In my freelance life, I’ve worked as a writer for several websites. The ones I worked for the longest and most steadily were retail sites—I described clothes. This is a pretty good fit for a poet. Or it was, before SEO arrived to make the simple task of talking about a T-shirt a redundant, unnaturally phrased nightmare: “We’re gonna need you to put the noun first, followed by a comma, then the brand name and key modifiers, in order of most importance, and then another comma, and then the color, if that’s a big deal. OK?” Idea, Generic Stupid Customer- and Human-Unfriendly Really, Cameo Pink.
At another job, describing mostly cowgirl boots, I was encouraged to tap into my Texas upbringing to infuse the copy with, basically, dialect and “country flair.” At the same time, I was required to work into each 250-word description a set of 5 to 6 keywords, some of which were variant forms of the same word. The contortions through which I had to put the language to write such redundant yet charmingly hickish prose were … yogic.
At another job, the senior copywriter decreed we were “to use as few words as possible; think very very minimalist.” (I mentally deleted both verys.) She also had a pretty long list of words we were prohibited from using, and a list she wanted us to use of her fave industry terms, shit I’d never say aloud, for fear of sounding … ridiculous.
As writers, we’re necessarily attuned to the experience of our readers—a role that requires empathy: imagining ourselves into the position of someone we’re not, someone desiring … something. This is true even for the retail copywriter, and I knew I was failing my readers. At least, I tried to console myself, as they attempted to purchase the stuff I described not for them but for the site-crawling bots who gorged on keywords, sigh, at least they had the pictures.
And yet, there were Key Phrases I learned to hear and appreciate (if not use myself) in these gigs. The other day somebody said to me, “It’s the kind of discussion that should be evergreen, not trending.” And I not only knew exactly what she meant (and she was totally right), but knew too that she and I had sat through the same kind of meetings, listening to a particular flavor of jargon. The work-speak could be entertaining, it’s true, but not always. I writhed in pain, for instance, anytime a colleague used anniversary as a verb. But despite its super-annoying origins, I am capable of enjoying the word evergreen used the way my friend did. I can almost smell it.
One of the other terms I enjoy: conversion experience.
In that context, a conversion is when a user gets successfully compelled by the call to action.
And this is what I’ve been talking about, with regard to book design, really. How can the look/feel/aura of the physical object compel you to touch it, to open it, and then to read what’s inside? What about when you can’t touch it, because you’re online?
I asked the internets: When looking at books online, what do you want to know/view about them (or their authors)? What’s essential? What’s not essential but cool or interesting?
A book held angled in a hand gives an immediate sense of size, heft, etc.—the things you just know about a book when browsing in a library or store. Also add digital scratch and sniff for that new book smell! —Linda Norton
I never really thought about the heft! But I do like to know the page count and the trim size.
A sample and description/blurbs are usually plenty, though links to reviews and other online writing by the author are always a bonus. —Matthew Trease
Yep, these seem like the basics, and what most publisher/bookseller sites offer. Several other respondents emphasized excerpts and samples as the most important thing. (Let us read a little! Either right on the site, or via links to excerpts published elsewhere.)
Yes, on samples (& agreed no on other people’^ opine^ *bout the book). —Metta Sáma, whose keyboard is broken right now
Which introduces the subject of blurbs, on which I heard more con than pro:
I’d rather see a short interview/statement directly from the poet than a blurb. Blurbs do absolutely nothing for me as a buyer. —Brooklyn Copeland Seall
Blurbs are useless. If it’s a book of poems, I want to see a sample of the poetry, and I want a review that honestly tells me what are the book’s strengths, structure, and the themes it addresses. Or something similar but different if the book is crazy. —Matthew Shindell
I appreciate non-cryptic blurbs that elucidate the poetic concerns or place the book in relation to concerns.—Linda Russo
For me the thing with blurbs, reviews and other secondary writing is that I’ve found them unreliable often enough that I instinctively hesitate, not only because I don’t have a ton of money to spend on books, but because I hate to buy something and then not read it. It feels wasteful, like going out to dinner and barely touching the meal you ordered because you really don’t care for it. If I read two or three poems I enjoy though, it’s generally a good indication that I’ll like the book well enough to spend time reading it. Even if I don’t love a book, I usually don’t regret spending the money if I’ve experienced the text—as opposed to merely acquiring it as a physical thing. —Ginger Hütter
Not many people mentioned economics, but this is an interesting point, and maybe one of the reasons chapbooks are so appealing?
Price. I’m more likely to take a chance on a writer unknown to me if the book costs less than $10. —Charles Jensen
Like Brooklyn, Michelle Detorie gets into a good Artist Statement:
Of course, people want to know what the book looks like. Clicking around through various sites, I’m not surprised to confirm that the cover is always a big deal, usually “heroing,” as my colleagues at work used to (ugh) say.
Personally I like seeing the design of the interior too, and that’s another way to show samples of the contents. (Wave does this, for example. Here’s the page for Hoa Nguyen’s Red Juice, with alt shots for the paperback cover, the limited-edition hardcover cover, and several sample poems. Lovely!)
For some people, a particular poet’s or press’s rep might be persuasive enough to convince them to take a chance:
A knowledge of the poet’s work, trust in the press. —Rebecca Loudon
Another thing I like is information about the author:
Do they have any pets? —Jennifer L. Knox
A photo, at least a brief bio, maybe some additional info like video or audio of them reading? (Several people mentioned A/V extras.) An interview? (A few respondents liked these.) A link to their website? Nobody mentioned “book trailers.” None of this is essential, in a strictly functional sense: the title, author, and a button gets the job done.
I guess I like knowing a little bit about who wrote the book. And these are things (unlike that unmistakable book smell, the heft and the gloss, the deckled fore-edges of collectible hardcovers) we can’t get in a bookstore. (Bookstores are still my favorite way to browse and shop. But often I make my list by poking around online first.)
What do you think?
What site elements make a great virtual browsing experience, rich enough to give you a real sense of the book? Are there sites you feel do this well? Sites you find bafflingly bald? Presses from which you trust everything will be excellent, sight unseen? Is media like audio/video useful? More pics of the cover and interior? What do you want to see?
*Thanks to everyone who responded: All above, plus Khadijah Anderson, Laura Cherry, Amy McDaniel, Catherine Daly, Bernadette Geyer, Drew Webster, MC Hyland, & Sarah Certa
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