The Way Publishers Create Marketing Copy is Stranger Than Fiction

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, even in the world of publishing.

BoringFor example, did you know that the marketing language most publishers create for their books is rarely written by the marketing department? Instead, an editor with little marketing experience or a freelance writer outside the company is tasked with creating this important copy. This practice may explain why so many books display such ineffective, boring marketing text.

Why is it ineffective? Most editors and freelance writers are never trained to think from a consumer’s point of view. Editors may be good at explaining what’s inside the book. But, consumers make their purchasing decisions based on a deeper question, “What’s in it for me?”

Most consumers are not satisfied with just an explanation of a non-fiction book’s content or a novel’s plot. They want to know why the book will be a worthwhile investment of their time and money. What is the beneficial result to be experienced from reading a particular book? Convince me of the potential result I could enjoy, and I’ll feel more inclined to make the purchase.

Yet, the vast majority of book descriptions that I’ve examined never answer this critical purchasing question. And, I’ve reviewed hundreds of titles from the major publishers. The practice of asking untrained editors or freelancers to write bland marketing copy hurts publishers and authors in two ways:

1. Consumers are less likely to purchase when they can’t tell “what’s in it for me.”
2. Consumers are less likely to spread word of mouth when they don’t know how to tell a friend “what’s in it for them.”

Publishers could sell more books by displaying marketing copy that is oriented towards the way consumers think. And, it doesn’t matter who writes this copy, as long as that editor, freelancer, author, or marketing director is trained to understand the consumer’s perspective. Even better, this type of training doesn’t require a big expense or a major capital investment. Just learn to think like consumers think.

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but publishers would sell a lot more fiction (and non-fiction) if they return to common sense. Don’t just tell readers what’s in your books. Tell the reader what’s in it for them.

For good examples of persuasive marketing copy for fiction and non-fiction, see these titles:

Unglued by Lysa TerKeurst
No Graves As Yet by Anne Perry
Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin

Boring photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

13 thoughts on “The Way Publishers Create Marketing Copy is Stranger Than Fiction

  1. Karrie Ross

    I liked your comment \Most editors and freelance writers are never trained to think from a consumer’s point of view.\ I work with mostly self publishing authors and they too find it a challenge to think from the perspective of the purchase. It seems the twisting of the benefit is much harder for them to grasp. Thanks for the info..

    Karrie Ross

    1. Rob Eagar

      I agree, Karrie, that it’s easier said than done. The problem is that most authors (and publishers) are used to telling people what their books are about – because it’s the easy road (yet less profitable). Thinking from the consumer’s perspective takes a little more thought, but it is worth it. My clients who have adopted this mindset are selling more books than they did in the past – because they’re speaking the language of the consumer.

      It’s just common sense, really…but all too uncommon in publishing and other industries.

      1. Steve S. Grant

        Good article. These things are extremely difficult to write and the ‘what’s in it for
        me’ angle is very interesting. I always thought of it in terms of keeping things general to prevent spoiling the story, or risking spoiling the story in order to interest (hook) the reader. I even blogged about it. This is good food for thought.

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  3. Alan Vesty

    Arguing for marketers to write the blurb appears to border on heresy within parts of the publishing industry! To make matters worse, the same boring copy found on printed book blurbs is then slavishly repeated on online marketing assets, where it is may well be even less effective from a discoverability and persuasiveness perspective. My guess is that this peculiarity of the publishing industry stems from the historical use of blurbs. I have a book written by Stanley Unwin in 1926 called ‘The Truth About Publishing’. In the section on publicity, Unwin comments \These brief descriptive paragraphs, or blurbs as they are sometimes called, are most difficult to write.\ He then describes the simultaneous functions that book blurbs must fulfil: for newspaper editors (where they must be factual, credible and newsworthy and were often published ‘as is’, for booksellers and librarians (where the contents needed to be described adequately) and so on. Interestingly, no mention is made of the consumer, the reader! Nonetheless, the multiple roles he describes seem to have lead to a more neutral tone being adopted, one largely devoid of marketing-speak. In our consumer-driven context, and taking into account the myriad electronic communication channels now available this should be reconsidered.

    1. Rob Eagar

      I agree, Alan. Bad marketing language for a book winds up being used everywhere, the back cover copy, Amazon and B& descriptive text, the publisher’s book page, the author’s website, etc. It’s like a cancer that spreads and negatively affects book sales. Yet, it’s so easy to change this problem by writing text that appeals to the consumer’s mindset.

  4. Snow1985man

    You’re just wrong. I’ve worked at two major publishers, and the truth about jacket copy is much better when it comes to reference and prescriptive works and much worse when it comes to anything general interest.

