21 March 2009

Interview: Lee Padgett, Blurb Wizard

Please welcome today’s guest, Lee Padgett. Better known to Samhain Publishing authors as the “Blurb Wizard.” The following is a transcript from an IM interview conducted yesterday. Enjoy!

Carolan: Welcome to Beyond the Veil, Lee! Thanks for taking time out of your busy day to talk to us.

Lee: Thanks for having me!

Carolan: I trust you made it across the moat with a minimum of fuss?

Lee: My heart needed a good jump start, anyway. Thanks for warning me about the Kracken’s feeding time – that economy size bag of Snausages came in handy!

Carolan: Excellent. We try not to lose anybody. Please tell us a little about what you do for Samhain Publishing.

Lee: Well, how about if I give you the elevator speech:

I write and edit blurbs and tagline “hooks” for all of Samhain’s published books. I take the authors’ first stabs at it and massage, plump, pummel, sharpen, smooth, slice, dice and reconstruct them into palm-sized packages designed to entice potential readers into hitting the “buy this book” button.

(For the uninitiated, a “blurb” is what’s on the back of a paperback, or the inside cover flap of a hardback.)

Carolan: Could you explain what I’ve heard you call “microscopic marketing”?

Lee: It’s my job to convince the reader to part with $5.50(ish) for an ebook or $12-$15 for a paperback book in 200 words or less. Actually much less – the tagline has to hook them into reading the blurb first. That’s 20 words or MUCH less. That’s what I term “microscopic marketing”. I don’t know if it’s a term I’ve coined, but it fits what I do for Samhain.

Samhain is unique in that it gives its authors input into their blurb copy. This isn’t always the case. For the big NY houses it’s pretty unheard-of.

Carolan: I know that I, for one, was surprised to learn that blurbs aren’t normally written by the authors themselves.

Lee: Me, too! However, I’ve learned that in fact many authors hate doing it! It amazes me that authors who can leap 90k-word manuscripts in a single bound, collapse into quivering masses of insecurity with it comes to their blurbs. Not all of them, but more than I would have thought!

Carolan. Ahem, we’ll just forget about that little incident surrounding my last blurb, shall we?

Lee: I am a professional and my lips are sealed. Thanks for the chocolate, by the way. Having it delivered by a kilted Highlander was a nice touch.

Carolan: *cough* You’re welcome. Now, where were we?

Lee: Quivering masses…

Carolan: Oh, yes. How did you get started wizarding blurbs for Samhain?

Lee: Funny story, that. It all started when I met Christine Brashear at a bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and we got to talking over a couple of Hurricanes. I mentioned that among the many types of writing I do, I especially enjoy creating sharp, snappy, hooky marketing copy. She smiled, bought me another Hurricane, and I woke up three days later chained to a desk in Samhain’s corporate office.

Carolan: Really?

Lee: Swear to god.

Okay, not really. I mentioned that I enjoy the challenge of writing marketing copy, and her ears perked up. “We could really use a hand with…would you be interested in…” I said sure, I’d give it a try. She was happy with my initial efforts and I’ve been working the blurbs ever since.

Apparently the editors at Samhain were grateful to turn the bulk of the blurbing process over to me. When an editor has 20+ authors, and each blurb could take several rounds of back-and-forth, you can see how it can eat into an editor’s time. And sanity.

Carolan: What’s the general process?

Lee: Sometime during the final stages of manuscript editing, the editor will, ahem, strongly encourage the author to write a first draft of their blurb and tagline. These are passed on to me along with the synopsis for the book, and I take it from there.

Carolan: Why the synopsis?

Lee: It’s difficult to capture the essence of the book, and the author’s unique voice, within the confines of 200 words or less. The author is often too close to the work to see the forest for the trees – IOW, pick out the defining details. More often than not, the synopsis is gold mine of information – tone, time period, location, etc. – anything that makes the book different from the rest. Once in a great while, if I’m just not feelin’ it, I’ll ask for the first chapter or two of the manuscript itself.

Carolan: How do you decide what goes into the blurb?

Lee: Pretty much every romance boils down to: 1) What does the hero want? 2) What does the heroine want? 3) What’s the major conflict? Of course, there’s variations for a gay romance or ménage, but it’s basically the same process. The trick is to package these three questions into a compact, fast-reading blurb that will entice the reader to click the buy button.

