Storyville: Writing Compelling Dust Jacket Copy

So, you have a book coming out, or maybe you’re editing an anthology, and now you have to write the dust jacket copy—what should it include? Here are a few thoughts on how you can make the back of your book really sing.

BLURBS

I always like to include a blurb or three on the back, usually before (or after) the actual dust jacket copy. You may already have one blurb on the cover, probably your best blurb, or the one you could condense, maybe the biggest name. I’d put the SECOND best blurb here, on the back, at least one, and then if you have space, maybe a few more. Your call here. If you have a great review, you could put a snippet here as well—newspapers, magazines, anything with name recognition. These blurbs are already reduced to the essence, a nice sound bite, something that is not only telling your readers how great this book is, but in a concise manner. Use those blurbs. It’s also a voice of authority, somebody that hopefully gets respect, saying how amazing this writing is, so use it.

HOOK

The first line of your actual copy should probably be some sort of hook, that ties in the plot, the genre, and the voice in one quick line. You know, that voice-over in a deep, husky tone, “In a world gone bad, only a band of misfits can save them all from the impending doom.” Think broad hook here, something that has appeal, and also sets the tone from the first line. Whether it’s satire, weird, horror, fantasy, or literary, let us know so we can immediately decide if this book might be right for us, the reader. If you sell somebody a book that’s not a good fit, they’re just going to give you a bad review, or avoid you in the future. Just try to find your people, those that enjoy what you’re doing.

Use your space wisely, and put yourself in the best possible light, showcasing past work, but focusing on this book—your latest and your best— the hottest thing since sliced bread.

PLOT

Immediately following that broad hook, we need to know the plot of the story. Give us a few sentences that set this book up—who, what, when, where, and why. Try to write this summation in the same voice as the book, so we can start to get a sense of the genre, the author, the tone, the story we’re going to read. If it’s horror, write it in a way that starts to build tension and hints at something ominous. If it’s mystery, start to unpack the details so we can immediately think about what’s going on here, and try to figure out how to solve it, to chase the story down the rabbit hole. If it’s fantasy and/or science fiction you may want to introduce this new culture and/or technology so we can start thinking about how cool (or terrifying) this place or science might be. Don’t SPOIL the story, it’s important to leave out major twists and turns (as well as the ending).

CHARACTER

While you’re revealing the plot, this is a great time to get us to care. The copy can’t just be bullet points of Point A to Point B to Point C. We need heart, and wonder, and sympathy—empathy, too. Focus on the main characters. If there are a lot of them, whittle it down to the essentials—probably the top three or so. If it’s just one person, then we really need to understand what they’re going through, their struggle and tension and sense of urgency—the internal and external conflicts.

URGENCY

Speaking of which, you DO want to create a sense of urgency here. This cannot be dry text, just hammering home plot points. But, we also don’t want it to be melodramatic and over the top either. (Unless you write melodramatic over the top novels.) You want us to get excited to crack this book open and dive in. You want to paint a vivid picture of the unique details that are in your story, as well as create broad appeal. You want to let us know that this is going to be gripping, hypnotizing, fascinating text—something we can’t put down. Lean into your strengths, whatever you do best with your writing—atmosphere, weirdness, plot, character, lyricism—and show us that with the copy right here.

FORESHADOWING

You want to hint at as much of the story as you can without giving it all away. Look for ways to drop the first clues here, to foreshadow future events, to get the reader thinking about what might happen, what weirdness is going to unfurl, and how YOUR book is something new and different and special. You want to give just enough information to grab our attention, but not so much that we can figure it all out.

PAST WORK

If this is a book in a series, you will want to connect the dots a bit here, to let us know where this picks up from the last title, or how the world has expanded, changed, and become more dangerous since we last followed Detective Anderson or XJ28 or Princess Jibberjab around your stories. If you want to hype other books that are stand-alone titles, you could do that here, too. “If you loved the tense, surreal rollercoaster ride that was Disintegration, you’ll be gripped by the paranoid thriller that is Breaker.” Or something like that.

BIO

And you’ll want to put some sort of bio on the jacket as well, to show the strength and breadth of your work. Include on here other recent novels (and collections), major magazine credits, awards and/or nominations, and then a link to your website (or the publisher’s website). You’ll also want a nice author photo (typically black and white) as well. If you don’t have a website and/or photo, invest in both now, hiring professionals when needed. If you want to have other social media listed on here, that’s a good idea too—Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube, etc. , but maybe just one, your biggest presence.

ANTHOLOGIES

It’s a little different if this is an anthology. Where you’d have a bio for one author, you should have a list of the writers that are in the book—maybe all of them, or maybe just the top names, the ones that will draw people in. In your summation, since you’ll probably have 15-20 stories, we’d like to not only get a broad statement about the collection as a whole, but also what the theme is, and how it unites the stories, as well as individual story plots, at least three. (Always the Rule of Threes.) You’re selling the overall talent of these authors as well as the unique appeal of each story. You should also mention the editor and include his/her bio, and history, as they are the gatekeeper here, the one that picked these stories, so their aesthetic and career is also very important in helping us to decide if this is the right book for us. If they are a big name, like Ellen Datlow, that alone can sell the book.

IN CONCLUSION

And really, that’s it. You may have just the back, if it’s paperback, or you may have more room on the inside flaps, if this is a hardcover book. Use your space wisely, and put yourself in the best possible light, showcasing past work, but focusing on this book—your latest and your best— the hottest thing since sliced bread.

Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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