Monday, 14 June 2010

The Power of Blurb

This is an adaptation of a talk I gave at the Bookseller Cover Conference 2010. Comments on the conference can be found using #coverconf on Twitter.

It's rather long (a twenty minute presentation).

I'll start with a disclaimer. I'm not an expert. I'm not a trained copywriter. At Hodder I comment on copy and I contribute to it, and I'm very interested in the way it works and the value it has, but I don't actually write it for a living, because it's just too bloody hard.

I'm going to try to show that:

  • Copy sells books
  • Publishers neglect copy
  • ...except when they don't
  • We can do it better

Copy Sells Books

The words on the back of a book, or on the flaps, or in the online product description, affect how the book sells. The words are commercially valuable.

What's my evidence for that?

The fine people at BML do surveys of book buying habits, and one of those surveys asked 'what makes you buy a particular book?'

The results, incidentally, created some gloom among marketing departments because 'advertising' as an answer, was so infrequent as to be statistically irrelevant.

No one will be surprised to see 'Author I like' and 'Friends/family recommended' so high, but copy features very very strongly. It's a vital motivating factor in why people choose a particular book. And, unlike most of the other factors, it's totally within our control as publishers.

On a more anecdotal, qualitative level, the BML BookZone panel of readers were given a collection of blurbs to read and vote on, for the BMS Best Blurb Award. The responses don't exactly put a pound value on the copy, but they do show how real people react to copy.

Here's just a few, and there were dozens more where this last one came from; people saying 'I want to read this'. 'I'm going to go and buy this'.

From our own experience we know that browsers in a bookshop pick up books, and turn them over. I've tried really hard not to look like a freak standing in Waterstone's Kings Road with a notepad, but I probably did and my finding was that browsers turned over about two thirds of the paperbacks they picked up, and spent on average four seconds looking at the back. Which is a little frightening, but I suppose it's better than nothing.

The online equivalent of this is that we scroll down from the cover to the product description, before going on to the quotes.

So, to recap: browsers read the copy, and it influences what they buy.

Publishers Neglect Copy

So if we accept that copy is commercially valuable, do we as publishers give it the priority it deserves? I would contend that we don't. To demonstrate that, I'm going to contrast the priority given to copy in publishers with the priority given to cover design.

In every publishing company there are rows in the cover meeting.

This is a GOOD THING. Of course we row about covers. Because they're so important. It's axiomatic for publishers that covers sell books. In every company a given cover will be worked on, circulated, discussed, rowed about, revised, rowed about some more, sometimes researched, sometimes outsourced at the cost of thousands, scrapped, rowed about some more and finally signed off. Then the MD gets hold of it, rejects it, and the whole damn thing starts all over again.

Contrast that process with what I found out when I emailed a number of contacts in other publishers to ask about how copy was treated. These were editors, marketers, sales people.

I asked: 'how often is copy discussed in meetings at your firm?'

'In cover meetings, but only if it is too long or badly laid-out rather than because it is crap


'Very rarely'

'Not that often exclusively, massive discussion about cover/package/overall tone though'

'Each piece of copy is discussed once at the copy meeting.'

'This is taking up much more of our thinking time on pbs these days. We meet weekly to discuss our plans for pbs and blurb is regularly on the agenda.'

'Only front cover stuff, not the actual blurb'

'I discussed blurbs a lot. This was not necessarily popular or viewed as 'normal'.'

No one I asked had ever done any market research on a blurb. Few could name their most effective blurb, or anyone else's

It's a pretty clear picture. Little time is spent discussing, debating, perfecting the copy. Senior people are spending their time on other priorities. A notable exception here is Penguin, who very sensibly have copywriters to work on their paperback editions. Elsewhere, copy is the ginger stepchild of the publishing family (I'm allowed to say that: I have some red in my hair).

At this point I should say that what I'm not doing is saying no one puts any effort in. The issue of who actually writes the copy is one we'll return to, but in most cases it is slaved over by someone and they give it their best shot. But then it's generally left as it is.

One significant exception to this is shoutlines, which rightly do get agonised over. But if you think that a shoutline is important and the back cover copy is not, then you're essentially denying the reality that readers routinely turn books over before they decide to buy.

One other small point about the contrast with cover processes before we move on: finishes. The time, effort and strife that goes into foil, matt lam and embossing in publishing meetings. Think about how many books get sold online nowadays, where all those finishes count for nothing. But the copy remains.

