Rochesterians know Sidney Rosenzweig as film maker, critic, reviewer, film introducer at theaters and festivals all over town, children’s drama author, as well as one of the longest standing faculty members of the College at Brockport’s Department of English, specializing in the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Sid lives in Brighton.
Few know that Sid is also a writer of book dust jackets or as Sid likes to say, “forels.” According to Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words, “forel” is an obscure word for a dust jacket. Sid even wrote a forel for an edition of that very dictionary, published a couple of decades ago by the company for which he works!¹As Sid is the only dust jacketeer we know, Talker inquired about this underappreciated, usually nameless and faceless craft. Here’s what he told us.
Talker: How do you define a dust jacket?
SR: Good ole Wikipedia says a dust jacket can be any combination of quotes from the work, the author, the publisher, reviewers or fans, a summary of the plot, a biography of the author, or simply claims about the importance of the work.
That’s true, but it omits the most important point: a book jacket is primarily a marketing tool. Its purpose is to make us want to read – and buy – the book. Period. Unless we already know something about a book, the jacket creates our first impression of it. And we all know how important first impressions are. They’re especially important in the book business.
That’s why the graphics, the design, is so important – at least as important as the text.Talker: How many years have you been writing jackets?
SR: I don’t remember exactly when I began but it’s at least twenty years ago, probably thirty. The company I work for is MJF Books. You can find their books in the “Bargain Books” section of every Barnes & Noble store. Some people think they’re bargains because they’ve been remaindered. Not true. They’re bargains because they’re reprints.
MJF virtually created the idea of the “hardback reprint.” We’re familiar with paperback reprints: low cost editions of previously published books. The hardback reprint is the same thing, except it’s got hard covers and a jacket, so it will last much longer, be easier to handle, look nice on your bookshelf, etc. – and still cost a fraction of what the original edition cost.
Talker: What kinds of books have you written jackets for?
SR: Most of them are non-fiction. I feel like I’ve written about every possible subject. Of course that’s not true, but it has been a pretty broad range of topics, everything from law, health and medicine, to history, economics, even physics. Most of the books I can understand, but I once had to write a jacket for a reprint of a book by Einstein. I read the first page, turned to the next, and found a bunch of formulas staring at me. I had to concede defeat: there was no chance I’d understand this one. So I wrote a little about Einstein’s life and how he came to write this particular book.
Talker: How can someone prepare to “write about everything?”
SR: Here’s where I get to throw in a plug for the classic liberal arts education, where you’re required to take a number of “gen ed” (general education) courses in a range of subjects: math or science, social sciences, arts and humanities, etc.
The idea was not to prepare you to make a living, but to prepare you to live – live in a complex world where you need to know a little bit about a lot of stuff, so you can be an engaged citizen, and make informed decisions.
I know, that sounds very idealistic. The simplest way to put it is that it helps make you a “general reader.” And all the books I’ve dealt with – except maybe the Einstein one – are aimed at the general reader, not specialists. So my liberal arts education was the best preparation I could have had to write book jackets.
Talker: Aside from the range of subjects, what’s the biggest challenge in writing jackets?
SR: Being concise. I naturally talk too much, but when you’re writing a jacket you’re allowed very few words. It varies, but the back cover copy is usually around 250 words; the flap copy around 300-350. So you’re actually writing two very short pieces. Both have to make the book sound so interesting the reader can’t wait to buy it. But they can’t be repetitive. You have to find different things to say.
Talker: How do you do it?
SR: Most non-fiction books have some sort of preface, introduction, or foreword that’s often a summary of the book. Some, in fact, are very detailed summaries, going through the book chapter by chapter. So I can try to make the flap a summary of the summary. But it’s still a challenge; the intro can be many pages; the flap is copy is just one.
On the other hand, the back cover copy usually has a bold, attention-grabbing headline followed by a short paragraph and a bulleted list. The back cover is probably the first thing a potential reader looks at (after the front cover). An easy to read, bulleted list of what the book offers is the one of the best ways to excite the reader’s interest.
Sometimes, when I’m lucky, that list can be a variation of the table of contents. Some or all of the chapter names, usually rewritten to make them absolutely clear, become the bullets on the back.
This is especially true for self-help books, and I’ve probably done more of those than any other type of book. You might want to dis them, but most do offer at least some solid ideas that can help people. I try to choose one or two of their most effective, useful ideas and summarize them in the flap copy. I’m hoping the reader will think, “If I can get this much out of the jacket, the book must be really worthwhile.”
You also have to think about a book’s intended audience. That term “general reader” covers a lot. Readers of Civil War histories, for example, may not be specialists, but they’re still probably different than readers of self-help books. The publisher actually tells me whether a book is aimed more at men or women or younger or older people.
