On Grabbing Readers by the Neck

There’s a common bit of advice that authors need to “grab readers by the throat” with the first paragraph.

I fear writers who take that long are already struggling to play catch up.

For me, as a reader and now as a publisher, more important to me than first paragraphs are titles and book descriptions. I like to think over the years I’ve gotten better at both.

I alluded to this in talking about Nick Earls’ The True Story of Butterfish, which you can buy here if you haven’t already. In the run-up to a proposed serialization of the book (that ultimately never occurred), I proposed an alternate title to Nick: “The Rockstar Next Door.”

One thing among myriad that I’ve enjoyed about working with Nick is that he’s open to suggestion. His novel, The Thompson Gunner, became first “Tumble Turns” and now Borderline Famous when Exciting Press published it. Being a fan of Nick’s work from the early days of Zigzag Street and Perfect SkinThe Thompson Gunner struck me as like those old Sesame Street segments where “one of these things doesn’t belong.” It’s not a bad title, by any means, but as I read the novel I felt like something else could fit better. For me, as a reader, The Thompson Gunner struck me more like a thriller. I expected a man in the dark in sunglasses and a long coat. There was a lighthouse involved, for some reason. It felt like there would be intrigue and more than a little violence.

The Thompson Gunner was not a novel that was easily accessible in the US, and so I didn’t get to read it until I started working with Nick. Imagine my surprise when it turned out the novel was about Meg Riddoch, a stand-up comedienne on a multi-leg tour who was navigating morning talk shows and a complicated past. That past was where the titular gunner came from, but still that title felt like a mis-match. I pitched several titles to Nick; I think “Borderline Famous” was in that first batch, as was, if I’m not mistaken “Alternative Country,” but “Tumble Turns” stuck out. They’re a specific swimming maneuver Meg works to perfect through the course of the book, and felt like a great metaphor.

The problem was that in subsequent conversations, “Tumble Turns” didn’t seem to stick. For some readers, it connoted laundry, which was definitely NOT what we would go for. And so Borderline Famous it became.

With Butterfish, I wasn’t sure “Butterfish” itself was sticky. I worried it might connote French cuisine, and besides that I was pitching Nick on a plan to serialize the novel over five weeks while it would be available for pre-order. “The Rockstar Next Door” was simpler, and Nick agreed.

But then I started in on the book description, and reversed course. Because all the great press about the novel was about The True Story of Butterfish, and I realized that, cooking aside, the “True Story” was compelling. Because was there a fake story?

To find out you’ll have to read the book.

That’s a long digression away from book descriptions. I’m particularly proud of the book description for The True Story of Butterfish.

But I’m also really proud of the one for Borderline Famous. The title may have changed, but that’s the description it was published with.

Another I’m proud of: the one for Miya Kressin’s fabulous No Expectations. It was a terrific, fun, sexy novel, and I knew I needed to capture that in the info.

And then there’s Darth the Unicorn Killer. You want book info? Here’s your book info.

It’s arguably impossible for me to read any of these objectively; not only did I write them, but I published them all. If I didn’t think book descriptions on Exciting Press titles worked, I’d revise them. Hell, I frequently DO revise them. Changing turns of phrase, even rethinking them.

It used to be that readers would browse books and pick one up based on a title. They might look at a cover, but after the title, most readers checked either the inner dust jacket (remember those?) or the back cover of the paperback (remember those?).

Nowadays there’s no such browsing. You get thumbnails and titles, and then a book description, all while that “Buy Now” button hovers so prominently as to be rarely seen at all until you need to click.

For me, as a reader, I look for a few things, but in no particular order. Web pages rarely seem to have particular order any more. Nowadays I like to see some recognition and maybe a quote or two, but the internet is such a huge place anymore I rarely expect to recognize the awarding entities or blurbing authors — which makes the actual quote that much more important.

But the description? I like Darth’s because it’s so Darth. It’s a little vulgar and a lot irreverent. I like Butterfish’s because it plays with nostalgia (the parenthetical “remember those”) and hints not only at domesticity but the complications thereof while still remaining fun and simple. I love the one for Borderline Famous because it’s just so Meg. I think you really get a sense not only of her character but her mindset and the world she both lives in and perceives.


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