The Forgotten Back Cover

Back in the days when brick-and-mortar book stores and libraries dominated, the back of a book was perhaps the next thing most readers would turn to after glancing at the cover, and before making the decision to purchase or borrow. The back cover was where you’d find not only the book’s blurb, but a tagline, endorsements from reviewers (also known as ‘blurbs’), any awards the book had been nominated for or won, and a short bio about the author.

In our current era of online bookstores, ereaders, and indie publishing, the back cover has been largely replaced by the description field on retail sites. In many cases, the front cover has taken on of the burdens of the back cover, with taglines, quotes, awards, and even biographical details jammed onto a book’s front.

So it should come as no surprise then, that self-publishing guides pay scant attention to back covers. E-books don’t require (or really have the facilities for) back covers at all (much to my disappointment!).

Even when ordering a paperback online, back covers don’t seem to play a significant role in readers’ decision-making. They’re much harder to see than front covers, requiring the reader to use the ‘look inside’ preview on Amazon, and then click ‘Back Cover’ to see a preview. It’s much easier to simply read the description, which also has the advantage of being searchable, and easily legible.

Why should indie authors bother with a back cover, then? And why bother to write a whole blog post about them?

Well, as the BookFly blog points out, even if a good back cover design won’t drive readers to your book, a bad back cover design can certainly drive them away. In fact, even if a book has a great front cover, a poorly designed back cover can make the overall package appear unprofessional.

What a waste it would be, to spend a lot of time and/or money on your front cover, only to have the positive impression it creates undone by a bad back cover?

What is a bad back cover?

  • The text is too big. Too large, and it looks amateurish. Remember all those tricks kids used to try and pull at school to make their essays look longer? Readers expect to see quite a few ingredients on the back of a book: a tagline or hook, a blurb, endorsements from reviews, the author bio, website, and possibly even a photo. You don’t need to have *all* of those features, but if you only have one or two, trying to make up for it with a bigger font isn’t going to fool anyone.
  • The text is too small. On the other hand, sometimes authors get carried away and want to shove every detail into their blurb, every award they won at school into their bio, and every nice thing anyone ever said about their book into the endorsements. In order to cram it all in, it can be tempting to use a small font when what you really should be doing is using the delete key. There are two reasons: if your text is too small, it will be hard to read. And if there’s too much text (and not enough white space) even if your font size is large enough, chances are people won’t want to read it anyway. According to Readsy, almost everyone reads the blurb before they decide to purchase a book, but they only spend 10 seconds doing so. If the back of your book can’t be skimmed over at a glance, you’re losing readers.
  • Likewise, using ALL CAPS or a hard to read font are big no-nos. Readability is supremely important. While it’s perfectly fine to use a font that reflects the themes of your book for the title (so long as its still legible!) you should definitely stick to something more traditional – boring even – for the back cover text.

Although design is, of course, highly subjective, I would say “bad” back cover design involves a combination of the above (and other) factors which boils down to one thing: it compares poorly to the front cover.

I’m sure we’ve all seen books like this. Gorgeous front, you flip it over, and argh! There’s a huge gap between the effort put into the front and the back. Or, whoever designed the front cover was clearly more experienced than whoever tackled the back. The back looks like an afterthought – sparse, or even blank.

Why does this happen?

If you’re not artistically inclined, there are plenty of services out there offering pre-made front covers which can be easily tweaked with the addition of a title and name. But there are far fewer services offering pre-made (or even custom-made) back covers – quite possibly because back covers are (understandably) seen as less important, so authors are perhaps less willing to spend money on them, even though they require greater customisation (fiddling around with taglines, blurb text, endorsements, and barcodes). As a result, many indie paperback and hardback books seem to have gorgeous front cover designs, but a very plain back cover. This undermines all the good work your front cover is doing.

What is a good back cover?

According to the folks at BookFly and Reedsy, a good back cover

  • Continues the visual story of the front cover
  • Incorporates elements from the rest of the book, such as the colour scheme or background of the front cover, and the fonts or dropcap styles used inside the book
  • Has a short, punchy tagline and blurb (check out my posts on successful and unsuccessful blurbs!)
  • A brief, clear bio (2 sentences)
  • A selection of positive, well-presented testimonials from fellow authors or reviewers (A/B testing conducted by Reedsy found that books with testimonials received 22.6% more purchases)

A Case Study: From good to GREAT

While I was preparing this post, I happened across a fantastic example of the power of a good back cover.

