Monday, March 26, 2007

ON THE OUTSIDE



"You can't judge a book by its cover." Willie Dixon (and Thomas the Tank Engine)



*****

RO: This week I was asked to write jacket copy for my first book. No probs, I shot back in an email. I even made a joke – “How about if I say it’s the most significant book since the Bible?” Piece of cake, right? After all, I’d written the book – how hard could it be to bang out a few paragraphs? Well,…not that easy.
The art department has designed a gorgeous cover. In the bookstore your masterpiece is in someone’s hot, little hands, they flip open the cover, and in 5 seconds will decide if they are going to spend a weekend with your baby or not.
I rewrote the copy ten times. I tortured my husband and forced him to read it every time I changed two words. The irony is that the publisher probably won’t even use it, but I felt like I had to give it my best shot. Jacket copy isn’t a book report, or a synopsis. It’s a last little sales pitch. Or not? What do you think?

HANK: Well, you just won me over. Now I can’t wait to read what you finally wrote. Which, of course, is exactly what you’re going for in the jacket copy. And you only have one chance.
But, say, you’ve got an indecisive hero, surrounded by people he can’t decide whether to trust, feeling alone, missing his father, struggling to understand his role in a world he can’t escape. You got Hamlet. You also got Gilligan’s Island. The jacket copy has to be the true essence—it’s what gets people in the front door of your world.
I love that introductory moment, that audition moment at my local bookstore. The cover creaks a little, that nice ‘new book’ feel. The cover’s what attracts me first, of course. (And we’ll certainly have to talk about that later since, BSP, the cover for Prime Time (June 2007,Harlequin Books) is supposed to be ready in a few weeks. I love to see a picture of the author. You guys? Picture yes? Or no?
But Ro, you will not have worked in vain. It’s the inside jacket copy that gets me. Are there key words that mean probably yes? Literate. Clever. Innovative. It’s easier to think of the ‘no’ words: Cowboy. Bodice. Titillating. But hey, not always.
It would be fascinating to watch on surveillance camera, don’t you think? Watch what people pick up, what they read, what they discard and what they take home?

RO: What's wrong with cowboys??

JAN: I think there’s only one thing worse than having to write a synopsis of your own novel, and that’s having to write your own jacket copy. I had to write it for Final Copy (2001, Larcom Press) and it was stilted. Too bogged down by the author’s own reserve. I know I should want to have input, but frankly, I was relieved to have found the jacket copy for Yesterday’s Fatal( May 2007, St. Martins Press) on Amazon one day. St. Martin’s obviously employs skilled copy writers, why wreck their work with my clouded thinking? And not to denigrate the importance of jacket copy, which I know everyone else reads. But personally, I buy most of my books on a friend’s recommendation. Sometimes I don’t even look at the jacket copy until I’m a hundred pages into the book, when I flip back to figure out what the book was supposed to be about again.

HALLIE: Ah, jacket copy – as crime fiction book reviewer for the “Boston Globe,” I can only say, it matters! And sadly the words and phrases that either pump or torpedo your novel are going to be different for each reviewer. Jacket copy gets me started reading. Wondrous prose and plotting and characterization are what get reviewers to the finish line.

A novel’s opening paragraphs are as important as the jacket copy. I’m not at all interested in Westerns but this opening from Steve Hockensmith’s “Holmes on the Range,” nominated for an Edgar for best first novel of 2006, hooked me good: ”There are two things you can’t escape out here in the West: dust and death. They sort of swirl together in the wind and a fellow never knows when a fresh gust is going to blow one or the other right in his face.” Voice! That’s what it’s all about. (See more on this topic in my article in the March, 2007, issue of Writer Magazine.)

And in the “A little learning is a dangerous thing” Department: I’m working on a psychological suspense novel and if I think too much about the opening paragraphs or jacket copy, I get completely paralyzed.

Ro: After all this, I have to admit, that I have never bought a book solely because of jacket copy. I’m a first page kind of woman. If the first page gets me, I’m in. That said, like Hank, I have snooped on a lot of people in bookstores and the first thing everyone seems to do is read the inside front cover. Hopefully, what I’ve written will get them to turn the page….

8 comments:

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

I'm with Jan in thinking the only thing worse than writing the synopsis would be writing the jacket copy. Ye Gods. If I'd been asked to do that, I'd probably still be working on it.

What draws me in first is the book cover, but I couldn't tell you why. Then I look at the back, then the inside the flap copy. The fact that it's so whimsical is terrifying. I'm always asking readers who write to me, "Where'd you find my book?" and "Why'd you buy it?" (but not in a challenging, critical way. I hope.) They usually say word of mouth or front cover.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

The esteemed Sandra Parshall ( web maven and Agatha Award nominee!) posted this website which is a pretty interesting study of what colors work best on covers..
I looked and looked for the bottom line, but alas...the answer to that one is still elusive.

http://www.bigbadbookblog.com/2007/03/21/color-matters/

Patry Francis said...

Love the blog, and the name of the blog, and the stylish look!

Judy's comment made me smile. I ask readers the same thing. Where? How? Why? I'm always amazed when someone across the country who has no obvious connection to me writes to say they loved my book.

Jackie Griffey said...

Think of that jacket copy as an opportunity for just what you said - to grab the reader's interest.
Think of what made you write it - the main problem or hang-up, and enough to interest but not be a spoiler.
Keep it short enough to tell someone in an elevator - quickly!
My two cents,
Jackie Griffey

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hey Jackie:
Your "two cents' is worth a lot more than that--how many books do you have out there now?
And Patry--welcome home from the glorious book tour. Don't I remember you telling a story about what it was like when you opened the first carton of your new book...and saw the stack of real book covers for the first time?

Did either of you have input on your jacket copy?

Jennifer McMahon said...

I give every book the first page test (which is sometimes only the first paragraph test...)

Love the blog. And we at The Debutante Ball have just linked to you ladies.

Keep up the great blogging!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hey Jennifer--
Love the link!
And speaking of your first page test--which is what I always do:

RO emailed the JR gang this morning, pointing out the interesting article by Stanley Fish in the NYT this morning.

It was about how he can pick a good mystery in the airport bookstore--really fast--as they're calling his flight.

He says: the only "sure fire" method? Not the cover, not the jacket copy, not the blurbs. He says it's to read the first line.

He has a clunker or two--but offered this as the one from the book he bought:
"Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride."

He says "it's efficient, dense, and free of self-preening."


So--you all--what think?
**Does your first line pass the Stanley test?
(I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours...)

**Does your favorite first line pass the Stanley test?

**What book is that, anyway? Anyone know?