IVP - Addenda & Errata - The 6 x 9 Canvas

March 7, 2008

The 6 x 9 Canvas

As I was reading the manuscript, I knew I had stumbled on the opening line for the back cover of John Stott’s The Cross of Christ: “I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. . . . In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?” Proud of my discovery, I worked up my back cover copy from that opening line. It was one of my earliest efforts—maybe my first—as a beginning editor writing back cover copy.

A few days later I was talking with a couple of people in our marketing department, and one of them asked, with obvious disapproval in her voice, “Who wrote that cover copy?” I admitted that I had. She was embarrassed. I was embarrassed. But I was also perplexed. What was her problem? But at the moment, I didn’t really want to hear about it! As I go back and read the back cover some twenty-two years later, I still think it’s pretty good cover copy. I assume she thought it was too academic in its appeal. But then, it was not a “popular” or “general” book. I thought—and I still think—I knew the book’s audience. Then again, how hard is it to sell a book on the atonement by Stott? Only in our recent anniversary edition of the book has cover copy been supplanted by endorsements by evangelical notables—and I’m quite happy about that.

Years later an author of mine read the cover copy for his book and asked, “Who wrote that back cover copy? Whoever it was seems to have actually understood what the book is about!” I beamed for a second. And then he turned the screw: “Did So and So [referring to another editor] write it?” I claimed it as my own, not So and So’s. But I’ll admit my mood darkened. Why did he immediately assume that it had to have been someone else’s work?

At IVP at least, editors have traditionally written their own cover copy for their own books. This apparently is not widely practiced in the publishing industry. But for us the back cover has long been the canvas of our anonymous “art.” And it shows up all over the place—in our catalogs, in distributor catalogs, on the web, including Amazon, and elsewhere. I think I’ve even heard it echoed in a review or two.

But it’s not all joy. You readers cause editors a lot of grief. You’re not easy to catch. We have just a few seconds as you glance at the back cover to get you to open the book (or, on the web, to get you to still your restless mouse long enough to give us a click). The challenge of writing back cover copy that truly and enticingly represents a book—and engages potential readers—never ends.

We recently had a valuable session led by someone from the marketing side of things. It was an eye-opener. (Do you know—well, of course you do—that there are folks out there whose sole occupation consists in thinking about how to get their hands into your wallet?) Writing cover copy is hard work! For the last batch of books I completed recently, it took me more time than I want to admit. We look to the muse, or the manuscript, for inspiration, hoping to conjure up a memory of what first inspired us to take the proposal to publishing committee. This difficulty is not a commentary on the book itself. It is just a symptom of long familiarity. And editors develop their own tricks and strategies for overcoming it.

I’ve found that it helps to chip away at this task over a few weeks, keeping a file open in which I can write down any ideas, images, metaphors, sentences or paragraphs that come to mind. Never mind whether they all have a chance of making the final cut. Just write them down. They might help me conjure up the final copy later.

Another trick I tried recently is to take my laptop to a coffee shop and write the cover copy to a stranger across the room. I tell them what I’m working on and see if I can spark their imaginary interest. I think this works best when I’m trying to pitch the book to a layperson. Here’s a recent one (clearly influenced by the coffee shop!) that I didn’t put on the back cover, substituting instead some good endorsements we received. It’s decidedly not academic in the usual sense, directed instead at the end-users of the book, mostly undergrad students:

For some of us, the Apostle Paul is like a distant uncle. We’ve heard he’s pretty important. We’ve read the good parts of his letters. But sometimes he comes across as prickly and unpredictable. Not someone you’d like to hang out with at a coffee shop. He’d raise his voice. Try to convert the barista. And we’d want to slink out the back door. For a mid-afternoon latte, we’d prefer Jesus over Paul.
But actually, this is the guy who, from Ephesus to Athens, was the talk of the marketplace and the raconteur of the Parthenon. Maybe it’s time to give Paul a break, let go of some stereotypes and try to get to know him on his own terms. If that’s where you are, Rediscovering Paul is your guide. This is a book that helps us find Paul again—holding forth in the marketplace of Corinth, working with a secretary in framing his letter to the Romans or pastoring the messy emerging churches of Philippi and Thessalonica.
Drawing on the best of contemporary scholarship, honed by teaching and conversing with today’s students, Rediscovering Paul is a textbook that rises above the rest.

Have I caught your interest?

Notice that this cover copy does not overtly name the specific features or benefits of the book, or its approach—all things that I’m told good cover copy should deliver. It tries instead to set a scene, sketch a felt need and create a mood or desire to rediscover Paul. Does it work? Frankly, I don’t know. But it’s the kind of cover copy I enjoy writing. And it’s a good book on Paul, by the way.

Posted by Dan Reid at March 7, 2008 10:44 AM Bookmark and Share


I loved the original cover copy for Stott's The Cross of Christ. I thought that quote was so profound, and I may not have ever zeroed in on it or even found it in the main text had it not been highlighted on the back cover.

Comment by: Al Hsu at March 10, 2008 8:19 AM


Was just thinking the same thing about the Stott backcover copy. It's always been one of my favorites.

Comment by: Greg Jao at March 10, 2008 12:51 PM

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