Should You Judge a Book by its Cover?

NaturalSelection-frontHRMost readers—me included—will pick a book off the bookstore shelf because its cover interests us: the title intrigues; the cover illustration attracts; the author’s name is one we trust.

If you don’t know the author of the book, the nature—and implied promise—of the cover becomes even more important.

If the book does not deliver on the promise of the cover, it will fail with many readers despite its intrinsic value. A broken promise is still a broken promise. I say cover, not necessarily the back jacket blurb, because the front cover is our first and most potent introduction to the quality of the story inside. How many of us have picked up a book, intrigued by its alluring front cover, read the blurb that seemed to resonate with the title and image, then upon reading our cherished purchase been disillusioned with the story and decided we disliked it and its author?

This is because, as readers, from the moment we pick up a book, we engage in a covenant with the story’s author (but in actual fact with the entire publishing company) for a story whose promise we have interpreted from its cover image, title and blurb. It begins with the cover. A book’s cover is its sales pitch: “This is what I’m about!” the cover proclaims in shades of color and texture. The cover sets the tone and attitude with which a reader will interpret the book’s title and back jacket blurb and its interior.

It had better be true.

Front Cover ONLY-webLet me tell you a story…

Some time ago, a writer colleague of mine secured a New York agent—based on her excellent query and synopsis—for her imaginative dragon fantasy. The agent pitched the book to a large publishing company, who made my friend an offer, and the agent secured a three book deal on her behalf. My writing friend’s career as a published author was launched.

Because the publishing company was one of the large firms, my friend’s ability to participate—never mind influence—the cover design and blurb was restricted. Decisions lay in the hands of the people in the marketing department, who may or may not have read the book (most likely not). This is why it is so important to write a blurb/query/pitch that both scintillates AND accurately portrays the story. All too often, the marketing department misrepresents the story (to sell more books) and you end up with an unsatisfied reader. This is what happened to my friend. Through no fault of hers, the marketing people developed a cover that did not reflect the true nature of her story. The trilogy my friend had developed was a dark tale of deceit, betrayal and suffering. The cover portrayed a lively and sultry seductress, draped with flowing robes and bared thighs against her dragon; hardly the ponderous story shrouded within. The blurb at the back was sufficiently vague to aid and abet the deception.

What followed the book’s launch and accompanying ad campaign was a barrage of bad reviews and censure, unfortunately aimed mostly at the author. It was unfortunate that my friend suffered the brunt of the accusations for breaking her promise to the readers, when she had done no such thing; her publisher and marketers had created false expectations. And now she was paying for it.

Cover1_LastSummoner-frontcoverI, too, experienced the effects of mis-marketing. I’d written a dark science fiction romance that ended with resolution but was far from the traditional happy ending, typical of a romance. The publisher marketed it as a romance with science fiction elements instead of a science fiction with romance elements. Reviewers applauded it but it bombed with romance readers, who expected a different kind of resolution. Science fiction readers, however, enjoyed it; they didn’t have the same expectations.

 

The take home lesson for writers is this: write a scintillating but accurate synopsis, blurb, pitch and query that clearly establishes your genre and audience. Chances are your publishers will use it in their marketing department. If you don’t get in with the “Big Boys”, and decide to go with the small presses, chances are very good that you will have more control over marketing and cover design; that is a big bonus. If you are like me, creative control of your intellectual property is more important than the big bucks you get at the expense of your art. Don’t give in to the temptations of wolf-marketing.

I’m still learning that lesson.Darwins Paradox-2nd cover

The take home lesson for readers is this: don’t judge a book by its cover; certainly pick up the book if it looks interesting, then read with an open mind and let the story take you to where it needs to, despite what you may have expected from the false advertising. Chances are, the unexpected journey visited upon you may be a welcome surprise. And don’t blame the writer for something he didn’t have control over.

I’m still learning that lesson too.

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

Demystifying the Synopsis

Prospect Point-fog

Fog in Prospect Point, Nova Scotia (photo by Nina Munteanu)

A synopsis is a larger version of the book jacket blurb you see on the back of most paperbacks in the bookstore. You write a synopsis for the same reason: to sell a story idea to a publisher and ultimately to a reader. It is an in-depth summary of the entire book that weaves in thematic elements with plot to portray a compelling often multi-level story arc. Although a well-written synopsis may be the hardest thing to write—particularly for a novice writer and you haven’t finished your book—it is precisely what an editor or agent usually wants to see first of your work (often alongside sample chapters and a query letter).