Here’s a side-by-side ‘before’ and ‘after’ comparison of the back covers for C.R. Wraith’s Mom, I’m Sorry:

Photo courtesy of @rubenoneill2

The original edition (on the left) is a much simpler design, with a single quote from the book and the barcode. Although I think the updated edition (on the right) has some fantastic improvements, there’s still a lot to like about the original.

For starters, the background and font colours echo those used on the front. The text (white on a dark background) is uncomplicated and easy to read. And if there’s ever going to be a quote that deserves to stand alone, it has to be this: “Don’t leave me alone with my thoughts, they’re not safe.” Those words, suspended, alone in the middle of the background appear, I’m sure you’ll agree, visually poetic.

That being said, what do I love about the updated back cover?

  • The text is neither too big nor too small, and covers neither too much nor too little of the available space. It’s easy to read, even in photographs from a distance like this, but not too large. By adding a couple of positive reviews, an author photo that really gives you a sense of the author’s character, and his social media handles (I wish I’d thought of this!) the back cover tells us, even at a glance, what sort of a book to expect.
  • The quote is short and punchy as well as being emphasised through font style and size.
  • It has a selection of positive, well-presented testimonials. Not only are they unequivocally positive, but they provide important information. Camille Collins’ quote tells us what kind of book this is: poetry. Without this endorsement, readers might think it was a novel, a memoir, etc.
  • In lieu of a bio, there is an eye-catching and character-filled author photo which I think probably tells us more than we could find out in a couple of bland sentences.
  • It looks just as professionally designed as the front cover. As discussed above, even the most beautifully designed front cover can be undermined by a lacklustre back cover, bringing the whole tone of the package down. That is certainly not the case here. In fact…
  • It continues the visual story of the front cover. This is something I think both versions accomplished, but the second one really nailed it. Continuing the visual story doesn’t necessarily mean your cover art has to wrap all the way around your book (which can often require the assistance of a professional cover designer, and be more expensive). Here, in addition to the use of background and font colours from the front, the font used on the cover is used (in select places – not everywhere!) on the spine and back, giving the overall design a strong sense of continuity.
Photo courtesy of @rubenoneill2

We can also learn from how @rubeoneill2 announced this update. The text that accompanies the above post states “New back coming to stores in Barnes & Noble, which means all the current books without this back cover are now limited 1st editions in terms of Barnes & Noble! Look out!”

Books, like any creative product, are an evolving work. But all too often, I see indies being down on themselves. Instead of framing updates to their books as improvements, they post about “fixing problems”. Do you think big publishers do that? Of course not! And it isn’t because their books are perfect, error-free gems! (For example: I recently read a book published by Penguin, in which the main character’s name was frequently missing an initial capital!)

While we should always try to ensure we deliver the best possible product to our readers, especially in terms of editing, when a book first appears on the market, you might not have everything ready to go. Maybe you don’t have any reviews yet. Perhaps you haven’t organised an author photo. When you add these things, you’re not “fixing” – you’re improving your book. Updating it. Big publishers do this all the time – with much fanfare. New editions. Updated cover releases. Be proud of what you have achieved.

And the result?

According to his most recent post, “the new back covers reached Barnes & Noble and all of them flew off the shelves”.

Now, I’m not saying the back cover is the only (or even the main) reason that Mom I’m Sorry would be selling.

Honestly, I don’t think the back cover is the main reason anyone‘s book is selling. I am yet to meet a reader who picks up a book with an unappealing or lackluster cover and says to themselves “wow, what an utterly boring-looking book. I think I shall flip this book over and read more, forsaking all of these far more interesting-looking books on the shelves of this store/online retailer”.

Rather, I think the best we can hope for our back covers is for them to not put anyone off. Remember, as BookFly says, even though a good back cover design won’t necessarily drive readers to your book, a bad back cover design can certainly drive them away. And it’s obvious that all those who picked up Mom I’m Sorry and caused it to fly off the shelf were certainly not put off by this excellent design!

My own back cover

Here’s the back cover my awesome designer @ts_lem and I came up with for Number Eight Crispy Chicken. Let me know what you think!

In my next post, I’ll talk about the backbone of the whole operation – the thing holding the front and back cover together: spine design!

A huge thanks to C.R. Wraith (@rubenoneill2) for allowing me to dissect his fabulous designs. Mom I’m Sorry is available on Amazon in both Kindle and (if you want to see the back cover yourself!) paperback formats, along with the newly-released Dad Please Don’t Go.

Number Eight Crispy Chicken is available for preorder on Smashwords, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble. Secure your copy today!

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