The Art of the Blurb: How to write back cover copy

Many authors, both self pubbed and those with small publishers, find themselves writing their own back cover copy. Or, at least, staring at a blank screen thinking, ‘Do I have to?’

Yes, you do. The blurb is your biggest and best opportunity to sell your book. It’s what readers see. It’s their reason to click through or move on.

And this means, for each book, the blurb should be the most polished passage of writing you do – including the manuscript. Labouring over a MS and then knocking out a quick blurb is like spending hours creating a marvellous feast of molecular gastronomy, and then serving it on paper plates off which your toddler has eaten jelly.

So how to do it? Well, practice, mostly. I’ve been writing blurbs for fifteen years and it still makes my head hurt. But if you’re feeling stuck, some of this might help…

A blurb sells the book

The blurb is a selling tool.  Everything in your blurb should be directed at making readers want the book, preferably in exchange for money. The blurb is the sizzle that sells the sausage.

The blurb does not tell the story: it tells the potential buyer about the story. Major difference. If you find yourself telling the story, cut. Watch out for ‘And then’ connectives, which often signal that you’re giving a sequence of events. Turn them into ‘But’ connectives –  the ones that suggest obstacles, reversals, drama.

Telling the story makes boring blurbs. I used to work with a sales manager whose cry at sales conference rehearsals was, ‘Nobody cares.’

Editor, rehearsing presentation: ‘Polly Smith was sent to Lady Letitia’s Orphanage when her parents died in a hot-air balloon accident – ’

Sales manager: Nobody cares.

Editor: But it’s important for her reactions –

Sales manager: NOBODY. CARES.

Of course they’ll care when they read the book. But in the back cover copy, the expression you’re looking for to cover your three chapters of carefully crafted emotional dissection at balloon-related bereavement is, at most, ‘Orphan Polly Smith’ and quite possibly, just ‘Polly’.

What sells? A conflict, a romantic set-up, a mystery, a dramatic situation. Not a backstory, a description, or an explanation.

Answer the key questions

These should get you at least halfway to something usable.

Who are the main character/s?  Headline details only, and try putting the adjectives before the noun. ‘John is a photographer burned out after years covering conflicts in war zones’ is an infodump. ‘Burned-out war photographer John’ is the beginning of a sentence that might get interesting.

What’s the problem facing your hero/ine/s? A race against time, a family battle, the love interest being a zombie…

What’s at stake? The world? A child’s happiness? The love affair? The heroine’s braaaaains?

If you can tell the reader that [appealing person] in [interesting situation] has [thing going on] with [X at stake], you have 80% of a blurb right there.

Avoid the pitfall questions

There are some things it’s very tempting to tell the reader, but think twice.

Where/when are we? Unless the setting is really a major selling point, beware. If you start your blurb with ‘Devon, 1782. As the mist drifts through the chilly moorland…’, that clicking noise is the sound of a lot of readers going elsewhere.

Who else is in the book? The child/dog/sidekick might be one of the most effective things in the book, but are they part of what sells it? The cute dog may be the thing that readers will remember, but you’re not addressing existing readers here, you’re selling to potential buyers.

What’s important to the book is not necessarily what’s important to the blurb.

Keep it short

This is not an essay, it’s a selling tool. Go Edward Scissorhands. You won’t lose out by keeping it to three paragraphs; you may well lose readers if they have to plough through six.

A blurb sells the book that you wrote

Not the book that you suddenly feel you should have written, or the book that would probably have sold more copies. It might temporarily drive sales up to give the blurb a commercial spin (e.g. selling it as a romance when it’s that very different thing, a book about two people who occasionally shag). But it won’t endear the author to the misled readers.

Remember the classic Wizard of Oz TV guide listing?

Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets, and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.

You can pull in the Cormac McCarthy fans this way, but you won’t keep them once ‘Over the Rainbow’ starts.


Typos and errors. Spellcheck like mad. Get someone else to read it. Do not rush this. You wouldn’t use a picture of burned steak and soggy chips to advertise your restaurant; do not use sloppy writing to advertise your book.

