Human beings seek Meaning. They seek it everywhere they look: in the world at large, in religions, social movements, politics, in groups, in relationships and in themselves. It’s a constant and eternal quest in one form or another.
Readers of fiction seek meaning in stories, whether they are completely aware of it or not.
Meaning therefore attracts attention.
To attract attention, one needs to develop Meaning and then find ways of communicating that meaning to a range of types of audience.
We have already looked at the largest of these, the vast audience of the public at large, who swirl by us and around us all the time but who for the most part ignore us. We have also looked at the ones who do ‘look in our shop windows’ as they pass by; and we have examined those who, attracted by the Meaning that they see displayed in our shop windows, decide to linger a little and grant us partial attention by signing up to our newsletters, joining our groups, hanging around on our websites and so on.
What we have to inspect next is that group of people, a subset of the above, who move even closer to us and who take ownership of part of us - in the case of writers, by buying our books. As soon as the person granting us Intermittent Attention reaches for his or her wallet or purse or clicks ‘Go to Checkout’, then they have decided to give us something that formerly belonged to them - usually some money - and to take from us something that formerly belonged to us: our book.
Just as they then own the copy of the book, so, it could be said, we now ‘own’ more of their attention. I’ve called this Captured Attention, but it might be better to think of it as Owned Attention. Something about our book - something that they could see or hear or feel in some way - prompted them to surrender some of themselves to us in the form of cash. They haven’t read the story itself - if they had, they might not bother buying a copy - but whatever was visible, whatever was displayed, whatever was communicated about our book caused them to yield more attention to us.
What is it about a book that could prompt that response? That’s clearly the ‘golden question’.
Well, obviously, the things that potential readers can see or hear or feel about a book they haven’t yet bought are quite limited. A book has a cover and a blurb on the back of that cover; it may have some other marketing material - a poster, perhaps a book trailer, perhaps some reviews - but this visible profile will be skimpy and fleeting for most of the public who pass by, either physically or electronically. This visible profile has to engage the attention of potential buyers in a split second of time, usually.
What that means is that the visible profile of a book must be jam-packed full of Meaning.
Meaning, as we have seen, can be broken down into four components or strands: sequential, vertical, contextual and embracive. Sequential meaning pulls the reader along; vertical meaning hones attention in on layers in the text; contextual meaning gets the reader to associate what is happening in the text with what is happening in life outside the book; and embracive meaning is a composite of all these, producing epiphanies.
In practical terms, this means that your book’s cover, your book’s blurb, and any other of the external, ephemeral marketing materials you may have associated with your book, have to make the absolute most of these kinds of meaning.
You must use sequences - and the ‘hook’ of something missing in expected sequences - to draw your reader along. These can be used in blurbs - and usually are. Just read any blurb you like, if you need examples. It can also translate into pictures. Look at some covers.
You must use vertical meaning to create depth and a sense of something going on beneath the surface. Blurbs, if you haven’t noticed, do this all the time by asking questions and hinting at secrets and incompletenesses. This also works in pictures. An effective image, if you like, is a statement of vertical meaning.
Contextual meaning is also vital: how can you make your cover and your blurb and anything else instantly relate to the type of reader you are trying to attract? In such a way that he or she connects what is going on on the cover or in the blurb with his or her personal experiences?
Embracive meaning, the skilful combination of all these, is achieved when the potential reader, seeing, hearing and/or feeling all of the above, makes his or her move to the checkout and buys the book.
I hope that it goes without saying that all of these strands of meaning had better be continued and developed even further by the tale itself, or the reader will feel betrayed by the marketing and let down by the story.
Further examples of all of these will appear soon.
In the meantime, go and take a look at book blurbs and covers and see if you can spot all of this working on you.
I think you will find it interesting…