University Press Week: Behind the scenes with Theresa Liu

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In honor of University Press Week, we’re featuring interviews with members of the Princeton University Press community all week. Next, Theresa Liu, Senior Copywriter and Seasonal Catalog Editor, talks about the copywriting process.

Theresa LiuHow long have you worked as a copywriter, and what did you do before this both educationally and professionally?

I just reached my ninth anniversary as a copywriter here at PUP. Educationally, I concentrated on English lit at Rutgers and Stanford and was a Javits fellow in creative writing at Hunter College, CUNY. In publishing, I got my start at the Ecco Press and served as the program coordinator for the National Poetry Series. I then worked as the assistant to the editor in chief at Rutgers University Press. So I’ve worked in trade publishing and nonprofit arts administration, as well as academic publishing. I also had a stint as a sales clerk at Micawber Books in Princeton before it closed its doors, so I have some experience peddling books to customers.

What led you to your current position?

It was a matter of timing, I think. PUP had an opening after my last round of school was done, and with my lit and writing background and my publishing experiences, copywriting was a good fit.

What kinds of books do you most enjoy writing copy for? (Loaded question, I know).

Perhaps a more diplomatic way of answering that question is to say that the books I have the easiest time writing about are the ones that come with all the materials ready (complete editorial dossier, reader reports, detailed author promotion form and capsule, publishing plan, etc). It makes my job less difficult and I can get to the writing immediately.

Can you describe your process as a writer? Do you read all the books? Work in silence? Listen to music?

I liken writing copy to running a marathon. I have to pace myself and make sure I’m hitting my personal quotas week by week, in order to avoid a logjam at the end of the season. I enjoy listening to music when I work, but have discovered that for the writing I either need to work in silence or listen to music with no lyrics, so it’s a lot of classical and some bits of jazz and movie soundtracks. Sometimes, when I find one piece of music that gets me into the right frame of mind quickly, I’ll just set that on a repeating loop to play in the background while I’m pecking away at the computer.

I average about 45 books a season now and how much I dip into each book varies based on the density of the subject matter and what I need. If I have enough good materials to refer to outside of the book, looking at its table of contents and introduction may be enough to get me started. In other instances, I will read or skim portions of the manuscript in order to get a sense of the book’s tone and overall argument or to find some hidden nuggets of information that I can use for the copy.

Is there a formula for writing good catalog copy?

Every book is different, so I’d say that the answer is no. But in general, I try to hone in on the book’s argument as quickly as I can in the first paragraph, and then delve into specific content. We try to sum up the book with a general conclusion that is wide reaching and still sounds fresh and original. The best copy is clean and succinct and stays under the word limit!

What do you like to do to decompress from putting together a new season of catalog copy?

I enjoy activities that exercise an entirely different side of my brain and body. Weather permitting, I try to spend a bit of time outside every day. In the evenings, I play music (mostly classical, some experimental) with friends. It’s socially interactive and doesn’t allow for ruminating, which is healthy. It’s also emotionally and physically demanding (rehearsals can run in three-hour blocks), and allows me to think more clearly afterwards.

What would you have been if not a copywriter?

That’s a difficult question to answer! It’s been my great fortune to have had many different experiences in my schooling, travels, and work (I’ve probably broken many a child labor law, as I’ve been working and earning since I was in early middle school). I could have gone down paths as varied as teaching English abroad to attending law school and becoming an attorney. My choices and where I’ve ended up remind me of the famous John Lennon quote: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< University Press Week: Behind the Scenes with Eric HenneyGet Ready for University Press Week! #UPWeek >>