Whenever I’m on an agent panel someone will ask what we’re looking for, and almost always one person, or everyone, says, “A really well-written book.” But is good writing really enough to sell a book?
The truth is no. It’s not good enough to find an agent, sell to a publisher, or find a reader. I’ve seen lots of criticism on the blog lately, a lot of anger toward publishing professionals. Anger that we can’t look beyond the hook. That judging from a query letter alone isn’t enough and that what really makes a book good is execution. And yes, that’s right. What makes a book really work is execution, but a lot of things go into executing a good book and one of those things is a hook.
Agents and editors aren’t the bad guys here, folks. Our job is to try and bring books to the public that readers will want. Let me ask you this: How do you pick up a new book? One that hasn’t been recommended and one from an author you’ve never read before. I’ll bet it was the hook.
If it weren’t for a good hook new writers wouldn’t be discovered. It’s the hook that brings readers in and the writing and execution that keeps them coming back for more.
And I am curious. When was the last time you tried out a new author you’d never heard of and what was the reason for picking up the book?
Jessica, this is an interesting topic.
I'd like to say you can't judge a book by its cover (or its hook), but the truth is, I do, and so do the patrons who come in to our public library. My area of collection development is non-print (DVDs, CDs, VHS tapes, etc.), and I have discovered that the best way to ensure no one will check out an item is to destroy or lose the original cover. The checkout rate comes to a screeching halt. If I go through the trouble of reprinting the cover, it's more likely to check out. If I go through more trouble and reprint the three sentences of description that belong on the back, it will go back into full-fledged circulation. Our library limits patrons to five of each type of non-print item at a time, which means that patrons are narrowing down their selections based on the title, cover, and three-sentence description. Since they can only have five things (and have a limited amount of time to watch movies or listen to music anyway), they aren't likely to go with something that doesn't immediately attract them.
Our regular library patrons tend to hit the new books display first. If they aren't looking for something in particular (and people really do read reviews, because they often clip them and bring them in to see if we have the book), they, too, tend to first skim the displays of faced out books and pick up the ones that catch their eye. When they read the inside flaps, you can tell they've made up their minds within the first six to eight lines, which is why I think it's sad that so many book flaps fill that space with "Jane Doe is the greatest writer on the history of the planet, and here she is, with another tour de force" instead of launching into the story.
I, myself, got into a real reading rut this summer and swore I would try some new authors. I have picked up several I've never read before, but the ones I chose on my own (not through recommendations from friends) I chose because they had cool covers, great titles, or the five or six words on the cover caught my eye. I also chose a few because of ads in the Romance Writer's Report or Romantic Times, which means that the cover and tag line caught my eye and I had the wherewithal to scribble down the title before putting the magazine away.
This is why I'm so irritated about my inability to write a good pitch! *sigh*
When I pick books (not recommended to me) it's all in the cover - and then the hook. If I like what I see I open it up and skim the first lines to see if I like the voice. If those things doesn't click, it goes back on the shelf.
Very few people will pick up a book that looks boring, sounds boring, starts boring and read the whole thing through in order to be able to judge whether it's good or not. Why think that agents and publishers would do it differently?
Heh. The notion of a book being "well-written" makes it sound like an evaluation of an athlete being "fundamentally sound." It means something, but it doesn't necessarily mean everything you're looking for.
Makes me imagine Mel Kiper, NFL draft expert, reviewing books.
"This new novel by Reid Kerr is really well-written, every comma is in place and no participle left to dangle. Of course, it's as boring as dry toast, but it's a veritable masterpiece of proper penmanship."
As for trying out new authors, I'm a sucker for a good title. I scan the shelves at the bookstore often, and a good title will make me check out the back cover, and if there's a hook there, I might give it a chance.
Love the blog!
The first pickup can be anything - title, author's name, cover design, back cover blurb, 'I haven't seen this one before' (the SF selection at my local store really REALLY sucks).
Putting down moments are genre (yet another story about an abused child surviving childhood? Yawn), blurb (there are subtypes of stories I don't enjoy, including explicit sex), or first page. Last book I put down was all edgy and modern and full of disjointed bits - it might have been interesting, but I don't want to work that hard.
If I have a number of books to select from, I usually go for the one with the most interesting combination of storyline/description and writing. Blandness is a turnoff - I need something to keep my interest. That doesn't have to be action, or high concept, but a book has to engage my interest _somehow_.
As for queries, I woulnd't want to judge a book on the query alone any more than I judge it on the back blurb - because there's a good chance that someone else helped to write it and took the most interesting bits and polished it, but no guarantee that the story itself will live up to it. Five pages, on the other hand, would be enough for me to form an accurate opinion in most cases, because I don't believe that anyone will deliver five pages that sing to the soul and whack 350 dull ones at their end - if you can write five good pages, you probably can write, and if your first five pages are blah, it's unlikely you've learnt to write brilliantly by page fifteen.
