I thought that could be a hook for people who have read my other stuff (since she’s in everything I write).

    Stevan’s book is still at the top of my “to read” list, but I’m still looking for the time to get to it. Very little reading time these days. But this way I still have it to look forward to. 🙂

    • I like your ASW page, Anthony–simple, clear, straight-ahead writing like what people will find in your books, but also just enough of a taste of the mystery, the ride ahead. Your decision to reveal Jan Sleet coming in late is a fascinating one; for genre/mystery fanatics, that seems important to set up in advance, so they don’t freak out waiting for the sleuth to enter stage left. Great point, too, about not giving away too much. I think that’ll be the trick with our March release–how to dance on the quiet side of that line. The crux of the book is about a young woman returning home, but the circumstances around why she’s coming, while interesting and provoking, might give away too much. I’m going to have to ponder this.

      I’ll be excited to hear your thoughts on Stevan’s book whenever you get around to it! No pressure, honestly; just glad you won a copy and are looking forward to it.

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