Monday, October 02, 2006

Back Cover Copy and Reader Expectation

During class we had the inevitable discussion of how critical it is to insert the main conflict into the first paragraph of your novel or short story, which led to the usual revelation regarding how long editors/agents give a manuscript under review (ten seconds is the average, I’ve heard.)

I have an incredibly thoughtful group of people this quarter, and where most times the discussion would have been over at this point. Yet someone on the group had the comment that they’d heard that if you’re going to kill the Sheriff you need to do it in the first chapter, but when he sat down and critically looked at the novels he was reading, the Sheriff didn’t die until somewhere in the middle of the book. He postulated that published writers were relieved of the necessity of an overt “hook” because the back cover copy set out the main conflicts for the reader.

Is he right?

In my opinion, the answer is a resounding no. I actually work quite hard to set down a fairly concrete “problem statement” (as I think Kelly coined it,] for each book in the opening paragraph, despite having written seven published novels to-date. I do this partly because having that sort of information up front (what’s at stake? What does this character stand to lose? Why should I care?) helps the reader stay focused on the point of the book, even when the narrative meanders (hopefully purposefully) into subplots.

However, my student is very astute. The back cover copy is essentially a hyped-up version of the main conflict. Very, very few readers enter into a relationship with a book without having read the back cover copy. In fact, that copy may be the single reason that the reader has plunked down their $6.99 US/$9.99 CAN investment in an author’s work.

Yet the author has no control over it.

In the case of my publisher, when I started, I never saw the back cover copy until I the ARC/galley arrived at my doorstep. These days I might get a courtesy copy of the back cover copy (and other supporting cover material) pre-production. But, I don’t sit in on meetings (and, yes, Virginia, these things are decided by committee). However, it is clear that my editor has input, and, in some cases the copy has been influenced by the book proposals that I’ve sent in (which should show you how important those dreaded synopses really are. If those aren’t clear, the back cover copy could be muddy or misleading too.).

In fact, in talking about this Shawn and I could both think of times when we were duped by back cover copy into expecting something from a book that it wasn’t. Or worse, key plot elements were revealed far too early and much of my experience as a reader was, in essence, waiting for the shoe to drop and for I what I perceived as the “real story” to start. And if I had to wait too long, I got frustrated and sometimes even stopped reading.
How do you deal with this as an author?

I think that the opposite of my student’s assumption is actually the truth. Because it’s so easy for the people in committee to misinterpret your theme/your main character’s conflict, it is extraordinarily worthwhile to put as much effort as possible into making those issues clear and up front.

Make it simple so no one -- not even the dreaded marketing department -- can mistake your intent.

What do others think? Ever had that experience where the book didn't match its cover copy??


Kelly McCullough said...

I don't know that the problem statement (a term I borrowed from my wife's physics education research) has to come in the first paragraph, but a problem statement needs to be very early in the book. It can even be a false statement, i.e. what Percy Protagonist believes the problem is, but if so it must have the seeds of the main problem within it.

It should certainly be in the first ten pages. And it can either be explicit or, as is more usually the case, implicit.

Mari Adkins said...

Very, very few readers enter into a relationship with a book without having read the back cover copy

Someone had a thread about back cover copy at Shocklines not long ago. The majority of us who responded to that thread very rarely read that copy. I guess we're a large chunk of your minority. ;-)

Naomi said...

I just want to note that the amount of auctorial control over cover copy varies by publisher. My editor at Bantam forwards proposed cover copy to me, and I make changes and send it back. Also, with my first novel, she said that the first version of the cover copy gave away the major revelation from the first section of the book, so she rewrote it completely before she sent it to me.

So, I'd say that in my (limited) experience, they are not done by committee at Bantam, and while I don't write them, I do have some control over them. (Cover art, on the other hand -- not so much.)

tate said...


That's interesting. How do you buy new books by new authors books, then?

For me, unless someone has recommended a book to me (which doesn't happen as much as I'd like), I always look at the cover, then read the back cover copy, and then scan the first chapter to see if I can stand the person's writing style. If I find myself quickly caught up, I buy the book.

I can't imagine reading a book without reading the back cover copy, though.

Mari Adkins said...

How do you buy new books by new authors books, then?

I mostly hang out at scifi and horror message boards - where the authors hang out and we all talk about each other, various publishers, etc, etc. There are certain people who, when they have a new book come out, are automatic buys. Or, I get lucky and get intrigued by the cover art like I did with WebMage and read the first couple of pages at the book store.