I don't think anyone can narrow down specifically how they pick a book. I think, as with most of us, it depends on our mood. One day romance, one day a serious piece of nonfiction or a thriller, mystery, it goes on and on. Maybe we don't even know what we want to read. In any case, our attraction to a book might be as simple as the type of text the title is in.
To not judge a book by it's cover is nearly impossible. Especially since that is the first thing we see and we as humans are a visual bunch.
I'll put it this way, picking a book is more like picking a girl or boyfriend. As soon as you see them, you know if you're interested or not.
But to blame the agent or the publisher is silly. They know more about books, what will sell or has potential to sell than any of us, that is why they do what they do.
They pick books based on years of experience and a ton of other things I couldn't begin to comprehend. As a writer, I have to trust their opinions and hope my book is the one they've been looking for.
I've tried out many new-to-me authors as part of a book discussion group I am in. Some I love. Some I don't. I rarely find recommendations on blogs (or even the NY Times) to give me books/authors I like. A book's cover or jacket blurb is irrelevant to me. I don't know what kind of "hook" I would look for other than subject matter.
Overall, I'd say half the time books delight me and the other half they disappoint me.
Just want to chime in with an agreement (unfortunately). Good writing is important (whatever that is and that's undoubtedly up for debate) but all you have to do is look at a bestseller list or the bookshelves at your local bookstore to understand that after a certain level of writing proficiency, there are a lot of other factors going on that make for a successful book (successful being defined as "published" versus, say, "bestseller.").
Some of those are:
Good cover art.
A plot that "hooks" you in and keeps you hooked in.
Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code took a lot of hits for being "poorly written" but I never really thought so. I thought his writing served the kind of story he was writing. But his hook and his plotting were fantastic.
I've never liked Robert Ludlum (dead or alive). I think he was a pretty clunky writer. But he sure as hell knew how to hook the reader.
And as one published author (at least sometimes) to a bunch of aspiring novelists, I can tell you this as a fact:
good writing isn't enough.
I read new authors all the time. Partly because I'm always on the lookout for something new (and partly because I find most best-sellers leave me disappointed somehow), but no, it's NOT the hook that gets me. The hook is nothing more than a marketing ploy.
What gets me is the subject matter. A book can have the best hook in the world, but I am NOT going to read yet another tale of four friends who are very different yet find their way through the dating pool. Yawn. Been there. Tired of the plot.
When I pick something up, it's because the plot as a whole grabs me. It goes beyond the marketing and into the potential in the whole picture.
Hmmm, interesting question. I answered this on my blog recently when I reviewed the book The Kindness of Strangers. Why did I pick it up?
The cover - cover art always draws me in and plays a role. Too cheesy - gonna pass.
The blurb on the back - it told me that it was contemporary and about a mom and her sons. I have my own sons so I connected and it also told me that two families get brought to their knees.
There was nothing in the stores that floated my boat and I was desperate to find anything to read during the holiday break. I had never heard of this author or read any reviews on this book.
It ended up being a great surprise and I'm glad I picked it up. I think I found a new author to follow into the future as I felt her writing was much like Jodi Picoult.
But it was those two things - the cover and the blurb - that's it.
Is it fair that agents and editors have to make a big decision on such little information? It's tough and no doesn't seem fair because it is the whole experience that makes a book great or not.
Would reading partials or fulls of every submission be the right thing to do? I don't think they'd have time to do anything else that is in their job description if they did!
Great points Jessica.
The truth is when faced with an overwhelming number of choices and options you have to start whittling away at the masses in some way. I equate it to clothes shopping. I can walk right through the middle of several racks and know whether anything is "going to work". The hook is the same thing as that visual for our books. The agent has to see or hear something that clicks with them.
As writer's we need to consider learning how to sell our story in a short blurb and/or start it in the right place .. it's part of the art.
As for shopping new authors -- I'm all about the cover first, then the blurb. I will shamefully admit that if there is no blurb on a book --- it's a pass for me until someone recommends it.
Happy New Year --- thanks for the thoughtful topic to get our butts in gear in tweaking those blurbs and hooks!
I started reviewing books on my blog about a year ago and now I think it's something other aspiring authors really ought to consider. Among other things, you learn really fast what really matters.
Also, if you develop a reputation authors and publishers start sending you books for free! It's like being the first kid to open presents on Christmas morning.
I have a horrible pattern for picking up new books. If a book is in the bargain bin, I'll take a look at it if it falls in my interest range. I'm more likely to give it a try if it's cheap, even if I'm not entirely sold on it.
