Cover blurbs are the most important copy in the book. They are consummate editing, the sizzle on the editorial steak. They determine whether or not the reader goes to the inside or even picks up the book to browse. They should not read like afterthoughts or the first thing that came to mind as the issue hurried off to the printer.

A few seasons ago I was asked to review some cover lines in progress at FenderBender, a monthly for the autobody trade. The lead cover blurb, about a reversal in the court that would impact shop owners dealing with State Farm auto insurance claims, took a straight news approach:

Head: State Farm v. Avery
Deck: Illinois judge reverses billion-dollar award

This blurb might work as breaking news but it’s flat. They seem to summarize the obvious without an effort to really sell the story. Moreover, by the time readers received the issue, it would be last month’s news.

The cover is not an editorial page. It is a marketing page. [click here for more on this topic.] For b-to-b magazines, this means recasting a news story to one of news analysis. Of course, be wary of oversell. At FenderBender, we toyed with the idea of using "Billion Dollar Bombshell" as the cover line, but then toned it down to:

Head: Special Report: The State Farm Reversal
Deck: Fallout from the Illinois ruling continues

Another cover blurb for the same issue started out as:

Head: New Metals, New Challenges
Deck: How to deal with metals like boron

While heads and decks should work in concert with each other, it’s best not to repeat key words. This is better:

Head: New Metals, New Challenges
Deck: Tips and techniques for working with boron and aluminum

Next, we had this:

Head: Where Do We Go From Here?
Deck: An industry pro looks ahead

The head is fine, but the deck is flat. Readers need an indication of what they stand to learn (or earn) from a story. Also, while heads are usually short (three to five words), decks can be longer and sell the story with some detail and intrigue. Here’s the revised blurb:

Head: Where Do We Go From Here?
Deck: In crunch times, an industry pro sees problems;and solutions;ahead

Here are a few rules as you review your own approach to crafting cover blurbs:

  1. Good blurbs must tell in order to sell. They should make a promise to the reader that reflects inside content.
  2. They should be short and to the point, without being cryptic. Details should be saved for the deck.
  3. They should be understandable by a wide audience. Test cover blurbs on informal focus groups, the guys in circulation or marketing, for comprehension at a glance.
  4. They should animate and market the topic, but not oversell or promise more than you deliver.
  5. Hook the reader at least five times on a cover.
  6. Sell reader benefits by using quantifiers: "12 Ways to Profit From Recycled Widgets"
  7. Sell the contents with powerful sell words. Here are 39 editorial marketing words, most of them newsstand tested, courtesy of Curtis Circulation Co.:
  1. Improve
  2. Trust
  3. Immediately
  4. Discover
  5. Profit
  6. Learn
  7. Know
  8. Understand
  9. Powerful
  10. Best
  11. Win
  12. Complete
  13. Hot
  14. Special
  15. More
  16. Bonus
  17. Exclusive
  18. Extra
  19. You
  20. Free
  21. Health
  22. Guarantee
  23. New
  24. Proven
  25. Save
  26. Safety
  27. Money
  28. Now
  29. Today
  30. Results
  31. Protect
  32. Help
  33. Easy
  34. Amazing
  35. Latest
  36. Extraordinary
  37. Basic
  38. Worst
  39. Ultimate

John Brady is visiting professional at the Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University. He is a partner at Brady & Paul Communications, a publishing consultancy, and conducts editorial workshops for professionals. For information on his Interviewer’s Handbook: A Guerrilla Guide for Reporters and Writers, e-mail him at