the art of flap copy

Last week, I received my final flap copy.  Aside from the cover design and the author’s name, this short bit of writing may be the most powerful sales tool for your book, the final thing that clinches the deal in the reader’s mind and makes her carry that book to the cash register.  Here’s what will appear on the inside cover of THE BONE GARDEN:

 Unknown bones, untold secrets, and unsolved crimes from the distant past cast ominous shadows on the present in the dazzling new thriller from New York Times bestselling author Tess Gerritsen.

Present day: Julia Hamill has made a horrifying discovery on the grounds of her new home in rural Massachusetts: a skull buried in the rocky soil– human, female, and, according to the trained eye of Boston medical examiner Maura Isles, scarred with the unmistakable marks of murder.  But whoever this nameless woman was, and whatever befell her, is knowledge lost to another time…

Boston, 1830: In order to pay for his education, Norris Marshall, a talented but penniless student at Boston Medical College, has joined the ranks of local “resurrectionists” — those who plunder graveyards and harvest the dead for sale on the black market.  Yet even this ghoulish commerce pales beside the shocking murder of a nurse found mutilated on the university hospital grounds.  And when a distinguished doctor meets the same grisly fate, Norris finds that trafficking in the illicit cadaver trade has made him a prime suspect.

To prove his innocence, Norris must track down the only witness to have glimpsed the killer: Rose Connolly, a beautiful seamstress from the Boston slums who fears she may be the next victim.  Joined by a sardonic, keenly intelligent young man named Oliver Wendell Holmes, Norris and Rose comb the city — from its grim cemeteries and autopsy suites to its glittering mansions and centers of Brahmin power — on the trail of a maniacal fiend who lurks where least expected … and who waits for his next lethal opportunity.

With unflagging suspense and pitch-perfect period detail, The Bone Garden deftly interweaves the thrilling narratives of its nineteenth- and twenty-first century protagonists, tracing the dark mystery at its heart across time and place to a finale as ingeniously conceived as it is shocking.  Bold, bloody, and brilliant, this is Tess Gerritsen’s finest achievement to date.

I didn’t write it; an editor did. The glowing accolades make me squirm a bit out of modesty, but I think this is pretty darn good flap copy.  It manages to distill down to a few paragraphs a very complicated book that has two parallel stories spanning two centuries.  It also manages to capture a sense of the era just by its choice of vocabulary:  the words “plunder” and “ghoulish commerce” give you a clue that this story is not a modern one.   

Writing flap copy is an art, and one that not every editor is good at.  It requires you to know just what will tease a reader’s curiosity without giving too much away.  As a reader, I’m drawn to copy that immediately lays out an intriguing premise — an emotional dilemma or a baffling puzzle.  I’m also drawn toward copy that emphasizes a woman’s role in the story, but that’s just my gender talking. 

What will turn me off?  Nothing about child abuse, please.  Nothing about drug abuse or meth labs.  Evil drug companies leave me cold. = I don’t know if other readers share these dislikes, but those happen to be mine.

Now it’s time for me to start thinking about ad copy.  For every new book, I have bookmarks printed up as give-aways, and since space is limited on those bookmarks, I have to come up with a few choice sentences that will sum up the story.  You’ll notice in the flap copy above that the role of the hero, Norris Marshall, is played up.  That was a tough call to make — do you focus on the hero or the heroine?  The editor went with the hero because his role as a resurrectionist is important to setting the mood.  But the emotional heart of the story rests with Rose Connolly, the Irish seamstress.  And so when I composed the short ad copy for my bookmarks, I went with this:

Boston, 1830.

In an era of death and pestilence, a monster walks the streets.  And the only one who stands in the killer’s way is…

A seventeen-year-old girl.

Same story, but summarized with a different emphasis. 

What’s in a (novelist’s) name?

My name is a problem.

I married into the name “Gerritsen”, and to preserve domestic harmony, I’ve used it ever since my wedding day.  But had I known how troublesome it would be as an author’s name, I might have chosen a pen name instead.  I’ve seen many a bookstore clerk struggle to spell it while checking to see if any of my books were in stock.  When I google myself, I find a broad number of spelling permutations — any one of which could cause a reader to not find me.  Among the versions I’ve seen are Gerritson, Garretson, Gerristen, Geritsen, Gerrittsen. 

Spelling issues aside, there are other times when an author’s name can be a problem.  In the Netherlands, the name “Gerritsen” is so typically Dutch that they assume I’m from Holland.  Unfortunately, Dutch writers are given no respect in their own homeland, so Dutch readers are reluctant to buy my books.  (One interviewer I met there said there’s only one worse name an author could have in Holland. And that’s a German name.)  My publisher there even suggested I change my name just for the Dutch market.  I refused.  The result is that it’s taken a far longer time for my sales to grow there.

