I have spent the past five years reading the descriptions of hundreds of books, trying to find things that are interesting and worthwhile for me to pitch as a freelancer. They are almost always bad.
When you read enough book jacket copy—that’s the stuff on the back of the book or inside the jacket flap, telling you what to expect within—you start to notice strange patterns. Books from one of the big four publishing houses will have a line or two promising that the latest in literary fiction is a sober look at our current dilemma/modern age/social media addiction/technological approach to dating. If the copywriter is feeling bold, maybe they’ll let us know that the writer is a “dazzling new voice,” or that the release of this debut novel is “heralding a brave new voice in fiction.” From there, a frustratingly vague description of the plot usually contains a foreboding line letting us know the protagonist needs to go on a journey to another country to find herself, or that a man will try to save his marriage or family. End with a reminder that this book is very important and/or brilliant. Just like every other book.
You might be thinking, Who cares? It’s just marketing. I care, and so should you. When all book descriptions seem to describe the same five or so plots, and every other writer is dazzling, brilliant, or amazing, it’s impossible for a reader to determine what exactly they’re picking up.
Consider two books released in 2020: Luster, a fiction debut by Raven Leilani, and The Silence, the 19th novel by Don DeLillo (18th under his own name). Leilani’s effort is described by the publisher as “irresistibly unruly and strikingly beautiful, razor-sharp and slyly comic, sexually charged and utterly absorbing,” with the plot reading like boilerplate quirky rom-com, complete with the phrase “stumbling her way through her twenties.” The description ends by saying the book is a “haunting, aching description of how hard it is to believe in your own talent.” Here, it’s unclear what is so haunting about the book itself, and a quick search on Macmillan’s website will tell you that last year, Macmillan released 36 books with haunting or haunted in the description, ranging from abstract use of the word (for poetry collections and literary fiction) to the more literal (romance novels and thrillers).
DeLillo, a titan of literary fiction, released a novel that promised to capture the essence of the pandemic in an eerie way. The book description tells us, “Never has the art of fiction been such an immediate guide to our navigation of a bewildering world. Never have DeLillo’s prescience, imagination, and language been more illuminating and essential.” This, of course, proved to be hyperbole, if you’re one to believe professional critics. Pomposity aside, the book’s description is incredibly opaque, with the attempted “hook” being:
Five people, dinner, an apartment on the east side of Manhattan. The retired physics professor and her husband and her former student waiting for the couple who will join them from what becomes a dramatic flight from Paris. The conversation ranges from a survey telescope in North-central Chile to a favorite brand of bourbon to Einstein’s 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity.
Then we’re told that “something happens,” which sounds like what DeLillo would say in a letter to his editor before selling the book, not something from the description of the final product. Presumably this is to avoid spoiling the novel’s central incident, but the reader is already preoccupied with too many other mysteries: Why do these five people matter? Why should we care that they have a favorite brand of liquor? Is dramatic the haunting of air travel? The only way to gain context, apart from reading the book then and there, is to cross-reference with reviews.
How did we get to a place where we can’t rely on book descriptions to tell us what the book is actually about or what the writing is really like? Advance copies of books sent to critics come with editorial letters, and even these make it clear that no one is quite sure what to do when it comes to writing PR at top-tier publishers. In a recent galley for an excellent nonfiction title, the reader is told that the editor cried while reading the book, but, without context for their normal crying threshold, it reads as an odd overshare rather than an enticing detail. It’s sweet that this was included, but it’s ultimately unhelpful and awkward for the reviewer or interviewer trying to deconstruct the book, evaluate its merits, and suss out what matters to the author.
Representatives from the big four publishers declined to explain their process for writing jacket copy. However, representatives from New Directions and McSweeney’s—two smaller publishers that do write engaging and clear jacket copy—offered clarification for how they arrive at their book descriptions. Amanda Uhle is the publisher and executive director of McSweeney’s, which publishes books by marginalized writers with often globally relevant stories, and she describes its process as a collaborative one. “I really like to have the author themselves send ideas as a first step. It’s not usually exactly what we end up using, but it’s important to see how the author themselves sees the book. They made it,” she said. McSweeney’s also defers to an author’s preference about whether they want any aspect of their identity emphasized as a selling point.
In so many ways, what Uhle describes seems antithetical to industry standards. She explained that marketing copy is often incorporated into metadata to make it pop up more for online shoppers looking for their next read, which might account for why the copy is often rendered so blandly. While the process for writing copy at the major houses remains opaque, Uhle’s process at McSweeney’s involves getting feedback from the author about how they see their text first, having the book’s editor work on a description, and then getting 10 or so more eyes on it (mostly not from marketing) before it’s set. “There’s a real freedom in writing book copy that accurately conveys what a book is about in human terms.” Uhle’s approach allows McSweeney’s to end up with copy that can feature direct sentences like:
Tragic Magic is the story of Melvin Ellington, a.k.a. Mouth, a Black, twenty-something, ex-college radical who has just been released from a five-year prison stretch after being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. Brown structures this first-person tale around Ellington’s first day on the outside.
Mieke Chew, a publicist at New Directions, which seeks to publish important books by international writers to introduce them back into the critical conversation, spoke to the same sense of collaboration at the house, but also spoke to the benefit of having existing material to go off of in regard to promoting a title. “When we’re coming up with this copy, it might be an English debut, but often our new authors are extremely well known in their country of origin, so we’re already working with a wealth of praise and material. Unlike a debut of an author who is not in translation, where we might need to build that excitement and buzz from scratch, we have a place to work from already. We really try to position the writer.”
This can be seen in the exacting language of jacket copy. For instance, Dasa Drndic’s Doppelganger begins with the lines:
Two elderly people, Artur and Isabella, meet and have a passionate sexual encounter on New Year’s Eve. Details of the lives of Artur, a retired Yugoslav army captain, and Isabella, a Holocaust survivor, are listed in police dossiers. As they fight loneliness and aging, they take comfort in small things: for Artur, a collection of 274 hats; for Isabella, a family of garden gnomes who live in her apartment.
Even though McSweeney’s and New Directions publish fewer than 20 books a year—or maybe because of it—they offer some key strategies larger publishers can use to improve jacket copy for their readers: collaborate across departments, put authors first, and clarify what a text is about to please both readers and writers. It may be an impossible ask for the big four to ignore sales projections and the like, but if we could get some clarity, or even the slightest bit of humanity, to find its way into jacket descriptions, I have little doubt it would help readers better choose books they’ll want to engage with, rather than having to take a shot in the dark or hope the title lives up to its hype. And it would save authors like Jonathan Franzen from the humiliation of being dragged on Twitter over being called “the leading novelist of his generation”—or worse, a description deemed so insulting the writer burns their own books in protest.