If I'm paying full price, I look at the cover. Deeds of Paksennarion had a really blah cover, but it was recommended. I read the jacket, about the author, and the first few pages. Then I skip around and read random pages. If there is a beginning chapter to a sequel, I start reading it.
I have to be sold on the story and the writing to spend my money on it. If someone has a style of writing that drives me nuts the story better be danged good for me to spend my time reading it and it would take something remarkable to do that.
So, yes, to me the hook and the opening chapter are crucial.
I guess that's one reason I appreciate the agents who blog and offer their time to help improve these things. I am terrible at them and yet I know it has to be done.
And my posts today are probably filled with typos, but I had to check in and now I have to hie off to work.
The cover and title gets me to pick up a book. A good description on the back keeps me from putting it back down. Award indications are impressive but quotes of praise from other authors or critics are not an influence. Then I read a few sample pages. That's the buy or not decision. I've often not brought books, especially fiction, if the prose is a style I do not like. With non-fiction I'm much more open to different writing styles.
That's when I'm at the bookstore. But a lot of books I read are chosen online based on recommendations of others. A strong recommendation from a literary blogger or a blogger on a niche topic for non-fiction will usually get me interested enough in the book to give it a chance.
Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon, one of my favorites now: I picked it up because there was a dragon on the cover and I was curious, and I thought the premise sounded so original and cool that I started reading it in the bookstore (my MO - I won't buy it if I don't make it through at least the first chapter in-store) and then I bought it.
If I'm in the bookstore, these three things influence my selections:
1) title...because sometimes all I see is the spine
2) cover...an intriguing cover will draw me in every time
3) back cover blurb...without a good one, the book goes back on the shelf. The worst thing a publisher could do is only put praise quotes on the back of a new author's book from reviewers or other authors. If I have no clue what the book is about, it goes back on the shelf (and I have seen this done MANY times...even well-known writers I will put back if I can't figure out what the book's about)
If I am shopping online, recommendations from friends/blogs. I also do get curious about those book lists on Amazon or recommendations based on books I've purchased in the past. I've selected lots of books that way.
I always try out new authors because I like to know what editors are buying. I'm a historical junkie. Unfortunately, the bunch of authors I've tried out recently, while the hooks were great, the follow through wasn't so great. I won't be picking up anymore of their books in the future unless someone I know and completely trusts (and who shares the tastes I do in books) says I MUST buy it. I figure the longer we write, the better we get.
When I look at the cover of a book, I realize that the author rarely has any input in that area so I don't fault her if it's ugly. But if it's really terrible, I'll pass.
I don't care what the author looks like, though it's interesting to get a general idea of age. It's the opposite of ageism: I trust a mature writer. Perhaps that's because I am post-youth myself.
I'll flip the book over and read the back copy. What's the story about? I have to care about the premise. If it doesn't interest me, there's no chance I'll buy it, even if it's a bestseller written by a hotshot author. I like books that are fresh and free of cliché—the literary equivalent of the independent film. Certain genres will never interest me.
It doesn't matter much which critic has written what about the book. Chances are I'll buy a book that's highly recommended by a friend whose taste I trust.
The acid test is the first page. Rather, I should say, the first paragraph. Hook me with a unique voice and good writing and I'm yours.
I'm the same as Inherwrite 9:06 above.
Voice more than anything hooks me. The problem with "hook" is that most of the time they have so little to do with the reality of the book. You know, the sort of cliched "list" plots for YA books or "journal" plots where the whole thing is written in journal format or written as a series of "emails" to friends.
The more I read the more I think those gimmicks are for people that don't have great "voice" to begin with.
I hate feeling like I'm being marketed to, but of course I understand how the book industry needs that hook, baby, or they don't know how to sell your work.
Great post. It reminded me of something, too. When I was entering and finaling in a lot of first chapter contests, I was constantly being asked by other writers if I wrote my entries especially for contest. I had heard other writers claim they did this, but my answer was no. I wrote the best first chapter I could.
I couldn't lie that I had changed my ending and upped my hook in an attempt to polish my chapter for the contest, but the rewrite made it a better story,a better read, and I never changed it back.
I totally agree that a story is more than a hook. A hook alone, won't generally get you published. The execution of a story is what will get you a contract, but I believe a good hook is part of the execution.
Diana, I think the question is: what is a good hook right now? Hooks change from year to year--perhaps month to month.(Readers, and this includes me, are fickle and are ADD-ed. They bore quickly and need a new or refreshed idea constantly, lol.)
Hence, knowing how to write a good hook may be seconadry to having an interesting hook to begin with. Which is to say, there's no way to make a stale hook interesting no matter how well-written!)
So...Should we look to current affairs (tabloids included) or current bestsellers in order to predict what hooks will be hot next year?
