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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: On Books

Book Jacket Puffs: Judging a Book By its Cover
Chris Mills

I assume that all book lovers are familiar with the laudatory puffs plastered over book jackets. The idea obviously is to make the book sound great, just the thing you really should be reading or buying for a birthday present. The phrases must leap out at the casual browser. Review quotes are chosen to be snappy, eye catching and bold. And very persuasive. But how useful really are the quotes?
'Better than King, Scarier than Koonzt, funnier than Woody,
a critic

What do they tell you about the work if you are unfamiliar with the writer? Ideally the reader should be able to gain a reasonable sense of the quality and style of the book; a feel for the story or characters if you like. But do they in fact work as a method of persuasion to anyone but existing fans of a particular author? It may also be that quotes are now so ubiquitous that they are in danger of being useless. In other words if your eyes glaze over before you have even opened the cover, then the puffs just aren’t doing the job any longer.

Press reviews are selectively culled for the most favourable aspect. Or perhaps have been written in the first place by the author’s best friend’s granny. Alright, a slight exaggeration. Nevertheless it can all seem rather incestuous. Do reviewer and writer share a publisher perhaps? Is there some literary feud to take into account? An ‘author tree’ might be useful to have on hand to detect bias. I often wonder if authors have a ‘gentleman’s’ agreement to allow their reviews to be quoted on condition of reciprocity. It may be the case that the quoted review is credited solely to a newspaper. Here it’s difficult to know who actually said all those nice things about the book in question. Of course if it is a review of a specialist title then the name of the paper alone may be enough for you anyway. For instance if the Financial Times is favourably reviewing a particular banking title then it’s probably worth a read.

Recently, in the interests of reader research I had a brief trawl around the bookshelves to see what I might be hypothetically persuaded into reading/buying by jacket reviews. My first conclusion was that the habit of some publishers for using single adjectives as in ‘unforgettable’, ‘addictive’ or ‘brilliant’ should perhaps be quietly discontinued. It really doesn’t achieve a great deal. There is a definite tabloid journalism feel about all of those ’enthralling’ s leaping off the cover. Brevity is a double edged sword too. A word can often be taken more than one way after all. It seems entirely possible that the word ’unforgettable’ could be taken out of its original context and not be a positive comment at all. Or perhaps that’s just me being a Doubting Thomas.

During a further trawl of the shelves I made a note of the quotes that seemed to me to be the most and the least effective as a sales aid. By least effective I mean the kind of quotes that don’t tell you anything useful about the author’s work or the plot whatsoever. The reviews just tell you it is a good book, which is not much help since that is purely subjective. The best reviews tend to be those that encourage you to read a book by an unfamiliar author or different genre. The review should pique the potential reader’s interest sufficiently to make him/her read the first pages there and then. I’ve picked out some examples of each to illustrate the point. And I’ve saved up a couple of my favourite reviews until the end. First let’s take a quick look at the phenomenon of cover adverts offering the incentive of winning prizes to persuade you to buy the book. This is selling a book as though it were a brand of cereal which I admit to finding a rather disconcerting sales technique in a bookshop. Competitions offering holidays to tie in with the theme of the book are often featured (such as shopping and fashion trips on chic-lit titles). You can also win a Ruby and Millie makeover with Freya North’s Secrets at the moment. It is difficult to assess how effective this kind of marketing approach is. I suspect that unless you really wanted to buy the book anyway, it would not be as effective as a price reduced sticker would.

Some publishers now offer a money back guarantee should you not enjoy the book. I’ve never actually tried this nor do I know anyone who has (do let me know if you have). What intrigues me is the current tendency to compare one practitioner of a genre with another as in Tess Gerritson’s Keeping the Dead billed ‘As good as Kathy Reichs or your money back!’ I’m not sure how such claims can be verified. Presumably publishers don’t go as far as using lie detectors on customers. Another publisher running a similar offer is Avon, a division of Harper Collins. This one claims that Peter de Jonge (Shadows Still Remain) is ‘as good as James Patterson or your money back‘. Since these two writers have previously collaborated I am curious to know whether they have any views on the offer’s merits. Were they consulted? Does de Jonge resent being compared with his erstwhile colleague? Perhaps Patterson anxiously awaits the readers’ verdicts, wishing to remain top dog in the thriller world and gnashing his teeth at the lack of money back requests.

We are used to one brand of soap powder being compared with ‘other leading brands’ but now authors are being marketed like a supermarket line. The idea of comparing one author with another is not new (i.e. if you liked x you’ll love y) but there seems to be an uncharitable edge now, whether cash incentives are involved or not. Alex Kava was recently described as ’Reminiscent of Patricia Cornwell in her prime’ by Mystery Ink. It is entirely possible that Patricia Cornwell is unaware that she is past her prime. And apparently Wendy Holden is the ’modern Jilly Cooper’. So that puts another author out to pasture then. In other words if you’re not new you’re not cool.