Extract. No matter how good your writing is. Let people be stunned by the extract when they’re already hooked on the concept. Exception: a single fantastic line that sells the book, as a pull quote.

Spoilers. If your book’s impact depends on a massive unforeseen twist, for God’s sake don’t give it away on the back.


KJ Charles has five blurbs to write for work, which is why she’s blogging.

The First-Book Feeling (a view from both sides)

I’ve been a commissioning editor for fifteen years or so, and in that time I’ve taken on a lot of new authors, mostly out of the slush pile. That means I’ve made ‘The Call’ (the offer to publish someone’s first book) many times, and I can say with certainty that it’s far and away the best bit of the job. After all, to make someone else that happy normally takes a lot of money, several hours in the kitchen, or a level of sexual favours I’m just not prepared to offer authors. (Maybe the really good ones.)

The Call

Me: Hi, it’s KJ Charles from Publishers, I think you did a great job on the revisions, so I’d like to offer you a contract to publish the book.

Author, calmly: I see. Excuse me a moment.

[places phone on table]

Author [in distance]: AAAAAAIIIEIEIEIEIEIEEIEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! AAAAAAAAAAAH!!! OH MY GOD!!!!!

[picks up phone]

Author, calmly: Right, yes, that’s great, thanks.

I once made The Call in person. I had an opportunity to meet the author, so what the hell, I thought I’d tell her face to face that I’d like to publish her book. It’s one of my lifetime favourite memories. I have never seen an adult cry so much, so hard, for so long. People were clustering around us asking if she’d just been bereaved. It was brilliant.

I even have a record of how I felt when I got the email offering to publish The Magpie Lord, because I was straight on to my online book group. Bearing in mind that I’m a highly experienced editor, have a degree in English Literature and am attempting to build a career as a writer, how did I make this announcement?

F*** me, I’m going to be published!

Master of her craft, right there.

So yeah, it’s great when someone offers to publish your book…

And then you wait.

And then there’s edits. Some complete git telling you to change stuff! In your book! Ack!

And then you wait.

And then there’s the terrifying prospect of the cover. Which if you’re lucky (like me) is a thing of beauty, and if you’re not is the subjImageect of this conversation.

And then you wait.

And you join Goodreads as an author, and get yourself an Amazon author page, and blog, and guest blog, and tweet, and join groups, and do all those things that everyone says you have to do, and in between those things, you wait more.

And you check Twitter maybe 400 times a day in case someone’s reviewed it, and it’s not clear which is worse, getting a bad review or not being reviewed at all, but either way you kind of feel like throwing up.

Also, more waiting.

And then publication day dawns, and with it the following realisations:

  • The rest of the world is basically indifferent to this life-exploding development. Just because people can now buy it does not mean they will.
  • I cannot prevent my boss or my friends or my mother from reading it. I hope you guys like sex and weird magic horror. Let’s not do a book group.
  • My book is published. Today is the birthday-and-Christmas I’ve been waiting for all my life. Tomorrow will be… Wednesday.
  • If I want this dizzy, heady, ‘oh sweet lord I’m going to be published’ feeling again, I’m going to have to write another book. Another one!

But all of that is for tomorrow. Today, I’m going to enjoy having my first book published. And, also, drink.

The Magpie Lord is out from Samhain. KJ Charles is in the pub.

How bad book covers happen: the sordid truth

Needless to say, publishers, editors and cover designers want each cover to be a thing of beauty that will delight the author and sell enough copies to rebuild the Great Wall of China. A lot of work and passion goes into these. People really do try to get it right, and much of the time, they do. Nevertheless…

This is what the author wants:


This is what Sales thinks will sell:


This is the designer’s artistic vision:


And this is what the budget allows:


Keeping all these different needs and expectations in mind, you rough out a concept and design that really works for the book and balances author feedback, budget and editorial judgement… and then you take it to a committee of fifteen people.

