Today’s rant sponsored by…

Suzanne McMinn and her recent post on Romancing the Blog.

I hate marketing. I hate the necessity of it. I hate trying to cram the brilliant books by my talented clients into a one-line description to fit into the agency catalog for this year’s London Book Fair (and the BookExpo thing, and probably Frankfurt, too). Writers think they hate query letters? I hate marketing letters more than that. Such a small amount of paper on which to remind the editor of the sparkling, energetic, passionate pitch made over the phone and the high points of the writer’s background. Of course, one realizes that all one might accomplish is separating that submission from the rest by using one’s stationery, name recognition, and clever summation of the appeal of said project. In the end, it’s all in the writing. (So, get out there and write your little hearts out, client-types and potential client-types!) And — I hate cover copy. I hate covers. I hate feeling like the person who designed the packaging of the book did it without reading it and from a preconceived notion of what might make it sell better. It doesn’t happen with every book. Sometimes they are absolutely lovely and I can tell the team behind the book have become fans of that book. Those are the coverflats one wants to hang on the wall or the door or the ‘fridge (like early crayon drawings by one’s god-daughter). But they don’t come along every day. As an agent, I can almost wrap my mind around the why of it. Books are products (blah-blah) and the more copies sold, the better the career trajectory for the writer (and incidentally, for me). On a really good day, I can even sound convincing about the advantages of good marketing. In fact, I have an entire workshop based on the concept of labels and why they are important. But today would not be that day.

29 responses to “Today’s rant sponsored by…

  1. Cover blurbs
    A story, as accurate as I can remember and truth not vouched for. I have known two people who wrote cover blurbs. One did them on assignment for Harlequin, and I don’t remember what she got per blurb. Maybe $50 Canadian? This was in the early 1980s. She actually read the books.
    In the early 1990s I worked with a technical writer–brilliant fellow who I will not name, the kind of guy who gets his bachelors in chemistry and then switches to medieval languages because he can get a free trip to Israel that way. And then excels. (I liked him, for what it’s worth.)
    Anyway, he was regaling my wife and me with stories of his undergraduate days in NYC, when he made his spending money by writing cover blurbs–this would have been in the early to mid 1960s. He didn’t have time to read the books he was blurbing–he was in a competition with another fellow to see who could take the most courses in a semester and still pass–so he would go down to the compositing room, find whomever had set the book, buy him a beer and say–his words–“So what’s this piece of shit about?” (Apparenlty, in some industries, “piece of shit” is not a derogatory term, it’s just standard.) And then write the blurb based on that.
    I was already disheartened by cover blurbs, so it didn’t top up the cynicism tank, but it explained a lot about the books I read or didn’t read from the 1960s.
    Marketing is evil and necessary. I don’t write anything based on market analysis–well, except for contract work–but you can bet for sure that I look at the market before I send it out. I send it out anyway, but I want to have some idea of what makes it different and marketable besides mine own ineffable wonderfulness.
    Hang in there. You do good work, based on what I know of your client list.

    • Re: Cover blurbs
      *twitch*
      A ‘blurb’ is a comment given by a Name for use in pushing a book. ‘Copy’ is what someone is hired to write to market the book, either on the cover or in catalog, or etc.
      Sorry. It’s a hot button of mine.

    • Re: Cover…teasers.
      Y’know, I think I planned to take out a contract on your friend at some point. Inaccurate and misleading summaries & teasers drove me bonkers when I dealt with book-ordering. My favorite was the one for ‘Gems of the Equinox’ which made it sound like a really cool treatise on metallurgy and gem stones. Turns out it’s a three-inch thick hardback book by Aleister Crowley. (I’m still not sure what on, but it sure wasn’t on metallurgy.)
      And we won’t even go into the really insipid teasers that sounded like all the other insipid teasers–and turned out later (after ordering upon a customer’s insistence) to be an awesome book. Too bad it’d been hiding behind a pathetic marketing summary…

  2. Oh, man, do I hear you.
    I’ve trained myself, over the years, to be able to write a damned good one-page synopsis, and to be very succint in book descriptions. And I did the Snoopy dance this year when the publisher asked me to write the catalogue copy.
    Because they always get it wrong. Always, always, always. So very nice when they give me some control over it.
    But it’s frustrating as hell on toast.

