When I speak to nonfiction writers, I talk a lot about the importance of identifying the correct target audience for your book. Many authors understand that knowing your target audience is a crucial factor in planning your book’s content, but do you know how target audience should influence your book’s cover copy as well?
Your cover copy, which often doubles as your online book description on vendor sites like Amazon.com, is more than just a summary of your book. It is an essential piece of marketing copy that helps sell your book—after all, when readers are shopping, once your cover catches their attention, the next step is usually to check out that copy and see if continues to pull them in.
And while the final copy isn’t needed until quite late in the game, it can sometimes be helpful to write an early draft of your copy even while you’re still drafting your book. As an exercise, writing cover copy is a great way to get into the mindset of your ideal readers—in other words, how will you pitch the book such that your audience will know it’s for them and will solve their problems? How will you highlight its contents to best attract and connect with those browsers so you can convert them to buyers?
Know Your Focus
For a nonfiction book, cover copy is all about connecting with “What’s in it for me?” Once you start thinking about the answer to this question from your ideal reader’s perspective, you can begin to see how target audience should influence your book’s cover copy—the benefits that are most attractive to any given reader will vary widely depending on who that reader is!
Attention Readers! The Headline
It’s typical, and effective, to write a headline that grabs a person’s attention. If you are getting advance endorsements from other authors, your headline could be a quote that includes details about what the book will do for the reader from someone of note. But it could also be a powerful question that speaks directly to the core problem or solution of the book, or it could even just be a straightforward teaser-type headline.
Ideally, the headline should include one or two primary keywords or key phrases that a reader might be using to search on sites like Amazon: Not only does it help your book come up sooner in search results, imagine the effect of having searched for a thing, and then a book popping up that specifically mentions that thing right away. But don’t bend over backwards to make that happen as it’s fine to pepper some keywords and key phrases into the body of the description too.
Highlighting the Right Body Parts
The body of your book description or cover copy should be short, often just a few paragraphs. Trends come and go, but generally, you’ll find that the copy you see online isn’t much longer than the copy you’d find on the back or flaps of a print book. Don’t let the fact that the copy is displayed online lead you to overwrite—interested book browsers want to know immediately if this book is right for them, they don’t want to have to read a page-long article convincing them of it.
First, touch on the needs that most likely drove the reader to seek out a book like yours in the first place. This may be the most important example of how target audience should influence your book’s cover copy. What is the problem language your target audience is using to describe their challenges? What pain points do they struggle with? Try to think from your ideal reader’s perspective: Is this book right for me? Is it going to help me with my specific problems, questions, or goals? Now, how can you speak to that as directly as possible?
Next, outline succinctly how your book will solve those problems and provide other benefits. Again, thinking from your reader’s perspective: What exactly will this book help me do or show me how to do to solve my problem? What will I learn? What will I achieve? Bullet lists are very common and very effective in highlighting key benefits the book will deliver. This is another opportunity to work in some keywords or key phrases your ideal reader might be using to search on Amazon or their favorite online bookseller that would take them to your book.
[Tip: You’ll actually be programming these keywords and key phrases in your book’s listing as metadata when you set up your account. It’s the combination that helps more people discover your book through searches.]
Learn From the Best
Besides those basics, it’s good to look at the copy used by some successful similar and directly competitive titles to see what kinds of pain points and benefits 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 lots of money to professional copywriters to create theirs—you can read and study their examples for free online!
Overall, your description should be more marketing copy than summary, and that’s what you’ll see when you examine the copy of the bestsellers in your category. It’s misleading that some sites refer to this copy as a Book Description or Book Summary, when really, this is a pitch. What’s the difference? When pitching your book, you aren’t just telling prospective readers about the book, you’re trying to convince them that they should buy and read it. What do they need to hear and know about the book to feel that the solution they need is within your pages? If your book essentially has the same information as your competitor, why would they choose yours?
[Tip: I personally like to see a lot of “you” in copy that speaks directly to the reader, meaning phrases like “This book will show you…” The more personal the problem set, the more personally you want to connect with your reader. Something less personal, like a business book, might work better with phrasing like, “This book will help readers…”]
Don’t Be a Sore Thumb
While you’re absorbing techniques from these examples, beware the tiny voice inside you that says, “We should do something different to stand out!” There are times when standing out from the crowd is important. This is not one of those times.