Cover meeting

Editor: So this book is about a football match between Allied prisoners of war and Nazi soldiers. We’ve gone for a football with a swastika on it.

Marketing: The swastika looks Nazi.

Editor: It’s about Nazis.

Publicity: We don’t want it to look Nazi.

Editor: This isn’t a pro-Nazi book. If this book was any less pro-Nazi it would be Simon Wiesenthal. It’s about Nazis.

Marketing: It’s got a swastika on it. It looks Nazi. Do something else.

Second cover meeting

Editor: So this is the book about a football match between Allied prisoners of war and Nazi soldiers, again. We’ve gone for an old-fashioned footballing image with some barbed wire superimposed over it.

Marketing: That just doesn’t say ‘Second World War’ strongly enough. It needs some sort of iconic Second World War thing, some sort of image that sums up the period…

Designer [very quietly]: Like a swastika?

Publicity: I don’t like those football shorts, they look silly, and it’s very old-fashioned. Isn’t there a sexier image?

Sales: Oooh. Can we use modern footballers, and do a sort of Instagram photo treatment to make it look old?

Editor and designer, in chorus: NO.

High-up person: Why don’t we do a photoshoot with a modern footballer, like David Beckham, in Second World War gear?

Editor: Because you gave me a budget of £250.

Publicity: Let’s see some other options.

Fourth cover meeting

Editor, slumped in chair: It’s the Nazi football book again.

[Chorus of groans]

Designer: I’ve done nineteen alternative treatments this time. This one has a montage of searchlights and barbed wire, these ones have every photo of a 1940s footballer available for free off Shutterstock, this one is entirely typographic, this is Wayne Rooney photoshopped onto the trenches of Ypres –

Editor, through teeth: Wrong war.

Designer: This one is a picture of a rose for some symbolic reason that the editor told me about, this one is a football exploding when it’s shot, this is a bullet being kicked into a goal…

High-up person: I like the rose.

Sales [carefully]: I don’t think a rose says ‘Nazis playing football’.

Editor: It has a thematic meaning in the context of the book.

High-up person: We should have the rose.

[All salespeople glare at editor.]

Publicity: The rose is pretty. It would look great on the shelf.

Marketing, desperately: What if we use the rose but put a football behind it? And maybe barbed wire over the top?

[Editor slumps further down into chair. Designer bites back a sob.]

Author phone call

Editor: I know… yeah, yeah… well, the rose has a thematic meaning in the context – No. No. Well, that’s what the cover meeting said. Right. I’m sorry you feel that way.

One year later

Marketing: This book hasn’t sold at all. Why did we use a rose on the cover? Surely it should have been much simpler. Something like… a football with a swastika on it.

Why Bad Books Get Published (or, Nobody knows anything)

So you decide to buy a book from a major publisher, one you’ve seen everywhere. There’s adverts, 3-for-2 promotions, a publicity blitz, it’s the Next Big Thing everyone’s talking about. And you pick it up. And it’s crap. Badly written, clunky rubbish, for which you just paid the best part of fifteen quid.

Why would they publish this book? Why would they do all this marketing for it? Why can I name half a dozen amazing self-published authors who can’t get a look-in, while the Big Six bring out dirges like this? Why???

Well, there are many reasons, and you can probably guess most of them (bandwagon-jumping; contract fulfilment; the simple fact that someone honestly thought it was good), but here’s a slightly less well-known phenomenon: The Boss Book.

Fifteen years or so ago, I worked at an independent general publisher. The founder/owner was highly educated, a very bright man. It was (and still is) a very successful firm. But every couple of months, this happened.

[Boss crashes into room, clutching sheaf of paper or self-published horror with garish cover. Heads rise and turn, like alarmed meerkats]

Boss: I’ve found this. It’s fantastic! Remarkable! We need to get it out now. Lisa, I want it scheduled for March –

Editorial Director Lisa: Excuse me? I’ve never even seen this. Can we please bring it to the editorial meeting so we can discuss –

Boss: I’ve already bought it. Contract signed. Three-book deal.

