Would you rather read a “splendid, funny, lyrical book about family, truth, memory, and the resilience of love” or a “powerful novel” about “the strength of love and loss, the searing ramifications of war, and the mysterious, almost magical bonds that unite and sustain us”? A “poignant celebration of the potency of familial love” or “a luminous, provocative, and ultimately redemptive look at how even mothers and daughters with the best intentions can be blind to the harm they do to one another”? More importantly, which would you rather buy?If any of the above sounds familiar, it’s probably not because you’ve read the book described, but rather because you’ve written more than a few pieces of jacket copy of your own. How important are those little paragraphs on the inside flap of the book’s jacket, and does it really matter what they say? We wanted to find out, so we did what anybody in our situation would do and commissioned a large nationwide study of book shoppers to answer our questions. Well, the Codex Group, whom we worked with on our author website study, were the ones who actually did the study, but CEO Peter Hildick-Smith generously allowed us to tag along and even include titles of our choosing in the survey.
Codex’s Early Read Book Preview measures book and author sales potential based on book shopper purchase interest. The company regularly conducts online polls of book consumers across major fiction and nonfiction book categories. The preview measures their spontaneous “shopping response” to 50 books equally divided between current New York Times bestsellers and titles in development. The jacket copy study took place from March 30 through April 4 and surveyed 7,065 book shoppers nationwide, including 2,362 literary fiction and 1,308 women’s fiction buyers.
The job of writing jacket copy shouldn’t be foisted off on editorial assistants—it is the second most important book purchase factor (after favorite author). “I was heartened to see how much emphasis readers seem to place on real information and details about the story itself,” says Mitch Hoffman, Executive Editor at Grand Central Publishing. Hoffman helped Hildick-Smith with this survey, and the jacket copy for Grand Central’s First Family by David Baldacci scored higher than any other title in the study. “Certainly all these other pieces of ephemera, reviews, bestsellers, endorsement information, they always find that helpful, but the story is the thing. That reinforces an idea I always wanted to believe, that even in the middle of everything else we do, the book is the thing.”
Flap copy is especially important for fiction. And title and cover impact are closely related to the impact of jacket copy. If the flap copy defies the expectation created by the cover and title—if, for instance, the cover of the book leads the reader to expect a thriller but the flap copy identifies it as horror—readers are less likely to buy it.
The lede is the most important element of the jacket copy. “We make sure that we’re absolutely clear about our lede, what makes the book special, and we announce that as clearly and concisely as possible right at the top,” says Hoffman. “With so many books screaming for readers’ attention, you might only have that first few seconds to make an impact, so you have to identify what makes a book special early on. Readers might not make it to the second paragraph of your gorgeously crafted copy. It’s something every journalist knows, that’s worth our keeping in mind.”
Survey respondents ranked other common elements of jacket copy as less important. Only 13% of literary fiction readers are most influenced by praise from the New York Times, for instance, and they care even less about praise from publishing industry magazines like Publishers Weekly (10%). Not surprisingly, the influence of reviews decreases further for readers of other genres. The importance of various elements of jacket copy also varies by age. Younger book shoppers are more interested in character detail and brief promotional statements or quotes—31% of readers under 18, for instance, said they’d be most influenced by a statement like “Sometimes what happens in Vegas follows you home.” And even though they might have little else in common, the under-18 crowd shares the preference for a snappy promotional statement with readers over 65, 25% of whom are most influenced by these statements. Younger and older shoppers don’t want to work hard to figure out what a book is about, so flap copy aimed at them should cut to the chase.
Despite all of the above, there’s still no magic formula for writing perfect jacket copy. “I spend a fair amount of time developing jacket copy options for publishers, and we’ve been measuring the impact of jacket copy for over five years,” says Hildick-Smith, “but I’m still not able to consistently tell if a version of jacket copy is going to do well or not! Part of that is the crucial interplay between title/cover and copy, and part of it is the fact that one person can’t perceive another’s intuitive response to a creative message. It keeps this work endlessly fascinating, and humbling, as a result.”