Publishers neglect copy, but it's obvious from other industries that we're missing a trick. It's almost too obvious to point out that the advertising industry has been selling products with words for decades and the balance between art and copy is built into the very structure of their creative operations..

In terms of packaging of other products, we've all seen what Innocent drinks have done with a fresh brand voice. Some people hate the words on their smoothies, but the sales speak for themselves.

Which means we can afford to be positive about all this. We have an opportunity to, dare I say it, add value. And not just in the sense of publishers competing with one another. If the industry as a whole communicates more engagingly about its books, we will compete better with all the other new forms of handheld entertainment busily scaring the crap out of us.

Publishers Neglect Copy ... Except When They Don't

So how much better could our copy be? I think we can say that there are some examples of copy which has significantly contributed to the success of books and they show the standard we ought to hit more often.

We're pretty sure that the copy sells The Other Hand to readers, as suggested both by the overwhelming success in the BookZone research into the most tempting copy and also anecdotal evidence. I've been to two book groups at which people have said 'I read the back and I just had to buy it'. And it was the first book mentioned when I asked staff at Waterstone's Kings' Road for an example of a selling blurb.

Why does it work? Two reasons: content and tone. In terms of content ... there ain't none. It plays the denial card: you're curious about what's in the book ... and you're going to stay curious, because we're not going to tell you. That's genuinely surprising, and because it's cleverly done it's actually intriguing, rather than just annoying. There are a few facts, but hardly any.

Tonally it's really shocking. It addresses you directly. The publisher, not the author or the character, the publisher, is addressing you, and it is asking you to BUY the book. What could be less appropriate? The cheek of it! Most puslishers wince when they read it. I did too. It breaks one of our biggest taboos. 400k sales on, I'm not wincing any more.

It represents a very bold new view of how much plot needs to go in, and actively seeks to unsettle the reader, who has, thanks to publishers, generally very conservative expectations of a blurb.

A footnote to that is that the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas did a very similar thing. I'm assured by colleagues at Hodder that they were unaware of this when doing The Other Hand, as was Damian I expect. But still, they've sold 1.3m books between them, I think the inference is fairly clear.

Next example is The Book Thief:

Less radical than The Other Hand, but very effective. It addresses you directly and it arouses your curiosity.

It has to be said it also contains one of my least favourite blurb devices: the time. The place. Nothing intrinsicly wrong with it but it's so overused as to be well worth avoiding now.

An interesting point here is how the copy is designed. This wouldn't work as a simple paragraph. Someone at Transworld has really thought through how this will work visually on a paperback. It's two voices, one from the book and one outside the book as it were. This has sold well over half a million. The crazy kids at don't agree. they think it's crap layout. I believe they are wrong.

Which brings us on to another example, from the first Twilight book

This was nominated by someone a contact at Little, Brown who says it's the best blurb they've done. And the bit he thinks is good is the first bit: simply an extract from the book. I agree it works brilliantly. The rest, as my contact says, is 'totally unnecessary'.

We quite often resort to using extracts from books when we're blurbing, and quite right too in my opinion. As I said, we will return to whose job it is to write the blurb, and I'll suggest that getting the author to do it is rarely a winning method, but using a carefully selected bit of their own prose to set the scene and arouse curiosity is a great option. You can't really force it, of course, the writing either lends itself to being extracted, or it doesn't.

I was very impressed with what Fourth Estate did with the paperback of Wolf Hall.

Minna Fry, never shy of a bit of market segmentation, had two copy approaches done for the two different covers. The white is for women unscared by literaryness the black is more male; for a more thriller-loving reader, possibly put off by prizes. I love the idea. I'm not sure the distinction is quite as clear as it might be in the copy, but you can see what they're trying to do: The Booker Prize reference is moved to the back on the black edition, for instance.

Both versions use copy and quotes to build on the overall proposition of the book: "Tudors". The copy's all about scale, drama, excitement, pace. It could have said 'at times laugh out loud funny' or 'exquisite prose which is a joy to read slowly and absorb' or 'manipulates second person narrative in an original and captivating way'. But they didn't. All of those things are true, but they are not the point Fourth Estate are trying to make.

