Judging a Book by its Cover: The Art and Practice of Writing Jacket Copy

©2006 Ross E. Lockhart

There is a question that most bibliophiles, whether they reside in Torrance or Tokyo or Timbuktu, eventually find themselves asking. It is a question rooted in our shared experience of browsing through the shelves and tables of our favorite local bookstores, of picking up a book with a promising cover and reading through the tempting, teasing synopsis printed on the dust jacket flaps. Invariably, this provocative text intimates that the volume we hold in our hands is an important, influential, and critically acclaimed book, written by an equally important, influential, and critically acclaimed author, and that purchasing it will better our lives, solve our problems, and entertain us to a greater degree than any other book in the whole store. Of course, every other book in stock makes a similar promise. That’s when the question comes: Who writes this stuff?

Who, indeed. A year ago I couldn’t have answered that question. If pressed, I probably would have suggested the possibility that somewhere in the urban canyons of New York City there exists a hive of cubicle-dwelling marketing drones who crank out page after page of jacket copy, as unaware as mound-building termites or silk-spinning caterpillars. Today, however, I know better; for you see, I write that stuff.

Since December of 2005, I have been working as an “editorial assistant” (which is a nice way of saying “unpaid intern”) for one of the leading independent genre publishers in the country, Night Shade Books. Over the course of the past few months, I have written blurbs for, among other titles, “an extraordinary novel of weird metaphysical exploration and dark convulsive beauty” (M. John Harrison’s The Course of the Heart), “a collection of dazzling short fiction featuring twenty-one genre-bending stories and one poem” that “blur the lines between traditional speculative fiction, fantasy, horror, and fable with unflinching grace and wide-eyed wonder” (Elizabeth Bear’s The Chains that You Refuse), and a novel by a “rock and roll legend” that “blends ancient myth and fable with the charm and voice of rustic Americana and exposes themes of violence, heroism, and the loss of innocence amid the horrors of war with captivating intensity that builds to a stunning and unforgettable climax” (Ray Manzarek’s Snake Moon).

You may have noticed something about the above examples; all of them use adjective-loaded language as a means of engaging the reader. Therefore, The Course of the Heart isn’t just an ordinary novel; it is an “extraordinary” novel that is both “weird” and “dark.” The Chains that You Refuse is “dazzling” and “genre-bending.” Snake Moon is both “stunning” and “unforgettable.” There is an unabashedly commercial objective to jacket copy: thrill the reader so much in the few seconds that she holds the book in her hands that she feels compelled to purchase it. If the text “pops,” if the text gets you, the reader, excited and interested in buying the book, then I, the jacket copy writer, have succeeded.

But on a personal level, I have more at stake than simply selling books. I view my internship as a threefold opportunity. First, I am building and cultivating relationships within the publishing industry. Second, in writing jacket copy, I am constantly striving to enlarge my “word hoard,” and improve my own craft. Finally, by documenting my experiences and sharing them with other would-be writers, I hope to help those who would choose to build a career out of words.

In my own process of reading these authors’ (often unedited) manuscripts and producing appropriate text to complement the tone of each author’s prose style, I’ve become more attuned to my own voice and vocabulary. I feel that this exposure and experience has given me understanding and insight into the mechanics and rhythms of commercial fiction that by far outstrip the meager offerings of the many years’ worth of college creative writing workshops that I have attended. As such, I now feel qualified to share what I’ve learned.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming to be an expert on the publishing industry as a whole. At this point, I’ve only worked for one publisher, Night Shade Books, a company that has its own unique way of doing things. However, unless my hypothetical marketing insects actually do hold a monopoly on publishing industry jobs (and if they do, I’m sure they live exclusively on a diet of manuscripts by writers such as James Frey and Dan Brown), I can see that there are plenty of career-building opportunities out there, particularly with independent and small-press publishers, for aspiring writers. So here’s a little bit of unsolicited advice for those of you hoping to plant a foot in the industry’s door. Take it with plenty of salt, as your mileage may vary.

Be friendly. Yes, writing is a lonely and solitary pursuit, but the myth of the writer wasting away as he obsessively scribbles his magnum opus in an isolated garret is just that, a myth. Publishers are going to be more open to working with you if you are approachable and gregarious. Keep in mind as well that independent publishers are often overworked and underpaid, and are involved in the industry because they have a passion for the material that they publish. By demonstrating that you share that passion, you set yourself apart as someone who is worth dealing with.

Be smart. Know your material. Know your genres. A publisher of romance novels isn’t likely to be interested in copy more appropriate to space opera or westerns. Read. I’m dead serious about that last bit; there are far too many people out there who seem to think they can become writers without reading. As a writer, every book you read adds something to your arsenal. Likewise, be proactive. Build relationships with other writers, editors, and publishers. Like many industries, publishing is as much about whom you know as it is about what you know.

Be professional. Complete projects on schedule. Deliver what you say you will. Be willing to revise and rework what you’ve written according to a publisher’s whims. Be patient. Publishers are busy people; don’t be surprised when they don’t get back to you with praise for your hard-wrought work. Don’t trash-talk other writers or publishers; you never know when someone will turn out to be a valuable contact.

These guidelines might help open doors for you; then again, they might not. Hopefully in offering them, I’ve done more good than harm. If the prospect of writing jacket copy for an independent publisher appeals to you, then by all means, I encourage you to pursue it. That way, next time you’re in your local bookstore, and you hear someone say, “who writes this stuff,” you can step right up, raise your hand, and say, “that would be me.”