back cover copy

Why is Little Timmy’s Face on Fire? (aka how to write a good book description)

One of a potential reader’s biggest “sell” points is your book description. Sadly, it’s also one of the things that I most often see get mangled by authors. But fear no more! I’m going to give you a quick rundown on the elements you need for great cover copy.

 

 

To establish my bona fides: I’m an internationally-bestselling author in everything from horror to science fiction and fantasy to (I kid you not) Western Romance. I’ve sold tens of thousands of eBooks on the strength of my back cover copy. I have literally had Hollywood producers call me with variations on this conversation:

 

 

Producer: Hey, are the rights for [cool Michaelbrent book title here] available?

Me (in needy tones, because Author): You bet. Did you like the book? My mom liked it and she says I’m handsome and talented and –

Producer: What, you think I’ve read it? [Sharp, barking laughter.] No, I just read the description. That’d make a great movie tagline! So is it available or not? Answer quick, ‘cause I have to go for a swim in my McDuck-style pool of ducats.

 

 

This should clue you in on how critical back cover copy is.

 

 

But too many authors don’t know how to do it. In fact, when I go to comic cons and writing conferences one of the first things I notice is that few authors know how to sell a book. They know how to tell their story, but guess what (and this is important): no one cares about your story. Not yet.

 

 

Your story is the equivalent of baby photos by that obnoxious coworker you barely know. Sure, they’re kids. Sure, they probably have some level of worth. But you don’t know them. You don’t care about them. You have no stake, and just want the microwave burrito calling your name in the break room.

 

 

But what if that same coworker sidles up to you and says, “So Little Timmy’s face spontaneously caught on fire yesterday.”

 

 

Now you’re in. The coworker can say, “The story starts with Little Timmy in his mother’s fallopian tube,” and go through every day of Little Timmy’s life in agonizing detail and you will hang on every word because HOW DID LITTLE TIMMY’S FACE CATCH FIRE?!

 

 

Note that the thing that worked wasn’t the story. It was a) the hook, and b) the emotional attachment that created.

 

 

That’s good back cover copy, which does three things:

 

 

1) Establish what the hook of the book is – that thing that makes your story utterly unique.

2) Provide an emotional(not cerebral) response.

3) Show that you know how to write, because holy crap look how invested I am in this back cover copy and if you know how to do that in 100 words, then I. AM. SO. IN.

 

 

A quick example:

 

 

You wake up in the morning to discover that you have been sealed into your home.

The doors are locked, the windows are barred.

THERE’S NO WAY OUT.

A madman is playing a deadly game with you and your family.

A game with no rules, only consequences.

 

 

So what do you do? Do you run? Do you hide?

OR DO YOU DIE?

The above is the entirety of the description to my novel, Strangers. It immediately shows what the hook is – a family that’s been sealed in their home with a killer. It draws in the reader emotionally, both by providing a quick snapshot of the stakes (“DO YOU DIE”) and also, in this case, by the sneaky, underhanded author making the story about the reader (not only is Little Timmy’s face on fire, but it turns out Little Timmy is your secret love child! Oh no, poor baby! Poor me!).

 

 

62 words, and I’ve got ‘em.

 

 

A lot of authors don’t want to reveal their hook, because they’re “giving away the coolest thing.” But that just means you need to retool your book/story, because your hook should not be the only – or even the most important – twist and turn in your story.

 

 

With Strangers I’ve told you the most basic part of the first hundred pages of the novel. But you don’t know the mechanics of how the killer got in, or why he chose this particular family, or whether they get out, or, or, or, or…

 

 

Your hook isn’t the story. What it is, is the thing that tells your reader that there’s something in it for them. That they can plunk over five bucks and get a good value, because in here is something they’ve never seen (or never seen done this way).

 

 

Then you set that hook good and tight by making them feel. You don’t have to write the story as actually happening to them to do this. The tried-and-true way is to describe the characters in a way that makes them important/sympathetic/relateable to the reader. Another example, this time from my book Predators:

 

 

She is one of the only animals
who can chase a lion from its kill …

Evie Childs hoped the all-expense-paid trip to Africa would give her a chance at adventure. Maybe it would even let her forget a past that haunts her, and find safety from a husband who abuses her.

Her jaws can crush bone to powder…

But when a group of “freedom fighters” kidnaps her safari tour group, intent on holding them for ransom, the adventure turns to nightmare.

She knows no mercy, only hunger…

Now, Evie and the rest of the survivors must travel across miles of the harshest, most dangerous environment on Earth. No food. No water. No communications.

And they’re being hunted.

