Doc Martyn’s Sage Marketing: Cover Copy

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In real estate, as we all know, it’s location, location, location. In the book world that location is the cover of the book and the websites on which the book is featured. In both cases, the prime real estate is where you find the descriptive copy for the book, in all its facets and aspects.

In design, use of space is crucial. It’s all about how you provide the information/content/user experience. What makes a design work is how accessible it is for its purpose. In the case of books, that design aspect applies particularly to how accessible the descriptive content is on the cover.

In politics, delivery of message is key. How a politician says what he or she wants his or her constituents to know, maybe perhaps even more than what is said, determines how well the message is received. In books, how we describe what’s in a book is tied closely to what we write, but delivery of that message is crucial.


Don’t crowd the cover. Allow the words you write to breathe and have space to shine.


Watch a person pick up a book. What happens? Their eye is first attracted by the cover. We all know that a good cover breaks the ice that surrounds the customer-content interaction. But almost as soon as they pick it up the vast majority of people do one thing: turn it over to look at the back. Our prime real estate is the back cover. It’s the first thing to which people really pay attention. The second thing almost everyone does (if it’s a cloth, jacketed book) is flip to the inside front flap. And that’s the second most prized piece of land in our world.

If, when the potential customer flips the book over, they are greeted with a barrage of words, closely leaded on the page, with tiny type size, “designed” to cram as many words as possible into the finite space of a 6×9 book cover, we have failed them from a user-experience point of view. We’ve also instantly failed our words; we’ve essentially given up the title to the piece of land upon which we are staking our ability to convey to our potential readers the importance and excellence of the book in their hands. Again, watch the person who picks up the book and flips to the back. When greeted with hundreds of words of praise in the form of blurbs or a ridiculously long description, what do they do? Put it back down. Few people read every word on the cover when it’s going to take them a while to do so.

If we’ve staked out our key piece of land and covered it top to bottom with a jumbled mass of words, we’ve just lost the ability to deliver our message in a convenient, easy-to-digest manner. We’ve failed the simplest (hardest?) aspect of being a politician. We’ve lost our audience.


If we’ve staked out our key piece of land and covered it top to bottom with a jumbled mass of words, we’ve just lost the ability to deliver our message in a convenient, easy-to-digest manner.


So, what to do about all this?

Don’t crowd the cover. Allow the words you write to breathe and have space to shine. You’ve got great blurbs, let them sing to the world about how great the book is. If you’ve got more than three or four, put them on a page in the front matter. For your descriptive copy, if you can’t tell people what the book is about in under 250 words, something isn’t right. It’s your elevator pitch for the book; don’t bore people to death before you sell them the book. In our academic publishing world, theoretically, anyone who is going to buy a book on a given topic probably has a pretty good idea of the backstory to the topic. Don’t waste precious space and words giving the complete (or even brief) history to the potential customer. I’d bet a pretty decent sum they know when that war started or why that politician was important. Drive home the value of the book with your first sentence. Hook that fish. Flesh out the contribution of the book with three or four key ideas within the book and what the author has to say about them. Seal the deal with a strong takeaway in your last line or paragraph.

With this approach, you can successfully take advantage of this prime real estate with spare but powerful use of space that delivers your message in an easily digestible and useful way.

Sounds simple but the evidence on the back (and flaps) of thousands of books might suggest otherwise.

—Martyn

Martyn Beeny is Marketing Director for Cornell University Press. This byline is less than fifty words and therefore is acceptable as a blurb! Follow him on Twitter @MartynBeeny.

Doc Martyn’s Sage Marketing: Cover Copy