I recently posted an article about how target audience should influence your book’s cover copy, aimed at nonfiction authors. But novelists and memoirists also need to know how you can sell more books with targeted cover copy, meaning that you are providing an intriguing summary of your book’s plot and themes that takes your target audience into account.
Before we dive in, a brief note on why I’m lumping fiction and memoir together, even though memoir is nonfiction.
Memoir is a story about something that really happened. Fiction is a story about something made-up. But both types of books involve creating a compelling narrative with themes, story arcs, and character arcs. Prescriptive nonfiction (self-help, business, etc.) might contain some anecdotes but ultimately those books are not narratives. Therefore, you’ll see that copy for fiction and memoir relies on narrative devices or story details to intrigue book browsers, whereas other types of nonfiction typically rely on highlighting benefits to the reader. This is an important distinction to understand.
Now here are some best practices to help you sell more books with targeted cover copy for fiction and memoirs.
What’s In It for Me?
While you aren’t highlighting benefits per se, cover copy is still all about connecting with “What’s in it for me?” In other words, what does your ideal or target reader want to see in your book, and how will you show them it’s in there? Figure that out before you start writing your copy and you’ll be well ahead of the game.
Consider your genre as an example. What kinds of story elements do fans of horror or sci-fi expect compared to readers of inspirational memoirs? If you can’t answer this question easily, you have some research to do if you want to sell more books using targeted cover copy. What are your target readers interested in? What tropes do they enjoy?
You don’t have to highlight every single trope your story includes—there may be a lot! But if you can write your plot summary such that it highlights some of the most popular tropes or the ones that take center stage in your novel, your copy will better engage your target audience.
[TIP: If this discussion of tropes is new to you, check out this useful case study that explains the concept of writing to market and how it can help you to sell more books.]
Start with a Strong Headline
Now that you know the question your copy should answer overall (What’s in it for me?) and some basics on the structure of your copy, let’s talk about the headline.
If you are getting advanced endorsements, this could be a quote from another author that includes details about the book without giving away the plot, such as noting that the story is frightening, dark, and keeps you on the edge of your seat.
If you’ve previously published, you could also consider using a review snippet. Choose something that speaks to you as an author or your writing in general, since the story of this book is surely a bit different than the last one.
Alternatively, you could just use a straightforward teaser-type headline, something that raises a core question your protagonist or narrative will explore, or that highlights the type of story this book tells.
Ideally, the header should include one or two primary keywords or key phrases that a reader might be using to search on Amazon—imagine the effect of having searched for a thing, and then a book popping up that specifically mentions that thing right away! But you shouldn’t bend over backward to make that happen as it’s fine for them to appear within the rest of the description too.
[TIP: You can make your headline stand out by using boldface type and lightly design other elements of your description for display on Amazon using this cool book description generator.]
Build a Body of Evidence
The body of your copy should flow linearly as in first this happens, then this happens. It should also focus very narrowly on two things: Your protagonist’s character arc and your primary or main plot line. You just don’t have time to go down rabbit holes opened by subplots or secondary characters.
First, sketch out the most exciting and interesting details relative to the main character (in a memoir, that’s you!) and main plot line. Are there major scrapes you can turn into questions that the reader will want to know more about? Which secrets can you hint at for the reader to drool over? What heartstrings are you going to pull on? When you can incorporate mentions of the most popular tropes in your genre, that will really help you sell more books using targeted cover copy.
For example, if your book is a romance, you’ll want to highlight the growing tension between your protagonists and hint at their happy ending (while also throwing in a major obstacle to overcome). If your memoir is heartbreaking, your copy should make readers gasp and think, “Oh my god, how is this person still functional? How did they overcome this? I need to know!”
It’s also a good idea to touch on the story elements that relate to the main theme or themes of the book. Most memoirs are about overcoming something, so let’s say yours is about going through a horrific divorce from some abusive, powerful person. Maybe your copy shows what life was like “before” (you and said spouse enjoying a life of luxury, escaping in your private jet each weekend), then reveals the start of things going wrong (spouse escalates from being nosy to hacking into your email), and wraps up with a hint of how it seriously goes wrong (when a flattering jealousy turns into stealing her passport and leaving her on a remote island with armed guards, can she keep pretending that this is what love looks like?).
Focus on Selling, Not Just Summarizing
Sites like Amazon can be misleading in that they label this section of your book’s sales page as “Book Summary” or “Book Description.” But great cover copy is more than that. Overall, your description should be more marketing copy than summary. Aim for details and statements that raise questions in the reader’s mind. Will he rescue his beloved in time? Can she save the world without sacrificing herself? Who is really behind the evil plot that has left thousands inexplicably dead?
It’s a good idea to examine the copy of successful books both similar and directly competitive to yours to see what they highlight, and how you might want to put your spin on it. You can learn a lot from reading good copy. Big publishers pay professionals to create theirs—you can read and study it for free online!
Include A Call to Action
It may seem obvious, but there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that explicitly asking for the sale improves your chances of getting it. So you might consider including a call to action at the end of your cover copy. Make it clear and concise, and make it urgent: Potential readers should feel like they need to act now.
There are other ways to wrap up your copy, of course. Ending with a tantalizing question is a classic approach. You could also be explicit about how your book fits into its category by noting 1-3 authors whose work is similar to yours, a la “Fans of Author1 and Author2 will enjoy the thrilling ride and international flavors of this brave new mystery series.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment
When you self-publish, you’re the boss, and that means you can upload new copy any time you want. So try out different approaches! Trends change, and what worked great yesterday may not work great a few months from now. If you change your copy, don’t change anything else or else it’ll muddy your results. You want to see how just the copy change affects your sales. And be sure to give it at least a few weeks before you change the copy again so you can get a fuller picture.
Writing great cover copy is not easy, but it’s a critical skill to master. If you’re hiring pros, it’s still useful to think through all of these points so you can give the best details to your copywriter and be clear about what you want to see in the final draft. By following these tips, you’ll sell more books with targeted cover copy and reach more readers.
Founder of The Writer’s Ally, Ally E. Machate is a bestselling book collaborator, award-winning editor, and expert publishing consultant who loves using her insider knowledge and experience with the publishing industry to lead serious authors toward success. She and her team live to help make great books happen, whether that means showing a writer how to improve a manuscript, get an agent, or self-publish; or coaching an author on growing her platform to sell more books. Since 1999, she has supported hundreds of authors on their publishing journey and takes pride in serving as their books’ best ally.