After reading Jessica's post, my resolution this year is to extrapolate that hook-trend graph (yeah, I'll draw one up, lol. The stock market has one, why not one for bestselling hooks??),then I'll try to predict what fickle readers want for their next fix before I write my next book. Only half-kidding here.
With Jessica's help, I think I've solved the mystery (again!)of getting a foot in the door. Hey! I'm an optimist, Failures provide the opportunity to laugh at myself and re-adjust my strategy.
Every book displayed in the front of the store will get looked at by me if it's a book or author I'm not familiar with.
A pretty cover always draws my eye to a book and I'll pick it up and read a few sentences.
Even if it's a great opener, a lot of books start great, then fizzle, so I'd never buy book on impulse that way (anymore!), especially from a new author.
Getting a great review from the NY Times gets my attention, especially with a new author, but the Publishers Weekly review posted on amazon has to be good as well in order for me to hit the "buy with one click" feature - which I rarely do now because I'm finding even the NYT and PW reviews can no longer be trusted.
I get the majority of books from the library now since most (these days: ALL) of the books I read ultimately disappoint me, even the established authors, not just the new ones.
Blurbs I trust even less than reviews now, so I'd never consider reading a book based on a blurb.
Kimber An, getting free books is cool, yet I felt obligated to read, and therefore review those ARC's that were sent to me. Frankly a lot of them were not worth reading or finishing, so as a fellow reviwer, I no longer accept free books from publishers or authors - I don't want to feel obligated to finish any book, or review a book that I'd hoped to like but ultimately did not.
Josie's reading room? It's a tough one!
Anon 8:55: could not agree with you more!
To the folks who talked about getting recommendations from trusted book friends - I've been recommended great books and bad books by the same person - it's all really a matter of taste for the individual.
Great discussion, Jessica!
I had an agent I really respected turn down my book, but she said she read the full because of the "beautiful writing" -- which was awesome to hear. But she wasn't drawn into the story enough.
That's the kind of rejection I can do something with, and so I'm revising.
As for trying out new authors...
Anna Godbersen, The Luxe, because an agent compared my book to that one
The Thirteenth Tale / Diane Setterfield, because of the promotional blitz at Barnes & Noble
The Twilight series, because it's repped by the agency I'm working with and, you know, it's mad huge
But authors I'd never heard of? It was nonfiction: Organizing Magic by Sandra Felton -- and I'm reading it because of subject matter (New Year, lots of organizing to be done!). Loving it, too, by the way.
As for novels? That's really, really hard. Probably The King of Mulberry Street by Donna Jo Napoli -- bought it because A) subject matter (New York history) B) it was an ARC, and geeks like ARCs, and C) location - I was in Brooklyn, and buying books in Brooklyn just feels right, since some of my favorite authors live there.
OK then, I have a question. What do you do when you get a multitude of personalized rejections stating that the premise is intriguing and the writing is good (one even said "first rate")?
I tried out Leven Thumps by Obert Skye just because the spine was well designed and easy to read. I read the first few pages and was hooked instantly by his style and wit.
So a cover does have a lot to do with trying new authors. Since it stood out from all the other spines on the shelf, I picked that one and now Obert has a new fan.
Funny enough I think my number of repeat buys has really dropped the last few years--that means LOTS of new authors. I Just ordered six new books, five were new-to-me authors and all from other reader's recommendations (Mostly one reader but I find her and I have similar reading tastes).
Yes, walking in a book store, it's the cover that makes me pick a book up, it's the blurb that gets me to flip the page open and read a little, but it seems most of the time, when I hit a brick and mortar store, I already know what I want.
I pick up new authors all the time, and it's mostly due to the jacket copy. I'll give it a try. Most first books I read are interesting, if not terrific.
There was a time when I had several "automatic buys" from authors I loved. No more. Just last night I dumped a book after reading thirty pages, and that was being generous. By an established writer. I won't be buying her again, or more important, wasting my time reading her again.
Before Christmas, I did something I'd never done before. I returned a book to a bookstore. One of my favorite authors had a new hardcover book, which I auto-bought and read. It was dreadful. Same genre, same hype. Just a dreadful book. After I finished it, I went on Amazon to read reader reviews, and the consensus of readers agreed with me.
Why was this book released? Because the author is a big name, bestseller? Is he too big for editing? It's like the Emperor's New Clothes. The book was not good. In fact, it sucked. And the publisher should have known it.
I thought long and hard before I did this, but since this book was released and felt like a "product," I decided to do what I would with any other defective product. Returned it. I asked them to make certain when they returned the book to the publisher to let them know that it was returned and why. Hopefully that will happen. At nearly thirty dollars, I am going to be more selective and not rely so much on past performance.
