I just got done writing the flap copy for one of my fall books. I never delegate writing that all-important copy to a junior person, because I know it will end up on the Web page, in the catalog, on Amazon ... pretty much everywhere ... so it has to be perfect.
Here's what I realized. Of course the flap copy and marketing/publicity copy have to build the book up, using superlatives and other much-overused words and phrases like "thrill ride," non-stop suspense," "fast-paced." Lee Child, blurber extraordinaire, often comes up with superlatives that outdo anything I could write, like "psychological suspense as elegant as a Swiss watch but as powerful as a locomotive" or "sensationally good psychological suspense.... Exactly what a great thriller should be" or "a proven master of suspense" (yes, those are real blurbs).
There are tens of thousands of novels published every year, each making similar claims. But can they all be that good? Common sense tells us that they cannot and are not. I just finished reading a hardcover published by St. Martin's and it was downright execrable, one of the worst things I've read this decade. But front and back jacket are covered with glowing quotes, and of course the flap copy made me think it would be wonderful.
But that's my job -- I have to convey my enthusiasm for the book in a way that helps get at least some attention for it. In our overcrowded, information-overloaded world, nobody would pay the slightest attention to a book (or movie, or CD, etc.) that advertised itself as "pretty good" or "moderately suspenseful." Thus out comes the thesaurus to find synonyms for fabulous.
Now, about this particular book for which I just wrote the flap copy. It's very, very good. Do I think it's the best book of the season? No, it isn't. But it's much better than a lot of what's out there ... better than recent work by a lot of stalwarts whose names sell a lot of books. But I can't say, "This book has a good plot, not great. It has good characters that you'll remember. The writing is good pulp writing, but not truly literary. All in all, it's a good book by a good writer." That would be an accurate description, but I doubt that it would make anyone stand up and take notice. So I have to fall back on superlatives.
I don't think these superlatives do us any favors when it comes to the reader experience, though. They set up tremendously high expectations for a book that can be difficult (or impossible) to live up to. I think this has a subtle effect on readers. From blurbs and flap or cover copy they think they're plopping down their $15 and getting the greatest mystery since ... oh, I don't know, let's say Gone Girl, since everyone and their mother is pitching their books as "the new Gone Girl," or "in the tradition of Gillian Flynn," etc. So of course we end up with a bunch of reader reviews saying "This is NOT the new Gone Girl, and I'm really pissed off that people are saying it is." In other words, we get our own marketing-speak thrown back in our faces, and we probably deserve it.
The fact that I can't say this particular book that I'm writing about here is the greatest novel ever written doesn't mean I don't love it. Unpublished writers, take heart: This is the third manuscript that this particular writer submitted to me. The first two had very good qualities and ideas, but some flaws in execution that made them not work. Author went back to work on new manuscripts, learned from mistakes, submitted latest work -- and I took it. We had very good back and forth during the editorial process. And now, each time I see the book (first draft, second draft, third draft, ARC, final pages), I love it even more. It's fast-paced, well written (with a good, dry sense of humor), with a terrific lead and excellent supporting cast. It uses some standard elements of the genre, but that's OK - I don't think anyone will mind. And, I am very happy to say, it isn't too goddamned long. It's just the right length and the story doesn't wear out its welcome.
But now our marketing/publicity department will start trying to get attention for it by claiming it is in the tradition of [X], or for readers who love the work of [Y], etc. We do it because we have to do it ... it's the only way to get anyone's attention.
This brings me back to a funny story from years ago. One of the first series I bought when I came to this house did quite well, with a couple of popular and critical successes, but one clunker that nonetheless remains one of my favorite books. (It was before its time, and I got so wrapped up in it that I didn't think about the way reviewers would react to it. Mea culpa.) When the very first book in that series came out, I saw a few reviews that said it "didn't live up to the hype." I thought "Hype? What hype?" I mean, we didn't have large marketing or advertising budgets, and it's not like the book title was on everyone's lips or had gone viral. I think the "hype" simply came from the jacket copy, which I'd written and which, reviewing it now, I realize made it sound like the Great American Suspense Novel--which, of course, it wasn't. It was a good story, well told, not a literary feast that will be read by future generations. But that hype did get it a lot of good reviews in a lot of good places, so the great hyping machine continues to crank out those one-liners....