I came to New York in 1988 as head writer for the advertising agency handling Warner Books. Most of our stuff was flashy brochures, posters, tchotchkes and completed print ads and radio (sometimes even TV) spots to rev up our sales reps at the thrice-yearly Sales Conferences and use out in the hinterlands when the books appeared many months later. After thirteen years as a copywriter down South, I loved writing for a national audience. My favorite print ad was for Donald Trump’s THE ART OF THE DEAL, a “congrats” ad when the paperback hit the top of the New York Times bestseller list, to run in the Times herself. It was a full-page portrait of Trump and a nice close look at the book cover, under this headline:
FOR NUMBER ONE.
Trump loved it. That little dollop of attitude fit him perfectly.
You have to be thick-skinned to be an advertising writer. Your stuff is subject to the approval of the client, the client’s wife, the client’s assistant, nephew, gardener, bookie, et al. I’ll bet the typical print campaign goes through more drafts than the typical screenplay, and that’s a lot. The first time I saw a word-processor demo (at an ad agency in 1980), I almost wept with joy, for I’m one of those obsessives who can’t stand to turn in copy with a lot of marks on it: I have to retype it instead. At least I used to.
Over time, all these hands crinkling up your deathless prose teach you: (1) don’t take it too seriously, like screenwriters tend to do – all you really are is the verbal equivalent of a hash-house cook; and (2) you can help inoculate yourself by keeping it very, very short and simple. The world’s greatest headline is: FREE BEER. The most effective piece of marketing copy ever written is only three words long: “Lather, rinse, repeat.” As faithful readers well know by now, brevity is not one of my natural virtues. But learning it? Easy.
Well, after about three months, Leslie Schnur, the executive who bravely hired me from Mississippi, got an offer to go back to her old haunt, Dell (books, not computers!). A few months later, Dell’s sister company, Bantam, needed somebody to manage their cover copy department, and Leslie suggested me. I’d never written a piece of cover copy before, as I explained to Bantam’s publisher, Linda Grey, but she shrugged: “It’s persuasive advocacy copy. Same as ads. Leslie thinks you’d be great at it.” A healthy raise, along with Bantam’s reputation for hiring somebody and then figuring out what to do with him later (I was almost 40 and needed to make up for lost time in a whole new industry), persuaded me. Besides, it was the same office building, just a different elevator bank.
Now came the time to un-learn much of what I’d picked up in advertising. “Cover copy” comprises every word that appears on front and back covers, the front and back flaps of hardcover books, and the “inside covers” and “page 1” of mass-market paperbacks (open one and see: if there’s a sample from the book, or quotes from other authors, or anything before the book proper begins, the cover copy department put it together). You still had to write to fit a given space, but that simple staccato style from advertising, full of sentence fragments to simulate speech, was no good here. (Not to get ahead of myself, but I did create one prominent exception. If you can find it, dig the back cover of the Bantam mass market edition of John Saul’s horror novel CREATURE. The copy knocked everybody out, Saul included, but now it can be told: all it was, was ad-speak, which hadn’t much visited those halls before. I didn’t link you to it because Amazon doesn’t show the graphic way I laid out the back cover, only the naked recitative. In other words, you had to be there.)
The threshold you have to cross is this: the cover copy audience actually reads. There’s no particular need to dumb it down. You simply address them directly. Genre fans, like those who love fantasy, mystery or romance, want to be reassured, this is just like the other stuff you love, only better. Devotees of “literary” fiction want to hear just the opposite: you’ve never read anything like this before. A serious work of pop-culture nonfiction is positioned either as the last word on this subject or, somebody’s gonna lose his job/go to jail over this. Then there are goofy outliers that are just fun. We had a paperback series about ex-Green Berets who tricked out their vehicles with heavy artillery and became vigilantes in the American Southwest. Only the purplest prose would do (the joke is shared with the reader, who is always respected, no matter what), and our writers used to fight each other over the bombastic assignment.