 

Why Write a Synopsis

The synopsis is a highly valuable tool to writers for a number of reasons.

  1. A synopsis helps get your manuscript read by an editor. Writing a great synopsis is just as important as writing a compelling first three chapters to hook an editor. Editors most often ask for a combination of these three things in an initial submission: 1) query letter; 2) sample chapters (usually three); and, 3) synopsis. However, publishers’ specifications for synopses vary greatly. For instance, the length of a synopsis may vary from one page to twenty pages and its style will vary accordingly. Whether you submit a synopsis with your novel sample chapters or not, writing one will directly benefit your novel by helping you to sort out what’s important and what drives the theme and characters of your story.
  2. The synopsis can answer questions that may perplex the author, stuck on a scene or plot item. It helps you weave your novel’s elements into a well-integrated story that is compelling at many levels. Let’s face it; if you can’t tell describe what the book is about, what’s important and what drives the story you may have to re-evaluate the story. Certainly don’t expect an editor to know if you don’t. For this reason, it makes sense to write drafts of your synopsis as you go along in the novel; that way it’s useful to both you and to the editor and then it’s more or less written when you need to submit it along with sample chapters…and not quite as daunting a task either.
  3. The synopsis you write for your novel may be used by the publisher’s marketing department to advertize your book and by their cover artists on your cover. Therefore, it’s important to make the tone, flavor and intent of your story clear in your synopsis so that it’s properly represented.

 

What is a Synopsis?

It helps to know what a synopsis is before embarking on one. Unlike an outline, which is basically a plot summary, a synopsis integrates plot with theme and characterization so a publisher can gauge the meaningfulness of the story. A synopsis can contain the following items: 1) theme; 2) setting and period; 3) plot summary; 4) character sketches; 5) dialogue; 6) emotional turning points; and 7) subplots. The synopsis combines these components to reveal the story’s unique nature and what makes it stand out to both publisher and ultimately reader.

 

Writing a Synopsis

Theme is the backbone of the novel, the “so what” part. If you are able to reduce it to one sentence or even word, this will help you to focus the other aspects of the synopsis, and novel, around it. For example, “there’s no place like home,” or “to have a friend, you must be a friend.” You can provide setting and period in one or two short sentences, while describing other key elements to your story. Plot summaries provide the skeleton upon which you flesh out characters and their motivations, they form the “what” of the “so what” part. The actual “so what” parts are the emotional turning points or the focal events of the plot that directly link to important thematic parts of the story. Character sketches get woven in as part of theme and plot. Dialogue or quotes (very short excerpts) can be effective. They break up the page and makes it more interesting, while providing a sample of your work.

If this all still sounds daunting to you, think of writing the synopsis in steps:

Step 1: write the outline, using each chapter to write a one or two sentence summary of important points.

Step 2: create a thematic skeleton, by adding the motivational aspects of the plot with the various characters and what’s at stake for each of them. Think of the overarching thema or story arc and include important sub-plots that tie-in to this.

Step 3:flesh out the storytelling by writing it as a story. Use all your fiction writing skills to create a compelling story summary.

Write your synopsis like a story, complete with hook, building a crisis and then climax and denouement.

 

Some Basic Rules

Despite the varying specific guidelines among publishing houses, they agree on several universal rules that every synopsis should follow. These include:

  • Summarize the complete novel (beginning, middle, and end) regardless of whether you’ve included sample chapters and don’t leave out the ending (as a teaser);
  • Always write the synopsis in the present tense (e.g., the Budong eats Jarek; not the Budong ate Jarek)
  • Write the synopsis from the author’s perspective and use vivid language (e.g., use active power verbs and avoid modifiers)
  • The first time you introduce a character in a synopsis, type the name in CAPITAL letters, but do this only the first time the character is mentioned.
  • Stay consistent with how you describe a character (e.g., not John the first time and Mr. Smith the next)

Remember to check the guidelines of the publishing house to which you are submitting before finalizing your synopsis and the rest of your submission. Every house will be a little different.

SersonCr-mouth close copy

Creek into Lake Ontario, Mississauga (photo by Nina Munteanu)

References

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate. Louisville, KY. 266pp

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.