Whether you need to shift fine art or constipation remedies, good copywriting helps you to get things moving.
It can even help you sell the most unpalatable muck, at least for a first time.
Saki, the writer who was killed in the Great War, understood this a century ago. One of his short stories, Filboid Studge was about a young man whose prospective father-in-law couldn’t sell a breakfast cereal called Pipenta.
The young man changed its name to Filboid Studge and ran posters of the tormented in Hell, underscored with the slogan ‘They cannot buy it now’.
He got his audience right: it was aimed squarely at those people who take a soiled pleasure in inflicting wholesomeness on other people.
No one would have eaten Filboid Studge as a pleasure, but the grim austerity of its advertisement drove housewives in shoals to the grocers’ shops to clamour for an immediate supply. In small kitchens solemn pig-tailed daughters helped depressed mothers to perform the primitive ritual of its preparation. On the breakfast-tables of cheerless parlours it was partaken of in silence. Once the womenfolk discovered that it was thoroughly unpalatable, their zeal in forcing it on their households knew no bounds. “You haven’t eaten your Filboid Studge!” would be screamed at the appetiteless clerk as he turned weariedly from the breakfast-table, and his evening meal would be prefaced by a warmed-up mess which would be explained as “your Filboid Studge that you didn’t eat this morning.” Those strange fanatics who ostentatiously mortify themselves, inwardly and outwardly, with health biscuits and health garments, battened aggressively on the new food.
Filboid Studge made its owner such a fortune that his daughter could find a richer husband.
Such is the power of good advertising copy.
But it’s a power that’s sometimes seen as sordid, commonplace or vulgar by those who believe their products and services and selves belong to a loftier category.
Publishers are a case in point.
Book blurbs that hyperventilate don’t sell
Many people who work in publishing make two common mistakes about copywriting.
First, they assume it’s something that any educated person can do, regardless of whether they do it for a living.
Or, to be precise, Something that they and their authors are overqualified to do.
Second, they love doing things by committee.
For these reasons – plus the fact most publishers don’t have much cash to spare – most blurbs are written by authors or editors, and then lose any remaining punch by being edited down (or up) by a bunch of people determined to get in a few words of their own.
Net result: a few paragraphs of cliché-ridden superlatives.
Normally, it doesn’t work. Though, oddly, satires of the stereotypical book blurb work a treat. This gem from Blackadder III would sell any volume:
Edmund. A Butler’s Tale. A huge, roller coaster of a novel in four hundred sizzling chapters. A searing indictment of domestic servitude in the eighteenth century, with some hot gypsies thrown in.
Of course, What blurbs really ought to do is concentrate on benefits to the prospective reader. Or to get them to open the book itself and start reading.
That’s why my perfect blurb would read:
Edmund. A Butler’s Tale. Turn to page 109 now for a huge roller coaster. Buy the book today to discover hot Gypsies in the comfort of your own home.
Or something on those lines. It still needs some work…
(By the way, there is one thing most publishers do get right – putting testimonials in the blurb. But I’d be prepared to wage that a positive quote from the Times, Telegraph, Guardian et al doesn’t have the same whoomph as it did even a decade ago. I’d love to do some A/B testing when Tibor Fischer brings out his next novel – though I doubt his publisher would let me…)