I said I'd return to the issue of quote selection, and it's mainly to say that I'm not going to say that much about it - like shoutlines, quotes do get lots of attention, and have actually been the subject of a bit of market research; most big companies have probably replicated the research that tells them the same three things: readers are confused by quotes for the author's previous books, readers give credance to quotes from 'the right newspapers' and readers think all quotes from fellow authors are stitch-ups.

So I'm not going to dwell on quotes, beyond saying that they seem to work best when they, like the blurb, are pointed at a particular target. The quotes for Wolf Hall are buttressing the central message: 'don't be scared, it's a Tudor pageturner!'

I'm not suggesting, of course, that we should all start doing the same thing; addressing the reader directly, or just using extracts, or creating dual blurbs: that would be missing the point. The point is that we need to decide what effect we're trying to have on the reader, and go all out to create it. No one will arrest us if we don't represent the whole book accurately on the cover. And frankly no one will know if we do, because they'll have been too bored to have read the whole blurb.

Are we trying to arrouse curiosity?

Are we suggesting the conversations this book will inspire you to have?

Are we hinting that it's not a disimilar read to another, bestselling author?

Are we simply reassuring the reader that this is more of the same from their favourite author?

Every blurb performs a function. If you try to make it perform lots, then good luck. You're probably stuffed.

We Can Do Better

So if we accept that copy is valuable, and neglected, but possible to do brilliantly, how do we as publishers go about doing it brilliantly more often?

I would suggest that it's all about internal working methods. (Sorry if that sounds dull!)

Fact is, It's a right old can of worms. The status quo at most publishers seems to be:

The editor, or editorial assistant, writes copy for the AI sheet. They work hard at it, they're being bothered by the gits like me in Sales and marketing to get something on there, they get it done. It's fine. It goes online and already IS the copy to anyone browsing on Amazon. They adapt it for the catalogue, and before you know it they need to adapt it for the hardback too. In due course they're required to shorten it and bung on some quotes for the paperback.

All of this is well and skillfully done, again, I'm not having a pop at editors, god forbid. But it's typically done under a fair bit of time pressure, and tends to become self-repeating. You set the approach very early and it often stays set.

Why is it the editor? One reason: they've read the book. The gits in sales and marketing haven't. Usually.

Marketing sage Damian Horner believes that marketing people should do blurb. Not because marketing rule and everyone else sucks, but because their job is communicating persuasively about the books.

Practically, that's really hard to do. The poor folks in Marketing would have to read every book practically at the moment of acquisition, and there generally aren't enough of them. I think the only place this actually happens is at Penguin, where it's a copywriting team rather than Marketing, but along the same lines.

A senior colleague at Little, Brown has this to say on roles:

'There is no definite answer about who, in terms of role, should be writing blurbs for books – in my view sometimes the best person is the marketeer, sometimes the author, sometimes the publisher, depending on the skills of each.'

I agree with this. A flexible approach is needed. And it's not just about their skills. It also depends upon exactly what you're trying to achieve with each blurb.

Here's some specific new approaches that we might try. Some are really basic. Some a bit more radical.

#1 The Conversation

Lots of colleagues have a go at writing a blurb. We compare, we discuss, (we vote?) we adapt, we decide. The competing blurbs can be blown up and put around the office for others to comment on.

Sounds like copywriting by committee, and that is its main drawback; that it can become a collection of compromises. However, having tried it, it does introduce energy to the process, and it helps to distill choices. If one version is all about the atmosphere and location, but another is all based on characters, you have a really interesting and useful choice to make.

#2 Brief It Out

Why not? We spend a fortune on designers, so why not use a freelance copywriter?

It demonstrates commitment, it promotes variety (though some believe freelancers tend to 'give you what they think you want' rather than do anything unusual).

#3 Crowdsource

This might sound wanky if you haven’t tried it, but it’s simply a public competition to create blurb. We tried this with a book called And This Is True, sending out white-covered proofs to members of the public who'd taken up an invitation on our site, or Twitter, or Facebook. The winner was an actor, as it turned out, and I think his copy is genuinely fresh:

In addition to the potential for a surprising approach, this is also cheap and can yeild PR. Though it is immensely time consuming.

It's worth mentioning authors at this point. You'd have hoped they'd be a brilliant resource for blurb: they're the professional writers here. But it's not always the case; naturally they're not the most objective party, and probably more concerned than most with accurate representation, which is not commercially useful. In the above example, the author took the most convincing about the copy. And who can blame her? She does the words, right? Who has the right to put something gimmicky on the back of her book?