Editorial Director Lisa [goes purple]

Boss: Set up interviews. I want The Times. I want The Telegraph. I want The Daily Mail.

Publicity Colin: I want gin. Has anyone actually heard of this author? Is there anything worth publicizing about this? Why do you do this to me?

Boss: Bring me a marketing plan tomorrow.

[Boss leaves. Percussive thudding of heads on desks]

Two things about the Boss Books.

First: they were all bad. Whimsical nonsense, medically unsound alternative health books, tedious historicals. There was one fantasy novel so abysmal that I don’t think anyone made it to the end, and I include the editor and proofreader in that. Maybe the typesetter. Possibly even the author. For all I know, the last 100 pages were left blank. I don’t imagine anyone ever looked.

Second: Of every ten Boss Books, seven sank without trace. Two would sell 1500 copies. And one would go nuts. It would take off like a rocket, outsell the next four books on the list put together, and more than pay for the nine duds, because there was something about it that the market really wanted, which the boss saw and the rest of us didn’t. More fool us.

For every ten bricks the boss threw at us, one was made of gold. I’m sorry if you bought one of the other nine.

You may be thinking, ‘But that doesn’t happen now. Books have to go through gatekeepers and editorial meetings and all that publisher-value-added stuff, right? Publishers are much more professional now, right?’

Well, there is another Next Big Thing coming out shortly. Huge promo spend. It will be everywhere.

It’s rotten. Dull, clumpily written, unengaging. I struggled to finish the first chapter. I don’t know anyone who’s made it more than half way through. Nobody likes it. Its editor doesn’t like it. It’s bad.

This was a Boss Book – championed by an Incredibly Important Person. And yes, it went to an editorial meeting, but the IIP will have presented it as, ‘This is wonderful, I will not rest till we have published it, I absolutely insist we do this, it will be huge’, and I am quite sure that a lot of people sat there looking at their nails and thinking, ‘I can’t be the only one to say something. Nobody else is saying anything. Did they all like it?’

And maybe it will come out to a slew of 3*, 2*, 1* on Amazon, and the rest of the books on the contract will be shoved out in cheap editions, and the publisher will write off the advance and curse the IIP under their collective breath.

Or maybe it’s a gold brick. Maybe the hugely experienced IIP spotted something that a big chunk of the market will love, and it will be wildly popular and the publisher will make a fortune, while frustrated readers throw it across the room and unpublished authors seethe at the injustice of it all, and superb published authors fantasise about having ten per cent of that marketing spend, one per cent of its sales. Maybe the IIP is the only one marching in step. Maybe nobody knows anything.

All I know is, it’s a bad book.

Writing the Synopsis: giving the editor what she wants

I hate writing synopses. I feel embarrassed looking at my plot and characters reduced to a few paragraphs. The whole thing looks stupid and childish. Why would anyone read this dumb crap anyway?

Moreover, I have never met an author who likes writing synopses. Virtually every one I get is prefaced with ‘I’m rubbish at writing these’, and usually the author is correct.

And yet, we all have to write them, so suck it up.

But KJ, why do I have to?

Because you need to convey to your editor if it’s worth her while reading your submission. That includes telling her how the story develops, right to the end. Synopses that end: ‘But can Boris persuade Florence of the truth?’ or ‘…Will they survive?’ or, most loathsome of all, ‘If you want to know the answer, you’ll have to read the book!’ are a waste of the editor’s time.

But doesn’t that spoil the book for her?

No. It may well be relevant to her decision whether to read the damn thing at all. If your novel ends with the hero going back to his wife, leaving the heroine devastated, it may be a very good book, but it won’t work for Harlequin Romance. If it ends with a cliffhanger, and we need to read Book 2 to find out if the hero survives, and if the editor is not empowered/inclined to commit to two books, there’s no point her looking at book 1. Ditto if your book depends on the entire middle section being conveyed through the medium of an embedded interpretative dance video. The editor would like to know this sort of thing before she embarks on reading it, and she won’t thank you for the surprise.

