Truth in Advertising

I’ve had a fair bit of practice writing back cover blurbs lately – one for my novella, a couple for projects under submission by my fabulous agents, and in the course of reviewing recently read books. It’s tough. It’s not unlike preparing a scientific abstract, and I’ve had a hell of a lot more experience with those. Hopefully the success with science blurbs will translate into success with my works of fiction. We shall see… Capturing the essence and theme(s) of a story, along with tone, voice, and plot within 200 or so words? Really, really tough.

Then there’s the sales pitch part. How do you reflect all of the elements noted above in a manner that appeals to your target audience and, if you’re lucky, an even broader readership? This topic has been tickling my brain since I watched the movie Flight. I didn’t want to watch it at first, you see, largely on account of the trailer. The trailer painted the story as your run-of-the-mill disaster film with a larger-than-life hero, lots of CG, and the elements of a conspiracy-type thriller (Senate hearings, anyone?).

***SPOILER ALERT***

So when my pilot guy husband insisted I give it a try (i.e. bribed me with snacks), I was surprised. It’s not a disaster film. It’s not a political thriller. The hero, while captivating (how could Denzel Washington be anything but captivating?), isn’t larger than life or even particularly heroic. He’s a drunk.

See, the story is really about addiction. It’s a great story and I actually liked it.

But you’d never know it’s about addiction by watching the trailer.

Now then, I enjoyed it, but I’m wondering how many summer-blockbuster action/disaster flick junkies were disappointed when they found out. I get the rationale. The powers that be in advertising wanted to sell as many tickets as possible, so they highlighted the scenes most likely to capture the coveted movie-going demographic. But those elements were, in fact, a pretty small part of the story.

I can see this approach backfiring.

So I’ve been working hard to balance out the rougher edges of my flawed heroes and heroines in order to help sell my work, but there is a fine line between smoothing and concealing. If editors/readers are turned off by a bitter caregiver or a former drug addict from the blurb, they would most likely be turned off even more if those characters popped up as a surprise because I sugar-coated them in the blurb.

My strategy has been emphasizing the larger themes of redemption, or the arguably more appealing story arc, while being honest about my characters’s flaws. Could it cost me some readers? Sure. But first of all, it’s impossible to appeal to everyone – it seems better to appeal to your target audience. Secondly, and more importantly, future readers might not trust me next time I put my pitch out there. This business is about building a loyal readership. I want my readers to trust that the story I sell them on the back cover is the story they’ll be getting. Plot twists and a few surprises are great, of course, but a major bait-and-switch? Not so much.

What about you folks out there in cyberspace? Writers – how do you balance the sales pitch with the heart of a story? Readers – what works for you in a back cover?

Discuss. I’ll make coffee.

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13 thoughts on “Truth in Advertising

  1. You have posed an interesting question. It is disappointing, at the very least, to be misled and find what was expected to actually have little bearing on what the reality is. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. By the same token, how do we entice someone to stop and pick up our work when we have such a short window to capture their attention? Finding that balance is the challenge, but more importantly, we need to remain true to what we are selling, whether it is a book or a trailer for a movie. I think it is better to have someone pass over our work because it isn’t to their taste than to give the impression it is something they might want and alienate them. Just my two cents….

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  2. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Kylie!

    I agree – better to have someone pass up our work because it isn’t to their taste, as you say, than leave them feeling duped. I’m always looking for ways to keep that balance while promoting my work. Hopefully it’s a skill that improves with practice, like most everything else in writing (at least for me).

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  3. Meaty discussion topic, D.B. I love your example; I have a love-hate relationship with movie trailers. If they give away too much of the story, they immediately go into the “well, don’t need to see that” black box in my head. But if they play it too coy and I end up paying to see a movie that isn’t what I thought it would be at all, then it’s like a restaurant getting my order wrong. Maybe the meal they bring me will be something amazing and I’ll discover a new favorite, but maybe I’ll take one bite and decide never to eat there again. Risky business. (If you ever browse the TV Tropes website, check out the “Never Trust a Trailer: Film” page for all the ways it can go wrong.)

    When I’m in the middle of that nightmarish blurb-writing scenario, I tend to opt for honesty. I’d rather have a small but happy group of readers who know what they’re getting than a vocal contingent of (rightfully) angry people who were deceived. Take that with a grain of salt, though — my sales skills are somewhere below the level of “able to sell water to people dying of thirst.”

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  4. I think you need to give yourself more credit, M.Q. – this business is a marathon, not a sprint. I believe your approach will grow a readership that will stick with you in the long run. Hopefully, those satisfied readers can then spread the word and broaden your reach.