She is the only animal alive
who laughs as she hunts…

A pack of Africa’s top predators have smelled the blood of the survivors, and will not stop until they have fed. Because in this place, you can be either one of the prey, or one of the…

… PREDATORS

 

 

Again, it’s short (167 words). Again, it sets a hook (“What kinda scary animal can chase away a lion?”), then invests the reader emotionally (a woman with an abusive husband and secrets from her past, we’re already torn between rooting for her and being curious). It then sets the hook even tighter (“You mean they got kidnapped and then things got bad?”), and gets us further invested when it talks about Evie and “the survivors” (a phrase we are hard-wired to root for and you bet I used it on purpose!).

 

 

Too many authors resist “giving away the good parts” without telling the whole story. So at those comic cons and conventions that I mention, I’ve run through descriptions – a quick hook, a brush stroke of the characters and stakes – of all forty or so of my books before the author at the next table has gotten through chapter one.

 

 

Who do you think gets the sale?

 

 

I’m not boring them with baby pictures. I’m quietly setting Little Timmy’s face on fire, then pointing out the blaze.

 

 

Set the hook. Make it matter to the reader.

 

 

And sell that book.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice

Selling a story by NOT telling a story

Here’s the thing with telling someone about your book – be it in person, or in an ad, or via the back cover copy you’ve spent arduous hours perfecting: almost every author is terrible at it. Because almost every author makes the horrible mistake of thinking that you sell someone on your story by telling them about your story. Nothing could be further from the truth.

 

You have to remember you have maybe two sentences before people get bored. So you don’t start off with your story, you start off with a BANG.

 

What I often tell new authors — or even old authors — is to imagine your sales pitch as pictures of your kids (if you don’t have kids, imagine you do — you’re a writer, it should be easy). Every single human above the age of 20 has had someone approach them with that person’s pictures of their kids. They start showing off the pictures and yammering on about things that matter incredibly to that person, but not at all to us.

 

Your story is your baby in some ways. Especially in that nobody else cares at all about it until you give them a REASON to care.

 

Now, if that person who can’t stop showing you their baby pictures walks up and says, “Timmy’s face caught fire yesterday,“ now you are in it for the long haul. They can actually take their time getting to the good part, because they have told you something in the first sentence that makes it clear the story is going to be worth your while.

 

Remember, also, that ad copy and back cover copy is NOT ABOUT TELLING THE STORY. It is about providing potential readers with an idea of the tone and genre of your book, and then the only other thing you are trying to do is pose a question in the reader’s mind that can ONLY be answered by reading the book.

 

The entire back cover copy of one of my books reads in its entirety:

 

What do you do when everyone you know — family, friends, everyone — is trying to kill you? Answer: you RUN.

 

It tells you almost nothing, but it gives you an idea of the tone and general genre – we’re obviously in some kind of tense thriller. More important, the strength of the question it creates is such that most readers at this point will at least click the “look inside“ option on Amazon.

 

The book, RUN (and yeah, even the title was designed to help set up the all important question in potential readers’ minds) sold well – it was a #1 Bestseller in Horror and Science Fiction (the top level, overall categories), got to #2 in Thrillers, and was a top 100 overall seller on Amazon – and this without any kind of promotion behind it — and a huge part of that was simply the creation of a question.

 

And book sales weren’t the only result of that question. Major production companies were contacting me, all of whom said the same things:

 

Them: Is your book available as a development property?

Me: Yep. You read it?

Them (I kid you not on this): No. But your description would make a great movie poster. Can we talk some more in person?

 

The lesson: jettison all thoughts of telling your story in your ads, in your back cover copy, or during the first moments of a sales pitch. Nobody cares about your story at that point. They are in it for themselves, so you have to give them something that matters to them and will improve their lives in some sense – even if that is just the promise of a rollicking rollercoaster ride of a story.

 

Don’t tell about Timmy being born, or his amazing childhood, or that he walked early, or how cute he is. Start off telling your reader, “So, Timmy’s face caught on fire yesterday.“ Tell them something that creates in their mind an undeniable need to know what happens next, and then REFUSE TO ANSWER ANY MORE QUESTIONS.

 

Now the readers will buy your work, not because you told the story, but because you DIDN’T, and they know the only way to satisfy their curiosity is to BUY THE BOOK. Doing anything more is window dressing at best, and offputting at worst.
 

A great irony: people looking for stories are not interested at all in your words.

Not at first. Not until you wow them with your ability to say something extraordinary — not in the course of 100,000 words, but in the course of your very first sentence.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice

Musty Writing

When considering self-publishing on Kindle, there are four things you must do (“Must”y writing – get it? Ha!). They are like the mustard on my hot dog: a non-negotiable element. Without it, you may as well not even try. ‘Cause I won’t bite.
 
Now, before I dive into what those elements are, I should probably tell you how I know about them. So y’all know I’ve got street cred. And mad skillz (part of having street cred is always spelling “skillz” with a z).
 
I’ve been writing for most of my life. I sold my first paying work when I was fifteen. Going to college, I won a bunch of creative writing scholarships and awards. Then I became a lawyer, where my job involved mostly (wait for it!) writing.
 
