Reading a book’s cover story

This is excerpted from a speech I recently gave at the Tucson Festival of Books.

Most people here are readers, not writers, so I thought I'd share some dirty little secrets with you from inside the world of book publishing. When you see a book, you probably see a meticulously crafted product; we authors see a meticulously crafted fraud, beginning with the "jacket copy," which is the material on the book jacket, lavishly complimentary about the author, and often written in the third person by the author himself. I, personally, wrote a line for the jacket of my new book in which I compared myself to O. Henry. I am not proud of this, but there it is.

From the standpoint of scrupulous honesty and intellectual rigor, though, jacket copy is the Talmud compared with "blurbs." Blurbs are short bites of additional complimentary material written about the author by people more famous than the author. That's how it works: People you never heard of get blurbed by me. I get blurbed by Dave Barry. Dave Barry gets blurbed by Stephen King. Stephen King gets blurbed by His Holiness the Pope.

Publishers love blurbs; it's their system of influence peddling. The dirty little secret about blurbs is that they are often written by someone who not only isn't familiar with the writer, but sometimes hasn't even read the book. He is writing the blurb as a favor to his publisher.

Publisher: Will you write a blurb for Gene Weingarten's new book?

Tom Clancy: I never heard of Gene Weingarten.

Publisher: Well, his jacket copy says he is the new O. Henry.

Tom Clancy: I'm ethically uncomfortable blurbing a book I haven't read by a writer I don't know.

Publisher: If you do this for me, I'll get you a blurb from J.K. Rowling.

Tom Clancy: Fine.

This system is like a house of cards, with less structural integrity.

Perhaps the greatest revelation from the world of books, though, is the myth of "royalties." Royalties are a theoretical construct, like the "quark." No one has ever seen a quark, but based on conjecture and evidence, scientists assure us it is a likelihood. Same with royalties, which are theoretically based on an amount of money the writer gets for each book sold. This system theoretically kicks in once sales have paid back the writer's "advance." In practice this never happens because — and I want to emphasize this — books do not sell.

Until recently, authors didn't know just how grim the sales picture was, because the only sales information we got was from the publisher in the form of "royalty statements," which are incomprehensible sheaves of figures — some are in parentheses, some are underlined, some are underlined twice. Mercifully, we could never understand royalty statements. Not long ago, a friend of mine called excitedly to say that he just got his first royalty statement from his new book — a fine book on an important subject of public policy — and it looked as though he had already sold 40,000 copies. His agent then reviewed the same document and concluded actual sales had been closer to 603.

By the way, O. Henry died penniless.

© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group

Reading a book’s cover story 03/17/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 17, 2012 5:30am]

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