It’s a smart instinct: You read book description after book description, and you start to see patterns and similarities. You think, “I’ve got to take a different approach if I want to distinguish my book from the others.”
But this is a rookie mistake.
While you do want to positively distinguish your book, the overall packaging of your book has a specific job: Quickly and even subliminally signaling to prospective readers that this is in fact the book they’re looking for.
Consider cookbooks, for example. Almost universally, cookbook covers feature gorgeous images of the kind of food one presumably learns to cook when you buy and read the book. If the author is a celebrity chef, the cover may have a photo of them on it too. Flip any given cookbook over and you’ll find copy that speaks to the food philosophy guiding the book, some examples of recipes contained within, a little about the author and their experience or unique take on food preparation, and enticing language designed to get you excited about trying these recipes out.
If you publish a cookbook and put a beautiful picture of a beach at sunset on it and write copy that is twice as long as usual and waxes poetic about the joy of food and how it enhances your life, how cooking can be like taking a mini vacation, how eating well can let you enjoy more of your time…well, that will certainly stand out.
But, it’ll stand out like a sore thumb. Not like a superstar.
When people are scanning a table or bookshelf at their favorite bookstore, or if they’re scrolling through the cookbook category online, they’re looking for a cover that feels like it’s speaking to them. They see their fave celebrity chef smiling and holding out a plate and think, “Yes! I want to cook like Giada, I love her show!” They see a bowl of bright, fresh, delicious veggies they don’t even recognize covered in exotic looking spices and think, “Yes! I want to make healthier food that’s less boring! This will help me do it.” Pair either of those covers with copy that talks about adopting Giada’s best recipes for your family in 30 minutes or less or creating inexpensive, delicious vegetarian meals even your pickiest eaters will love and you have a winner.
But when they come across that book with the picture of a beach at sunset? With copy that runs so long, the designer had to use a font that’s too tiny to read comfortably (and online, it just seems to go on forever)? Prospective readers seeking a specific cooking solution aren’t going to snap that book up. They’re going to think, “What the heck is this?”
They’ll most likely scroll right past it, assuming it’s mislabeled. Or else they may start reading the copy out of curiosity and put it down within seconds out of boredom (or difficulty reading that tiny font!).
A Word On Keywords (and Key phrases)
Given the role that keywords and key phrases play in your book’s discoverability, it’s worth taking the time to research them for both use in your copy and, as I mentioned, you’ll be choosing these to program into your book listing as metadata.
You can start by just thinking logically and putting yourself into your ideal reader’s shoes: What might a reader be looking for such that this book would pop up as a welcome solution? Make a list of these words and short phrases.
Next, go to Amazon (it’s the biggest online retailer for books, so it makes sense to put your focus there, especially at first). Then actually type the words or phrases into the search bar one at a time and see what books come up in the search results. Are you seeing books like yours? If they are competitive titles, then you’ll know you’ve hit on the right words.
It can be good to have some keywords/key phrases that take you to books in whose company yours belongs, but if you can additionally find a couple of search terms that get even narrower and more specific so that your book would be the only or first one that comes up for searches, that’s even better. You get enough slots on bookselling platforms that you can accommodate both types in your choices.
There are advanced techniques and tools (my fave is Publisher Rocket) that help you drill down into narrower and narrower subcategories where your book will have less competition, but again, this is not the time to stand out like a sore thumb. You only want to niche down if the keywords and key phrases you identify as less competitive (i.e. they bring up fewer competitive titles) are still highly relevant. Otherwise, your book will stand out…but to the wrong target audience, which means fewer sales and more negative reviews.
Parting Tips on How Target Audience Should Influence Your Book’s Cover Copy
It’s very common for authors to have an idea and then begin writing their book from there. However, if you start thinking about your book from a marketing perspective at the start, you will end up with a much more marketable book!
In particular, understanding how target audience should influence your book’s cover copy as well as the content of the book itself improves your odds of reaching the right readers and selling more books, having a greater impact, and growing your business.
And isn’t that the whole point?
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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.