How Not To Be: Promo Copy

I actually drafted this post several months ago, but felt hesitant about publishing it while I still worked for my previous employer. I sent it out into the world now mainly because I think it will be of interest to first-time authors, particularly the academic authors-to-be of my acquaintance.

The occasion: I was working on promotional copy for three very different books whose authors had given me three perfect examples of descriptive copy that I could not use for promotional purposes. To be fair, the authors’ own descriptions of their own books was not ever intended for promotional use. We definitely don’t expect academic writers to be able to write a perfect piece of promotional copy (although some do!); the promo copy we use is displayed in a number of different spaces for a number of different audiences, and there’s no reason that a scholarly author would be aware of the demands and restrictions of those spaces. But we wanted to be true to the author’s vision for their book, so we would ask them for a short summary and tried to be clear about what we planned to do with it.

The style and content of the descriptions I received could often tell me a lot about an author’s hopes and expectations for book promotion. The three descriptions which inspired this post were for books in quite different fields, but let’s imagine they were all for the same book–something common but specialized, like Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. These three authors would describe The Elements of Style as follows:

  • A. The Elements of Style is a comprehensive guide to euphonic grammatolatry. Combining the logocratic methodologies of neoterism and semantologics, this book makes an incisive critique of verbigeration, catachresis, and sesquipedalia.
  • B. The Elements of Style is essential reading for everyone who uses language to communicate. In presenting a new perspective on words, syntax, and punctuation, this fresh take on classic rules of writing will help us understand humankind and the world.
  • C. When we write, what are we saying? What does it mean to be a writer? What are words? The Elements of Style shows that language is more than sentences and sentences are more than words.

A is writing for a target audience of scholars similar to A, and who indeed are among the readers who we hope will respond to the copy. A will most likely resist my revisions, worried about alienating independent buyers, but A‘s copy will need to be rewritten so that it is also legible to nonspecialists: the librarians, book buyers, and sales representatives who move large quantities of books. Nonspecialist book people want to order or promote books in subject areas that are relevant to the specialized scholars and customers they serve, but “grammatolatry” might not come up in an online catalog search for “writing style,” and in fact may make the book appear less readable and relevant.

B is already writing for a larger audience, but unfortunately a much larger audience than B‘s book is likely to have. I would quietly erase the larger claims about how B‘s book will apply to the wider world–anyone smart enough to read B‘s book is smart enough to discover the larger implications on their own–and add in more information about what the book is actually about so that it will show up in relevant searches. B will most likely protest, and ask us why we wish to pigeonhole this important book.
B has a cousin who does not aim to reach general audiences but lists every marginally relevant academic discipline: students, graduate students, and senior scholars of history, law, politics, science, engineering, and on and on. It’s not a good use of space: on the odd chance that an engineer does want to pick up a monograph on medieval history, they will not attempt to find it by searching for “engineer.”

I never know what authors like C are going for, but on the plus side, C probably won’t mind if I replace their suggestion with something more practical and descriptive. On the minus side, I still have no idea what C‘s book is about.

In general, promotional copywriting for academic or nonfiction books should offer a concise, informative summary of what the book is about and what makes it different (better) than other books. I personally prefer for the copy to be engaging and fun to read–the kind of thing that will grab a random bookbrowser at a conference and hold her attention. But that person is such a vanishingly small percentage of our buyers that clear, accessible, searchable information is the priority. To that end:

  • Be specific. What does the book argue? How does it make the argument? Does it cover a specific time, place, population, or problem? What sources or perspectives make it unique? If it’s a collection, what unifies the variously authored chapters?
  • But don’t get lost in the details. Promo copy is like microfiction. In few words you must sketch out the who-what-when-where of the book and merely evoke the rest. These are the takeaways I should have: What is your topic? What argument or question are you exploring? What materials and methods do you use?
  • Don’t try to do a Shyamalan. No cliffhangers, no surprise twists. Nonfiction readers–especially for academic volumes, which tend to be pricy–need to know up front how it ends. The reason they buy the book is to see how you get there.
    Once we sent a marketing plan to a couple of historians who co-authored a book about an 18th century trial. The offender was “sentenced to death” for the crime; we edited this to “executed” so that it would fit in the 350-character metadata field. The coauthors got upset when they saw this, because we’d gotten it wrong–the guy was sentenced to death, but he died of natural causes before hanged. Well, we didn’t know that. The book’s editor didn’t know that. No one knew it because none of us had read the book all the way to the end, where this minor fact was revealed. No one cares, though: the reason people pick up that book is to see whether the guy actually did it, not how he paid for his crime.
  • Don’t give more than half a sentence to what other scholars are doing. Your book itself will do all the work of positioning your argument in relation to other arguments. But promo copy is for sales, and we are not selling other arguments, we are selling yours.
  • No need to namecheck the theorists or scholars whose work you build on unless they are literally the subject of your study, or your whole angle is that you think you’re the first person to do a study of X through Theorist Y. Those names won’t mean as much to the nonspecialist bookhandlers who are ordering copies for their stores and libraries, and the readers in your field will most likely be able to infer.
  • Don’t tell your readers what to do. Your readers are smart. They are also busy. They’ll decide for themselves whether your history book is suited to their scientific interests or if your ethnography will inform their human rights mission. The best way to get book across disciplinary lines is to be quite clear about what it is and does.
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