What’s in a book, really, or a movie, for that matter?

Images. It’s all about images, and it all starts with the author. Or the author’s intent, at any rate. When we write, we attempt to create an atmosphere in which to tell the tale (happy, weird, scary, romantic, dangerous, etc) and then we describe our character(s) so the reader can create his or her own image of the tale and the characters involved in the story.

It does not take a lot of words to do this; in fact, it’s to the reader’s advantage to use a minimum of words to set the tone of the tale and to describe the characters. If that sounds a bit contradictory, it’s meant to; a big part of the author’s job is to get the reader to invest his time and attention (focus) in the tale. The author does this by challenging the reader’s desire to become involved.

After all, that’s why he (or she) picked that particular book off the shelf in the first place.

So do yourself and the reader a big favor; allow the reader to create his or her own images of the tale and the characters and invest his own emotions in the story. Allow the reader to become involved.

And that brings us back to the old adage of “Show, don’t tell”. Create images using short strings of descriptive text (insert your own exemplars here) within your action scenes that will give the reader sufficient information about the tone of the tale (at that point in the story, anyway) and just enough information about the way the characters look, act, behave and speak so he can build his own images and opinions about who each character is and what drives him or her to do what they do in the tale you are spinning.

And just how important to this job is the cover art and the back text?

It is vital. Readers browse the bookshelves until their EYES call their attention to a particular cover out of the dozens or hundreds on that shelf. In those first few seconds, the color and arrangement of that cover, even before they can identify what the image on the cover actually is, grab their attention and convince them right then and there to make a preliminary value judgment about that book.

At that point the reader might – might – read the title and look to see the name of the author. Might. Or, depending on how powerfully the cover art has affected them, they turn to the back text. That gives you, as the author, about another fifteen to thirty seconds to close the deal. Once they read enough of the back text to convince them there really is something in the book they want, they will turn the book over once again and look for a few endorsements (I like to add a few below the descriptive text on the back). They may or may not actually read the endorsements – many do not.

That text on the back of your book is perhaps the most important piece of writing you will ever produce. And your choice of cover art is even more important than your skill as a writer.

Are you insulted, yet?

You shouldn’t be. As writers, we deal every minute of our lives with images; we create them, we modify them, and we sell them. How much of your life have you invested in that tale you’re trying to sell to someone who’s never met you and is never likely to meet you?

Give me one really good reason why anyone should pick YOUR novel out of the dozens or hundreds just like it on that book shelf?

Go to any bookstore in the world and watch people browse the shelves. Watch them; watch how they behave. Watch them invest what little time their lives allow them to invest in each book’s cover (or more likely the book’s spine) on the shelf. Watch for those few moments when something about a particular book grabs their attention.

It’s a particular color or combination of colors, first. Then they step a bit closer to read the title and author’s name – or do they? Are they perhaps still engaged by the graphics on that spine? I think so. I think that only after they come to understand the arrangement of the images on the spine do they invest any time at all on the title and the author’s name.

Then they pull the book, study the cover art, read the text on the cover and then turn to the back cover and read the text there. THEN they make a decision to buy or return that book to the shelf, disappointed, and continue to browse. And if they do return that book – your book – to the shelf, you have lost a sale.

You had fifteen seconds – perhaps thirty – to meet a buyer, get them to like you, get them to see value in your work for them, and get them to invest some of their hard-earned money and hours of their time in you as the author, and you failed. You disappointed them. Your artwork and your text failed to convince them to close the deal.

Movies cost a lot more to produce than a novel. Consequently, producers spend quite a bit more on marketing and promotion than most authors (not all) can ever hope to afford. But it comes down to the same thing, really, and that is all about getting eyes on the product. Television, magazine, newspaper and billboard advertising is all about graphics. Text is and always will be secondary; meaning, human beings are wired to respond to images – colors and shapes, and then trained to respond to the text. Hard-wiring is innate, where text is learned.

We deal in images, and we use text to convey those images to the mind of the reader, who then converts those words back into images. It’s kind of messy, but it works.

For many people (let us give thanks!), a night at home with a good book is much more entertaining than a night at the movies. And a lot cheaper, much less noisy, and does not include a visit to a gas station and/or a restaurant. And in most cases, movies leave way too much to be desired.

When a reader becomes immersed in a book, he or she invests time and focus on the tale. Readers become attached to one or more characters and follow them through the story. They become emotionally involved in the lives of the characters. That is a much more challenging thing to do in a movie theater, or on a television screen. Almost impossible, in fact, which is why movie producers have to invest in stunt men and women, and nudity, and things blowing up, and very expensive props. In movies, plot and character development have both taken a back seat to the action.

“The Maltese Falcon”, “Gone with the Wind”, “The Wizard of Oz” and “Titanic” are exceptions, but story lines are almost impossible to convey in the average 90-minute movie. Besides, when you ask a reader to compare the book to the movie, the movie will always come off second best.

That is because the reader invested time and focus in the book; he created the characters in his mind, he created the scenery in his mind, he set his own values on the characters and his own emotions became the background for the story.

You can’t do that with a movie. Don’t get me wrong; I watch a lot of movies. There are times when the lazy part of me rules, or my life is just way too busy to invest any of it in a book, no matter how good.

I’ve watched a lot of movies that started out their lives as books, and a lot of movies that started out as scripts. It doesn’t matter, in the end; some are successful, some aren’t. Some get Oscars, most don’t.

Some books become financial and literary successes. Most don’t.

In the end, it does not seem to matter how much or how little the producer or the author invests in advertising and promotion; some books and some movies will click with the readers or movie goers, but most will fail to attract enough readers or fans to return the money invested in them.

We deal in images, and the images we market to our readers (or watchers) do not always satisfy the perceived needs in the marketplace.

If you as an author write for a market, as opposed to writing for the love of it, you have to write what lots and lots of people want to read, and you have less than a minute to convince each of them that your book has value in it for them. Your cover is the very first image they will see; your back text is the first text they will bother to convert into an image in their mind.



About Gary Showalter

Gary Showalter was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. He lived in Aruba, Florida and the Panama Canal Zone before joining the U.S. Army during the 1960s. Following his discharge from the Army, Mr. Showalter picked cotton in East Texas, baled hay in Ardmore Oklahoma, sold light bulbs in Los Angeles, California, and built cattle pens in Fallon, Nevada (during a blizzard, of course). After settling in Atlanta, Georgia, Mr. Showalter worked as a professional gardener before turning his hand to furniture making. In 1981, he moved to Israel, married, and raised four children while working as a furniture maker, silversmith, goldsmith, and ornamental wood turner. He served in the Israel Defense Forces Reserves for sixteen years, and when not on active duty he worked in government and private security. He has also served in senior management positions in two software development companies in Israel. During his time in Israel, Mr. Showalter published articles dealing with international terror and the Israel-Arab conflict in the Jerusalem Post, Israel national News and several political science web sites. Mr. Showalter returned to the United States in the fall of 2003, to care for an elderly parent. He published his first novel, “The Big Bend”, in the fall of 2008. His second novel, “Hog Valley”, is now in print. Mr. Showalter's third novel, “Twisted Key”, was published in the fall of 2011, and his fourth novel, "Lonesome Cove" is now available in Kindle format and should be published in paper near the end of 2012. He currently lives in Deland, Fl, where he is co-authoring "A Silent Star" with Tony Attanasio. "A Silent Star" is the true tale (though novelized, with names changed for security reasons) about the 4-person covert action team sent into Yemen to capture Osama Bin laden immediately after the bombing of the USS Cole in the Aden harbor in Yemen in October of 2000.
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