Doc Martyn’s Soul: The Art of Writing Copy in the Rain

Obviously, I’ve stolen the beauty of Garth Stein’s title to grab attention, but isn’t that the point of the copy you read in a catalogue or on the back of a book? The words used to describe the many more words contained within the pages of a book should tease, entice, intrigue, captivate; they should make you want to know more about the book—by buying it and reading it.

Getting someone to pick up a book and read it is, of course, the goal of all book marketers. We wrap an author’s words in a beautiful cover, hoping the arresting image on the front will make someone stop and take a second look. We spend hours (and countless emails) mulling over the title and subtitle, with the intention of encouraging someone to pick up the book in question. Both the cover and the title inspire someone to pick up a book (in person or, metaphorically, online), but what does that person with the book in his or her hand do next? Turn it over, examine the inside flaps; look for the words, the short description that will tell them what the book in their hand is really all about.

I’m currently in the midst of writing copy in the rain (well cold and snow would be more accurate, I suppose, but Stein realized that wouldn’t work as a title and so I’m sticking with my paraphrasing). We have seventy new titles slated for the 2015 fall and winter season and each one requires carefully honed descriptive copy that will be used in the seasonal catalogue, on our website, and on the book’s jacket. Telling the story of a book in under two hundred words (short and sweet is always preferable in my mind) is harder than it may seem. Catching just the right combination of accuracy, information, and marketing-speak for wildly differing types of books takes a significant amount of energy, creativity, and inspiration. Doing this in a manner that will please marketing, the author, and the editor…well, that can be tough.

And yet sometimes as we strive for this perfection in two hundred words I sit back and wonder as to the true value of this effort. Would a bullet-point list of the most important revelations in the book be more valuable? Certainly, if we can learn anything from Buzzfeed and Slate then such a tactic—the list mechanism—would seem to be worth trying: “Ten Reasons to Buy This Book,” “Five Fun Facts about Anthropology in the 19th Century,” and so on. Maybe the copy should actually be five hundred words. Maybe fifty of the punchiest, most marketing-esque words would do a better job. Does it matter, in other words, if the descriptive copy is perfect? Do we need to copyedit it and proof it six times? How much time and effort should we expend on the descriptive copy?

In the end, despite these questions and self-immolation over the copy, I end up in the same place: the flap or back of the book, the catalogue, and the website are the marketing team’s chance to tell our story. We get to frame the context of the book, the place it holds in our list for the season (and, indeed, all seasons). With this kind of importance placed on the copy it is only natural that I conclude, as I sit writing copy in the rain, that it is truly an art, and what we pen will, in fact, sell more books than average copy composed with little thought. So when you next pick up a University of Nebraska Press book and you are charmed and intrigued by the story you are reading about the story within the covers, spare a little thought for the marketing team behind those words and imagine us with umbrellas raised and fingers tapping diligently, preparing the next gem for you.

-Martyn (@martynbeeny)