    Here’s the actual process. Jacket copy is written by a dedicated copywriter (or a professional freelancer answerable to him/her), who is, in fact, attached to marketing. The editor reviews it and rewrites it if necessary, then the author is given a turn. The author sends it back to the editor, who accepts any changes or revises it further. Then it goes to someone higher up the editorial food chain, then to the publisher, then back to marketing. All the while the pitch to the reader is being honed. Tweaks are made later, such as the addition of new blurbs, when the copy is incorporated into the jacket, which is routed the same way.

    When it comes to reference and prescriptive books, the copy has a specific purpose: to tell readers, likely in bullet points, why the book is better for them than any other on the shelf, whether through more information, newer information, more illustrations, an author with greater expertise, etc. (Lower prices and higher page counts also make this point obliquely).

    When it comes to general interest books, from novels and narrative nonfiction to science and memoir, the routing is the same, except it’s hindered by a simple fact: copywriters likely don’t read the books they are writing about. They simply don’t have the time. Instead they read the information sheets the editor prepares for sales to sell the book in. These have a capsule summary of the book and reasons why stores should stock it. While these bullet points are enough to write copy for a reference or prescriptive title, for a narrative title it’s far too little, and often the copywriter simply cuts and pastes the editor’s description to make up the copy, adding many hyperbolic claims as to, say, the quality of the writing in order to reach the word count. So the editor has to revise it, often extensively, to capture what’s in the book and to gear the copy to readers, not to sales (and, by transitivity, accounts). Myself, I usually change the copy as well to address the reader directly (to \you\ instead of \readers\ in general), as I learned from \Ogilvy on Advertising.\

    Trouble is, for most of these books, there is no specific reason for most readers to want them. It’s entertainment. And unless the author or subgenre (such as WWII history or George Washington’s life) has a successful track and you’re appealing to the serial reader, all you can do is make the story sound interesting; in the case of nonfiction, authoritative; and like something else they might have read. Thus, the blurbs. These aren’t meant to praise the book. They’re meant to draw in the readership of their authors. The same goes for reviews of the author’s previous book, which publishers hope will create a glow around the current one.

    1. Rob Eagar

      Thanks for your long-winded comment, but I’m laughing because you say “I’m wrong.” Yet, in the next sentence, you say “the truth about jacket copy…is much worse when it comes to anything general interest.” Since general interest accounts for the vast majority of book sales, you help prove my point that a lot of book sales are needlessly lost, because the publisher doesn’t adequately train their staff to think from the consumer’s perspective. Publishers will sell more books (at no additional cost) when they create marketing language that answers the consumer’s primary question, “What’s in it for me?”

  5. Snow1985man

    I meant, you’re wrong about the process. In addition, when it comes to most general interest titles the best you can do is make them seem entertaining. As for training in this regard, what jazzed the various people in the company about the book, what you’ve been using in your many pitches as the book wends its way towards publication, is probably the best training editors et al. need in creating the copy: That’s what’s in it for the consumer. Personally, though, I’d put more effort into a great cover. That does more than any copy. Picture worth a thousand words and all.

    Also, I don’t think general interest sales are that vast in comparison to other published works. It just seems so because no one talks about the more prescriptive and reference sides of the business, as well as the academic and professional.

    Sorry my wind was long.

  6. Candy Paull

    I was one of those freelance copywriters for book cover and catalog copy from 1990 till 2008. I wrote copy for Nelson, Zondervan, and other publishers. I always felt I was serving the author (as I am an author myself) so I thought about the language that the readers spoke and the style of the genre, as well as features and benefits for the non-fiction titles. A prairie romance audience looks for something different than an end times suspense audience. I aimed for a movie trailer feeling for the fiction, with a basic intro of the key character and plot line, with a what happens next? or what choice will she/he face? lead into the book. I would only outline enough plot to pull readers in, and never ever merely summarize the plot. What is the use of reading a book when you already know the ending? Non-fiction often included bullet-points that emphasized what the reader would find helpful in that particular book, emphasizing the benefits of the features. I had favorite authors who wrote such good stories that I was drawn into reading the entire book (something I really didn’t have time for, but did anyway) but no matter what the book, if I had the manuscript available I would go through and try to use the author’s own words and concepts to describe the book. The publishers I worked with also had extensive marketing materials written, and I would draw from the best of that, especially in the catalog stage, when I would often only have a book proposal to work from. As the years went by the publishers invested less time and money in the marketing materials, so it was up to me to fill in the gaps. Robert Bly’s The Copywriter’s Handbook was one of the most helpful resources for writing great copy I ever found for improving my copywriting skills. You can take the basic information on great copy and adapt it to writing book covers.

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