At the Orycon convention this weekend in Portland, Oregon, the young lion of genre fiction, Lou Anders, was the Editor Guest of Honor. Lou may be unique among editors for his ability to "pitch" a story--to capture its essence in a few sentences, to entice readers and book buyers and sales departments. His background is Hollywood, so perhaps this is understandable, but all of us at the convention hung on every word, catching revealing glimpses into how his job is done in these difficult marketing days. He founded the excellent Pyr line for Prometheus books, a line that is known for beautiful products with fine art covers and spectacular writing.
Lou and Prometheus intended Pry to be a science fiction line, but now, five years into its existence, it sells primarily fantasy. This is a market decision. He also says that urban fantasy is beginning to "migrate"--his word--into historical fiction. (I'm thrilled to hear this, as my next novel, Mozart's Blood, is historical.)
He listed five things that sell books, and in this order. I had to trust my memory, but I think this is right. If you were there, and can correct me, please do.
1) Readers buy books by authors they've previously enjoyed.
2) Readers buy books recommended by friends.
3) Readers buy books because of the back cover copy.
4) Readers buy books if the first paragraph grabs them.
5) Readers buy books because of the cover blurbs.
More on the first paragraph issue in another post, because it's really a writing issue. The big surprise in this list, at least to me, is #5. Writers learn to be skeptical of cover blurbs, but perhaps we're simply jaded. Certainly, on principle, I never blurb a book I don't care for, but it seems to me that not every writer makes the same decision, and many of these bits of marketing have a generic feel. Lou says, however, that if Anne McCaffrey blurbs a book, a reader will at least assume that the book has similarities to a McCaffrey book.
No doubt the book cover is what causes a reader to pick up a book they've never seen before. Lou's belief is you have thirty seconds to grab that reader before they set down your book and go one to another. Unfortunately, the only item on this list we writers have control over is #4. It's worth thinking about!