A NY's resolution: go back to the library.
--Greetings. Long time reader, first time poster.--
I'm always seeking new books to read, and it's always an ordeal because I'm so tired of mediocrity. When I find a writer I like, I devour all his/her works until I am either disappointed or run out.
When I seek a new author, there's a process. I met some authors at conventions/symposium. I met Brandon Sanderson that way, and picked up his book for it. Otherwise I'm collecting recommendations from friends or kindly strangers in the bookstore, then I sit in the store and read for half-an-hour before I commit to purchase.
I have asked many, many people why they read the books they do. The answer is that they have many reasons for picking up a book, but always in the top three is that a friend reccomended it.
That's my #1. If someone says, "This is a good book," I will at least give it a try.
I realize that in the old daze books were sold to people browsing in bookstores, but I do not think this is a significant part of the market anymore. Furthermore, ads in newspapers (or anywhere) are not an important part of the equation.
I think that it's all about buzz, and the internet is one place where people often find "book buddies" that like the same things they do. The buzz is going to be what sells books, not the hook. The hook is something from an era based on styles of communication and purchase that is ending rapidly.
I criticize you guys not because I think you are villians. I believe that your world is changing rapidly, and you aren't. That doesn't make you evil or lazy, it makes you just like most American industries that faced rapid change, many of them in the 1970s. You may note with the hindsight of 30 years or so that many such industries are mere shadows of what they were. Caveat machina.
The key has to be how to generate good buzz, which is to say to find where the word-of-keyboard chains really come together. The hook? Save it for a pirate book.
1. First I go to the mystery section of a good indie bookstore.
2. Knowing that marketing usually chooses the title and cover design, I try to ignore them, and just choose a random book.
3. Skipping the prologue, I read the first page.
4. Then I read a random page in the middle.
5. If I'm intrigued, I read another random page in the middle.
I never read the back. I never read the blurbs. For me, it really is all about the writing.
"Buzz" is nothing new. When I was in high school in NYC in the '70's I took the subway or a bus daily. EVERYONE read. Either a newspaper or a paperback book. You could see the buzz in action. Books like The Godfather, Jaws, Coma, All the President's Men were driven by buzz, but it was true buzz, not the manipulation of the internet by someone seeking product placement.
And the more reliance on the type of buzz now hyped over the internet, the less effective it is.
What I'm curious about is how the market seems to chase its own tail. There will be one huge book, like a Harry Potter, or Da Vinci Code or Bridget Jones, and then that will be all editors want until the market is flooded with bad imitations.
Then the cycle starts again. The problem is that these books are all sold on hooks. But why must the hooks all be the same after success of one?
Anon, I agree that buzz is not anything new.
I do think that as the other marketing channels collapse, however, it becomes prominent as the only thing left. Furthermore, the internet hype that you (I think rightly) say has diminishing returns is a relatively new art that is not practiced all that well.
Let's say for the sake of argument that "buzz" on the internet is a very different animal. I can agree with that. How should it be done? There may be some space for a "hook" in that, but it's a very different kind of "hook" than you use on the back of the book or in a regular advert. For one thing, I don't think that you can count on your carefully crafted tag lines being faithfully repeated by people.
In short, I'm not disagreeing with you at all. I think that "Buzz" has emerged as nearly the only real way that books are reccomended to a large portion of the reading audience, outside of Oprah. That means that it will take time to build sales. It also means that "fake buzz" has to be done more artfully and effectively so that it meshes with the "real buzz".
I simply don't believe that a lot of people browse bookstores any longer for their recommendations. If they did, indies wouldn't be closing and Borders wouldn't be in serious trouble (as they are).
I never pick up a new author because of advertising copy on the back. I pick up books because of buzz--I see reviews, I read about books on the web, I know what other writers are talking about. If I'm at an airport and looking for a detective story, I read the blurbs to see if anyone I respect has liked it. 90% of hooks all sound they same--they don't hook me, and they give no indication of whether the book is, as you said, well executed, which is very, very important to me.
When was the last time you tried out a new author you’d never heard of and what was the reason for picking up the book?
Nathalie Mallet, The Princes of the Golden Cage. I came upon the book researching the publisher, but the back copy (and the gorgeous cover) caught my eye, and so I picked the book up. Loved it, and I can't wait for the next one.
There is one particular long-time NYT bestselling writer whose writing is simply horrible but whose stories are considered fascinating (and no, I'm not talking about Dan Brown here).
That's because in the end, it's the story that really matters, so long as the execution is mostly passable. Doesn't mean we shouldn't try to be the best writers we can be, but it does mean all the nitpicking we do about too many adverbs, adjectives, overuse of "up," etc. is less important than character motivation, plot, and interesting dialog.
