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The Milk, the Cow and the Back Cover Blurb

Yesterday, we said that a back cover blurb’s main goal is to intrigue the book’s ideal readers.

Doing that requires work, of course: research into who your ideal reader is and what makes him or her tick. But here’s another writing tip for your back cover blurb that requires no such efforts since it’s true of every single ideal reader out there.

Better yet, it’s wrapped up in a very easy logical format to follow. Here we go…

  1. No matter the genre, readers love a little mystery.

  2. It’s the writer’s job to give readers what they want (if said writers want to be financially successful, anyway).

  3. Therefore, if you’re a writer, you’ll want to employ some mystery in your back cover blurb.

If A and B, then C. And since A and B, or 1 and 2, in this case are most definitely true, then so is the conclusion. It’s why Writing Rule #49 exists.

Effective back cover blurbs don’t give everything away.

They can establish key information past the first page or even the first chapter. But they stop far, far short of the end.

Did your mom or grandma ever tell you that nobody’s going to buy the cow if the milk is free? If so, they might have been talking about your back cover blurb.

To illustrate this writing rule in action, I went to for a simple search of “Literature & Fiction” books. The featured selection there as of December 21 at 9:29 a.m. was Joy Jordan-Lake’s A Tangled Mercy.

So here’s it’s back cover blurb:

Told in alternating tales at once haunting and redemptive, A Tangled Mercy is a quintessentially American epic rooted in heartbreaking true events examining the harrowing depths of human brutality and betrayal, and our enduring hope for freedom and forgiveness.

After the sudden death of her troubled mother, struggling Harvard grad student Kate Drayton walks out on her lecture – and her entire New England life. Haunted by unanswered questions and her own uncertain future, she flees to Charleston, South Carolina, the place where her parents met, convinced it holds the key to understanding her fractured family and saving her career in academia. Kate is determined to unearth groundbreaking information on a failed 1822 slave revolt—the subject of her mother’s own research.

Nearly two centuries earlier, Tom Russell, a gifted blacksmith and slave, grappled with a terrible choice: arm the uprising spearheaded by members of the fiercely independent African Methodist Episcopal Church or keep his own neck out of the noose and protect the woman he loves.

Kate’s attempts to discover what drove her mother’s dangerous obsession with Charleston’s tumultuous history are derailed by a horrific massacre in the very same landmark church. In the unimaginable aftermath, Kate discovers a family she never knew existed as the city unites with a powerful message of hope and forgiveness for the world.

Now, I’m either not A Tangled Mercy’s ideal reader or the person who wrote that back cover blurb wasn’t thinking about me while composing it. In my mind, the first sentence is long-winded and snooty-sounding, making me automatically label the author as pretentiously dull.

But that aside, notice all the mystery this copy raises. The build-up. The unanswered questions.

Why did Kate’s mom suddenly die?

Why is the heroine convinced that Charleston can solve so much?

Who is Tom Russell’s love? And do they end up together or is she left devastated by that noose?

What is the horrific massacre that happens?

And how about this “powerful message of hope and forgiveness for the world”?

Personally, I could care less about that last one. It sounds hopelessly hokey (further indication that I am not this book’s ideal reader). And considering all the non-fiction massacres and attempted massacres this year, I’m really not drawn to fiction of the sort.

But I am quite curious about Kate, her mom, Tom Russell and his lady love. Yet the back cover blurb makes sure that I’ll never know any more about them unless I read the full story.

In which case, ideal reader or not, I’ve got to give this cow props for keeping the main milk for its buyers and borrowers alone.

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