A similar problem was faced by bestselling author David Baldacci, whose early books didn’t sell well in Italy.  Your name’s too Italian, his publisher said, and Italians don’t trust their own authors.  So they suggested that Baldacci change his name to something more, oh, English-sounding. 

I can think of a number of other reasons a writer might want to change his/her name.  First is gender. If you’re a woman writing men’s action/adventure, you’ll want to write as a man.  First initials will do just fine.  And if you’re a man who wants to write steamy romances, you’ll probably want to write as a woman.  (And you might want to skip the author photo.)

Another problem is the too-long name.  If I had a long Czech or Polish name, for example,I’d certainly consider shortening it.  Long names become problems because of design issues on the bookcovers.  As you grow in popularity, your name gains prominence on the cover, and long names just can’t be printed in a big eye-catching font.  Although no one likes to talk about it, I sometimes wonder if identifiably “ethnic” names are a problem for popular fiction authors.  If I had written mainstream thrillers under my Chinese maiden name would I have been handicapped?  I don’t know.  But I wonder.

Finally, there’s a very practical reason for taking on a pen name: in order to escape a bad sales history.  An author whose last few books bombed might want to sell her next book under a different name, just to fool the industry.  A bad sales record can destroy any hopes of a big print run for your next book, and you’ll have a better chance of resurrecting your career by wiping the slate clean and appearing to be a debut author.  If your later books hit it big, your earlier books can be published again under your new, more successful name. 

Whatever its handicaps, the name “Gerritsen” is the one I’ll have to stick with. Here’s hoping you’ll all remember how to spell it the next time you go to the bookstore! 

Does the bestseller list reflect books actually SOLD?

Among the comments I received for my last blogpost was this question from JMH (thanks for the great question!): “I’ve always been confused as to whether the numbers reflect books sold to the bookstores or sold from bookstores to customers. Every once in a while I see a comment that a book will come out as #8 on the list, and a single one hasn’t yet been sold to a customer.”

The answer is: the lists reflect books sold to consumers, not merely ordered by bookstores.  It’s an old and stubbornly believed myth that the bestseller list is really about how many copies are ordered by stores.  In truth, the list is all about the velocity of retail sales for that particular week.  A store could order 100,000 copies but if not a single one sells to a customer, that book will not be on the list.  And the publisher will be in big trouble.  (Which happens more often than the industry likes to admit.)

That said, a large order will help boost sales.  Remember my earlier post on the importance of the printrun?  A big printrun, and a display with tall stacks of a particular title, means consumers are more likely to see the book and pick it up.  But they actually have to BUY the book for it to register on the bestseller lists.

Another myth that’s been floating around is that a book can hit the NYT list before it even goes on sale.  Not true.  The confusion, I think, is because of the timing of that list.  Let’s say your book goes on sale on Day One.  Sales are tallied up through Day Seven.  The NYT gets back its reports from stores on Day Eight.  On Day Ten, a Wednesday, the NYT finalizes its list and faxes it out to the industry, publishers and agents alike, usually in the late afternoon. Everyone involved is notified and champagne corks pop.  Even though everyone already knows the book will be a bestseller, the actual printed list doesn’t appear in the Sunday Book Review until DAY TWENTY ONE!  That’s twenty one days after the book went on sale.

This leads to the peculiar situation of the author knowing he’s going to be on the list a week and a half before the general public.  If the book gets on the list after the first week on sale, you’ll sometimes see an ad that hails the title as an “Instant NYT bestseller!” way before the actual bestseller list appears in print.  As a result, it seems as if the author and publisher have “inside information” or the “fix was in” or “it must have been all those copies ordered.” 

No, it really is book sales.  True, not all sales (such as libraries and grocery stores) are counted.  But it IS sales.  To consumers. 

How many copies sold is a bestseller?

During my panel session at Thrillerfest, someone in the audience asked the question: “How many copies do you have to sell in a week for a book to hit the New York Times bestseller list?”  After my fellow panelists tried to explain that a hard and fast number wasn’t easy to come by, that there were many factors that go into the list, etc., etc., I could see the questioner was frustrated by the lack of a number.  So I threw out a number that seemed about right to me: 10,000 hardcover copies.  And by that I meant total sales, not just sales reported by Bookscan, which only captures part of the market.  (I’d heard elsewhere that during a slow month like January, 7,000 copies might be the minimum.) 

Well, it seems I was wrong.  As in wrong by a factor of two.

Since that panel, Joe Finder and I have been exchanging emails about the topic.  Joe thought that the number was closer to around 4,000 copies sold in a week.  I thought it couldn’t be that low.  But then Joe asked an editor he trusts, and that editor came back with some pretty convincing data that Joe is absolutely right — that you can, in fact, make it onto the Times top-15 list by selling only 5,000 hardcover copies in a single week.