I agree with you that if the buzz is organic, it will work.
What I mentioned before was literally seeing twenty or thirty people at a time reading the same book.
That's more than subliminal. That's in your face buzz, saying this book is good enough that this many people bought it and are reading it now.
Internet buzz has far to go to match that tangible strength. Today, everyone's a reviewer, and blurbs are merely quid pro quo.
I "browse" Amazon and B&N online much the way I used to browse bookstores.
If there were any independent bookstores around me, I would definitely go. Unfortunately, there are not. And while B&N and Borders are nice to visit, I hate feeling that all those books up front are only there because some publisher was blackmailed into paying for the position. And most of these books are by bestselling authors who don't need the push.
Kind of like the opposite of growing your readership if you ask me. If you wanted to grow your readership, you would put those new and exciting authors up front in readers' faces, not the ones they already read.
If I want to find the interesting new books, I have to go upstairs and browse the shelves.
It will shake itself out in the end.
Here's the three things that work on me, as far as trying out a new book/new author:
1. a great cover
2. an intriguing blurb/description (hook)
3. a gushing friend recommendation
I don't read fantasy, I don't read YA. Yet I picked up a fantasy/YA book by an author I'd never heard of because of the design, and the story description/copy. Oh, and it was prominently placed on display at Target.
The author is working on her next one, and I'm buying it.
I just discovered Jeanine Frost, and really I picked it up because I couldn't believe a debut author had one of those cardboard stands filled with fifty books in it! (And over the next two days, all but five were gone!) I was curious to see what had caused the excitement and such support from the publisher.
I'm not sure the book itself had a hook, at least not one I can remember, but I just couldn't put it down. She did the first four-fifths perfectly. I was a little disappointed in the ending, but we'll see how it works out in the sequel.
Anonymous, you're right about the voice. There have been times when I found the inside flap description really promising, but when I started to read the book, I decided that I didn't want to "listen to that voice" telling me a story for 300 pages.
I've been asked to "blurb" books for new authors and have found some amazing reads that way--Devyn Quinn's dark erotic romances for one. I got a free copy of the first of Jenna Black's Guardians series at a conference and have bought her second and third--both authors write much darker than I usually read, but their stories are totally mesmerizing. I have to say, I might not have picked them up on my own w/o that first free read! If I'm in a bookstore and want something new, it's usually a name I've heard of--I think word of mouth is important. After that I would say the combination of an attractive cover and an interesting back blurb. I will sometimes open the pages and take a look, but not always. Once I find an author I like, I will continue to buy everything they write, regardless of the cover or blurb, which is why my bookshelves have complete sets of Angela Knight, Lori Handeland, Christine Feehan, Alyssa Day, Jenna Black, Lori Foster, Sunny, etc. etc. :-) And also why I'm falling behind on my WIP!
As a writer who has written book manuscripts for many years, but never gotten a book published, I write a story that I think is interesting. I write on a conflict or a process that I find fascinating and that needs expression. And I can't tell you how many times I've heard from editors and agents that a manuscript I've sent is interesting but not marketable, or the like. If I were told to write a book that is not necessarily interesting but has a great hook, I would find that defeats the whole purpose of being a writer.
I'm heavily influenced by timing. Well, that's a given, I suppose, without going into physics. I mean that a book that might really excite me (usually because of the author, the title, the hook) one month will nearly repulse me the next. Right now I can't stand anything with a dark hero on a dark urban street. I won't even give it a chance if I know the guy will be immortal or a vampire, etc.
I would imagine publishers and agents might feel the same, for different reasons. If you've just seen twenty bad pitches for yet another formulaic urban fantasy...bleck.
I am totally turned off by cheesy titles as well--I mean suggestive ones.
I was just considering this when selecting a book at the library yesterday. Normally I go with book reviews or recommendations, but when I have to manually select a book - how daring! - I look at cover/title/blurb/first page in that order.
I noticed that covers with a fresh, uncluttered look were the ones that most drew me in. But I definitely needed a good hook to keep going. I found myself thinking about Jessica's critiques as I browsed and don't think that many of them would've passed muster. ;->
It's all nothing, but the first page. I've picked up gorgeous covers to be so disappointed. I've picked up HORRID covers only to fall in love. Blurbs? Meh. I read the first few pages, and if I need to keep reading it comes home with me.
For fiction, my answer would be the first three books of the Ladies' #1 Detective Agency series. I started reading it because it was a gift from a friend. Even though it's nothing like what I usually read, I decided to give it a shot. What hooked me and kept me reading through all three books were the writer's use of language, the sense of place, and an interesting main character.
