Number 3/8 in a series of weekly how-to posts on writing your own cover copy by Colin Brush reprinted from Summer 2020. Follow this blog to get all the instalments.
‘Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half’ John Wanamaker, US Postmaster General & marketing pioneer
‘It’s for everyone.’
I’ve heard these words from authors, agents and publishers too many times down the years. The claim that by some extraordinary alchemy they have in their hands a book that transcends reading tastes as well as demographics, appeals to teenagers and octogenarians, crosses the chasms of literacy and prejudice, and will be fought over in the street by a public desperate to grasp hold of a copy the moment they learn of its existence. I’d call it blind optimism but really it is the laziness of assumption. It’s a refusal to ask oneself some fundamental questions about the work itself. Such as: what is it doing, why is it doing it and who likes this sort of thing?
Because the truth about all really successful books is that they start out by initially reaching and engaging a core audience and then, if they are lucky, word ripples outwards into the general population. And if they are really, really lucky those ripples might excite a great many of the fabled ‘everyone’.
So when writing a blurb to connect your book with its audience two important matters need to be understood before you set pen to paper: what kind of book it is you are selling (see previous post) and who exactly it is for. This post is about the latter.
Take the film Casablanca – a story of war, love, betrayal and redemption. As Robert Blake observed it has a versatile plot that means we can talk about or pitch it in a variety of different ways (again, see last post). Describing it as a love-triangle or boy-meets-girl-plus-obstacles (for example, Romeo and Juliet) tale will draw in those seeking a romance. Pitching it as a tragedy – a spider-and-the-fly Othello-type of story or the hero with a fatal flaw (Achilles) – may appeal to those who like their endings dark. Or how about a tale of unrecognised virtue (Cinderella) or the debt that must be paid (Faust)? Each pitch will likely get different engagement from different kinds of audiences.
But how do we know which audience to pitch to and what it is that excites them?
I refer you to John Wanamaker’s quote about advertising at the top: we don’t, we can’t.
But we can make some educated guesses.
Picture your ideal reader. (Try not to picture yourself – your book’s audience has to be bigger than just you if you’re going to sell any copies.) What do they wear? Where do they shop? How might they talk? What do they like to read, watch, listen to? Make a list until you feel you know them intimately. Think of them a bit like a character in your stories. Bring them alive. The sooner you can imagine them as a living, breathing person the sooner you can begin to try to think like them. If you can get into their head, you then have a chance of seeing your book through their eyes. Only then are you giving yourself the opportunity of discovering it anew. At this point you can ask yourself what it is they are looking for. How might they react to one story pitch versus another?
When you’re done you can try imagining someone else – someone just a little or completely different – and then see how your results compare. Maybe the person you originally thought was your ideal reader turns out not to be.
The flaw in this approach is that as market research goes it is entirely made up. But unless you can get lots of different kinds of people to read your book as well as provide detailed feedback about themselves and how they like your pitch, then this made-up approach at least has the benefit of getting you to think about your book from an (imaginary) outsider’s perspective.
This is the trick: imagining what your pitch sounds like if you’ve never read (or indeed written) your book. What does it look like from the outside?
I was once asked to write some copy for Albert Camus’ existential classics, The Plague and The Outsider. In my brief from the editor I was told that these editions were commonly sold for use in secondary schools. So I asked myself what it was about these books that would appeal most to bored teenagers. When I think of teenagers I think of taking those stumbling first steps without an adult lurking in the background – of going to movies with friends, of rebelling against responsibility and of feeling (however imaginary) different.
I decided to write The Plague as a horror novel:
It starts with the rats. Vomiting blood, they die in their hundreds, then in their thousands. When the rats are all gone, the citizens begin to fall sick. Like the rats, they too die in ever greater numbers. The authorities quarantine the town. Cut off, the terrified townspeople must face this horror alone. Some resign themselves to death or the whims of fate. Others seek someone to blame or dream of revenge or are determined to escape. But a few, like stoic Dr Rieux, stand together to fight the terror. A monstrous evil has entered their lives but they will never surrender to it. They will resist the plague.
And The Outsider as about being misunderstood: Meursault is different. He will not lie. He will not pretend. He is true to himself. So when his mother dies and he is unmoved, he refuses to do the proper thing and grieve. Returning to Algiers after the funeral, he carries on life as usual until he becomes involved in a violent murder. In court, it is clear that Meursault’s guilt or innocence will not be determined by what he did or did not do. He is on trial for being different – an outsider.
Over the years I’ve written a few different versions of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. What I love about this novel, professionally speaking, is that you can pitch it as a literary work or as a thriller or even something that sits in that difficult-to-achieve realm between the two (which is exactly what the book is, of course). It all depends on who you are trying to interest at the time.
Donna Tartt has rejected every single one of my blurbs (just as she has rejected every attempt to replace the book’s original UK cover design). As an author she knows exactly how she wants to pitch her story and as the writer of one of the most critically acclaimed and bestselling books of all time, can we say she is wrong?
So go ahead and imagine the hordes of readers queuing up to read your book. Imagine you are one of them and then ask yourself: what is the pitch that will sell it to you?
Next: Pitching your story’s emotional hook . . .
Colin Brush’s words have helped (or hindered) the sales of over 4,000 titles published in the UK. He remains at large. Advertisements