But again, the book itself becomes your guide to the kind of diction and vocabulary you’ll use.
Talker: In other words, you often try to mimic the style of the book’s author, rather than impose your own?
SR: Yes, absolutely. The designers of book jackets, the graphic artists, often get credited. But the text writer is always anonymous. In the process of reducing and summarizing an author’s words, some of your own voice probably comes through. But forget your ideas or opinions. Writing a jacket is not a place for self-expression. And, for me at least, that’s part of the challenge – and the fun.
Talker: Here’s a picture of one of your dust jackets, on one of your favorite subjects, movies. Is there anything you want to say about this specific jacket?
SR: As the front cover shows, the books is a collection of short pieces – introductory paragraphs followed by annotated lists – by a large collection of writers. So I didn’t have to follow any particular writer’s style; I had a little more chance to play. I don’t remember where that headline, “A Feast for Movie Lovers,” came from, but it lead to using words like “taste, “delicious” and “devour” in the flap text.
Talker: When do you use quotes from reviews or testimonials?
SR: Again, that’s up to the publisher. They tell me if they want quotes, which ones to use, where to put them. That’s usually the back cover. Then I have even fewer words to work with.
Talker: You’ve spoken mostly about non-fiction books. How different is doing a jacket for fiction?
SR: You have to make the plot and characters seem utterly fascinating, and maybe say something about the author’s brilliant literary style. But just about all the fiction books I’ve done have been reprints of recognized classics: Austen, Dickens, the Sherlock Holmes canon. My English major background helps there, and of course today it’s easy to research them.
Talker: Be honest: do you really read every word of every book you write about?
SR: No. And the publisher doesn’t expect me to. (They don’t pay me enough to cover all the reading time.) Again, the important thing is that what I write should make readers want to buy the book.
I have a friend – actually a brilliant, wonderful woman I dated for a while – who’s extremely ethical. She thought I was somehow “cheating” because I don’t necessarily read the entire book. I kept trying to explain that I’m not writing a review; I’m just trying to help sell the book. But she never quite got it.
I should add that I’m not going to lie about a book; I won’t make claims for it that aren’t true. Nor will I write about something or someone I really dislike. For example, I wouldn’t write a jacket for a political candidate I didn’t like. But I’ve never been asked to.
Talker: It sounds like you want to keep doing this work.
SR: Yes. The obvious question — at least obvious to me — is will the growing popularity of ebooks put jacket writers out of business? And the obvious answer is, I don’t know. I know lots of folks still appreciate physical books – and they’re still selling quite well. I have been writing fewer jackets lately, but I don’t know if that’s because of ebooks, or I just have more competition. And even ebooks need some sort of promotional material. So I can hope I’ll be doing this for a while yet.
¹ University of Rochester’s English Professor emeritus² Richard Gollin — Sid’s thesis adviser — writes:
Many thanks for the assemblage of commentary circling Sid Rosenzweig’s career as a Foreler — a word I hadn’t known despite Schubert’s celebration of a different kind in “Die Forelle.
² On the etymology of emeritus, Gollin writes:
“Emeritus” being the notation made by the Romans on their lists of retired Roman soldiers. Few in our supposedly learned community know it meant originally, at least literally, “paid off.”
According to “Forget The Book, Have You Read This Irresistible Story On Blurbs?” (NPR, September 27, 2015), one of the first forels — if not the greatest — was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advertisement for Walt Whitman’s self-published Leaves of Grass (1855):
Concord, Massachusetts, 21 July, 1855
DEAR SIR—I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of “Leaves of Grass.” I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile & stingy nature, as if too much handiwork or too much lymph in the temperament were making our western wits fat & mean. I give you joy of your free & brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment, which so delights us, & which large perception only can inspire. I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying & encouraging.
I did not know until I, last night, saw the book advertised in a newspaper, that I could trust the name as real & available for a post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, & have felt much like striking my tasks, & visiting New York to pay you my respects.
R. W. Emerson
Another well-know dust jacket is for Roland Barthe’s S/Z (translation 1974) by Charles Skaggs. In contrast to the common practice of anonymity, the jacket is notable in that Skaggs’s name is mentioned. Skaggs was well known in the publishing and dust jacket worlds.
Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Skaggs moved to New York City in 1945 and quickly established himself as a freelance book jacket designer. He worked on books and jackets for the Limited Editions Club and for the publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Through Knopf, Skaggs worked closely with W.A. Dwiggins. Skaggs also became acquainted with other leading figures in calligraphy and type and book design—Oscar Ogg, Paul Standard, Philip Grushkin, and George Salter. At Salter’s urging, Skaggs joined the faculty of the Cooper Union in 1953. For five years, he taught night classes in calligraphy and the history of the alphabet.SEE ALSO