Colin Brush is Senior Copywriter at Penguin Books.
How is the role of a copywriter in publishing changing?
In one word: discoverability. In the old days it was someone else’s job to get eyeballs to my words: the designer’s flashy cover drawing people to the book, marketing choosing the right sites in an ad campaign. Get a book or a poster to where people could see it and the copy could get on with its job of tantalising and ultimately sealing the deal.
Nowadays, with more than a quarter of sales moving online, it’s all about getting our books found. I’ve become increasingly involved in working on Search Engine Optimisation strategies or tips for identifying keywords and then testing this stuff. It’s pretty dull, but when Google or Amazon suddenly change their algorithms and nothing works any more it can get quite exciting again.
How much of a challenge is it to devise a new blurb for the reissue of a classic?
But I love a challenge! And it is no challenge at all, if you’ve got a good brief. Recently, I was asked to work on the reissues of Albert Camus’s The Outsider and The Plague. These were school editions and so I wanted to think about what would encourage teenagers to read these books. I wrote The Plague like a horror novel – all rats and blood and death – whilst The Outsider was the story of a misunderstood killer. In neither case did I misrepresent the books; I merely wrote blurbs to appeal to the audiences I had in mind.
Do the skills needed for good cover copy translate well to writing good copy for a book’s Kindle page?
It’s the same thing. If anything, online copy comes with dangerous temptations. There’s a lot of space just begging for a lot of words. There’s a great deal to be said for brevity.
How do you balance the difficulty of getting someone interested in a book without giving away too much of the plot?
The real trick to any kind of copywriting is discovering the hook and finding a compelling way of presenting it – in my case, usually in about 100 or 200 words. For non-fiction, you want to get across the book’s main argument – it is after all why you as a publisher bought it. For novels you try not to mention much, if anything, that happens beyond the book’s first third, particularly in a crime or thriller title. But sometimes you have to break your own rules if you’re going to give readers a compelling proposition. Then you have to hope that the way you do it hasn’t spoiled the story. But most novels have a compelling premise; it’s usually the reason why the author wrote it, the idea which possessed them. My job is to sell that premise to the reader. The novelist’s job is a little tougher: taking the premise and turning it into a cracking read …
What is the project you’ve worked on where you think your copy has made the most quantifiable difference to the success of the book?
In 15 years of book copywriting, I can’t say for certain that a single piece of copy I wrote definitely sold a single copy of any book. I can tell you, however, that a majority of book buyers claim that the blurb is the third most important reason as to why they bought a book (behind word-of-mouth recommendation and already having read a book by the same author). I also know good copy when I see it, as do my colleagues in publishing and friends who are readers. Yet it is all educated guesswork. Do great covers sell books? Certainly they do. I’ve bought books on the strength of the cover alone and I know many others who have. And the same can be said for copy. Despite all the recent changes it is still all about the hook.