A Snowball’s Chance in Marketing

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.


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?


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…




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 in Writing Advice

I Love You I Love You Now PUBLISH ME

Some time ago I had a phone call. It went like this:
“Michaelbrent! Hey, it’s John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.*”
“Hey, JJJS,” said I. ‘Cause that’s how I roll, baby. “What’s up?”
“Not much,” he said. “Hey, I know we haven’t talked in about five years, but thanks for sending me an update every so often.”
“Welcome,” I said. I am pithy that way.
“We at ABCDEF Production Company* want to option a script you gave us five years ago. We’d also like to pay you a borderline-obscene amount of money to do rewrites on it.”
“Okay,” I said. I hung up, then ran through the office where I work screaming something like “I RULE!” over and over again. I may also have been nude. The details are hazy.
Okay, so did you catch the most important part of the above? No, it wasn’t the “obscene money” part (it’s my FAVORITE part, but not the most IMPORTANT part).
Anything? Anything? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?
The most IMPORTANT part of the above was the part where JJJS mentioned my periodic updates.
Creative writing is a lot like dating: you never know who will turn out to be “the one.” The one publisher who puts your work in front of a million people. The one agent who will get your work in the right hands. The one producer who will call out of the blue to offer you a bucket o’ cash to do work on your own work. So, because you don’t know who will be “the one,” you treat them ALL like they are prospective life partners.
This doesn’t mean “be needy.” Nothing turns off “the one” like you – yes YOU – calling every day in the vain hope that he/she/it will realize that you are “the one” for them.
But everyone likes to know they are important. This is true as much in publishing and movie-writing as it is in dating. So you must walk that fine line between “needy” and “forgetful”: any time you make a significant contact – someone who loves your work (for real, not in the “I loved it but no thanks” kind of way you see in so many polite rejection letters) but who cannot, for outside reasons, help you or move forward with it right now. This could be a publisher who has his next two years of publications already mapped out, an agent with an extremely full dance card, or even a new friend you meet at a book convention who may someday provide a nice review of one of your books. In any of these types of situations, make sure you follow up your new contact with a personal note – email or the “old fashioned” kind.
The note should do three things:
1) Remind them who you are (e.g., “It was nice to meet you during the panel at ABC Book Conference the other day,” or “I had a hoot listening to your lecture at Barnes and Noble last Thursday,” or “Thanks for not pressing stalking charges in court over the weekend”). These people meet lots of folks, so say something to give them a gentle hint of where you met and who the heck you are.
2) Thank them for any advice or kind words they gave you. People like to hear gratitude. Be sincere, not fawning, but be appreciative. “I LOVED EVERYTHING YOU SAID AND DID FOR ME… IT CHANGED MY LIFE” is not as effective as “Thanks for reading my book Billy: Messenger of Powers – your kind words were appreciated, and even though we can’t work together right now because of your busy schedule, your courtesy and professionalism were wonderful to see.”
3) Let them know you will keep in contact. Not “I look forward to seeing you as I peep out from behind your closet door tonight” – this is definitely a turn-off to “the one.” But you might consider something like “If you don’t mind, I’d like to keep you in my list of contacts so I can drop you a line from time to time.”
Then, after you’ve sent the missive, schedule a follow-up for three months, six months, or even in a year. Just enough so that when they run out of work, or need some writing services that you would be great at providing, you will be there for them. You goal is not to consume their lives, but to position yourself as someone who is always on their “short list” of people who can do something for them at a moment’s notice.
Because folks, chance and fame only come a-knockin’ once in a while. So you better be home when it does.
And it also helps if, when fame looks at its schedule for the day and sees it has an opening or two, your name is the first one that pops into its head.
Make relationships. Then maintain them. Because you never know…you might have met “the one” already.
* The names have been changed to protect the innocent. Except mine. I ain’t innocent: I stole a candy bar in fifth grade, and the whisperings about me having something to do with the assassination of Darth Vader are entirely true.

Posted by in Writing Advice