Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Got copy?

I have great respect for good cover copy. Even if the cover art is less than appealing, one or two well-written paragraphs on the back can induce me to buy your novel. Naturally good copy is a bitch to write well.

Novel copy needs to snag the reader's attention, develop his or her interest in the story, and give compelling reason(s) to invest in the book. I prefer brief, simply worded copy because it appeals to anyone versus the kind of copy you have to acquire a PhD to fathom. The most common problems I see with novel copy are that it's too long, too busy with info dumpage, too hard-sell, or doesn't provide any information about the story.

Take this example: "From [previous title] to [previous title] to [previoustitle], [author] has written one explosive thriller after another featuring [previous title's protagonist]. Now, in an electrifying departure, [author] presents a novel that breaks all the rules and will keep your heart racing and your mind guessing until the very last page."

Title dropping is a waste of copy space, particularly if the new novel has absolutely no connection with previous work, which this one evidently hasn't. What would an electrifying depature from explosive thrillers be, exactly? A dull thriller? A silly one? A chick-lit thriller? I need some details here. Predicting my stupidity and upcoming cardiac episode is a nice psychic trick, but mind telling me what this story is about?

And this little gem: "The master's first novel in 10 years is an erotic tale about a 90-year-old who discovers the transforming power of uncorrupted love."

This tells me that the master is lazy, ninety year olds are erotic? and I can expect uncorrupted love from the book, which btw has the word whores in the title. So did someone drink their lunch before they wrote this?

We are none of us safe from lame copy. My first published novel had a spelling error on the cover copy (I was not allowed to see it until it was too late to correct.) Flats for one of my 2005 novels went out with the wrong name for the heroine (I caught it in time to correct the final edition.) Another of my books starts off with "The circus is in town, and all the citizens are eager to attend the show" and, trust me, just gets worse from there.

Other than composition, I think the most common problems with copy for authors are spelling, name, place, and other errors. I find an error with copy about every three to four novels. If you get a chance to proof yours, read it carefully. On one of my novels, the copy included the hero's name, the heroine's name, and a different hero's name. Turned out that the copy writer had arbitrarily renamed my hero in mid-copy.

There is great copy out there, though. This has to be the funniest and most fetching paranormal romance copy I've read in a while:

IF YOU THINK LIFE IS COMPLICATED, TRY IMMORTALITY. Justine Bennett is cursing her life. She’s the Guardian of the Goblet of Eternal Youth, she hasn’t left the house in ages, and it’s been over 200 years since she’s had sex. Oh, and the Goblet has shape-shifted into an espresso machine named Mona. Not exactly the stuff grand destiny is made of... Derek LaValle is worried. Due to a family curse, he’ll be dead in the space of a week unless he finds the Guardian of the Goblet of Eternal Youth and beheads her. Which wouldn’t be a problem if she weren’t so sexy, smart... and ready to behead him right back.

The novel it belongs to: Date Me Baby, One More Time by Stephanie Rowe*, coming in May 2006 from Warner Forever. And God, I hope they put this on the back cover, because it's hilarious.

Effective copy hooks your interest immediately, and the first line of Stephanie's copy does that in a wry tone without the usual hard-sell push that sounds so fake. Investing the body of the copy with humor (or drama, angst, mystery, etc. as applicable to the story) draws the reader along (I love the goblet shape-shifting into an expresso machine.) The copy delivers a lot of information about the story with just 111 words. Stephanie's also got a beautiful wrap-up with delivering conflict as a punchline -- that's a neat teaser.

As with cover art, most authors are not consulted about copy for their novels, so how yours is written may be beyond your control. Always offer to help out writing and/or proofing copy whenever possible, though, and you just might be able to head off a minor to major copy nightmare.

*(Stephanie & book discovered via me link-hopping over at Vanessa's place)


  1. The most depressing thing about cover copy is how much of it is just sampled from some piece of in-house text from the marketing department dating to way-back-when proposal stage that has not been thought about or considered in any meaningful way. I've seen some really awful copy make it to jacket stage that doesn't even relate to the book that the publisher ended up releasing.

  2. Anonymous7:36 AM

    *nod* Agreement with everything you said, yes.

    Personally, my biggest problem with back cover copy is that it too often tells me things I didn't want to know.

    Spoilers are my enemy. Too many times I've seen something like, "When Protagonist drives to work one rainy Tuesday morning, she has no idea that by lunchtime her office will be a pile of rubble, destroyed in a freak earthquake. Her day takes an even more bizarre turn when she discovers that this was no earthquake - her boss secretly planted explosive charges in a cave beneath the building. Now Protagonist must expose her corrupt boss, protect her coworkers, and find the lost files for the Jameson account - without putting in too much overtime!" And so on.

    Copy like this ruins what could have been enjoyable surprises: the sudden earthquake, the discovery that it was deliberate, the further discovery that the boss caused it, and so on. I've even seen cover copy that gave away the ending (but only once, thank goodness).

    Looking at the back of _Private Demon_ now. That's fine copy. It tells me enough about the characters without giving away surprises. Yes, it mentions the dreams, but that wasn't really a pivotal surprise. Copy on Lisle's _Memory of Fire_ is good except that it mentions Molly's kidnapping; though that would not ruin the story for me, it's the sort of detail I wouldn't want to know ahead of time.

    So I just don't read cover copy much anymore. If I want to buy a book I've never heard of by an author I don't know, I might read the first line or two of back copy. But that's about all.

  3. Anonymous8:47 AM

    I decide if I'm going to read a book or not based on the copy on the covers. If the entire plot is on the back, I won't pick it up (why read 100k words when 100 will do?); if NO hint of plot is on the back, I won't read it (I could care less about the heroine's life history - tell me what she'll be doing!). Give me enough to get me interested, let me know the important names, and please have a great tag line.

    Writing copy IS difficult, and I wish there was a foolproof way to get it right. For my own work, I look at what I liked (and didn't like) in other works and try to sketch out some rules for myself. It still doesn't really help. *-*

  4. If there are hero or heroine name screwups or other factual errors on the backs of my books, I have only myself to blame. I wrote the back cover copy for All Keyed Up and Key of Sea. I bounced it off of my critique partner Beth Ciotta, whose input was invaluable. It was then tweaked by the editor. It's more difficult for me to write cover copy for my own books than it is to help with cover copy for someone else. I'm not sure why. So far, it appears to have worked out okay. I know it was a less intimidating process for Beth and me than for some of our fellow authors. That may be because we both work or have worked in marketing and advertising.

  5. I'm glad someone is defending the place of good cover copy. There has been something of a trend to eliminate it, with some publishers.

    Some agents/editors have told me that people will read the first few pages of the book to decide whether or not to buy it.

    I never start reading the book in the bookstore as a way to gauge whether or not to buy it. I only ever look at the back. Recently, I was talking to a friend about this, and she told me if the book doesn't have a blurb on the back, she won't buy it.

    However, it's very important that the blurb be a good and enough to hook you on the story, without giving everything away.


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