Alright! Fine! I’ll write a full synopsis. So how do I do this, then?

There’s no one size fits all, but here are some guidelines that work for me, and (the things I do for you) some examples from the synopsis for my first book.

The Set-Up

Summarize the necessary information at the start of your synopsis, to make your plot clearer and to ensure that, if the editor doesn’t like that kind of thing, she can hand it to someone who might.  If there’s a complex setting, eg a fantasy world, kick off with that before you get into the story. Do not try to weave in the information in the same order as it appears in the book, or to include all the main characters and every plot development. This is a synopsis, not a very heavily edited MS.

My synopsis for The Magpie Lord began:

A fantasy / M/M romance set in a late Victorian England where magic exists.

It gets you started nicely to say who the book is about:

Lucien Vaudrey, the younger son of the seventh Earl Crane, was exiled to China by his father aged 17. He built a new life as a smuggler and trader with the aid of his manservant/valet/henchman Merrick. Now the suicides of his father and his elder brother have made Lucien the new Lord Crane, and he is forced to return to England and to Piper, his decaying family home.

Why has he had to come back to England? It doesn’t matter from a synopsis point of view (it’s not directly relevant to the main thrust of the plot), so I’m not saying, but I’ve included ‘forced’ so it’s clear he’s in a difficult situation. His family is relevant to the main plot development, and Piper is where the action happens, so they need to be in here. Merrick is a major supporting character, but in fact I should have left him out – he’s vital to the book, but not to the synopsis. Wasted words.

Tip: If you’re not completely sure if your details are relevant, stick them in and then, if they don’t recur in the completed synopsis, take them out again.

Now the basic set up that introduces the other hero:

As the story opens, Crane is suffering attacks of what seems to be suicidal mania. He seeks magical assistance. Stephen Day arrives to help.

And who is he when he’s at home?

Stephen’s family were destroyed by Crane’s father and brother. He loathes the Vaudrey family. But he is a justiciar, enforcing the law of the magical community, and duty demands that he help Crane now.

This paragraph jams in all the backstory we need about a major source of conflict in the central relationship, and tells us about Stephen’s (relevant) job too. It’s an info dump but that’s fine: that’s what a synopsis is.

At this point I went into the plot (which I won’t copy here – if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book! Oooh, that felt good.) But it was a lot easier to summarise the plot once I didn’t have to keep breaking off to explain stuff, plus I’d ensured the editor knew from the first lines whether it was something she might want to read.

The Main Plot

Conveying the set-up is generally more important than giving the plot itself. Once you’ve established your main characters, situation and their problems, you almost certainly don’t need to do more than say ‘and then stuff happens.’

A lengthy chase around Europe’s art capitals ensues, as Uncharacterised Man and Token Woman seek the clues they need, hampered at every turn by an offensive albino and a poorly concealed villain.

Only really massive plot twists need to be included, not a blow-by-blow account.

Tip: If it’s a ‘romance with other’ (ie romantic fantasy, romantic suspense) don’t forget to indicate the progress of the relationship along with the progress of the other plot. It’s easy to summarise why the hero is fleeing the mafia and what steps the heroine takes to protect him, but if you’re writing a romance, your editor needs an idea of the conflict between the main characters, how their relationship goes up and down, and how issues are resolved. (If there is no conflict or up-and-down in your central relationship, you’ve done something wrong.)


So, to synopsise: Introduce your setting, introduce your characters, show us your central conflicts and plot drivers, and don’t forget the ending. Lengthwise, follow guidelines, but if there aren’t any: one side of A4, single spaced.  And don’t worry if it makes you cringe. We’re all in the same boat there.

Go on, tell me how you write them…

‘Argh, They’re Watching Me!’ Thinking about Readers.

Writing copy has a solid rule, whether it’s back cover blurbs or catalogue copy: think about the audience. What do they need to know, what do they want to know, what will persuade them to buy your product.

