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Observations on Back Cover Copy

I’ve had many discussions about back cover copy over the last few months. Having spent quite a bit watching which books did and didn’t see at Indie Press Revolution, seeing books that were and weren’t confusing at convention booths and game stores, I have a vague sense of some principles. I don’t have a perfect sense, but here’s what I’ve figured out so far. (And for some of these, I’ll be using examples.)

Inside Baseball Text

As geeks, we’re so entrenched in the worlds we build that we create back cover text that requires you to know about the game to understand. This is called “inside baseball”[1]:

“Inside baseball” describes details or minutia of a subject so detailed or requiring such a specific knowledge about what is being discussed that they generally are not well known or appreciated by outsiders. The usage reflects the 1890s expression “Inside Baseball”, a forerunner of the later small ball.

Typically the term comes up around discussions, of science, technology, entertainment, politics, or related subjects the public has a general knowledge of, but whose inner workings are not necessary to understanding the concept as a whole.

An example may be a film critic’s review of a movie using insider jargon, information, or understanding of which regular movie goers would have little knowledge or even interest. Citing the director’s previous themes expressed in their movies in relation to the one being reviewed because of the director’s fascination with a particular school of film making, etc.

Source: Wikipedia

A strong example of this is the back cover text for A Penny For My Thoughts[1]:

A Penny For My Thoughts - Back Cover

A Penny For My Thoughts - Back Cover

(You can also find this text on the website copy for the book on Indie Press Revolution.)

The text describes a moment of play, but only if you already know that that’s what it’s doing. However, it’s in a roundabout way avoiding the second problem I see in bad copy…

Copy That Doesn’t Tell You What You’re Doing

The point of the back cover is to sell you on the idea of the game. You’ll fail if you’ll confuse people more than you excite them (as above), but you’ll also discourage people if you aren’t selling them on what you’re actually doing.

The header of your text needs to either:

  • Excite me about the situation. Not the world, not the setting color, but what we’re doing in that setting.
  • Excite me about who I’ll be playing.

Now, many of your are making games that have a vast array of situations you can be in or folks you can play. That’s great! That’s solid design. However, this is about marketing, and in marketing you need to narrow your shot. Think of you back cover text like an arrow. If it’s narrow, it’ll fly far. If it’s wide, it’ll sail like a log. (If it’s too narrow, certainly people won’t feel it, but far fewer of you run into that problem.)

Copy That Overwhelms

I’ve seen back covers that have ten to twelve bullet points on them. Don’t put every selling point on your back cover. It’ll just be a sea of text, nothing standing out. My gut formula for dealing with this:

  1. What are the top three to five awesome things about your game?
  2. Ask people who are excited about your game if those actually are the awesome bits.
  3. Are any related? Condense them together.

From there, I know what I’m writing about. And I’ll avoid using bullet points, because they’re far less inspiring. I want to play a game, not a grocery list.

No One Cares About Your Designer-Wank

It doesn’t matter if your game has fifty classes, or has an innovative design, or whatever. That tells me piss-all, and shows me that you know little about self-marketing, which makes me wonder if you know little text-design. It makes me wonder if you’ve spent too much time on minutiae that doesn’t matter, rather than crafting a good game. I do judge a book by its cover when I have many books to choose from and limited money to spend on and time to read them.

The Effects Bad Copy Will Cause

The Effect of Confusing Copy

Confusing copy gets your book put back on the shelf.

I don’t have an image for you, but I will share an anecdote. Will Hindmarch was selling Gameplaywright’s latest release, The Bones, at Gen Con. He was lamenting how many people picked up the book, looked at the back cover (which incidentally has a quote from me on it), and put it back. One person asked him, after reading the back cover, “Is it a novel?”

That’s a damned shame, too, because The Bones is a great book. I talked a bit about it some time ago. But that’s what some back covers do — the cover up a good book with a veneer of confusion.

The Effect of Misleading Copy

Misleading copy pisses off the customer, when they buy the book and later discover they didn’t get at all what they were expecting. Pissed-off customers are loud on the Internet, and contribute to other people gaining a negative emotional context with respect to your product, and possibly with respect to you.

I have no anecdote for you here. But I’m sure some of you do. I do hope you’ll share in the comments.

Two Covers I Like

In hunting around in my PDFs (and by the way, too few of you include your back covers in the PDF…some of you also don’t include your front covers), I found two covers that I like. Both are from Bully Pulpit Games:

Grey Ranks Back Cover

Grey Ranks Back Cover

Fiasco Back Cover

Fiasco Back Cover

Grey Ranks starts with a header about who you are. It uses emotionally-engaging text to inspire someone in that game’s target audience. It frankly effectively communicates to its target audience. It ends with a question — and questions naturally engage people. All in all, one of the better back cover bits in an indie game that I’ve seen. But it doesn’t surprise me; Bully Pulpit Games has been about communicating well to various sides of their customer base, from the hardcore indie crowd and people who happen to stumble their wait to these games.

Fiasco is engaging from a visual sense, and uses IP hooks to communicate the tone and intent. And if the blurb “A game of powerful ambition & poor impulse control” doesn’t sell you, then you aren’t in the target audience. What I find most brilliant about this is how short it is.

Here’s what these don’t tell you: how to play the game. What components a character has. How advancement works (which is not the point of Fiasco, and is a fantastically quirky part of Grey Ranks, but still). That’s because those are poor things to put on the back. What few facts that should be on the back of your book should be about how many people this game works for, how long to play, etc. — when those are relevant, which in many games they are. Everything else should be about the theme, the tone, the story of the game — frankly, the damned reason to play this game over another.

What Have Your Experiences Been?

Like I said, these are observations on back covers. You all have some observations, as well. What are they? What back covers have you seen that are good? Are bad? Why? Let’s add to the collective knowledgebase here — most of us in RPGland are at best amateur marketers, and more data will help us all.

– Ryan

[1] The URL is also inside baseball.

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6 Responses to Observations on Back Cover Copy

  1. Cam Banks says:

    I write the back cover copy on Margaret Weis Production’s books, most of the time. We benefit from the books being licensed RPGs for the most part, but I still feel it’s important to be clear about the contents and the reason you’d want to pick the thing up. I derive my copy from the copy that I write for sell sheets and marketing, because I figure I have to sell the idea of the game to the distributors and retailers before it ever reaches the hands of somebody in a game store. The same copy also gets used on the website and for DriveThru/RPGNow’s product entries.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Cam,

      Right, totally! That back cover text helps other people sell your books too is a really good one to keep in mind.

      – Ryan

  2. JDCorley says:

    Back cover copy is essentially the equivalent of a hot girl coming on a beer commercial to sell me beer. I never trust any of it anymore, not one word of it. I know that’s mean to say to people who sell things? But sorry, the well’s poisoned.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      JD,

      *shrug* That is no excuse for shitty copy. So, I can only say: Um, good for you?

      – Ryan

  3. Carl Klutzke says:

    Words I wish I could strike from the back of every StoryCards deck box:

    “StoryCards is a roleplaying game that is played from start to end in four hours or less, with no prior preparation.”

    Even if I come up with a new set of StoryCards rules that plays even faster, that reference to “four hours” will be there forever.

  4. JDCorley says:

    Well, I wouldn’t say it’s an excuse for shitty copy so much as an explanation. At the local landfill, you expect to find garbage, after years of experience and much consideration, your expectations are likely to be fairly fixed. Same with the backs of books and games.