Book cover designSelf-Publishing

Building a better cover–the cover blurb

From Scott:

One of the major obstacles to better book sales is cover design. In previous blogs, we’ve discussed cover art. The decision regarding what goes on your cover, be it a photo or artwork, is crucial. This is the first thing a potential buyer will see. With the vast number of books available, something about the cover art must catch the buyer’s eye. This was the focus of our previous discussions.

So let’s assume you’ve piqued the reader’s interest enough that she has clicked on your link. What comes next? The reader will read your cover blurb and decide whether to proceed further. The content of the blurb might make or break your sale, so a great deal of attention must go into it. Granted, ebooks don’t have a physical cover that a reader can touch. But your cover blurb goes on the page where the reader will make a purchase. The contents of the blurb will play a pivotal role in the purchase decision.

One critical element of a strong cover blurb is the introduction of the protagonist. Who is this person? In the case of fiction, this character might not even be human. In as few words as possible, you need to tell us some basic information about the protagonist. What is his occupation? How old is he? Be brief, but try to provide something to give the reader a basic grasp of your character. Optionally, you can mention a few of the protagonist’s companions, if you feel that information is important to the sale.

On the other side of that coin, who is the antagonist? It might be an international criminal, an evil wizard, or a scheming politician. In my first novel, The Killing Frost, one could argue that, at the outset, the antagonist is an entire race of aggressive aliens. In some cases, you might want to keep the identity of the antagonist secret, in order to build up tension as you progress toward the finale. This is fine, but we still need some hint of the opposing force.

You also need to describe the status quo of this world you’ve created. Is this a contemporary novel, and if so, where? If this is fantasy or science fiction, we need a description of the land where the action will begin. Perhaps the book starts in a medieval kingdom, or maybe on a space station. The reader needs this information to put everything in context.

One of the most important facets of a good cover blurb is the hook. You need to describe what the protagonist (and his companions) will be up against. Is there a drug kingpin who will attempt to have the protagonist killed? Are terrorists trying to detonate a bomb, killing thousands of people? Is there a malevolent spirit attempting to conquer the world? The reader needs to know what the basic premise of the plot will be. It helps if you can include the consequences, should the protagonist fail.

And therein lies the greatest challenge in writing a strong cover blurb: you have to include all of this information in as few sentences as possible. With a traditionally published print novel, this was typically restricted to two or three paragraphs. After all, print novels have the additional restriction of limited space. Without reducing font size to an unreadable level, only so many words could be squeezed onto the back of a paperback, or the inside of the dust cover or a hardback novel. Obviously, that restriction doesn’t figure in the publishing of an ebook (unless you intend to make paper copies available). But if you make the blurb too long, the reader may just skip to the next novel on the page. After all, we are a society that wants everything done quickly: fast food, murders solved in thirty minutes. People want to spend as little time as possible on a task. Turn your cover blurb into a dissertation and your sales will suffer.

[NOTE FROM RICK: We’re aware that not all novels have explicit protagonists and antagonists. Most genre novels will fit this mold, but not all will. In literary novels, the opposition may be the main character’s own internal conflicts. Nevertheless, the principles Scott lists still apply: who is the main character (or characters), what is the setting, what conflict does the character face?]

Let’s look at a few examples using blurbs from my own novels. Since I’ve already mentioned The Killing Frost, which was published through Medallion Press, let’s start there:

There is an uneasy peace between the United Systems Coalition and the Bromidian Empire. But it is constantly strained by the actions of a group of renegade Bromidians who call themselves Rising Sun, and an elite Coalition military group known as the Avengers has been fighting a covert war against them for years. Captain Arano Lakeland leads one of the teams. His motivation, vengeance. Revenge against the Rising Sun’s invasion of his homeworld and the subsequent slaughter of his family. His actions, however, in his relentless quest to see the Bromidian empire brought to its knees, have won him the enmity of Grand High Councilor Balor Tient, a corrupt man holding one of the most powerful positions in the Coalition. To further complicate matters, Arano’s efforts to prove a connection between Rising Sun and the Bromidian government are being hampered by both a traitor in the Coalition bureaucracy, and the Coalition’s desire for peace at any price. And now it is a race against time as Arano and his companions try to survive long enough to solve a series of brutal murders, expose the traitor in their midst, and unite various factions with the Coalition. And if he fails? Cataclysmic war that will engulf the entire galaxy.

I’ve established the protagonist: Arano Lakeland. We know he’s a captain in an elite military unit, and his main driving force is revenge. Two antagonists are mentioned: a corrupt politician and an evil, aggressive race of aliens. The setting appears to be an entire coalition of planets. And the consequences of failure are spelled out quite clearly: intergalactic war. If a fan of military science fiction or space operas reads that blurb, I’ve done everything I can to ensure at least a download of the free sample chapters. The editors at Medallion and I worked this over for several days, and I think the finished product is a strong blurb.

