Nov 17, 2009

Writing your own back cover copy

The fact that authors have to write their own blurbs and cover copy when they self publish is a very awkward thing. For the authors, I imagine it's akin to torture. Poor authors - you've written the book, you've gotten it all fixed up, you've said what you wanted to say in 70,000 words, and now you have to say it all again in 50.

The results usually aren't too bad...back-cover copy is pretty formulaic, and you can't go too far wrong just typing in the copy from a published book in your genre, and replacing the key words.

The key thing is that you're trying to sell your book, right? So you say things that you think will make people want to buy it. That's good thinking, but sometimes I wonder if the authors have actually read their own books, the cover-copy is so far off the mark. Comparisons are made to books without the faintest resemblance either in plot or voice to the book in question. Allusions to authors, styles, and literature movements that the author hasn't been exposed to since 11th grade Lit class 30 years ago are demurely smuggled in. Characters are identified as the main character who aren't the main character. Really.

I understand the need to talk up your book, but really* - don't compare yourself to Crime and Punishment if the only similarity is that a crime occurs in your book and the perpetrator suffers because of it. It's like comparing your book to the Bible because it has God in it. And don't say your book draws from the surrealist movement just because you threw in a couple of vaguely weird bits that nobody would have noticed if you hadn't made a character say "Wow, this is so weird, I feel like my watch ought to start melting soon."

Moral: Back cover copy should both sell and remotely resemble the book you have written. It's bloody hard, but I promise it can be done.

*titles and genres have been changed to protect the innocent


Anonymous said...

I struggled with this one for months, and I'm still not entirely happy with the results.

For literary fiction it's extremely difficult. Here's the back cover copy for Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize winning novel:

"Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd, a New Jersey romantic who dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkein and, most of all, of finding love. But Oscar may never get what he wants. Blame the fuku-- a curse that has haunted Oscar's family for generations, following them on their epic journey from the Dominican Republic to the United States and back again."

Ok... so... what is it about again? I mean I loved this book, and the summary is certainly accurate, but it's also hopelessly convoluted. Without glowing blurbs from Time and Entertainment Weekly and an endless awards list to give further encouragement I don't imagine the back cover summary selling many books on its own.

(Granted they did have me at "Dominican J.R.R. Tolkein" but still...)

Some contemporary lit forgoes the summary altogether and just plasters the cover with blurbs. I have no idea what The God of Small Things is about, but I know it's "as subtle as it is powerful," and that it's a "Tiger Woodsian debut" (wth?)

This is a weak spot for self-published authors made evident by my own mother's blurb for my book: "Well... it's good, honey, but I don't like the bad language."

That's pretty good, but I could use something more explosive.

Anyway, with my book I had to stop worrying about leaving integral turns of the story out of the summary and instead forced myself to butcher it down to the main conflict and the characters involved.

(Sorry to blog in your blog, this really was an unforeseen obstacle that gave me grief and swallowed a lot of my time.)

Erin said...

Thanks for the perspective! It's a perfect illustration of how terrifying this back-cover-copy issue must be for writers.

I actually quite like the Diaz copy - it's certainly missing some detail but it does make me want to read the book. Except for the "epic journey from the DR to the US and back again." Cliché...ouch.

I really don't like the blurb technique, though I do love your mom's blurb and I think you should definitely use it. :)

Yeah...I don't even look at the blurbs unless I see somebody really bizarre and wonderful has written one. But usually when I pick up a bookstore book and see all quotes on the back, I put it back so fast I don't even see who the quotes are from. I think it's a silly, unhelpful thing to do. But clearly it works on other people.

Anonymous said...

It's the absence of blurbs that affects me as a shopper: if I see that a book doesn't have blurbs on it I assume that no one has anything good to say about it, and that the author doesn't have any friends.

That back cover copy better be hypnotizing.

Erin said...

That's so funny, because I have the exact opposite response.

Which is why it's good to have marketing professionals involved in the packaging of a book - they would know this stuff, and know what the target audience responds well to.

For me, the quotes are meaningless - it's easy to say something nice about the book, and who cares if the author has friends? Having friends doesn't mean he's written a good book, and not having friends...well, I imagine lots of great authors weren't the most personable people.

Plus, the blurbs just point out a good thing - you could get good blurbs from the book reviews I write which are very negative.

Anyway, back cover copy is flawed in a lot of the same ways - it's biased, it talks lots of nonsense, it summarizes things that can't really be summarized. But I personally respond to it better - at least it tells me the gist of the book and what the author's trying to accomplish.

So if I were designing a back cover, I'd use no quotes, or at most one, and I'd miss readers like you. And you'd do a back cover full of quotes and miss readers like me. And that is why we have agents and publishers to sort this stuff out for us. :)