I wish I had a good April Fool’s joke for you

But you’ll just have to settle for a straightforward entry from me today. Here’s something for the “did you know?” column.

One of the things an editor must sometimes do that isn’t editing is to write copy–catalog copy, cover copy, and even sometimes ad copy and discussion guide copy. After all, the editor is the champion of the book in the publishing house and they tend to know the book best, so sometimes coming up with a summary or a teaser is best done by that person.

I’ve heard that this varies from house to house–sometimes your editor writes that copy, and sometimes someone in marketing or an editorial assistant might write the copy.

But as you can imagine, for the catalog to be interesting to the buyers (book buyers at both independent bookstores and chains, and mass market buyers too), the catalog copy needs to really give a great sense of what the book is about and why that buyer would want this book. They need to get a sense of the atmosphere and to know what the plot is all about, who would be reading it.

It can be quite a challenge, which uses an entirely different part of the brain than editing. In fact, I like it, exactly because of that. Sometimes it’s nice to have the change of pace. It brings back some of my earlier days in newspaper and trade magazines, in fact. I’ve never considered myself good at titles and headings, so to come up with one tagline to describe a book can be mind-racking. Yet at the same time, the brainstorming process–listing words and key phrases which might be combined to interesting effect–is quite fun. 

I think this process might actually help writers as they write cover letters and queries in the submissions process. Pretend you’re writing cover copy for your book. What does the reader need to know to want to pick up this book? A good rule of thumb is “less is more” in cover letters–boil it down to one or two sentences. In Hollywood I think they call it “high concept.” (Not that your story should be high concept, but that you can boil down your plot and characters to a few sentences for such purposes.)

An example of catalog copy from a previous season might help you know what I’m getting at. Here’s what we had for Red Dragon Codex in our Spring 2008 catalog:

lives a peaceful life in his small town, tinkering with the mill and any mechanical devices that he can find. But his peaceful life soon changes when, out of nowhere, a red dragon attacks, burning the town and kidnapping Shemnara, the village seer. Only one clue is left behind—a cryptic note telling Mudd, “Seek the silver dragon.” In this first Dragon Codex, R.D. Henham spins a fantastic adventure where dragons take center stage.

Now, obviously, you wouldn’t praise your own writing the way marketing copy might praise the writer’s writing. But the point is the same: your cover letter or query is marketing copy. You are marketing your writing to an editor or agent. So briefness and the big concepts are what matter here. It gives the editor the hook and doesn’t ramble on.