    I’ll check out that TV Tropes website page. Sounds like they have some fabulous (and perhaps cringe-worthy?) tips.

    Thanks for dropping by, and for your always-thoughtful comments πŸ™‚

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  5. Now I want to watch Flight; just as you experienced, the trailer made it look like just another thriller. But a complex character suffering addiction? That sounds intriguing. Regarding sales pitches and blurbs, these are items I’m still working on. I do know one thing: if you’re selling a short story, you better be very, very clear that it is a short story. Folks who go in expecting a novel will be sorely disappointed otherwise. The frustration I’ve experienced as a newbie author is the very first thing I list in my product description is “paranormal short story”. I’ve had folks read it and say, “I don’t really like paranormal.” I’ve also had people complain about length. Well, I was honest with you up front. But the thing is, a lot of folks don’t read blurbs. They’ll pick up a book because a friend recommended it, or perhaps they were intrigued by the cover. As authors we will of course strive to create honest and intriguing blurbs, but the fact is there are other variables involved too, and sometimes people will still go in with expectations that don’t align with the product. C’est la vie.

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    • Hi Sophia!

      Flight really is a good film.

      Sigh, I think if you describe your story as a paranormal short story, that should clue readers in. Point well-taken, though, that you can’t please everyone, especially if they don’t read the blurb or fine print. At least we still have the ‘Look Inside’ feature online, and I always take the option of flipping through the pages of the dead-tree books I purchase from B&N and my favorite Indie bookstores.

      Thanks for joining the convo πŸ™‚

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  6. Great topic, D.B.
    With books, if the title intrigues me, I’ll turn the book over to read the blurb. And I have purchased several novels where I’ve had to re-read the blurb after I’m halfway through because the book isn’t anything like what the back cover said it is. But I’m such a loyalist, that even then I’ll finish the book. Many times, I’m more drawn in by the excerpted copy in the front of the book. If that doesn’t grab me in the first few paragraphs, I’m not likely to buy.
    As far as trailers, I’m with M.Q. on that. I really dislike being drawn in by a few artfully edited scenes then find out that’s all there is to a movie. I’m looking for more, and when I don’t get it, I’m not likely to ever watch another movie by the producer, director or star.
    It’s human nature to not want to be disappointed, and conversely, to be delighted when expectations are met or exceeded.

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    • Thanks for stopping by, Gemma! I’ve gone back and retread blurbs halfway through a few books, too. Sometimes I stick with them, but other times they just gather dust. I’m less likely to pick up another book by the author of said dust-gathering book. Still, you have the advantage of the excerpt. Too bad you can’t get that for films…

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  7. Oh, and how’s this for serendipity? Took the kiddos to see Monster University today and got a load of the trailers for a slew of Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks flicks. Based on my extensive experience with these films (8 year’s worth), I believe they are an example of truth in advertising. For example: Upcoming film about time traveling turkeys? Major suckage. Planes (from the makers of Cars)? Probably okay. Lego Movie? I predict all kinds of awesome!

    We’ll have a blog discussion about this later.

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    • Hi D.B.! Very late to the conversation, but very much enjoyed the post. These days, being an author is all about promotion and that starts with the blurb. One of the first things I did for Lyrical. And I agree with most. I don’t believe in false advertisement. We are indeed in a marathon, and we’ll get there in the end.
      But more importantly, how was Monster University? Sometimes, my kids are a nice relief from all the promo. Sigh.

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      • No worries, CD – still have plenty of coffee and convo πŸ™‚

        Monster University was actually good. Believe me, I had my doubts (read – Billy Crystal and John Goodman just wanted a fat paycheck), but it was really cute. I’ve been known to fall asleep in kid movies (*ahem* Cars 2), but I found myself laughing right along with the kiddos. I say grab your kids, get some popcorn, and enjoy πŸ™‚

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  8. Great post, CD. I hate, hate picking up a book and loving the blurb enough to buy the book, only to get home with it and throw it against the wall before I finish the first chapter because it’s nothing like the blurb. Yes, it’s happened before. I love wolf shifters and bought what I thought sounded like a great story. I was irritated that one third or more of the book (part of a popular series I discovered AFTER reading this one :() was nothing but senseless, graphic, animalistic sex. Huge turn-off for me. I like a nicely written erotica as much as the next person, but tell me that’s what I’m getting! I mean, those characters had sex at the most unreasonable moments and actually shocked me! Not the acts themselves, but the timing. Really??
    My solution? I rarely read blurbs anymore. Surprise me. I look at the cover first then open the book and read a few random passages beginning with chapter one, page one. That process is what sells me on books now, though I will read a blurb if the cover isn’t totally grabbing but the title is. πŸ™‚

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