I don't remember the last time I picked up a novel without it having been recommended to me. Maybe the first Artemis Fowl book, several years ago, because the cover blurb sounded interesting and the writing looked decent when I browsed through the book.
For nonfiction, it's completely different. Usually, I'll go hunting for a book on a particular topic, and I'll do a little research online or in the book store to find the one that looks the best.
Sometimes I'll have a vague topic in mind. Like, maybe I want to buy a new book about writing, but I don't have a particular aspect in mind. In that case, I'll look at titles and pick out a few books that look like they'd be useful at that moment, then I browse through them to decide which one I like best.
This one is easy for me. I read fiction by debut authors because I run a blog called Fantasy Debut, and that's all I cover. The reason I started the blog is because I read so much debut fantasy. The reason I read so much debut fantasy is because I'm trying to divine the secrets of how all the debut authors get published. I learn something from every debut novel that I read.
I'm close to burning up my quota of posts for the week, so I promise I'll clam up after this.
But here's a thought to consider:
In any other industry, the sales people have a clear picture of what they can and can't sell. Their job is, more than anything, to know the customers.
In the book industry, fads are rampant. Every Harry Potter has a thousand, "Just like Harry Potter!" books following it.
If the people who are in charge of knowing what readers want really had their job nailed, they wouldn't chase every single fad. They would work on product differentiation, which is what a real sales strategy looks like, not copycatting.
So when someone tells me that "This book won't sell," I have to wonder how the Hell they think they know that. There's considerable evidence that the book industry does not have its most basic market research down at all.
If someone wants to prove me wrong, they should address the "It's just like Harry Potter!" routine that you will not see in any other industry.
Last thought - I know it rankles book industry people to the point that I am routinely ignored when I compare it to other industries. Yet when it comes to entertainment dollar, that's what the consumer is cnosidering. Why do people read? I've elicited a lot of very useful comments off of my blog recently. The same arguments that tell us that the book industry is about what sells, not literature, can be used to say that this is just another industry that has to understand its customers, trim its distribution system, and control costs.
But the hooks on the back cover aren't written by the authors--that's not their job any more than designing a cover is. An agent should be able to tell in less than 10 minutes (first 5 pages and a 2-page synopsis) whether the book is worth finding the hook for and selling. Asking the author to hook the agent in a few sentences is like asking a computer programmer to sell a new version of windows to Microsoft by saying "Easy to use! Cool new graphics!" Presumably, the industry itself has a deeper view of these things than the casual reader.
The last time I picked up a book by an author I'd never heard of, it was because of the title: Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name (Vendela Vida). Awesome title, I couldn't grab it fast enough. The writing & story were just okay, but that title, wow.
thanks, jessica. i always feel like a jerk when i'm on a panel and someone ELSE says "just a really well-written book!" because i feel it's irresponsible of me NOT to jump in and say no, not quite...
You're absolutely right, Jessica! I hate writing hooks, and I think I'm probably quite bad at it. But when I buy a book, it's usually by an author I don't know, and I always read the back first. If the back doesn't sound interesting enough, I leave that one and pick up another- there are way too many other books to choose from, and I don't have enough money to buy the ones I'm questioning. I also have to admit though, that the cover plays a huge role too- I pick up the pretty ones first:)
I usually pick up new authors upon the recommendation of friends who know the genres I like, and I also read the book review section of the weekend paper. If I'm at a book store, I tend to go to the genre shelves I like, but also browse the general fiction area and look at the cover, usually drawn by a good title. If the title hooks me, then I go to the next level and read the back.
I tend to visit the library for new authors--and in many cases, even ones I've read before. With books being so expensive, I won't even buy hardbacks any more because it's just too expensive to get a book and then find out the book is a flop.
In the library, it's the title and the jacket blurb. I'm nearly always turned off if the book just has blubs and doesn't say what it's about.
In the bookstore, the cover will draw my attention, then the title, and then the back of the book.
My last purchase that didn't involve any of these methods was at Thrillerfest when I picked up a book because the author was a first timer. Unfortunately, I also regretted spending the money; the book was awful. I could see the hook's selling point, but the execution wasn't there.
I really think its funny that any writer would think agents or editors had enough time to read every complete manuscript submitted. I've heard the slush pile gets pretty high in some offices. So, what else is there but the hook? If the back of the book blurb doesn't suck you in you move on. Right? Same difference. I think experienced agents and editors can see potential in a hook. And after seeing the marathon of pitches here I'm finally beginning to believe writing a good hook is possible. Thanks Jessica! We've learned so much about hooks in past few months you'll soon be deluged with great books you can't bear to turn down!!!
To anon 10:22 - I've had the same response as you. Finally an agent took the time to exchange emails with me and we talked about the market for the book. Yes, he loved the story, the premise and the writing. No, he didn't feel there was a big enough market for him to pursue representation.
