Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Cover Copy Time



You know what cover copy is, right? It’s that little blurb on the back of a paperback or on the inside flap of a hardcover dust jacket that tells you what the book is about. A great cover might lure readers to pick up a book in the store, but it’s the cover copy that usually seals their impulse to buy. Some people are amazingly adept at reaching into the heart of a story and distilling its essence in a way that is both intriguing and profound; most people, quite frankly, suck at it.

I suck at it.

Writing cover copy and writing books are two very different arts. Good cover copy is more like song writing or poetry; it's a skillful seduction that uses key words and the emotions they evoke to tempt and woo the reader. To quote one Internet guru, “The words you place on the back cover of your book are the words that will either walk your book right up to the cash register or march it back to the shelves. Your back cover is the final billboard, a point-of-sale advertisement, and the last piece of promotional material that hits potential purchasers on their way to pay. It can either lure readers inside your pages with well-chosen words or knock the wind out of your sales with faint and feebly-phrased copy.”

In other words, cover copy is scarily important. Did I mention the fact that most people suck at it? Unfortunately, a lot of those people are employed by publishing houses in what they call the “copy department.”

In the last week, I’ve had cover copy for both Where Shadows Dance and The Babylonian Codex land in my email box with notes from my books’ respective editors that said something like, “This just in from the copy department. It’s awful! Can you fix it?” The problem is, an author is usually not the best person to have writing cover copy. I mean, I just spent 100,000 words telling this story and now you want me to reduce it down to 250 words or less, in a way that will seduce readers into buying it? Seriously?

In the end, the final product is usually a mishmash of what the copy department wrote and what I wrote, with some tweaking by the editor. In other words, copy by committee. And you know how well that usually works out.

18 comments:

Beth said...

And yet, it was the cover copy on one of the St. Cyr books that led me to try it. Having tried it, I then gobbled it up & went looking for more, of course.

At any rate, I find it hard to believe that you really are not good at cover copy -- someone is not too bad at it, it appears. :-)

Beth

Kim said...

Wow, if your editor thinks it's bad and he/she works for the company, that's really saying something. When you finally read it, was the back cover of both books worse than you anticipated or does it just need a little tweaking

Anonymous said...

This is when you call in a favor from your best friend from grad school (or your husband, or both, if they are not the same) and ask them to do it for you. ;-)

Melissa Marsh said...

I've written back cover copy for a major print-on-demand company (I won't name the company to protect the innocent...or guilty, as too many of the books are quite horribly-written) for the past five years. No, it's not easy, but after doing probably well over 1,000 of them (I wish I was kidding!), I've found that there are some key tricks to making them work.

One thing is for sure - learning this process has certainly helped me in writing my query letters for my own novels!

cs harris said...

Beth, maybe in the end the "blurb by committee" works better than I think it does! Good to hear.

Kim, one was truly awful, the other just sorta awful.

Anon, whenever I say I've got cover copy to write, everyone I know runs away screaming!

Melissa, I think perhaps I am starting to get better the more I do. Some research I did on high concepts seemed to help. But a 1,000 of them?! OMG. I'd slit my own throat.

laughingwolf said...

250? how about '25 words, or less?'

cs harris said...

laughingwolf, ironically, in some ways 25 words are easier, since that allows you to boil a story down to its premise or even sometimes just the hook. Paperback copy runs about 135-150, and is also easier than hardcover copy, that runs around 250-300.

Melissa Marsh said...

Sad, isn't it? After you do so many, you can almost do them in your sleep!

Charles Gramlich said...

Although I don't worry much about covers, I do indeed read and pay attention to cover copy. I've probably bought quite a few books based on back cover copy. I enjoy writing it myself, as I did for the Borgo Press books. But it isn't easy. It's much much more like writing a short story, even a flash fiction, than it is like writing a novel.

Keira Soleore said...

Heh, joking, but perhaps your editors can open it to your blog readers and ask them to come up with potential BCP material in a contest for an ARC. :)

Steve Malley said...

It's been a while since I had to do this (with the graphic novels), but the pain stays fresh and sharp in memory...

Ariel Swan said...

It's the pain of writing a query letter all over again.

cs harris said...

Melissa, I'd be interested in hearing what key tricks you've found.

Charles, I know I've bought books based on the cover copy many times (although I also take a look at the writing style). So I know how very important it is, which can be crippling--especially when they tell you "we need this in an hour!"

Keira, that would be interesting!

Steve, I suspect everyone finds it painful. I've been thinking about Melissa and her 1,000 blurbs, and I'm beginning to feel more sympathy for the people who write my cover copy.

Ariel, they do have a lot in common--mainly that need to hook the reader with sparkling prose.

orannia said...

It's like...it's like turning your detailed conversation into a Twitter. And I do agree there is an art to it. Good luck :)

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