My second novel was also published through Medallion. Here is the cover blurb for The Piaras Legacy:

Long ago, so the legends say, the Necromancer Volnor invaded the continent of Pelacia. His legions of undead soldiers ravaged the land unchecked, until the three nations united and pushed their evil foes back into the Desert of Malator. But that was centuries ago, and few people still believe the tale. Other, more worldly matters occupy their time, such as recent attacks by renegade Kobolds. But Elac, an elf who makes his way as a merchant, is too concerned with his business affairs to become involved in international politics—until a marauding band of Kobolds attack Elac’s caravan and he finds himself running for his life. Befriended by an elfin warrior named Rilen, he travels to Unity, the seat of power on the Pelacian continent. There he is joined by a diverse group of companions, and he sets out on an epic quest to solve the riddle of his heritage and save the land from the growing evil that threatens to engulf it.

This was another 3-paragraph blurb written in concert with the editors at Medallion.

The protagonist is an Elf named Elac, a merchant by trade. I mentioned one of his companions, Rilen, by name. The antagonist was left deliberately vague in this case, described only as a “growing evil.” The setting is on a continent called Pelacia, where there are three nations and a society of Kobolds. The consequences of his failure: the evil power will enslave the entire continent. Everything is spelled out in three short paragraphs.

One of my more recent releases is 14 Days ‘Til Dawn. The cover art indicates this is a vampire novel with science fiction elements. Here is the cover blurb:

On a moon in the Alpha Centauri System, humans are randomly Chosen to provide blood for the ruling vampire class. Beren, a former soldier, wants only to live in peace. That dream is shattered when he and his wife, Lana, are Chosen and forced to flee. Beren joins with Calibra, a doctor who secretly aids a resistance movement by sneaking the Chosen out of the cities before Gatherers can take them to the vampire stronghold. These two must evade the infamous Eliminator Olamor and survive the treachery around them long enough to unite the bickering lunar factions and defeat the vampire army. The sun has set. It is now 14 days until dawn…

Beren is our protagonist in this novel. He is a married man and a former soldier. Since this novel contains a secondary protagonist (Calibra), I’ve included her and said that she is a doctor working with a resistance movement. I’ve clearly placed the setting on a moon in another star system. The antagonist is a man named Olamor, who is an Eliminator. I don’t actually define “Eliminator,” but the fact that I capitalized the word helps to indicate that this sinister rank is important. I’ve shown that Beren and his companions are in danger and on the run from vampires. While I didn’t specifically spell out the consequences of failure, I’ve shown enough of what’s going on around them to suffice. They are hunted by vampires and surrounded by treachery. As Stan Lee famously wrote, “’nuff said!”

I’ll cover one last novel. My most recent release is another medieval fantasy novel, A Matter Of Faith. The cover blurb:

Jocane has always been a faithful servant of the Church of Divine Silana. His skill with a sword was matched only by his piety. So when he was ordered to investigate an invasion by undead creatures, he obeyed without question. He would find the source of the stories and quell them. After all, the Church had long ago decreed that the undead could not possibly return. What he finds will test his faith to its limits. Stripped of rank and declared a heretic, he nevertheless pledges his life to solving the mystery of the undead creatures. With the grudging help of people who had been his enemies only days before, Jocane strives to restore the integrity of the Church and defeat the growing evil that threatens the entire continent.

My protagonist is Jocane, a Sentinel of the Church. As with the previous novel, I didn’t actually define what this title means, but the context shows that this is an important rank. By capitalizing the word “Church,” I also hint that no other religions are allowed—this is the one church accepted by the people. The antagonist is not mentioned by name, but obviously there are undead forces opposed to the protagonist. I didn’t name the area, but I indicated that the entire continent is involved, a hint that Jocane will visit many lands during the course of the novel. I showed the danger he is in, and showed the consequences of failure (the “growing evil”).

I included this last novel to show another danger in the writing of cover blurbs: repetition. When I published A Matter Of Faith, I didn’t go back and reread my other blurbs. Did you notice the similarity between the last sentence of this novel’s blurb, and that of The Piaras Legacy? They are nearly identical. As you release more novels, it would be a good idea to look over the earlier cover blurbs to try to avoid this pitfall.

When your novel is written, edited, and re-edited; when the cover artwork is finished; when all else is ready, you still need to write a thoughtful cover blurb to catch a potential reader’s attention. My advice: don’t be hasty. Once you’ve written the blurb and worked it over several times, put it aside for a day or so. Then hit it again. Send it to people who you trust to give an honest opinion on the quality of the blurb. They may have suggestions or corrections you would never have thought of. The last thing you want to do is rush this critical stage of publication.


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