#4 Retained Writer

Find one brilliant copywriter to do your whole list. It would create a high overall standard, but it would cost a fortune and might introduce a homogenous tone. Penguin make it work, mind.

#5 Copy Leader

Should you appoint one copy leader per imprint? Could be an editor, could be a marketer, could be a sales person…?

They mind deadlines and own blurbs. Why not give someone the job and see what happens?

#6 Copy Teams

To raise the status and internal ambition for blurbs, should we simply appoint a copy team for each big book? And then brief them really thoroughly: Is there a problem to challenge or avoid? Is there a particular way we want readers to feel? Is there a 'magic moment' we need to highlight? What is the particular function of this blurb?


We’ve seen from the BookZone work on the cover copy awards that it’s really easy to find out which blurbs readers respond to. There’s nothing to stop us testing two different blurbs and letting readers tell us which one makes them want to buy the book.

I'll finish with a quick note on authors and agents, suggested by Damian Horner:

Why not present blurb properly, in person, to author and agent along with cover? The package, all of it, is our communication vehicle, and we should present it to them with confidence. After all, if we rehabilitate copy, rescue it from being the ginger stepchild in the family, we're demonstrating to the world another vital element that the publisher adds. Another reason why we're the experts. Another reason why we're indispensible. And we need those.


Cornflower said...

A fascinating look behind the scenes!
I (inadvertently) did the blurb for a book once as I reviewed it at proof stage, the publisher liked what I wrote and took a chunk for the back cover, but how interesting to see how it is usually done.

JS said...

Thank you! And I'm curious - what was the book? Be good to see your inadvertent blurb... J

John Self said...

Very interesting presentation, James. I know I am in a minority, but I don't like the blurbs for The Other Hand and The Book Thief at all: and I've read enough of The Other Hand (the first couple of chapters) and heard enough about The Book Thief from sympathetic readers to know that I wouldn't like either book. So maybe that makes the blurbs appropriate!

Slightly high-minded to say so, I know, but from a reader's point of view, the number of sales isn't necessarily the only mark of the success of a blurb.

Anyway, to put my money where my mouth is, here is one of my favourite paperback blurbs of recent years. I suspect it's one of the lowest selling paperbacks of recent years too, so shows how business-savvy my tastes are! Incidentally, the forthcoming sequel to this book has a lovely blurb too (at least I assume this will be the blurb, as it's the description in the publisher's catalogue). I'm guessing it was written by the author:

"Cedilla continues the history of John Cromer ('adventures' sounds rather too hectic) begun by Pilcrow, described by the London Review of Books as 'peculiar, original, utterly idiosyncratic' and by the Sunday Times as 'truly exhilarating'.

"These huge and sparkling books are particularly surprising coming from a writer of previously (let's be tactful) modest productivity, who had seemed stubbornly attached to small forms. Now the alleged miniaturist has rumbled into the literary traffic in his monster truck, and seems determined to overtake Proust's cork-lined limousine while it's stopped at the lights.

"John Cromer is the weakest hero in literature - unless he's one of the strongest. In Cedilla he launches himself into the wi(l)der world of mainstream education, and comes upon deeper joys, subtler setbacks. The slow unfolding of themes is perhaps closer to Indian classical music than the Western tradition - raga/saga, anyone?

"This isn't an epic novel as such things are normally understood, to be sure. It contains no physical battles and the bare minimum of travel, yet surely it qualifies. None of the reviews of Pilcrow explicitly compared it to a coral reef made of a billion tiny Crunchie bars, but that was the drift of opinion. Page by page, Cedilla too provides unfailing pleasure."

JS said...

Thank you. And you're certainly not alone: loads of people hate the blurb for The Other Hand. But it's supposed to be unusual, so I guess that's inevitable and, to a certain extent, desirable.

And I don't think it is high-minded to say that about sales not exactly equalling success. In fact, even from a commercial point of view some people completely disagree with my view on copy. Seth Godin, that marketing guru bloke, thinks that because word of mouth is the only thing that makes a book successful, your primary aim should be to have copy that fits, and works with the book, to make it even more recommendable.

Both those Mars-Jones blurbs are utter genius! I'm going to go and buy them now.