  3. Marketing, labels, categories, and all the attendant apparatus exist because of one overriding fact. That fact is the utter ruthlessness of the bookstore shopper idly looking for something good to read.
    Nobody is more unforgiving, and nobody will more rapidly cut your darling off at the knees.

    • But how does that apply to the situation of the agent having to compress it for the editor? Isn’t that just a question of pure weight of numbers, the amount of submissions, etc?
      (my mama in law, Marty Grabien, said to wave at you. Cnsider yourself waved at.)

      • Hi to Marty! Long time no, etc.
        I don’t know the specific situation in which the agent is “having to compress it for the editor,” but the general point I would make is that the scarcest and most valuable resource in publishing isn’t money, it’s attention; and that this is utterly reflected in the behavior of readers in bookstores.
        When we’re cruising for something to read, we don’t give most of the individual books any more detailed shrift than the system does. Why should we? We’re not administering the Worthy Books Olympics; we’re looking for something good to read. Most books get a second or two to suggest themselves. A very few get a minute or two, perhaps a little more.

        • Attention, rather time specifically? Damn – that’s a way I’d never looked at it before. And one doesn’t always equal the other.
          What I meant by “compression” is the necessity of the agent to take eright or ten or twenty of the books s/he represents and loves and wants to sell, and to compress everything said agent loves about those books into a single sentence or two. My weigght of numbers comment was a reference to how many submissions there are, at both ends of that equation, and how the amount of time spent on each has to be considered and, well, compressed.

          • It seems to me that the whole thing ends up as a chain reaction. You have “x” minutes (or perhaps even seconds) to catch the reader in the bookstore – either with attractive cover-art or compelling cover-copy (if they even go so far as to pick the book up). I agree with , readers can be brutal. After all, it’s their precious time (and money) we’re attempting to waste with this reading experience. *wry look* So, it just gets passed on down the line – from the readers to the buyers for the stores, from the buyers to the sales reps from the publishing company, from the reps to the editors, from the editors to the agents, from the agents to the writers. I get it. I do. I just am having a day where I really am disliking it. No doubt this was brought on by the fact that I spent almost my entire morning yesterday working on updating information for our London Book Fair presentations and then spent almost my entire evening reading queries. I try to console myself with the idea that if we’re all doing it, there’s a level where it would equal out – that editors (in my case) learn to compensate on some instinctive level for the required approach.

            • Yep, I agree with as well – I just hadn’t thought of it that way before.
              It would be glorious to be able to find a tiny little break in that chain reaction, and somehow crowbar it apart. But I’m damned if I see how it’s possible.
              I try to console myself with the idea that if we’re all doing it, there’s a level where it would equal out – that editors (in my case) learn to compensate on some instinctive level for the required approach.
              From your lips to the ears of whatever may be listening…

  4. Jennifer, thanks for mentioning my column! 🙂 Re back cover copy, one of the things I’ve been really lucky with in the editor I’ve worked with on my Silhouette Intimate Moments is that she has been willing to use *my* words in the back cover copy. She read the back cover copy to me over the phone last night for my first PAX book and I loved it–because 90% of the words in the copy were mine, which means they accurately reflect the story. I’ve not always had this kind of input in cover copy, so I really appreciate it now. I actually love to “blurb” (the shorter form of cover copy–what I do in 100 words or less and use for query letters) and I even give workshops on it because it’s so much fun (to me) to do. (Sort of a game–tell a whole story in 100 words.) It’s also a really important skill for a writer, in my opinion, because if you can blurb your own work in an accurate yet marketable way and basically *hand* them the back cover copy, the busy, over-worked editor will often gratefully take it and run with it! I never say “here is the back cover copy” but I just quietly turn it in with the book and cross my fingers. 🙂 It took me years to figure out to do that, though! (Years, and a lot of bad and/or inaccurate cover copy along the way.)
    Suzanne

    • Sort of a game–tell a whole story in 100 words.
      Actually, there are several communities on livejournal devoted to exactly that: they’re called drabbles, and as a precision-honing technique, I have yet to find their equal. Also good for clarifying a particular scene, or a particular character. We occasionally work on these in my own writers group.
      Now you’ve got me wondering if a synopsis-as-drabble would work…

  5. Marketing is hateful. As a writer I find marketing particularly hateful in the way books are sold by the large chains in the UK, which largely dictate market niches – with that book sit well on the front table by the door or is a shelf book or horror of horrors is it not clear where it should be put? The era of the informed reader choosing who they want to try seems to be long gone. It’s very depressing.

