Saturday, July 9, 2011

On Back Matter

Rebecca E. from Living a Life of Writing mentioned back matter in a comment on one of my previous posts, and so I decided to write about it in a real post instead of babbling about it in a comment.  Also, go visit her blog because she is smarter than I am and knows what she's doing.

At first glance, back matter sounds like something a three year old would come up with when trying to say black matter.  And before you go off thinking that three year olds have no idea what black matter is and would therefore never try to say it, let me say that three year olds will repeat anything you say if they think it'll make you happy.  I used to be able to rattle off the parts of an atom when I was three.  Don't ask me to do it now.

(I had to go rattle off the parts of an atom just now to make sure I still knew it so that I could feel better abut myself.  This is a sad existence.)

Anyway, back matter might also evoke images of serious doctors coming into a hospital room with a clipboard and telling you in a very serious tone of voice: "Well, it's a serious matter of the back."  You'll have no idea what's wrong with you except that it's a matter of your back and it's probably not treatable.  Grey's Anatomy could do a whole season finale on it and you'd have to keep a box of tissues next to you the entire episode.

Unfortunately, back matter is not so glamorous as McDreamy wants you to think.  Back matter is that stuff on the back cover of your book where you have a synopsis of your novel and/or praise for your novel.  Or, if you're Stephen King, you have this:

He can see right into your darkest fears.
While it may seem like a good idea to terrify your readers with a picture of your face staring out at them as if to let them know you know exactly where they sleep at night and what they're wearing, it's really not a good idea to do that.  Unless you're Stephen King.  Then you can do whatever you want because you are Stephen King and you just don't give a damn. But chances are, you are not Stephen King, and you need more than a picture to grace the back cover your book.

Back matter is really important to your novel, even though you might not even be thinking about it as you write.  Back matter, after your cover, is what sells your book, and that is generally why writers aren't allowed to write their own back matter.  As a writer, you want to make sure you're getting the point of your book across.  You may want to alert your readers to the intense social grievances that have inspired your book and that you have so subtly and artfully hidden in a plot line of a teenage girl struggling to make it as a single mother of two while still trying to attain her dream of being a chorus girl in the French opera and not be stalked by the Phantom.  You may want your readers to know that they should pay careful attention the word selection you've spent fifteen long years agonizing over, and that your use of a semi-colon instead of a period is in fact very important to grand scheme of things and is a major signifier of foreshadowing.

This, ladies and gentlemen, will not sell your book and is why there's a whole major dedicated to the art of selling your work.  This is also why a marketing team takes over this aspect of your novel and why you will fight with them tooth and nail over everything.  Feelings will be hurt.  The novel that has been your baby for as long as you can remember will suddenly grow up into an angry teenager you don't recognize and will sneak out of your house at all times of night just to see you get upset.  You will be glad when it finally leaves the house.

However, some of us might have to write our own back matter because we're self-publishers and we don't get the added benefits of marketing teams unless we majored in that, and chances are, we probably didn't.  So how can we compete?

Well for one, pretend that your back cover is like your resume for that job position you want.  You need to learn to toot your own horn, which I will be the first to admit is a difficult thing to do if you are one of those people who are really modest about everything and feel uncomfortable talking about your successes.  You need to get over that quick!  Be proud!  Be narcissistic!  Act as if your book is the best book in the whole world and that everyone is going to want to read it.  You can't hold back when you write back matter.  You need to be confident like an eagle.  When was the last time an eagle was ever modest?  That's right.  Never.  Be an eagle.  Be proud.

Better yet, be Stephen King.

You also want to summarize your book as concisely as possible without giving too much away.  I know that sounds like trying to walk on a tightrope with no harness and stilettos on while spectators throw tomatoes at you, but I promise it's doable.  It might take a lot of practice, but it's doable.  Write a few rough drafts, send it out to your friends and make them read it over, ask them their opinions, abuse your blog privileges and make your readers vote on the one they like best or something.  After a while, it'll get easier for you to pump one out and then you will feel like the king of the world.  And you won't even need to stand on a ship prow to feel that way.

So what exactly should be in your back matter?  You want to generate interest in your book.  You want your reader to pick up the book, read the back, and then immediately want to run home and read your book front to back in a spree of frenzied necessity.  Paying for the book is optional though I assume you would like to receive your royalties.  Your back matter shouldn't give away major plot twists however - saying Bruce Willis is dead at the end is not a good way to make friends or fans.  What you want to do is give your readers a quick introduction to your characters before you give them the real meat and bones of the story, to let your readers know what they're about to get into.  You want to save the big surprises for the read, but you can still foreshadow events to create suspense.

If you're one of the lucky writers who have reviews to bolster your spirits, you can quote a few of them on your back matter along with your quick synopsis.  Don't quote the whole review, but take what you feel is the best snippet and stick it in there.  It lends credence to your book.  People feel better about buying things when there's a guarantee.

Think of it like this.  A book without reviews or some sort of guarantee is like that infomercial you watch at three in the morning when you wonder what went wrong in your life.  The product looks like it'll make your life so much easier and better because you'll never have to chop vegetables again, but you wonder about buying it because you don't want to waste twenty dollars in shipping and handling to buy a piece of junk that's going to stop working after you use it once.  A book with reviews and one of those 'from NY Times Bestselling author...' lines is like buying Martha Stewart bath towels.  Those towels are going to suck up water for life.  If that infomercial had Martha Stewart's seal of approval, then you know you'd totally buy that chopper, even if you have a set of ceramic knives purchased from Japan for a thousand dollars that cut vegetables beautifully.