I shared a new idea with him that I had been working on and he was very enthusiastic. Advised me to keep writing and requested that I contact him when it was done. Hopefully, in a couple of months, I'll be ready to do just that.
By the way, the book I'm working on now is far more commercial than the first. I didn't choose to write it because of that -- it was already well under way when I recieved the aforementioned comments -- but it was on a subject with which I was intrigued, felt compassionate enough about to write an entire novel on.
Start something new, maybe something a little different, but don't compromise your writing style. Incorporate it into your new venture.
Over the past three years or so; I have tried a lot of books of authors I had never heard of before.
Before that I used to look for the word NYT....so many weeks.
after trying the bunch of books from the unknown names, I was blown away. My paradigm of buying books has changed.
I read the back cover, see that the subject matter [call it hook] interests me. read the first few pages, then at randowm in between. If I like the voice and writing, I buy it.
There have been more successes than failures.
I think the bestselling authors [ not all of them] sometimes take their success for granted, and the writing suffers.
PS: I still read the really well received books out there; either through word of mouth or gut feeling.
"When was the last time you tried out a new author you’d never heard of and what was the reason for picking up the book?"
Good question, and here's an honest answer.
"Scratch Golfer" by Wille Thompson.
Why: Wille comments on the Comic Curmudgeon blog and promoted his (self-published) book there. Visited his Web site, read the excerpt, and placed an order.
What caught me. The cover, which made me laugh. Plus, he -- being a good Carolina boy -- set the story in Charlotte, N.C., where I grew up. Third, the book's design is beautiful (I love fonts). Fourth, the excerpt made me laugh.
Here's his site, so you can see for yourself. Note, however, that he came up with a great tag line: "A devilishly funny book about Life, Business, and the Golf Match from Hell"
I'll bet you could plot out the novel right now, based on that description.
Well. When i got the idea for my premise I had real passion about it because it combined two things I had personal experience with- Disability studies and the Lottery. I think the writing - premise - passion go hand in hand.
I think the cover and title are the first things that catch my attention. I give a quick look to the blurb, but rarely read the whole thing. Then, I scan the first chapter or so of the book. I'm not really reading it, only bits and pieces to give me an idea of whether or not I'm going to l ike it. The dialogue and the way the characters interact is a major factor for me. I usually can tell if I'm not going to like the book immediately.
The actual blurb doesn't play that big of a role for me other than letting me know if it is a genre I'm interested in reading.
When I managed a bookstore in Phil. Airport I read new books all the time because I read so much, that my fav. authors couldn't write fast enough. Now I read the blurbs and then open the cover and read what the book is about. A blurb isn't enough to make me read a book. And I usually go online and check out the author and what else they've written. I do tend to keep to well published authors, except my sister who has written a few books already! I'll read new authors if someone refers me to them.
Anon 8:05pm--Anon 10:22 here. Thank you. It's good to know others have had the same experience--and that there's definitely hope for the next one!
I read reviews, and ask people whose opinions I trust for recommendations.
If I am in a bookstore, I start with the cover design, unless it is a new title by an author I trust. Then the cover can be trashy as hell, and I wouldn't mind. After liking a cover, I will have a read of first page.
And what keeps me with an author? The journey of the characters. I find it interesting that many agents seem to say that it is the clever and unusual storyline pitched creatively that would cause them to read a full book. Very weird then that so many books become best sellers which are telling a story that has been told umpteen times before, but which have been simply told well.
I'm a horrible book-buyer. About half of what I buy was recommended to me either by a friend or a blog. For the other half, I have 3 criteria: The cover (if it doesn't appeal to me, I probably won't pick it up), the tagline on the front, and a random page in the middle. I rarely check the back of the book unless I'm undecided after the first 3 criteria are met.
Christine. That is good. Read a sample from the middle. Everyone knows that the first para, first page have lots devoted to them. I am going to crack it open in the middle from now on. Thanks
I have two different ways to judge books.
1-I see what Amazon.com recommends. I have found Eileen Weeks and C.E. Murphy among others.
I have to admit that only three out of ten recommendations are authors that I really like with good characterization and plots.
2-When I go to the book store, I read the back, I read the hook, and then I randomly read in the middle of the book. With this shopping method I buy less books, but I find more authors that I like. However, I find newer authors on Amazon.com and not at my bookstore, which is a pity.
I have always loved fantasy and science fiction. After the death of some of the best scifi writers (Heinlein, Isamov, etc) I have only found a few writers in that genre that I fit my criteria. (My criteria includes writing that doesn't offend my sensibilities i.e. good grammar, characterization, and plot). If I can second-guess the writer, then I have a BORING book.
So there you go.
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