Let me just take a second here to insert an opinion: Any author who can’t easily answer these three questions about their book (the classic trapped-in-an-elevator-with-an-editor speech), needs to rethink the book. Not that Samhain authors have any problem with this – that’s why they’re Samhain authors, after all!

Carolan: We aim to please!

Lee: Okay, moving on. Next comes the tagline. I generally do these last, after I have an idea what the book is about and the general tone of the blurb. While I'm working, I jot down key phrases and words that pop into my mind. Taglines are not mini-synopses. These are the one-line hooks that attract the reader to click to read the blurb. Think, “Where’s the beef?”, not “What is the location of my two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun?”

Many authors are pretty good at these, and most of the time all I need to do is tweak them. Punch them up a little bit, trim off a couple extraneous words.

Carolan: Which brings me to a question from one of our BtV authors, Jody Wallace. “How do you balance the need to get the idea across in the shortest possible time (with buzz words or pop culture reference or what have you) with general cliché avoidance?”

Lee: Great question! It gets tough sometimes not to fall into the cliché trap, especially if yours is the fourth or fifth blurb I’ve done that day. Also, after doing, what, over 500 of these for Samhain, the real challenge is not to repeat a tagline!

What I try to do, if I find my brain glomming onto a cliché, is to take it and turn it on its ear. Play with the words and come up with something that sounds kind of familiar, but not quite.

One thing that in my opinion is a cop-out (and makes me crazy when I see it in a romance blurb), is a tagline and/or final line of a blurb that’s phrased as a question. Come on. These are romances. We know “twu wuv” (yes, I read the BtV blog regularly) will win the day. What I want to know is how high is the mountain the H&H have to climb to get there. And if can you make me as a reader want to climb that mountain with them.

Carolan: Sounds like fun!

Lee: It’s not always! What makes my job fun is the authors! I look at this as a collaborative process. There are times when a blurb and/or tagline will fight us every step of the way. When I’m fresh out of ideas and the author is so sick of looking at that damned manuscript she wants to scream!

In those cases it is the brainstorming, the bouncing of random ideas back and forth among me, the editor and the author that invariably leads to that elusive combination of words that makes magic. Some off-the-wall idea from me will spark the author to say, “Hmm, what about…” then the editor to cry, “Yeah! And if we do this…”, and finally I’ll finish with, “Let’s trim this word or substitute that word…” and voila. We have lift-off.

Carolan: Do you ever have to get rough with an author?

Lee: No, I rarely have to break out the stompy boots. LOL The editors, I suspect, bear the brunt the authors’ reactions to my first pass at a blurb. I look at it like this: We have less than ten seconds to capture a reader’s attention, and convince them to spend the next 30-45 seconds of her life finding out what your book is about. Then, if we’re lucky, the next few minutes after that reading the excerpt or first chapter. I figure if we can get the reader that far, we've upped the odds that the reader will buy.

Carolan: [gulp] Ten seconds?

Lee: Ten seconds. It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is. Competition out there is brutal. Readers have literally thousands of books to choose from every day, and even a great book won’t get a second look if the first impression isn’t spot on. Look at me as your first reader. If my attention is wandering in the first paragraph of the blurb, that’s a problem I’m going to try to fix for you. :)

Carolan: Any closing thoughts?

Lee: I have the best job in the world. I get to work with some of the best authors and editors in the indie publishing business. I get to take their amazing stories and focus them, with laser precision, into a bite-sized morsel that will leave potential readers hungry for more. The cover is the first crumb in the bread trail; the tagline is the tantalizing aroma; the blurb is the first bite; the excerpt is the appetizer. The reward: The book jumps off the menu and into the reader’s hands or e-reader.

Carolan: Um, that paragraph was riddled with clichés.

Lee: Sue me.


Lee Padgett’s parents knew something was afoot when they discovered their infant daughter’s favorite teething object was a pen. Since that prophetic beginning, she has made her living with words. A bachelor’s degree in natural resources with an emphasis in communications led to a career in journalism, which she left behind in 1991 to switch to freelancing. This versatile writer works all sides of her brain, gleefully tackling everything from technical documentation to marketing copy to web content to fiction and beyond. She will, literally, write just about anything for food.

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