Overexposure: every writer has experienced this problem. You work on a manuscript for so long that your perception of it dulls. You become blind to its weaknesses and ignorant of its strengths.
Though that’s a well-known phenomenon when it comes to editorial perception, overexposure is less acknowledged by marketers. When you’re marketing what feels like your 100th thriller—as an author or for a publishing house—you might feel like you’ve run out of things to say. You’re bored by your go-to descriptions and want to break out of the box and offer a fresh take. But this can be a dangerous strategy.
One of the most compelling panels I attended at BookExpo 2018 was “Preorder Sales Secrets from the Publishing Pros.” It included book marketers from HarperCollins, Kensington, Macmillan, and Penguin Random House. An overarching point of the panel was that running preorder campaigns helps publishers gauge what marketing appeals succeed with the target readership. Preorder campaigns act like the canary in the coal mine: bad results indicate that the marketing direction or metadata could be wrong.
For one example, a marketer admitted that her department didn’t want to call an upcoming vampire book, well, a vampire book. Because the department was coy in the marketing and advertising copy, and avoided using that label, reader response was poor. The publisher received the message loud and clear: if you have a vampire book, say it’s a vampire book. Subtlety is not your friend.
But the problem can run deeper than that. Publishers and authors themselves, even if they agree to say it’s a vampire book, will sometimes use sophisticated language to describe the book. The motivation, of course, is not to turn off readers; instead, this is frequently a misguided effort. Readers often talk about books in more direct, straightforward ways.
Firebrand Technologies and Kadaxis completed a research study in 2016 related to keyword use. “An editor might use these keywords to describe a mystery suspense novel: ‘noir atmosphere,’ ‘urban settings,’ ‘world-weary protagonists,’ ‘harsh realism,’ ‘psychological depth,’ ‘wistful poetry,’ ‘atmospheric,’ ‘urban landscape,’ ‘violent portrait,’ ” they found. “While these are all accurate and beautifully crafted phrases, readers of the genre are more likely to search for less sophisticated terms like ‘bad guys,’ ‘FBI,’ ‘action-packed,’ ‘surprise ending,’ and ‘courtroom drama.’ These keywords provided by the reader are very different from the more sophisticated keywords provided by the marketing department, and they provide insights into how readers think about a book.”
So, how do you figure out how readers would describe your book? As the above-mentioned report recommends, for already-released titles, go straight to the source: reader reviews, wherever you can find them, most likely Amazon or Goodreads. For new titles, if you have the resources to run a preorder campaign, test your marketing copy and different types of ads to determine what language appeals best to readers.
There are other methods and tools that can help you if the above options come up short. If you have well-researched comparable titles—and a high level of confidence that there’s significant reader overlap—you can look at a comp’s recent reader reviews for descriptive language relevant to your work. Also, visit comparable titles on Goodreads, and look for the genres list on the right-hand side. These are the shelves that readers are using for your book. Some of them will be custom descriptions. Look for perceptions here that might affect your positioning.
Another of my favorite experiments: see what other titles surface in a Google or Amazon search for how you frequently describe your work. Recently, I analyzed an author’s description of her books as a “Silicon Valley mystery series.” When I searched for this phrase on both Amazon and Goodreads, the work that surfaced had little to nothing in common with hers. While her cozy series is indeed set in Silicon Valley, her main character is a professional organizer turned amateur detective; meanwhile, other work bearing that description tended to be dark in tone, with characters working at tech firms.
Though it’s possible to study other book descriptions to figure out the best copy-writing practices for your genre, be careful. Publishers themselves aren’t always talking in the reader’s tongue, and may use blurbs and accolades to sell a title (for good or ill). And bestselling titles have their own momentum, where word of mouth overpowers what the professional marketing copy says. So look to the readers themselves for assistance in perfecting your pitch to them.
Jane Friedman teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia and is the former publisher of Writer’s Digest.