But can you think about the audience while writing fiction?

There are many people who write to order, of course. Writing series books to a set brief is a thriving art. And publishers’ search for the Next Big Thing usually entails trying to reproduce the Current Big Thing, so if you can knock out a quick and competent The Michelangelo Cipher or 49 Colours of Red on demand, you will probably make a nice living, and more power to your typing fingers.

But if you’re trying to tell your own story, the thought of an audience can be paralysing. There are people who never send their work to a publisher because they’re terrified of what someone else will say. I didn’t show The Magpie Lord to anyone before sending it to Samhain – I needed to have a publisher’s imprimatur before I had the nerve to tell anyone, ‘I wrote this, and actually, at least two people think it’s quite good.’

Plenty of people don’t write because their awareness of a ghostly audience, of eyes on their work, is so crippling that they stop before they begin. What if my boss thinks I’m a psycho? What if my mother reads the sex scenes?! If I wrote something else, would it sell more? People say, write the book you want to read. But what if I’m the only person who wants to read it?

Of course, the standard writing-tips response is, don’t think about the audience, just write from the heart, etc. But that’s only partially true, because stories exist for an audience. An unread/unheard tale is like an unconsummated love affair, or an uneaten cake. It might be a thing of beauty but it hasn’t achieved its point. And if you entirely disregard your audience while writing, you may well end up with an unreadable book.

Essentially, you have to entirely ignore the question of ‘Will anyone want to read my Edwardian country-house spy romance?’, while focusing hard on, ‘Will readers of my Edwardian country-house spy romance find this plot point gripping, this conflict compelling?’ Ignore the invisible audience that might hate your work, and focus on doing your best for the invisible audience who will love it…if you do it right.

Of course, as soon as you get published, you have an additional, even more crippling worry: not only might people read it, but, worse, they might not read it. But that’s another blog.

Are you aware of the invisible audience when you write? Tell me how you handle it!

Being an Editor: The other stuff

– This contract is asking for a definition of ‘Editor’, can you supply something?

– How about ‘irritable, tea drinking pedant’?

– I’ll put that in the boilerplate.

What editors do all day has been brilliantly summed up in this handy pie chart from Sarah Fletcher ( and @sjhfletcher).


I can’t better that, but it made me think of some of the other things that I have done as an editor aside from make tea and swear at Word.

  • Briefed an illustrator to draw an invisible dragon.
  • Negotiated swear words. (‘You can have all the twats and both pricks but we have to lose the shit.’)
  • Written the hitherto untyped sentence, ‘We’re going to need a lot more accordions in this.’
  • Fielded calls from men pitching erotic novels who want to explain the ins and outs of the plot. Tip: the purpose of their call may not be to pitch a novel.
  • Measured the slush pile with a ruler. (9 feet 4 inches.)
  • Let a particularly loquacious author keep talking on the phone just to see how long she would go on unchecked. Cracked at 1 hour 20.
  • Edited a book translated from the Chinese, where the author had used English quotes for the chapter epigraphs, translated them into Chinese, and now couldn’t supply the originals. Spent a day in the library attempting to source original quotes based on text that had gone into Chinese and out again. Speed read Tom Jones in the process. Didn’t find the quote.
  • Worked out what had gone wrong when the MS included several big chunks of text like this but extending to entire paragraphs:

 Ks,rd ;sihjrf jrstyo;u/ |Upi do;;u ;oyy;r yjomg.| jr rcv;so,rf/

and retyped it into English.

  • Used the word ‘tweak’ to describe both the alteration of a semi-colon to a colon, and a complete rewrite of the ending.
  • Had an email argument with an author over a single comma that lasted two full days and eventually covered three sides of A4 with closely argued reasoning, examples and citations.
  • Discussed the finer points of editing erotica including dubious consent with a colleague while out one evening. Silenced the entire pub.

So if you’re wondering why the editor still hasn’t got back to you on your MS…this is what she’s doing.

Or making tea. One of them, anyway.