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The Bane of Back Cover Blurbs

The hardest part of writing

Back cover blurbs.


That age-old staple of book-making where a clever piece of copy splayed on a book's back cover in an eye-catching font gives the novel a little extra marketing umph. It's meant to close the deal for would-be-book-buyers who might not be sold on the cover, but don't have the time to skim the first few pages. A quick, spicy summary. All the shopper has to do is flip the book over and give ten seconds of his or her time. No opening any stiff book bindings, no page-turning, no finger-licking. 


They say the back cover blurb goes back to the earliest days of the printing press, when one of Gutenberg's more entrepreneurial apprentices, Johanne Blurb, realized they'd sell a lot more Bibles if they spruced up those boring, black vellum covers and gave the readers a little taste of the contents. Not on the front, that would be sacrilege. But, ah, what about the back? Herr Blurb cobbled together some spectacularly sizzling copy, and the rest, as they say, is history.


Blurbing (as it's now known) is actually one of the hardest parts of writing. Taking a 70, 80, 230-thousand word story and distilling it down to a hundred words ain't easy. Downright impossible when those words are supposed to also excite a total stranger to buy your book. I've had to write my own blurbs and have had the good fortune of having them written for me. I much prefer the latter. But even if you're lucky enough to have an editor write your back cover blurbs an author still has to master this arcane art because any time you pitch a new project to a publisher or an agent, you're going to have to "blurb" it. There's no getting away from it.


So how do you do it? I'm no expert, but I think it comes down to answering three questions:


(1) Who is this guy or gal?


(2) What happened to him or her?


(3) Why should you care?


Question one concerns your protaganist. Who is this main character you're asking a reader to spend the next few days with? What are they like, where are they from, what do they do? The second question revolves around the central conflict. Novels are made of conflict (novels that don't have conflict are "studies," or "scenes," or "really, really bad"). What's the conflict this character is facing and what are the stakes? Finally, the third question: why should you care. Answering this last question is the secret sauce of good blurbing. It combines genre-signaling (you'll care that the Zenzikkilian pirates of the Gomblot Galaxy have attacked the character's home world if you like space opera), characterization (this poor guy running for his life from those attacking pirate space ships sounds like a pretty cool dude), and a sense of urgency (will he save his planet, the galaxy, the universe? I want to know!). 


Great blurbing is an art. One I definitely need to keep working on.


- Matt

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