    • Of course that should read will that book – but I have a toddler hanging off my arm. 🙂

    • Marketing is not hateful; marketing is the set of practices by which we try to bring books to the attention of the people most likely to want to buy them.
      And the single thing that most forcefully dictates bookstore categories is the desire of bookstore customers not to walk into the store to find all the books stacked up in a single huge pyramid in the middle of the floor.
      Like most other human endeavors, book marketing generates a never-ending series of tales of self-defeating folly. That’s because selling and marketing individual books, in a world of millions of individual books, is hard. But the vast majority of people who do it are doing it because they like books, and would rather be working with books than with soda pop or shoes. Calling their effort “hateful” seems a long way from reasonable, sensible, proportionate, or kind.

      • Oh dear, it wasn’t my intention to cause offence, and I have ever respect for people who work in book marketing because they love books.
        However, I have a dislike of generated markets. As a business graduate I know the value of marketing, and as a psychologist I know how marketing can shape perception and even interest in the general public.
        Like most writers I also read a great deal and have on more than one occasion been convinced by a skillful marketing strategy to read the next best thing which turns out to be rather a disappointment, and also frequently come across wonderful writers cowering at the back of a bookshop. Over here marketing is everything, buying your space on the bookfloor almost a prerequsite for success – and once a market is established why change it, why push boundaries, why not continue promoting the type of thing you know will sell? That makes business sense. It also necessarily constrains what is liable to be published and limits what is to be found on the shelves.

  6. You don’t have the authors write the one-liners for the catalogue? *curious*

    • It might sound like a good idea, but it’s harder to put into practice than one might think. Especially when one returns from a five day trip to the West Coast for a writers conference and finds an email dated the day before from a colleague who would like to get the information to the printer today. Time very quickly becomes an issue. It gives me some appreciation for how difficult it is on the publisher’s side. And I only have about 45 authors, whereas most publishers deal with a great many more. Plus, honestly, some writers might be very good at writing novels but not so much when it comes to copy.

  7. I may have hated my query letter at first, but by the time I was finished crafting it, I not only felt better about the letter, but about the manuscript. I reasoned (perhaps foolishly) that if I had failed in my task of writing a coherent novel, then it would have been that much harder to summarize the work in an effective manner. Pardon my language, but it’s impossible polish a turd.
    Would I rather someone took the time to actually read the manuscript and decide based on merit alone — and not demographics, marketing strategies, etc. — that it’s worth representing or publishing? Sure. But I figure it’s up to me to do my job the best I can, and then hope that those doing their jobs have the same investment. After all, no one in their right minds wants to put out a lousy book with an ugly cover… do they?

  8. book covers and marketing
    It reminds me of when you’ve read a book, you visualize the characters in your mind, and then you go see the movie. Quite often, you end up disappointed because your vision was different.
    Book covers can be the same. There are some that I love, and they perfectly match my vision of the characters. Others are head-scratchers…what WERE they thinking?
    Art fact sheets make me shudder, too.

  9. *waves*
    Ectophile? Please enlighten.

    • Hi. *waves back* Ectophile – AKA lover of ecto, a style of music/musician (which is not very helpful, I realize). Check out this site: http://ectoguide.org/

      • And here I was thinking it might mean someone who likes ghosts…(I grew up in a haunted house four miles from Chickamauga Battlefield, and read everything I could find about them. Explains a lot, for those who know me).
        I saw a lot of my favorite musicians on those lists…I just got the latest Tori CD (just after I decided to take up beekeeping again…is it FATE?!) and I went to see the Indigo Girls at the 40 Watt Club here in Athens just last week. So now I have a list of Musicians I Will Probably Like. Yay! 🙂

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