Thursday, September 10, 2020

Why Query Letters Matter to Self-Published Authors, Too

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Part of the Indie Authors Series

If you’re self publishing, you might think your query-writing days are over—but they’re not (sorry!). The target of those query letters has simply changed.

A good query letter bears a striking resemblance to good cover copy. They’re both designed to entice a potential reader to pick up the book. The same skills that go into writing a strong query letter also apply to great cover copy, and you’ll need great cover copy for your self-published book. 

Think about it—a query for an agent or editor only needs to convince a handful of people to read the book. Cover copy has to convince every reader to read it. That’s a lot of pressure for a few paragraphs.

Luckily, some of the details that complicate a query letter don't apply to cover copy, which makes the process a little easier. 

Let’s compare.

A query letter needs:
  • A strong, clear hook
  • A clear sense of the conflict
  • A sense of the protagonist
  • Specific details about the plot and story
  • A sense of escalating stakes
  • Basic world building or setting details
  • A sense of the author’s voice and style

These elements all need to be specific enough to show why this novel is different from all the others in the agent's submission pile, and why it’s worth asking for. Agents and editors need to know the twists and secrets, even if it gives away the ending.

(Here’s more on Deciding What to Put in Your Query Letter)

Cover copy needs:
  • A strong hook
  • A sense of story
  • A sense of the protagonist
  • An intriguing premise or setup
  • A sense of the book
  • A sense of the author’s voice and style

These elements can be vague and tease readers, because they don’t want to know the answers first. They want something interesting enough to pique their curiosity, and want to discover the rest when they read the book. 

But if the cover copy isn’t intriguing enough to convince that reader to buy the book, it’s not doing its job.

Potential Cover Copy Pitfalls

The most common problems writers run into when writing cover copy are:

1. Being too vague

There’s a fine line between not giving away the twists and not being clear enough so potential readers can understand the story. 

Beware of vague statements that only mean something to those who already know the book, or those that could apply to any novel in that genre (or any novel at all). 

For example: “But Jane discovers things aren’t what she expected,” or “Jane must overcome problem after problem to solve this mystery,” or “Things get complicated.” These statements generally describe every book ever written.

2. Relying on clichés, not information

The sister to being too vague is the clichéd line. These often feel dramatic, but they don't tells the reader enough to judge if they want to read this book.

For example: “Got more than they bargained for,” or “Must overcome his past mistakes,” or, “Jane gets in over her head,” or one of the classics… “Or did he?”

The trouble with clichés is that they say nothing specific about your book and your story. They also sound like hundreds of other novels, which can make readers feel like they’ve already read your book. 

This can be extra problematic in a genre where so many of the books do sound similar (such as a mystery where the sleuth has to solve the case, or a romance where the two protagonists fall in love), because they have basically the same plot. The unique aspects are what sell the book.

(Here’s more on What's So Wrong With Clichés in Our Fiction? This.)

3. Trying to cover too much of the book

The goal of cover copy is to entice readers to read more, but writers often try to cram the entire book into a few hundred words. 

Don’t try to summarize the entire novel, just focus on the core elements: 
  • Who’s the protagonist? 
  • What’s the conflict? 
  • What are the stakes? 
  • What’s the twist? 
  • Where does it take place? 
  • Why does all this matter? 
Tease the things that made you want to write it in the first place.

Tip: Look at the first act of your novel (roughly the first 25%). The major turning points in that section contain the information you’ll want to share, and sometimes just focusing on the catalyst and inciting event is enough to find the perfect cover copy hook.

(Here’s more on Story Structure: The Inciting Event)

4. Showing the setup, not the conflict

On the flip side is cover copy that explains how the book got to where it starts, and doesn’t actually say anything about the story itself. 

It focuses on the history of the world, an event that happened that created the situation the novel finds itself in, the past the protagonist is trying to overcome. It's essentially all backstory.

In a created-world novel (science fiction, fantasy, historical), you often have to show a little world building to establish the novel's setting and mechanics, but use only what you absolutely need to entice readers to understand the conflict and pick up the book. 

(Here's more on 4 Steps to Establish the Beginning of Your Novel)

Writing good cover copy can be harder than writing the novel, but worth the effort to do well. That blurb contains some of the most important words in your novel. If readers aren’t intrigued enough by the cover copy to buy it, they’ll never discover the wonderful story you’ve written.

How do you feel about writing cover copy? How much importance do you put on the cover copy when you buy a book? 

*Originally published July 2015. Last updated September 2020

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to: 
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to: 
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. 

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Great post! I've found I'm actually writing a query letter to book bloggers/reviewers as well. I blogged about it here:

    It's definitely a skill worth practicing!

  2. I never thought about a query letter as having so many similarities to cover copy, but now I see that it does! great job going over this!

  3. Janice, you know queries drive me CRAZY! I'm also hopelessly grateful my editor for "GABRIEL" enjoyed the sample chapters I submitted along with my query, I really think the sample won her over (as HARD as I slaved over the query, as you well know...)

    Also, while query letters are similar to cover copy, it's NOT exactly the same, because with cover copy, we want to entice readers WITHOUT giving the whole plot away.

    When we're trying to entice agents/editors, they have to know more upfront info than the lay readers do, but still not be bloated and as compact or more-so than cover copy.

    This is probably where "Natural Storytellers" as described by author Debbie Macomber have the most trouble, versus the writers who have the technical skill, and could write brillant cover copy, but struggle with writing what they're able to describe nearly as well.

    I know some writers who're indie publishing, like most recently Jami Gold, found navigating cover copy easier when she just had to think about readers versus "winning over" an agent or editor at a publisher (and the publisher's marketing staff, etc...)

    I just find it trying no matter what. This is probably why your "Write the query first" strategy didn't help me. I'd never have finished one draft of "Gabriel" and if I waited until a "test query" was hitting the "right notes."

    That said, I'm glad it helps you and other writers.

    I think it's important to remember that as you say at the end "Writing ABOUT our book is often harder than writing the ACTUAL BOOK."
    They are different skills, and sucking at one does not mean you inherently suck at the other! (LOL)

    I'm sure there are people who can make nearly ANYTHING sound rieviting in copy, but wouldn't be as good as actually executing it themselves.

    For exmaple, just because the marketing department can't draw to save their life, doesn't mean they can't market a picture book or graphic novel, or have sense of art direction for a picture book or graphic novel.

    Just like how music lovers don't have to be able to read/write music to enjoy it and have profund things to say about it.

    I say that not to diminish the importance of cover copy (even and ESPECIALLY we decide to indie publish) but for writers to not feel overly discouraged. I don't want writers to have to feel unessecary anguish that I often felt (and sometimes still do) when struggling to write "About" a book I wrote makes me freak out that the actual book's even worse!

    Not always true, important to address, of course, but don't let it color your apptitude for writing entirely.