The reason I had trouble believing it is that I don’t trust Bookscan numbers, which is what everyone seems to go by these days as a source of hard numbers.  First, not every sale shows up in Bookscan.  Library sales, for instance, are invisible to them.  And if you’re a perennial bestselling author, then your books are probably sold in many nontraditional outlets that won’t show up in Bookscan, such as in supermarkets.   Common wisdom says Bookscan captures around 65% of actual hardcover booksales, but for popular authors, I think it’s a much lower percentage.  So when a book shows up on the Times list, and Bookscan says they sold 5,000 copies, what does that REALLY mean?  How many sales are we not seeing there? 

Another complication is the Times list itself.  They give extra weight to independent stores, so if your literary masterpiece sells like gangbusters in all the independent reporting stores, but you sell only a few in Costco, you could still theoretically get onto the list.  Even though Popular Thriller Author, who didn’t get onto the list, may actually have sold twice as many total copies as the first author did that same week.

My reaction to this number is sheer amazement that in a country this size, one can be a top-15 bestselling author by selling only 5,000 copies. My gosh, are we such disinterested readers?  Is anyone in America reading books these days?  When a mere 5,000 book buyers determine the TOP SELLERS in a country of 300 million people, the industry is in trouble.  Hell, America is in trouble.

My other reaction is this: wow, January really is a slow month for booksales.  Because I don’t think 5,000 copies sold will get you anywhere near the top-15 in the month of September.  Even 10,000 copies sold in September may not be enough.

So I’m enormously happy that my publisher decided to move THE BONE GARDEN to September instead of its previously scheduled release of March.  Maybe I won’t get as high on the list — but it certainly seems as if I’ll likely sell a lot more books.  Maybe even twice as many. 

 ADDENDUM: Just out of curiosity, I checked the sales figures for a single bestselling car model, the Toyota Camry.  In 2004, 430,000 new Camrys sold.  That works out to around 8200 cars sold per week.  

Um, America?  At $26.00 a book is a pretty good deal.  And a lot cheaper than a car.

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And… the link of the day.  Drop in and visit my email buddy, author Sheila Quigley and say hi!  She’s another writer who knows the ups and downs of the writing life.

Thrillerfest quickie

You may be wondering why I haven’t blogged lately.  Well, the photos below explain my silence!  Late last night I got home from the second annual Thrillerfest event, which was held in NYC.  I spent the week before that preparing for my one-hour workshop on thriller writing, as well as for my onstage interview of bestselling writer Lisa Gardner (below), which was the opening event that kicked off the weekend.  Lisa was the world’s easiest interview — she’s so bright and well-spoken that all I had to do was pitch a question and she took over from there.

tess and lisa

So what is Thrillerfest?  Simply the best writers’ party of the year!  It was four days of workshops, interviews, dinners and luncheons.  But I didn’t really go for the workshops — I went to hang out with people I hadn’t seen since last year in Arizona.  It’s still small enough so that it feels intimate, and you can find the time for conversations in the bar, in the lobby, in the hallway. 

This year, having it in NYC had its pros and cons.  The pros: we were in publishing central, so agents and editors were available to scoop us off to dinner.  There were plenty of good restaurants to choose from, the city was a great place to keep family members entertained, and it was easy to drop into publishing houses. 

The great location was also, strangely enough, one of the cons. Easy access to publishers meant that we writers didn’t get as much time to just hang out with each other.  We were too busy doing business with our editors and agents.  Another problem was that Romance Writers of America was also having its annual conference the very same weekend, in Dallas, and that conflict meant a lot of people had to choose which meeting to go to.  (Rest assured, THAT won’t be happening again.)

On Sunday, I was lucky enough to be one of the panelists on a workshop about how publishers sell books, moderated by Neil Nyren, one of the true authorities on the subject.  It was so well-attended that people were standing in the aisles and they had to prop open the doors so people could hear while standing out in the hallway.  (Note to workshop organizers: we need a bigger room next year for this topic!)  By the hour’s end, audience hands were still raised with questions, we’d barely touched the subject, and we still had enough material to go another two hours.

Of course, the big event at Thrillerfest is the awards banquet.  Appearing onstage was the Thriller band (below, with Gayle Lynds, Michael Palmer, Harley Jane Kozak, and Alex Sokoloff.   The winners this year included Joe Finder for best novel, PJ Parrish for best Paperback original, and Nick Stone for best debut. thrillerfest band

My only regret?  I didn’t get to wear my glamorous black and white ballgown (a surprise Goodwill find!) because the suggested attire was “cocktail” and I was too chicken to be the only gal to show up with a floor-length gown. Oh, well.  Next year, can I get my sister thriller writers to join me in dressing to kill?