Could We Can the Cover Copy?

By Becky Toyne

I’m going to tell you something about my fiction-reading habits: I always skip the cover copy. The publisher-penned description printed on the cover and used everywhere from retailers’ websites to promotional materials has a difficult line to tread. It must reveal the story without revealing too much of the story. It must stir emotion and intrigue. It must contain comparisons, invariably of a mash-up variety (“Lolita meets The Graduate” = sexually titillating and generationally confusing, “The Sisters Brothers meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” = darkly hilarious cowboys find the meaning of life and a towel). More often than not, cover copy must also, it seems, contain some meaningless hyperbole, every novel a luminous and unforgettable story of family/love/secrets/adventure/war that places its author at the forefront of the national/generational/thematic literary scene. Such lines look fancy at first blush but say nothing, ultimately, about the contents of a book.

If cover copy conforms so uniformly to a set of rules and draws so frequently from the same adjectival well, is there a case for not having it at all?

Consider this: When The Buried Giant, a fabulous recent novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, was published earlier this year, the advance reader’s copy (ARC) I received didn’t carry a synopsis at all and neither did the press release tucked inside it. There was the title, plus a short quote from the dialogue of one of the main characters, which appears a handful of pages into the book, but no further clues as to the novel’s contents or how the story within might unfold. Of course, the cover also carried the words “Kazuo Ishiguro,” an internationally famous and multi-award-winning author-brand who had left a decade between novels. So this particular ARC had something up its sleeve that most of its peers did not, and could get away with telling you nothing further about itself. But when I first picked up the book and saw it was devoid of explanatory, hyperbolic copy I thought: Well that’s refreshing.

If I know anything at all about Kazuo Ishiguro (and many, many book-buying, movie-going, Oscar-following people do), I’m likely to buy a new book with his name on it irrespective of what it’s actually about. Irrespective, even, of whether it’s any good. I went straight to Amazon and to the publisher’s website, but of course in both places, and on the finished book when it eventually came out, was a plot synopsis. And yep, you’ve guessed it, it closed with one of those everything and nothing lines: “a luminous story about the act of forgetting and the power of memory, a resonant tale of love, vengeance, and war.” True enough, these are words that, arranged in this particular order, could be about this particular novel. They might equally, however, be a description of something like Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road.

The more egregious sin than cover copy having a lot of words that say very little is when it has a lot of words that say too much. I led a book club discussion on Tom Rachman’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers recently in which everybody agreed that they wished they hadn’t read the back of the book first, because in its first sentence the copy there clarifies something that would otherwise remain a tantalizing mystery in the reader’s mind until some way through the reading experience. Our advice to all future readers: If you’re planning to read this novel, start on page 1 and not on the back cover. You’ll enjoy it more.

What if we did away with this standard 200-ish words of product description, or at the very least tucked it somewhere inside the book? The cover could be reserved for an irresistible pick-me-up line: “If you haven’t met Reacher, you don’t know Jack” (anything by Lee Child) and “Room is all there is” (Room by Emma Donoghue) are two of my favourites from recent years. It’s worth pointing out that while marketing folks write those “Room is all there is” lines, cover copy is penned by editors.

I realize all of this is probably completely dotty, for, unless you’re an author of the Ishiguro variety, how else to entice the readers who remain to choose your book over the thousands published every year if not to tell them what your book is about?

As I wrote this, somebody tried it. A newsletter from US trade mag Publishers Weekly appeared in my inbox with the subject line, “A buzzy thriller from ‘Goldfinch’ translator,” which might actually be the daftest headline I’ve ever read (OK not the daftest). I see what they tried to do there, but the Donna Tartt-by-association thing feels a bit of a stretch. The story I take away from this is that here is an author who read The Goldfinch all the way to the end, which is noteworthy, but perhaps not a reason to buy his book.

I’ll admit then, this idea needs work, and there are novels, genres and authors for whom it could succeed better than others. For now, I’ll continue to avert my eyes from that bit on the back of the book. Sometimes there is nothing there, sometimes there’s a little spoiler, mostly it’s just best to crack the spine, dive in and figure it out for yourself.

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One, a bookseller and events and communications coordinator for Type Books, a member of the communications committee for the Writers' Trust of Canada, and the author of a monthly column about Toronto's literary scene for Open Book: Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs