Pub Rants

Another Reason To Nail Your Query Pitch Paragraph

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STATUS: Blogging before noon! That means I’m head of my To Do list.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? YOU’RE ONLY LONELY by JD Souther

There is an interesting trend I’ve noticed lately in publishing. I think it has to do with the tightening of budget and the laying off of staff (actually, I’m just speculating that is the case.)

More and more lately, my clients and I have been practically writing our own cover copy for upcoming releases. Lately, it’s been clear that the copy writer has maybe seen just a brief synopsis of the plot before coming up with copy. By the way, this is not unusual. There is no way a copy writer could read every single book he/she has to write cover copy for. Still, in my mind, you don’t have to read the entire manuscript to be ready to write good copy. You really only have to read the first 30 pages of a novel to knock it out (and that’s easy enough to do even if the copy editor has 30 or 40 books to handle).

As I’m typing, I realize that this entry might sound like a complaint but it’s not. I actually prefer when the author and I are intimately involved and really get a say in the copy text (especially if the first draft we’ve received is really bland or just off).

So it’s more of an observation—as something I’ve noticed in the past 6 or 7 months. You folks are going to hate me for this but yet another reason to nail your pitch blurb paragraph in your query letter. You might actually be called upon to significantly contribute to the final copy that will go on your book jacket. You might as well master the craft now…

33 Responses

  1. Maryann Miller said:

    Good advice, Kristin. More and more we authors are having to provide marketing and promo material that used to be generated at the publisher’s. Just another part of the craft of writing.

  2. Stephanie said:

    Things are most definitely changing! Seems these days authors need to be prepared to do a lot more work than they used to do. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With so much competition out there…you can’t just sit back, do nothing, and expect the money to roll in. And besides, I like being involved in every step of the process!! Makes it feel more like it’s mine! And the success is more mine. I enjoy working hard and earning what I have! 🙂

  3. D.N. Stuefloten said:

    You mean some strangers are writing the blurbs? Hmm. My only publisher has been Fiction Collective Two, and we always collaborated, tossing paragraphs back and forth. That makes more sense to me than someone scanning the first 30 pages and trying to make sense out of the novel. But I guess that’s the difference: the novel is the novel, and the blurb is a sales pitch…

  4. Cholisose said:

    It’s also good to have this down for when people inevitably ask “What’s your book about?” That way you’re not stumbling for an answer that doesn’t sound *too* ridiculous…

  5. Christine Norris said:

    I started thinking about my query pitches as ‘what would be on the back of the book if it were in the store’ years ago. I mean, it’s got to hook the agent or editor, just like it does a reader. And it really helps you to hone what’s important about the book.

    Ever since I switched to this method of writing queries a)query writing has gotten a tad easier, and b) I’ve gotten tons more requests to read.

    And yes, some of those query pitches have would up on the backs of books, almost word for word.

  6. Kathleen MacIver said:


    It ticks me off when back cover copy doesn’t reflect the book. And it happens a LOT. Not so much on the hook part…but there’s almost always a sentence or two that hint at where the book is going, and those are often hinting in the totally wrong direction.

    So I’m thrilled to hear of this trend. Hopefully authors will be able to fix this problem!

  7. Kristin Laughtin said:

    Cool, I’d love to have control of my own copy!

    The only thing to bear in mind, I suppose, is that agents don’t seem to mind being spoiled in queries. Some even encourage writers not to worry about it. But you might not want to put the exact same paragraph on your back cover copy and reveal everything to your potential readers before they’ve even opened the book. Still, it’s good practice to nail the query format, because the cover copy should have a similar tone and style.

  8. Sarra said:

    It’s definitely an important skill, but one that takes practice. (*runs off to keep working on mine*)

    Looking forward to a pitch appointment with you in Orlando next Saturday!

  9. June G said:

    Great post. I find that writing a query has helped me nail down the motivation of the story and even go back and make some changes. Being able to concisely describe your book can only help the author in a huge way and on a number of levels. Thanks again for a helpful tip!

    Your workshop at the Backspace writers conference was wonderful.

  10. Diana Peterfreund said:

    My cover copy has always been a collaborative effort between the copywriters, my editor, my editors’ bosses, and me. The best (though perhaps I’m biased) are the ones that hew closest to my queries/pitches. Obviously, I wrote them as sales tools.

    The biggest problem I see in cover copy (early drafts of mine as well as other people’s) is when the copywriters include spoilers for the book in the flap copy. If something is described as happening in the flap copy, readers expect to be confronted with that by page 50, or they start to complain about the book’s “pacing.” It’s not a pacing problem, they’ve just been told the story before they started reading! They don’t want to read a book if the entire plot is described on the cover. Just the inciting incident, please! I have a standing rule that nothing appears in the cover flap that occurs past the 50% mark in the book.

  11. Anonymous said:

    My cover copy at Extremely Huge Major Publisher is written by my editor. I’d rather write it myself– but the copy editor is in charge of the people who scold me about commas.

  12. Claudia Putnam said:

    Man, that reminds me… I saw the worst jacket copy the other day. It was for a well-known literary author’s book… Something along the lines of This book describes the everyday dilemmas of an ordinary man’s daily life in situations that people face every day. I LOVE literary fiction, but gotta say nothing really called to me there. 😀

  13. Robert Michael said:

    @ Claudia Putnam:
    That sounds like the jacket copy to a “Seinfeld” script.

    @ everyone else:

    Thanks for the comments here. They are all enlightening and helpful. This is such a unique and constructive group to follow.

    Kristin’s blog is informative and fun to keep up with, but all of your comments are often what keep me coming back.

