14 May 2020

The Long & Short of Back Matter: A Primer For Writers


For reasons which I'll make public with my next blog post in a couple of weeks' time, I've been thinking a lot about "back matter." For the uninitiated, "back matter" is the industry term for the paragraph or so on the back of a paperback, intended as a tease, giving the prospective reader a thumbnail sketch as to what the book itself is actually about.

So for this week's blog entry I've brought in an old friend with tons of PR/marketing experience who also happens to be a writer of superb crime fiction. He graciously agreed to be interviewed in order to allow us to leverage his marketing experience and expertise on the subject of "back matter."

See below for my discussion with David B. Schlosser, marketing expert and award-winning author, whose industry bonafides can be found at the end of this interview:

Thanks for doing this, David. Let's jump in. Right off the top of your head, what is the first thing you think most writers need to hear concerning "back matter"?

Brevity is the soul of wit.

Period.

In most cases, Pascal’s advice pertains: “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”

For me, that means I usually write something long and then revise it until it’s shorter or short enough or fits the space. However, I think back cover copy is so different an animal that you need to start as short as possible and expand until it fits the space – or, more likely, about 10% less space than you think you have.

Everyone reading this like either knows what "back matter" means, or can guess it from context. From a marketing perspective, what do we need to know about the words on the back of the book that we might have considered on our own?

As a PR/marketing/ad guy, I’m acutely aware of the opinions most people share about the
nature of promotional material. I’ve grown over years of research and observation to respect the extraordinary sensitivity and accuracy of consumers’ BS meters. So what you really need to know is that the more hyperbolic your promotion, the less likely readers are to believe it.

The exception that proves the rule is humorous or satirical books that go completely over the top. Those types of outrageous claims – what courts recognize as “puffery” – succeed because they invite the reader into the essence of the book. In their dishonesty, they’re honest.

They succeed because they authentically tell the reader what they’re going to get. They simmer off the stock of your manuscript to leave an intensified reduction.

So what you need to know is that you’ve got 150-200 words to offer readers a genuine, authentic insight into the book you’re promising them. Tease them with the diamond they’ll get from the coal of your book:

Compressed and condensed to its most essential nature, back-cover copy amplifies the primary character or characters, their most profound hungers and most infuriating obstacles, and the context or setting in which the friction hots up and the conflict explodes.

How important is it to get the back matter of a book "right"?

It’s second only to your cover. If your publisher and you don’t get the cover right, no one will look at the back matter. If your publisher and you don’t get the back matter right, your book won’t separate anyone from their money.

Everyone has picked up a book based reading the on the back matter, only to find that it had little or nothing to do with the actual book itself. The assumption on it goes that the back matter was written by someone other than the author of the work to which it's assigned. And yet that's often not the case. Some people are clearly just really bad at writing back matter. What suggestions can you give to a writer who has lived and breathed with this work for months, perhaps years, when the time comes to either writer their own back matter or sign off on someone else doing so?


In my opinion and experience, one good approach is to start with what movie writers call a logline and marketing people call a tagline. These are very short, one- or two-sentence statements designed for maximum impact. Neck-snapping, unstoppable force-meets-immoveable object impact.

For back matter, the best kinds of loglines or taglines are interrogative, provocative, or both. There are other choices, but the focus – as with all marketing – is the benefit to the customer. That is, What is the reader going to get from this experience?

Ultimately, that answer needs to be a transporting mental moment. The book’s prose so expertly carries away the reader that she forgets who she is, where and when she is, what came before and what’s coming after, and how she got through the sixty or eighty thousand words preceding the climax and denouement.

But how the reader gets there varies by genre. And remember that genre, like back-cover copy, is marketing – it’s no more and no less than just marketing. Build your book’s promise from your logline/tagline, instead of trying to summarize your manuscript. For a thriller, the transportation is adventure and cliff-hanging action. For a romance, ardor and warmth overcome obstacles and competing attentions. Mystery readers are transported by red herrings and investigative intricacies, and literary readers by lyrical and dazzling prose.

The only way to persuade a reader to part with her money is with back-cover copy that demonstrates you care about what you’re doing with your story and its genre. Technical proficiency is insufficient – you must convey your passion for your characters and plot. In the immortal words of Simon Sinek, “People don’t buy what you make – they buy why you make it.”

So back-cover copy must show the reader what he can expect from the words sandwiched between the covers. In the style of your genre, you have to tell him your hopes, your fears, your dreams through a couple hundred words. Those few words suggest just enough about the protagonist to care and root for her as she struggles through the colossal conflict and excruciating emotions you highlight as the obstacles she cannot fail to overcome because of the life-or-death stakes of her clash with an antagonist.

Anything else you think our readers who are also writers ought to know about back matter and its importance/relevance to what we do and how we do it?

I think too many writers think of back cover copy as a summary of the book. It’s not.

It’s both more and less than a summary, so don’t regurgitate your agent pitch. Start from scratch, because this is a new challenge for a new audience.

Review the back matter from 50 books you’d love to see yours next to on a shelf. Get a feel for the patterns and rhythms. Put yourself in the shoes of your ideal reader and write from your heart – not your head – to that reader’s heart. Humans decide emotionally and justify rationally, so your back-cover copy must appeal to emotions.

A good rule of thumb is the cliché “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” No one really cares what your novel is about because all novels are about the same thing. Seduce readers into caring about your unique spin on the same old thing. That allure, that siren song, is driven by what you care about more than what you write about.

Thanks David. This is all really helpful! And now, as promised, see below for David's bonafides:

David B. Schlosser (dbschlosser.com) is an award-winning fiction and non-fiction author and an award-winning editor. His fiction has appeared in university literary journals and online magazines. His non-fiction and journalism have run in business and trade publications, academic and scientific journals, and print and online news outlets.

His most recent short story, “Pretzel Logic,” originally appeared in 2019’s Die Behind the Wheel: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of Steely Dan. It will be republished in The Best American Mystery Stories 2020.

He also runs PromptInspiration.com, a website that delivers daily, genre-specific prompts to sustain a daily writing habit.

Kansan by birth, he turned Texan while earning degrees at Trinity University and the University of Texas. After living and working in nearly a dozen states as an editor, teacher, political and PR/ad/marketing consultant, and content strategist, he, his lovely wife Anne, and their dogs consider Seattle home.

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See you in two weeks!

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7 comments:

Steve Liskow said...

Great post.

I hate writing Back Matter, even more than a synopsis. I usually start with an elevator pitch to see what's important, then throw that away and start again with those basic elements in mind.

Fortunately, my cover designer and my webmistress and my wife (who used to write ad copy for radio) are all excellent writers, too, so we can bounce ideas around. And my cover designer will tell me exactly how much room I have on his design. Sometimes, I'll send him something and he'll suggest one or two changes to make it fit, and they also make it stronger.

Thanks for the concrete suggestions, too.

janice law said...

Good advice that makes me nostalgic for the days when writers wrote books and publishers wrote jacket copy.

R.T. Lawton said...

Brian, this is valuable information to have when your book is almost ready to go out into the world to stand on its own.

Barb Goffman said...

This, particularly, is good advice: No one really cares what your novel is about because all novels are about the same thing. Seduce readers into caring about your unique spin on the same old thing. That allure, that siren song, is driven by what you care about more than what you write about.

Thanks for tackling this topic.

O'Neil De Noux said...

Like this post a lot. Hits home. As Barb said, "Good advice."

Eve Fisher said...

Great advice.

Leigh Lundin said...

What I don't know about this business humbles me. I am grateful for the education.