July 25th, 2012


What Goes on the Cover

I think I'm actually going to write the first words of book 7 today. I also proved that the time I put into making my book soundtrack isn't at all wasted. I thought I had the first scene planned, but then a song popped up on iTunes that suddenly gave me an entirely different image of what the opening scene could be, and I realized my plans were all wrong. Adjusting that changed the flow of the first third of the book in a way that I think will make it a hundred times better. That's what I call good procrastination, when it forces you to take time to think and consider. If I had just started writing yesterday based on my initial idea instead of spending much of the day listening to music, the book would have been wrong.

For my writing post this week, I'm addressing a reader question (and if you have questions, let me know!). This gets into some behind-the-scenes stuff about what goes on in publishing, but it may also be helpful to you as you submit books to editors or agents or if you decide to publish on your own. The question was about the stuff that goes on the book cover -- the information about the book and the quotes from reviewers and other authors.

How this works varies by publisher and also varies within the publisher based on the editor's working style, the editor's relationship with the author, the author's clout at the publisher and possibly even the phases of the moon. I once worked with a publisher where I found out what the text on the book cover would be when I got a copy of the printed cover flat -- the actual cover that would be bound around the book (and then I had to change the spelling of the heroine's name in the manuscript to match that text). And I've worked with a publisher that let me entirely rewrite their text.

They generally refer to that text on the cover that describes the book as the "cover copy." in a paperback book where it's printed on the back cover it may be called "back cover copy." In a hardcover book where it's on the inside flap of the paper jacket that's wrapped around the book they may call it "flap copy" or "jacket copy." Usually, the editor writes this, or the editor may take a stab at it before turning it over to someone in the marketing department. I also know of former editors who now work freelance writing cover/jacket copy, so it does sometimes get outsourced. The author may or may not get to see, approve, edit, make suggestions or rewrite this copy. My latest publisher was pretty good about giving me input, since they knew that in real life I'm a professional marketing communications writer, so this is an area of expertise. Often, this copy is written before the book is complete. It may be written based on the synopsis used to sell the book, and that's why the book that seems to be described on the cover sometimes doesn't seem to match what's inside. In those cases, the final book may have veered from the synopsis. That's also why I had to change the spelling of the character's name. Between the time I sent out the initial synopsis and the time they bought the book (and I'd already finished a draft), I'd changed my mind about the character's name, but the cover was based on the synopsis.

Even if you're dealing with a publisher that gives you no input, it's good for an author to learn to write this kind of copy. I find it useful during the creative process to force me to narrow in on what the book's about. If I can't describe the story in a way that makes it sound interesting in a couple of short paragraphs, then I need to work on drilling down into the story to find the core of it and what makes it compelling. You'll also need this kind of text for a pitch paragraph in a query letter -- and if your pitch paragraph is good enough, an editor may use it in writing the cover copy. If you self-publish, you'll have to do this for yourself, unless you hire a marketing writer to help you. This is a learn-by-doing skill. Try to write cover copy for your favorite books -- without looking at what's on the cover. Then compare it to what's on the cover. Browse a bookstore or Amazon and see what kind of copy catches your eye. It may take a lot of drafts to distill your book into a couple of punchy paragraphs, since writing shorter is a lot harder than writing long.

Those short statements on the cover from other authors or reviewers are generally referred to as "blurbs" or "cover quotes." Generally, the publisher sends out advance copies to other authors who write in the same general area and asks if those authors are willing to provide blurbs. Sometimes the author and agent may get involved, depending on their contacts and network. There will generally be some brainstorming among author, editor and agent about who to approach. This is really nervewracking for authors because you never know what you'll get, and putting your book in front of one of your literary heroes can be terrifying. Sometimes they don't respond at all. Sometimes you get something nice. Usually if they hate the book, they don't say anything or they give the "I was too busy to get around to reading it, sorry" excuse. If you're lucky, you may get unsolicited feedback. That's how I got a quote from MaryJo Putney on one of my books. She wrote for the same publisher, happened to read the previous book and e-mailed her editor about how much she loved it. That got forwarded to my editor, who then asked her if she'd like to read the next book for a blurb.

I've heard of unpublished authors soliciting blurbs before submission -- if they have published friends who've read the manuscript, they may be willing to provide a quote that the author can then use in the submission. I would say that if you can do that, it can't hurt, but be sure you have explicit permission to do so. I've heard of cases where published authors judged a contest entry and signed their judging forms, and the aspiring author then used the judges' comments as endorsement blurbs when they submitted the book. The judges were irate because there's a big difference between the kind of encouraging remarks you might make on a contest entry -- probably taken out of context among a lot of critical comments -- and endorsing a book. That sort of thing does get back to authors because editors and agents are savvy enough not to take an endorsement like that at face value and will check back with the authors via their networks (because just about everyone in publishing is only a degree or two of separation away from just about everyone else) to verify. Then it will backfire if the author says, "Yeah, I said the story was a lot of fun, but that was the only nice thing I could think of to say to ease the blow before I went into what a mess it was." So, contest judging remarks or critique group or beta reader feedback doesn't count as an endorsement. You can say you won the contest, but don't quote your judges.