Sue Limb’s first novel, Up the Garden Path, had just one big – and rather unfair – advantage when it hit the bookshops in 1984. It sported a front cover blurb provided by her Cambridge University friend, Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
And it was, quite simply, the most compelling cover quote ever.
‘Wonderfully funny,’ Adams had written. ‘The sort of book that makes you want to sleep with the author.’Read more
When I bumped into Sue Limb recently, at a British Library event honouring the Douglas Adams legacy, she told me she’d always believed that one quote had made her novel a bestseller. Up the Garden Path is not exactly War and Peace, but it’s still picking up delighted reviews nearly forty years later from generations of readers who had not been born when its amiably ditzy teacher heroine, Izzy, made her debut.
I was reminded of that Douglas Adams cover line a couple of months ago when an animated discussion broke out about the blurbs that were used to promote a book by Jordan Peterson, a controversial Canadian psychologist.
Peterson’s publishers, Penguin, had been extremely… er… selective in their choice of quotes to use on the cover.
They quoted James Marriott’s review in The Times as saying the book offered ‘a philosophy of the meaning of life’.
But they didn’t point out that Marriott went on to describe that philosophy as ‘bonkers’.
And they obviously didn’t have room for that part of the Times review that said the author’s prose was ‘repetitious, unvariegated, rhythmless, opaque and possessed of a suffocating sense of its own importance’.
Penguin had been equally careful about picking its cover quotes from the New Statesman’s review, leaving out the unflattering references to the book’s ‘ranting’ and its ‘inadvertent comedy’. And while the publishers stoutly defended their choices at the time, the controversial lines seem to have disappeared from the latest edition of Peterson’s book.
So do cover lines matter? What actually makes a book sell? What makes it jump out at a potential reader in a bookshop or online?
The order of priority that’s generally cited is something like this: author’s name, title, cover design, big-name blurb lines (especially from star writers whose fans will be looking for similar authors), book description, lesser cover lines and, finally, the writing (as represented, usually, by the first couple of paragraphs on page one).
But what’s particularly interesting is the way almost any of these factors can leapfrog the others and become the main attraction.
A stunning cover can sometimes make all the difference, especially online. But most books in most bookshops will not be face-out. Only the spine will be showing, so coming up with an intriguing title may be the vital first step.
For Sue Limb’s book, it was that splendid, unexpected line from Douglas Adams that did the trick. An endorsement from someone like Caitlin Moran, Zadie Smith, Richard Osman or Rory Stewart would certainly catch the eye. But a sparkling quote from a full-on rave review in the Telegraph or Rolling Stone or the New York Times can be very powerful, too, even if people don’t recognise the individual reviewer’s name.
So what can your ghostwriter do for you to help your book get noticed, beyond just capturing your thoughts and your voice, helping you shape your material and telling your story for you in vivid, engaging words?
As soon as you are both clear what your book is really about, you can begin working together to think up a fresh, distinctive and relevant title.
You can start making a list of contacts – yours and your ghost’s – who might be willing to read the manuscript and point out its virtues. You can also draw up a wish list of authors, celebrities or public figures you can contact who might reasonably be expected to enjoy a book like yours and who might be persuaded to contribute a quote for the front or back cover. People can be very generous like that. I’ve had big names like Stephen Fry and Oxford English professor John Carey give me superb cover lines, simply because I had the nerve to approach them and they liked what I’d written.
This kind of early preparation will be greatly appreciated if you find yourself working with a mainstream publisher. But it is even more important if you’ve decided to self-publish.
If that’s the route you’ve chosen, your ghost will probably take on many of the support roles a traditional publisher would normally provide, helping you find a designer and get the cover art right, checking the page proofs, writing the back cover and front flap blurbs and even producing the Advance Information sheet and press release to accompany review copies.
No one has a magic touch that can guarantee to make your book sell. But if any one of half a dozen factors can lift it out of the crowd and give it a sporting chance, it’s well worth bringing to bear every ounce of ingenuity and creativity you can muster. Don’t hold back. Use your imagination, use your brainpower and use every useful contact you’ve ever made.
And if you happen to have a friend who can come up with a cover line that’ll stop people in their tracks, make the most of it. As Sue Limb can testify, you only need to get lucky once. All’s fair in love and publishing.
Ian Shircore’s accidental bestseller, Conspiracy, is published by John Blake/Bonnier BooksRead more