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Back cover copy guidelines for publishers – Part One: Non-Fiction

March 21, 2011
Image of cover of a book

Book covers - get the back cover copy wrong and your books will be on the rapid route to the remainder shelf

Ah… back cover copy. It’s surprising how crucial this tidy little piece of copywriting is to book publishers, their brand and their perception in the minds of the public. And it’s surprising how often back cover copy is let down by poor structure, poor layout and poor design.

With this in mind, I thought I would compile a few guidelines drawn from the web and post them as an outline structure.

Key to any copywriting of course is the “persona” of the individual to whom the book is targeted. As with any copywriting assignment, it is crucial to envisage exactly who your target is in order to write to them. Is a Mills & Boon reader more likely to be a woman than a man? Will they be AB or CDE? Who will they be? Put yourself in their mind. Generic copy is of no use – it merely tells the prospective reader that you don’t really care about them.

And if you don’t care about them, they certainly won’t care about you.

So, having covered off that little essential, let’s get down to business. In essence, there are two types of back cover copy – that for fiction, and that for non fiction. Each have their own nuances; today, I will cover Non-Fiction.

Non-fiction back cover copy for non-fiction titles needs to convey gravitas, credibility, relevance  and dependability. In some ways, these things are an easier sell than fiction because fiction books are an extravagance – not an essential purchase. Yet, having said that, copy cannot afford to be lazy and complacent.

So for non-fiction, it often makes sense to begin the copy with a headline stating a significant brand touchpoint of the book. The back cover copy “touches” the reader with a significant and outstanding feature of the book and the “points” to how this book will deliver the answer for the reader. The purpose of this headline is to raise the profile of the book over the “gestalt” of all the other books on the shelf (or in the online store, where often back cover copy doubles up as the “Amazon” copy or the publisher’s own web copy)

Next, the copy needs to begin with a pithy statement of what the book is about. This statement needs to reflect the headline, ensuring a consistent reader journey, and needs to reflect the reader persona. If a book is about family law, for example, the copy needs to reflect your core market: family lawyers – not all the lawyers under the sun. Strange but true, many books fail actually to define their reader on the back – the copywriter assumes too much. Big mistake!

It’s always a major error to assume that just because you know your target market, your target market will know you. How, after all, do companies grow if all they ever appeal to is their existing customers?

Then of course comes the sell – what are the features of the book and how will the advantages of those features create genuine benefits for the readers? Sound too much like brochure copy to you? Well, guys, let’s face it – if the copy doesn’t sell then you’re not going to get people to open the book (if in a bookshop) or order (if online). Copy has to work hard or not at all.

How do you justify your claims? Testimonials of course – second editions are easier than first (because you can use reviews of the first edition) but savvy publishers know full well that by submitting the pre-pub manuscript to thought leaders they can generate some pretty meaningful testimonials. And testimonials from thought-leaders are like trust agents on the web: worth their weight in gold.

Finally, if you were on the cusp of buying a book, you’d want to know more about the author and whether they are credible enough to give you the information you need. Would you buy a book on Social Media Marketing from an author whose expertise comes from 30 years in direct mail or from 10 years in internet marketing? Would you buy the same book from an author whose expertise comes from 10 years in internet marketing or 4 years in social media marketing? Would you buy the same book from an author with 4 years in social media marketing or an author with 2 years in generating £500,000 using Twitter, Facebook, Blellow and the rest?

With back cover copy on non-fiction titles, relevance is the key. Every word must work hard. There is no excuse for indolence.

Unless of course, like so many people, you think that copy is not that important and the book will sell itself. In which case, see you on the remainder shelf, guys!

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