The back of a book is like an expanse of desert, where you (as the reader) don’t have much to expect. Sometimes you can find an oasis amidst the quotes, the bar-codes; sometimes you can’t. It all depends on the book.
For something like All the King’s Men, there is a little summary on the back of the book, but it seems mostly literal, describing the length of the novel with a few sentences, which could be summarized as a book that follows the political career of a country boy, Willie Stark. It’s very dry, focused on the book’s accomplishments like its Pulitzer Prize, won in 1947.
For a book like Beggars in Spain, there’s a lot of world building to preface the description of the book while including the initial setup of the main character – the “beautiful, extraordinarily intelligent…and one of an ever-growing number of human beings who have been genetically modified to never require sleep” (Kress back cover).
And then, there’s Wool, which has experienced such amazing sales, doesn’t need much more than a poetic curiosity of the world and plot:
What would you do
if the world outside was deadly,
and the air you breathed could kill?
And you lived in a place
where every birth required a death
and the choices you made could save lives – or destroy them.
This is Jule’s story. (Howey back cover)
Even though these three book have different back cover summaries, all three have the same expectation for the reader: they expect you to buy it, but each of these books achieve this through different manners.
With the first book, All the King’s Men, because it is a famous novel, it already has a popularity that will continue to push sales throughout the years. This is a book that can be continuously reformatted, reprinted, and people will still buy it.
Same with Beggars in Spain. Even though it has not won a prize, because it is generally accepted as a famous novel, it does not have to try as hard to rope in potential readers, which is why although it gives an interesting, curious description for the novel, it does not try to engage the reader too much. The most thought-provoking line – besides that of the world with characters who don’t have to sleep – is that the protagonist will remain on Earth where she may experience “a devastating conspiracy of freedom…and revenge” (back cover).
These are completely unlike Wool, which although still pretty famous, tries hard to engage the potential reader in thought-provoking curiosity. This whole poem is phrased from the second perspective, meant to engage you in rhetorical discussion. ‘What would you do?’ It starts off the discourse immediately, asking you how would you respond if the air could kill. Would you choose to save a life or destroy it? And then breaks the discourse with a single line, “This is Jule’s story.” Not you.
Engaging, isn’t it? Maybe this is something self-published authors can take away from these summaries or when writing query letters.
The main success of a back-cover summary is to engage the reader in thought-provoking curiosity, in order for them to buy the book. You can do this through asking the reader questions, using second perspective, but I’m sure there are other methods – this was just one.
Howey, Hugh. Wool. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2012. Print.
Kress, Nancy. Beggars in Spain. New York, NY: Eos, 2004. Print.
Warren, Robert. All the King’s Men. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1996. Print.