  14. Susan Gourley/Kelley said:

    I would like to have more say in my cover copy. I’ve had some the only thing that seemed correct was the characters’ names.
    But again, maybe it’s the over-worked rather than incompetent.

  15. Ted Cross said:

    I know I swim against the tide, but I am a reader who likes books that take their time. If a book can be completely blurbed from the first 30 pages then it is doing it wrong from my perspective.

  16. elfarmy17 said:

    I sent you a query letter a few days ago, and you weren’t interested. Since the entire agency shares one query box, can I send it again to one of the other agents, or does “this project is not what we’re looking for” apply to the entire agency instead of just you?

  17. behlerblog said:

    I’m not so sure I agree with you on not having to read the full before writing jacket copy. I suppose it depends on the story. And yes, reading the full is a luxury the one writing the copy doesn’t have, so what to do?

    As one who sits on that side of the desk, we lurve it when an agent or author has a great para because they are more intimately knowledgeable about their books. Since we want the best copy going, there are often subtle yet important nuances that we’ll miss.

    Since I’m a small publisher, I write the jacket copy (for now) because I’m too anal. I collect bits and pieces from the manuscript when I’m reading it so I can use it for the TIP sheets, cover letter, and jacket copy – all which need to be different.

    So while I still do it the hard, long way, I do love it when an agent or author has a rockin’ pitch.

  18. Marilynn Byerly said:

    Years ago, I wrote an article on how to write back cover copy, and since then, it’s been used by university publishing programs as part of their coursework as well as by authors and really cool middle and high school teachers who want blurbs instead of the dreaded book report.

    In a spirit of education, not promotion, here it is:

  19. Nicole said:

    Exactly why I’m busting ass to make sure I have a good query before sending anything to you. (that’s right – you’re my dream agent, so I refuse to send you anything but the best)

    It doesn’t surprise me that some of these bits and pieces are coming from the writer and such. Actually, that’s how I always pictured it to be since it made a lot of sense…

    That’s good anyway since I’ve read a few books where the blurb was WAY off and I ended up rather ticked at the “false advertising” as one might say. Kind of how a movie trailer is hilarious but the movie is not.

  20. Tasmanian Devil said:

    Publishers are normally so controlling once they have bought the licence to a book. I am utterly amazed (and pleased) to hear of this trend.

  21. Some Screaming Fangirl said:

    I think authors should have a huge part in the cover copy. I mean, no one else but them knows how to word their story well (at least, if they are already published, hopefully they know how) and are the most eager to sell it.

    But yes, make the first 30 pages shine and describe the book as much as possible. It’s useful advice.

  22. Timothy Fish said:

    If all you’re reading is the first thirty pages before writing the cover copy you’re making a big mistake. The first thirty pages of every novel is setup and doesn’t tell us what the book is about. Take Where the Red Fern Grows as an example. The back cover says:

    Billy, Old Dan and Little Ann—a Boy and His Two Dogs… A loving threesome, they ranged the dark hills and river bottoms of Cherokee country. Old Dan had the brawn, Little Ann had the brains—and Billy had the will to train them to be the finest hunting team in the valley. Glory and victory were coming to them, but sadness waited too. And close by was the strange and wonderful power that’s only found… Where the Red Fern Grows An exciting tale of love and adventure you’ll never forget.

    Anyone who’s read the book will say that that’s what the book is about, a boy training his dogs to become a fine hunting team. But none of that takes place in the first thirty pages. Billy hasn’t even met the dogs by page thirty. If all we had to go on was what happens in those first thirty pages we would think that the story is about a boy working to buy a couple of dogs or a boy growing up in the country. You were to instead read from about page 60 through about page 125 of Where the Red Fern Grows you would have read the bulk of what the back cover refers to. It is in those pages that Billy trains the dogs and they become the great team they were.

  23. FantasyAuthor RobinDOwens said:

    I’ve done the copy for my last three Berkley “Heart” books, one just a couple of weeks ago, with Linnea Sinclair’s help. 🙂 Ok, I usually need help or other eyes.

    But I am just as glad that I do it, because they’ve all been off — so off that it made my hero or heroine or both someone you wouldn’t want to read about.

    So, good post as always.

  24. Elizabeth West said:

    What Christine Norris said.

    I’ve been trying to make my queries sound better, and it dawned on me that I could use the opportunity to show that I could come up with good copy as well. I just sent out a bunch of snail-mail ones that are way better than the last rejects. Let’s see if it makes a difference!

  25. BorneoExpatWriter said:

    Thanks, I’m re-educating myself on pitches for my novels from writing loglines for my screenplays, whereby you get that film down to one line that helps to presale the movie, but that title and one line has to accomplish four things: irony (catches our attention), compelling mental picture (we can picture it!), expected audience (we can tell who’s likely to see it), and a killer title that pretty much tells you what kind of movie it is (it speaks for itself!). Now apply this to your novel and you’re in business. Grab them at hello!

    Look at the title for Ally Carter’s novel, “Only the Good Spy Young” From the title alone, we got a good idea who the audience is and what it’s about. That title is also a perfect example from POP! Sam Horn’s book, it’s a twist on a cliché (and a popular song by Billy Joel). No wonder she’s drawing big crowds. Even if I had never heard of her, or her book, but heard the title of the book and I’m a teen and I like spy stuff or mysteries, I’d be there eagerly waiting to meet her! Great stuff! Good job!

  26. Anonymous said:

    Does this mean that trying to break in to copywriting jacket copy is a bad idea? I just graduated from grad school and it looks to be something I could be really good at. Just curious . . .