Oh, yeah, and somewhere along the way I became a produced screenwriter, member of the Writers Guild of America (which is statistically harder to do than it is to become a professional baseball player), and a published novelist. Throughout all this, I had a book that I really liked, called RUN. And though I had done all the above, no book publisher would touch RUN with a ten foot cattle prod. Largely, I suspect, because it was very hard
to figure out how to market it: it was a sci-fi/suspense/horror/thriller/apocalyptic novel with romantic elements. There is no shelf for that at Barnes & Noble.
 
But I believed in the book, dangit! So I researched around, and discovered self-publishing through Amazon’s Kindle service. I decided I didn’t have much to lose, since RUN was just sitting on a shelf anyway, so decided to try my hand at self-publishing an e-book on Kindle.
 
Within a few months, RUN became a bestseller, topping Amazon’s sci-fi chart, and eventually becoming the #61 item available for Kindle, out of over ten million books, games, puzzles, and blogs. I also published a young adult fantasy called Billy: Messenger of Powers which has hovered on various genre bestseller lists on Amazon for the better part of a year now. And followed those up with another e-book, and another, and another. Some of the others became bestsellers, some didn’t. But all have made money, and all have increased my fan base.
 
Now I don’t say this to brag, but I want you to understand I know a bit whereof I speak. Through the process, I have learned the ins and outs of Kindle publishing (and e-publishing in general), learning as much from what didn’t work as from what did. And that’s how I’ve come up with these four important things to do:
 
1) Make a kickin’ cover
 
This is one place where approximately 99% of self-published authors get it wrong. Look at most self-published books, and they look less professional. And like it or not, a lot of people go strictly off the cover. You have about ten seconds to wow them with your cool cover before they click the button and move on to another book. For the Kindle edition of Billy: Messenger of Powers, I spent days upon days designing the cover. Everything from the cover image, to the typeface, to the composition of the elements. It was critical. And it paid off. Same for RUN, and another of my books, Rising Fears,
all of which have been praised for the fact that the covers are interesting enough to “hook” readers. Some of my other covers aren’t as effective, or as professional looking, unfortunately. And guess what? They also don’t sell as well.
 
2) Market yourself
 
Here’s a fact of life in general: people generally don’t give you things for free. You have to earn them. And that includes getting people to read your work. When I wrote Billy, I spent over a month designing a website that was interesting, conveyed a message about the book, and had a look and feel that I felt would intrigue people and make them want to find out more. Same with the website for RUN. And my own website, michaelbrentcollings.com, took even longer. But that was only the start. I also had a Facebook “fan” page, a Twitter feed, and did the rounds of book and genre conventions. Not to mention doing interviews, podcasts, guest blogs, and generally talking to anyone and everyone who would listen. You have to do more than write a book. You have to create an event.
 
3) Have a grabby description
 
“What do you do when everyone you know – family, friends, everyone – is trying to kill you? You RUN.”
 
That is the description on amazon.com for my book RUN. Two sentences that I spent an extremely long time writing. Like the cover of your book, the production description is something that has to grab people, reel them in, and not let them go. Some self-published authors think the best way to get someone to read their work is to describe every jot and tittle. But in reality, the secret isn’t information, it’s captivation. You have to intrigue your (prospective) readers. You have to leave them with serious questions that they want answered. Describing what your book is about is less important than creating a specific feeling in the mind and heart of your audience: the feeling that they will be better off reading your book than not.
 
4) Write something worth reading
 
This may seem obvious, but the fact of the matter is you have to have something pretty darn special. I’m not saying this to depress anyone: I firmly believe that most people have great stories in them, and have the potential to learn how to tell them. But make no mistake, it is something that takes practice, dedication, and perspiration. Writing is a skill. It is a discipline. Anyone can knock out a sentence or two. But getting those sentences to grab a complete stranger to the point that he or she is willing to fork over hard-earned cash to read them is another matter. Let alone getting them to like the sentences enough that they want to tell their friends to spend their hard-earned cash on them. Again, I really do believe that most people have it in them to do this. But I also believe just as stridently that to get to that point takes practice, practice, and more practice. I have spent thousands of hours learning how to write… and I continue to learn. Any author who wants to charm people into buying his or her work has to be willing to put in the effort to make it happen. Because without the skill to back up your work, no matter how good your basic ideas are, they probably won’t sell. There are exceptions, but for the most part a book has to be extraordinarily well-written in order to get people to buy it.
 
That’s not to say that everyone will like your book. Some people don’t like RUN, or Billy: Messenger of Powers. Or Harry Potter or anything by Stephen King or even the bestselling book of all time (the Bible). But if you don’t care enough to develop your writing skills in service of your storytelling, you can bet that few (if any) will like it at all.
 
And so…
 
… there you have it, folks. Again, I think most people have interesting stories to tell. But without doing the four things above, the great story will probably sit quietly in a dark corner of your closet. And that, my friends, is no fun at all.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice