Cover Story

By Debbie Burke



Recently, Jim Bell wrote about baseball legend Honus Wagner, a shortstop in the early 20th century, and one of the first inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Here’s a story for Valentine’s Day about how Honus played matchmaker between me and my wonderful cover artist, Brian Hoffman, right here at The Kill Zone.

I still get chills when I remember how Brian and I “met”.

In 2017, the first novel (Instrument of the Devil) in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series was traditionally published. They provided a cover that was predominantly lizard green, not my favorite color. But they paid me, so I went along with it.

Original cover


Six months later, they closed their doors, leaving me orphaned. The second book in the series was ready to publish and a third was in the works. After considering options, I decided to self-publish the subsequent books.

But self-publishing meant providing my own covers.

A professional design company did several cover drafts but I didn’t like any of them. Being a DIYer, I tried creating covers myself and wrote a post for TKZ about the process.


At that time, the fourth book Dead Man’s Bluff was close to publication but had not yet been released. No one except my critique group and editor had read it.

After that post, I received a gracious email from TKZ regular, Brian Hoffman. He said he enjoyed my posts and had learned a lot from them. Then he added he hoped he wasn’t offending me but “Your cover for Dead Man’s Bluff looks amateurish.  I’ve made one you might like better.  It is my gift to you for all the help your columns have been to me.”

He attached this cover:

Wow, just wow!

Since the book had not yet been published, Brian had no way of knowing the McGuffin in the plot was the Honus Wagner 1909 baseball card. Yet, there on his cover was that very card!

Chills ran through me. The theme from The Twilight Zone played in my mind.

How had this complete stranger perfectly captured the essence of my story about a Florida hurricane and a stolen baseball card?

I immediately wrote back to Brian, with profuse thanks, saying of course he hadn’t offended me, far from it. He’d blown me away with the beautiful cover and his generosity.

Believing he was a professional who designed covers for a living, I asked him for a bid to redo all my books.

Bing, bang, boom. More emails arrived from him, each containing another great cover. They displayed a consistent style for the series that fitted the thriller/suspense genre. I was thrilled.

How much do I owe you? I wrote back.

Nothing. I enjoy doing them.

No way could I take his work without paying him.

If he wouldn’t give me an amount, I figured I’d send him a check for a fair market price. What’s your address?

 No answer.

After more back and forth emails—me offering to pay, him declining—we finally came to an agreement.

The Book of Ecclesiastes says: Cast thy bread upon the waters, for you shall find it after many days…

Brian and I continue to enjoy a great working relationship. I send him a synopsis of each new story. He sends several sample designs. We yak back and forth to fine-tune and decide on a final version. Here is his work:

Thank you, Brian!

Being member of TKZ’s community yields many rewards, both expected and unexpected.

Happy Valentine’s Day to TKZ’s family and friends from all over the globe who enrich my life as a writer and a human being.


TKZers: Have you ever received a gift you never anticipated? Have you ever given a gift the recipient didn’t expect?



Here’s a sneak peek at Brian’s cover for my upcoming thriller Deep Fake.

You can’t believe your eyes.

Sign up here at my website and I’ll let you know when Deep Fake is released.

Analyzing Book Description Copy

by James Scott Bell

One of the key elements of selling online these days is the ability to write book descriptions (also called “cover copy”) that sizzle and do the job in three paragraphs or so. In this age of short attention spans, you can’t afford to waste any space. You can read about one method of generating good cover copy here(h/t Jodie Renner).

For amusement recently, I randomly looked at some descriptions from bestselling authors. You ought to do the same. Go through Amazon and study the best books in your genre. See what professional marketing people have come up with. Figure out what works and doesn’t work for you. Then write your own copy accordingly.
Below are links to Amazon for three book descriptions (I didn’t want to overstep copyright concerns by producing them in full). Give each a quick read and then come back for my analysis.
Innocence by Dean Koontz

The first line is pretty good. Captures me and makes me want to read the next line (which is the whole secret of copywriting).
But that second line is a bit soft. I would change “do her harm” to “kill her.”
I would like to see more specificity in the third paragraph. What is it that creates the “bond”? What sort of “reckoning” are we talking about here? Why are these two people involved?
The last line, of course, is purely for the author. If you’re Dean Koontz, you deserve such praise. But my advice for us mere mortals: do not use over-the-top fluff. You can mention kudos, but only if you back it up with something like a nice blurb from a well-known writer, or a review from a trusted source. I don’t care how good your self-published thriller is, it is not going to “leave readers transformed forever and change the course of history for all mankind.”  
NYPD RED 2 by James Patterson & Marshall Karp

This copy starts with a “headline” style, which is often a good idea. But only if the headline is short and to the point. Here, I would take out the whole parenthetical statement and leave this: NYPD Red hunts a killer who is on an impossible mission.
The next two paragraphs are excellent. They are specific and to the point and tell me exactly what type of story this is. It has both outer plot (serial killer) and inner journey (Kylie has been acting strange recently). It’s all there.
The puffery about Patterson is, of course, also well-deserved. But notice that it is backed up with a clip from a trusted source.
Stand Up Guy by Stuart Woods
The headline focuses on the series character, which is fine. Readers of the series will want to know about it. “Edge-of-your-seat adventure” is a cliché, of course. I wonder if readers have a slightly negative reaction to such things, even subconsciously. Maybe it doesn’t matter. I’m not sure. What are your thoughts on it?
The first paragraph has some issues. What is a “well-deported” gentleman? I had to look up deported, and found out it’s an archaic word for “conduct.” Key copyrighting tip: Don’t make readers work hard! Write in such a way that a middle school student could read the copy and not get tripped up by any of it. 

Also, is there enough at stake? Does “keenly interested” indicate enough trouble? 
The second paragraph gets us a little closer to specifics and how they involve the lead character. I’m okay with that.
Now here’s one for a short story:
Sometimes, comedy can seem like death…
For Pete “The Harv” Harvey, stand up comedy is a serious business. At least, he wants it to be. But the struggle to make it in the glitter dome of L.A. hasn’t exactly been a smashing success.
One night, after bombing onstage at a local club, Pete wonders if his next stop is managing a car wash. Then a man sits next to him at the bar–a man with an almost unbelievable proposition. One that could mean a whole lot of money to Pete “The Harv” Harvey, who will soon learn that deals too good to be true are no laughing matter.
I think the author did okay with that. It’s brief and to the point, gives the set up and then gets out of the way.

And here’s more news: This story, “No Laughing Matter,” is FREE today through Wednesday on Kindle. The favor of a review is requested.
Go ahead and get the story now. I’ll wait.
Welcome back! Now dive in and leave a comment on book descriptions. What do you think works, or doesn’t work? What grabs you? What makes you shrug your shoulders and go “Meh”?