What happens the instant after you flip a book over might make the difference between bestseller and remainder.
When you turn over a book, it's like clicking on a link, or raising your eyebrows and tilting your head in a conversation. It says "tell me more".
Quite often we, as publishers, bugger up this priceless invitation with a blurb that tells you all the wrong stuff, or simply tells you too much.
Research, consultants, and common sense tell us two things about blurbs:
#1: The punters neither want nor need a full synopsis.
#2: They think we sorted out all those lovey "A Masterpiece" quotes from other famous authors over drinks at The Groucho.
So what should we put on the back of a book? Here's a blurb I think works really well:
and it was a monster bestseller, sans prizes or Richard & Judy.
I think it works because:
It addresses you directly, and in an arrestingly unusual way: "HERE IS A SMALL FACT: YOU ARE GOING TO DIE".
It doesn't tell you more of the story than you need (though it does fall back on that overused 'The year. The place' thing).
It's suggestive rather than explanatory. How could your curiosity not be piqued by "and quite a lot of thievery"?
So why aren't more blurbs like that and less like dull synopses and tiresome hype?
A chap called Damian Horner (more on him later) has some good opinions on this, but my list would go:
1) Low status of blurb. There are some notable exceptions, but in most publishers it’s written by quite junior staff, like Editorial Assistants. Nothing wrong with that in itself – they're smart and they know the books – but it's an indication that the enterprise as a whole doesn't value it as highly as, say, the front cover. We can tell that the cover art is important because it is afforded the ultimate accolade of a Punch’n'Judy set-to (aka The Cover Meeting) between the most senior members of staff every week, in every publisher.
2) Publishing processes. You write the Advance Information sheet, you adapt it for the catalogue, which becomes the hardback copy, which becomes the paperback copy. Surprise, surprise, it ain't reading very fresh any more. Hard to manage freshness when you're only ever 10 minutes from the next deadline.
3) Lack of evidence. We don't, as an industry, spend that much on research, and what we do spend probably isn't too closely focussed on the role of copy. It happens, but it's not exactly common. So we don't know enough about what works.
But back to the good examples. My colleagues at Sceptre scored a big hit with this one:
When I first saw it my immediate reaction was "Arg! Can't do that!" I had a right old cringe at the notion of "we", The Publisher, addressing the reader. 300,000 sales later ... I might have revised my stance a tad.
So why does it work? It goes further than The Book Thief by making a virtue of denying you information (though the information you do get is very well judged). It, too, is arrestingly direct: "We don't want to tell you what happens in this book". It makes an unusual request of you: "please don't tell".
It was written before my time here in a very intense and thoughtful process led by Damian Horner, our marketing consultant. Now if you read 'marketing consultant' and think bad thoughts (I've been told that some people don't think us Marketing Professionals are the salt of the earth) please consider that his job here is nothing more sinister than helping us persuade people to buy books we love.
What's next? How to repeat the trick? Probably not by repeating it, for a kickoff ("We don't want to tell you what happens in ... THIS book either!!"). We have been working on an interesting new wheeze, though. It’s about getting fresh ideas from writers outside the industry. Watch this space