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Elements of a successful book: the back cover blurb

You’ve written your book and edited the heck out of it, and you don’t want to deal with it anymore. Sounds about right? But then you remember: the back cover blurb! Ugh. Dread creeps in. You don’t think you can write anymore, and blurbs can be especially tricky because they’re not like writing a story. They’re basically marketing copy, and you’re an author, not a copywriter!

Never fear! I have a few suggestions for how to churn out your back cover blurb in no time.

So what is it?

Back cover blurb: 200-250 words on the back cover of your book that describe your book to potential readers.

The purpose of this blurb is to, essentially, hook your potential reader and convince them to buy your book. So, in short, it’s a sale’s tool or a pitch. However, the blurb seems to be very easily confused with other written descriptions of books.

A blurb is not:

  • a synopsis

  • a book description

  • a review or endorsement

There’s a time and place for all of these other kinds of writing about your book, but they do not (usually) make up part of the blurb. A synopsis, for instance, includes all of the plot elements of the book from beginning to end, spoilers included. You would definitely not want to give away the ending of your story on the back of the book!

A book description, on the other hand, could be made up of the blurb (verbatim) but will likely also include reviews or endorsements. You might decide to include reviews or endorsements on the back cover of your book underneath the blurb, in which case your book description (used on marketplace sites where your book is listed) and your blurb are basically one and the same.

Reviews and endorsements are, of course, what others have to say about your book. There are many places where they could appear on the book and otherwise.

Parts of the blurb (for fiction)

The best way to take apart a blurb is to look at one from a successful book. Brandon Sanderson is an NYT bestselling author of the Mistborn series. The first book by the same name has a slam dunk book blurb:

“Once, a hero rose to save the world. He failed.

For a thousand years since, the world has been a wasteland of ash and mist ruled by the immortal emperor known as the Lord Ruler. Every revolt has failed miserably.

Yet somehow, hope survives. Hope that dares to dream of ending the empire and defeating the Lord Ruler. A new kind of uprising is being planned—one that depends on the cunning of a brilliant criminal mastermind and the determination of an unlikely heroine: a teenage street urchin named Vin.

Where a hero rose to save the world and failed, can a young heroine succeed?”

And now the fun part! There are, in my mind, five(ish) key elements of the back cover blurb.

1. A first line that hooks the reader—I could write an entire post about hooks, but essentially they're an element of intrigue mentioned right at the beginning of the blurb that keeps the reader engaged.

We see the hook right away in the first line above: “Once, a hero rose to save the world. He failed.” Those two final words, “He failed” lead to the inevitable question: what happened next?

2. A brief description of the circumstances or context of the story—the main characters or characters should be introduced along with the world/setting of the story. In Sanderson’s blurb, this part is even a bit historical.

“For a thousand years since, the world has been a wasteland of ash and mist ruled by the immortal emperor known as the Lord Ruler.”

Note that this is not the introduction to the problem yet. A first-time reader may get the vibe that the Lord Ruler is no good, but the information we’re given about him is pretty “factual” up until this point.

3. An introduction to the main problem that is going to drive the story—every story has a conflict, and every character will have their own conflicts as well. The blurb is the place to put the main conflict out in the open to set up expectations very clearly for the reader.

The problem in the Mistborn blurb may not be obvious at first glance, but it’s the short line: “Every revolt has failed miserably.”

So now we’re getting an idea of the issues the main characters are going to face (though we haven’t met them yet). The Lord Ruler clearly isn’t good if the people are always trying to revolt. This isn’t right! Surely something or someone can stop him?

4. A suggestion of hope that there is a solution to the problem—and this is where you, dear author, may be tempted to give more away than you should. This is not the moment to reveal the solution to the problem. It is, however, a great moment to introduce characters or a plot point that work in opposition to the problem.

In this case, Sanderson introduces the reader to a couple of main characters (without really telling us all that much)—“Yet somehow, hope survives . . . A new kind of uprising is being planned—one that depends on the cunning of a brilliant criminal mastermind and . . . an unlikely heroine . . .” —and sets up the reader for the struggle to come with a final question: “Where a hero rose to save the world and failed, can a young heroine succeed?”

5. Phrases to describe the emotional state the reader will find themselves in or the overall mood of the story—not every book blurb will do this (that’s why this is fiveish!). There is no phrase or sentence like this on the back of Mistborn. Frank Herbert’s Dune, however, includes:

“A stunning blend of adventure and mysticism, environmentalism and politics, Dune . . . formed the basis of what is undoubtedly the grandest epic in science fiction.”

Unless you’ve written something on the scale of Dune, I don’t recommend calling your own book “the grandest epic,” but the first part of that line with words like stunning, adventure, mysticism, environmentalism, etc. certainly captures the mood and general themes of the story.

Another example of this type of description can be found on the back of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant:

“By turns savage, suspenseful, and intensely moving, The Buried Giant is a luminous meditation on the act of forgetting and the power of memory, an extraordinary tale of love, vengeance, and war.”

A final word

Take the writing of your back cover blurb as seriously as the writing of your book. Take your time with it. Show it to someone who can give it a thorough edit and proofread, and make sure that it is properly formatted on the jacket cover file for your print book versions.


Elements of a Successful Book Blog Series



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