Don't be discouraged if you don't have any reviews for your books.  I don't, and I still manage to make sales occasionally.  Reviews are good, but not a strict necessity.  You can survive without them, and you can be successful without them too.  Reviews will come with time, just like success.  Just be patient.

I grabbed some books off my shelf so that I could give you a few examples of back matter.  Here's one from CJ Cherryh's Hammerfall.
A prince and a warrior, Marak had dedicated his life to overthrowing the Ila, the mysterious eternal dictator of his desert planet.  But a twist of fate will entrust him with protecting her life - and those of her subjects - from the wrath of a powerful foe beyond their world.  But to do so, Marak must lead them in an impossible caravan across burning sand plains.  Yet one among them is determined to destroy Marak.  And with his death will come the end of life itself.
This synopsis introduces you to two important characters - Marak and the Ila.  It also gives you the basic plot - Marak must protect the people of his planet and there is a plot to make sure that Marak doesn't do just that.  It tells, but it also conceals.  This is good.

Here's one from Michael Crichton's Sphere:
In the middle of the South Pacific, a thousand feet below the surface of the water, a huge vessel is discovered resting on the ocean floor.  It is a spaceship of phenomenal dimensions, apparently undamaged by its fall from the sky.  And, most startlingly, it appears to be at least three hundred years old.

But even more fantastic - and frightening - is what waits inside...
Again, you have an outline of the basic plot and even an answer to the first part of the mystery - there's a ship in the middle of the ocean that's three hundred years old - but there's still more mystery to read about.  You have to keep playing this game of hot and cold, of give and take.  Give your readers a bit, but take a few giant steps backwards at the same time.  Difficult, but it'll be easier with time.

These of course are all for fiction books, and we can't ignore our nonfiction brethren.  So here's one for Keith Devlin's The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci's Arithmetic Revolution:
In 1202, a 32-year old Italian finished one of the most influential books of all time, which introduced modern arithmetic to Western Europe. Devised in India in the 7th and 8th centuries and brought to North Africa by Muslim traders, the Hindu-Arabic system helped transform the West into the dominant force in science, technology, and commerce, leaving behind Muslim cultures which had long known it but had failed to see its potential.
The young Italian, Leonardo of Pisa (better known today as Fibonacci), had learned the Hindu number system when he traveled to North Africa with his father, a customs agent. The book he created was Liber abbaci, the "Book of Calculation," and the revolution that followed its publication was enormous. Arithmetic made it possible for ordinary people to buy and sell goods, convert currencies, and keep accurate records of possessions more readily than ever before. Liber abbaci's publication led directly to large-scale international commerce and the scientific revolution of the Renaissance.
Yet despite the ubiquity of his discoveries, Leonardo of Pisa remains an enigma. His name is best known today in association with an exercise in Liber abbaci whose solution gives rise to a sequence of numbers--the Fibonacci sequence--used by some to predict the rise and fall of financial markets, and evident in myriad biological structures.
One of the great math popularizers of our time, Keith Devlin recreates the life and enduring legacy of an overlooked genius, and in the process makes clear how central numbers and mathematics are to our daily lives.
I apologize if that was tough to get through.  But it gives you a good history overview of Fibonacci and nice little introduction of Keith Devlin.  I don't really have much else to say about it.  Nonfiction, especially about math, makes my head spin.

And, as an added bonus so you can laugh at me, I'll show you one of my back matters, this one for Bobbing for Boyfriends:  (UK link)
In this third installment of The Adventures of Kitty Malone, Katharine "Kitty" Anne Malone dreams back to the time of prohibition and flappers with the help of her psychic friend Heather. Between the bobbed haircuts, spangled dresses, and illicit alcohol, will Kitty be able to find out the identity of the sexy and handsome stranger plaguing her dreams? And if she does, will she be able to survive the encounter?
See, this is why it's difficult to do this on your own.  My back matter isn't exactly great, or even good for that matter.  I tried to get that plot across, and to introduce a bit of suspense, but I think overall I'm going to need to call some friends and guilt them into helping me.  Or bribe them.  Or something.


  1. I don't think there's anything wrong with your back matter! Although I think if it was me, I probably wouldn't even try to do it myself - I'd get one of my nearest and dearest to do it for me. Hopefully they'd be able to do a better job of it than I would!

    Oh, and if you ever want a review of your new (or old) work to pluck some quotes from, just send it my way! :) May not be Sunday Times review level, but I'm happy to help!

  2. You are my new favorite person in the world. I will definitely take you up on your offer in the near future, and thank you so much! And your reviews are awesome, so don't knock them. (:

  3. An excellent and highly informative post; thank you very much, Marlena, for taking time to write about this crucial step of marketing our books. And we thought it would end with the dreaded synopsis!

    I've left a response to your comment on Bird's-eye View. I'm delighted you are a follower, and I am a new follower of your blog too.

    Wishing you a great day!


  4. Ah, thank you Michelle! Writing a book never ends; it keeps coming back to haunt you when you least expect it.

    And thank you for following me! I read your comment and it made me grin like an idiot at my computer screen.

  5. That synopsis: So crucial and yet so difficult to do. That's why I'm grateful I had a good small press with good editors who helped me. As you say, some objective eye needs to read it for you and tell you honestly if it works or doesn't. These are great examples that you use here.

    Thanks for stopping by today and cheering on my guest author Wendy S. Marcus on her blog tour.
    Ann Best, Memoir Author

  6. Thank you Ann. I'm glad you had help with your synopsis; they are murder to do by yourself.

    And no problem! I enjoyed her post and her dialogue. Thank you for hosting her.


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