There were three writers besides me, and this was their day job. Two aspiring novelists (one was an Emmy-winning soap-opera writer) and one particularly attuned to kids’ books, all of them glib, game, and versatile. Among us, we slapped words on more than fifty books every month. How can you possibly read that much? You can’t, grasshopper. You have a manuscript (usually) and a “tip sheet” prepared by the editor that encapsulates the book – it’ll be used by the sales rep later as he flips through this month’s list and shows the customer your cover. That’s right, a bookstore buyer usually has to judge a book by its cover, proofs of which are printed long before the insides are – in fact, long before you even know how many copies will be needed. You’re always working nine months to a year ahead.
You don’t have to read an entire book to get the idea, especially when you’re dealing with genre fiction. When we had time (we didn’t always: I had to write the copy for an “instant” book on Leona Helmsley called THE QUEEN OF MEAN literally overnight, and bro, that’s how long it took), we also used a group of freelancers who would take a manuscript home and actually read it, then try to break the back on a first draft of that kind of copy you’re thinking about right now. Some were better writers than others, but our payment was equally for the reading, so we’d have at least one authority up in da house. Once or twice I caught a freelancer who obviously hadn’t read the manuscript: I was instantly looking at an ex-freelancer.
The relationship to the art directors isn’t as tight as it is in advertising, but you do get to know their stuff very well. The old saw is that the artwork makes you pick up the book, and the copy makes you take it to the cash register, but the initial attention is on the cover image. Every month, the writers and artists spend a few hours deciding what’s going on the covers, because that really affects what you write. Some of these folks are brilliant. A guy named Yook Louie designed the best romance covers I’ve ever seen, and managed to make them look fresh every time (think about how hard that must be). Jamie Warren was particularly good at science fiction and fantasy; she was a genius at making a book look provocative and important on the sf side, and sprawlingly epic if it was a fantasy.
The writers had specialties, too, but none of us ever really cracked the secret code of the romance genre; we’d try hard, and sometimes get stuff through, but the best copywriters for those books were usually the editors themselves. There are different levels of romance. In a “Regency” (think Jane Austen), you might end the story with a passionate kiss. In a contemporary romance, the first page can well take place on the morning after, and some of these books are steamin’. Certain words signal the milieu to a faithful reader. Same with mysteries, from “cozies” (the sleuth is usually a lady) to “hard-boiled” (gritty noirish material).
There’s a knack to picking out quotes and other praise, and, at least at Bantam, some ethical rules. You couldn’t say NATIONAL BESTSELLER if the book hadn’t made at least three bestseller lists from major papers. There’s an “extended list” from the New York Times, but a NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER had to appear in the printed list, the one that everybody sees on Sunday. (The Times itself later told publishers that to them, anything on the extended list was also a New York Times bestseller, but I’m old-fashioned: I still think that’s cheating.) Thrillers can be exciting, but I swore never to use a quote like LEAVES THE READER LIMP! I figure, life’s too short.
My favorite piece of cover copy is one for which I didn’t write a single word. It’s for the trade paperback edition of Kathryn Harrison’s THE KISS, a squirm-inducing memoir of her affair with her own father. As Harrison describes the moments leading up to the title action, I interspersed her prose with several rave reviews. The effect was like intercutting in a movie trailer, inexorably pushing in despite the interruptions, and you couldn’t look away. Nothing I might have invented would have produced such a powerful result. Everybody congratulated me for not writing anything on that one, and I deserved it.
It’s fun to walk into a bookstore and look for your own material, and I will never again take cover copy for granted, as most of us do. Once I was sitting on a bus next to a guy who was reading a paperback for which I’d written the copy. A standee got interested in that back cover and started leaning closer, closer… It doesn’t get any better. Find that man a cash register!
After a while, I moved on into editorial, a whole different kettle of fish, but I continued to write the cover copy for my own books whenever I had time, with the writers’ hearty encouragement: they had plenty of others to do, thank you very much. It uses a certain muscle that can possibly atrophy, I guess, but in another sense it’s like riding a bike: you never forget how. And if you can occasionally “blast the kill-crazy goons into the waiting arms of Allah,” why would you want to?