"A charmingly unique sort of minor masterpiece, a tour de force of the transcendence of the tour de force" -
John Hollander on Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate

I have become fascinated by a possibly related trend for a more forceful style of review quote. This could be termed the ‘you will like this book (or else...)’ approach to bookselling, also known as using a sledgehammer to crack a reader. In this category I particularly liked (if that’s the right verb) Val McDermid on Declan Hughes’ All the Dead Voices, ‘If you don’t love this, don’t you dare to call yourself a crime fiction fan’. Strong words indeed from Ms McDermid. Now that is what I would call persuasive with a capital ‘P’. I’m not sure whether it would actually convince anyone who wasn’t already a fan to buy the book though. It doesn’t tell the reader anything about the book at all; just that McDermid likes it (a lot). Which is fine if you and Val are as one in your likes and dislikes, but not much use otherwise. Style? Plot? Mood? Apparently it is a good crime novel though. You rather get the impression that she’ll come round and put you straight if you disagree. Are she and Declan best buddies I wonder? Does he now owe her reviewing favour?

Moving on from crime let’s take a look at one from general fiction. New author Emma Hannigan’s novel Designer Genes attracted sentimental (but again forceful) comment from Cathy Kelly, ‘I laughed and I cried. I defy anyone not to do the same’. The implication being that there is clearly something wrong with you if you do not have this exact emotional response to the novel. Should you be worried if you find yourself halfway through and have not laughed or cried? It is by no means certain at what point or indeed how often the reader might be expected to feel the urge to do either. Should I keep tissues handy or tough it out? Could I get my money back if I neither laughed nor cried? But again we have a puff that conveys nothing helpful. The fact that Cathy Kelly laughed and cried over the story tells the prospective reader nothing but that. She isn’t eulogising the quality of the prose or the characterisation. This is a pity since Hannigan has based the plot on her own experience of the breast cancer gene and thus has a potentially great story to tell. If that is you can get past the review and give it a go.

Back to crime with this very effective review from the Mail on Sunday on Skin and Bone (Kathryn Fox) ‘Fox is stomach churningly good’. What can I say, but that this book obviously does what it says on the tin? It’s a pretty sure bet that if you like your crime messy and gory then this one’s for you. Blunt and to the point (that‘s the description not the murder weapon), no words wasted. And no aggressive reviewer telling you that you have to like it either. You, the prospective reader are encouraged to make up your own mind about buying the book. You may also dislike it with impunity. The crit tells you what sort of crime novel it is (no genteel St Mary Mead case) and how much of a gore fest to expect in one short sentence. Presumably you shouldn’t read the book while eating your tea. Some crime reviewers refer to the body count, which is also an indicator of bloodshed. No mention of literary merit is given in these cases; this may of course mean that there is none. But this type of blurb is much more useful to the buyer than any I have mentioned so far in that it does actually give some idea what the book is like.

Some crime reviews can be more perceptive and thoughtful. This indicates a novel with some claim to literary merit to temper the gore. Ruth Rendell reviews The Various Haunts of Men (Susan Hill) thus, ‘I loved this book, masterly and satisfying ...the result is stunning’. The use of the word ‘satisfying’ is effective, suggesting that reading this novel will be an absorbing experience. Not only that, Rendell who is no mean practitioner herself salutes Hill’s work as ‘masterly’ and ‘stunning’, a compliment indeed. The publishers have focussed on the quality of the writing and have carefully edited Rendell’s words for maximum effect. The review would attract aficionados of Hill’s work, but also catch the attention of a browser. Note that there is no mention of the possible effects of the novel upon the reader’s digestive system. This can only be a good thing if you want to read at lunch time.

I think my favourite review of the moment is on The Ladies’ Lending Library (Janice Kulyk Keefer). Here in full: ‘Satisfies in the way the best sort of summer reading does-like wild strawberries, or blueberries gathered in the sun, or cold spring water gulped on a hot day’, Quill and Quire. It is wonderfully poetic and even without any idea of the plot, this sounds a tempting, indulgent read for a long lazy afternoon. Must actually buy it though. One I did read (and enjoyed very much) on the strength of a review was A Case of Exploding Mangoes (Mohammed Hanif). As follows: ‘witty, elegant, and deliciously anarchic’ said John le Carré. I figured that anything that was both elegant and anarchic had to be worth a go.

Finally, the prize for unfortunate, miss-timed review goes to Debt Busters, the latest book from financial guru Eddie Hobbs. He is described as, ‘A man with all the characteristics you wish you could find in your bank manager’. Bearing in mind the shenanigans that certain bank managers have got up to, maybe that wasn’t the best quote to have used. Not attributed to anyone either..

And what of the future, when many customers will be downloading books from a web site rather than browsing shelves? How do you make a decision when you are choosing from a screen? To many people though this will probably be nothing new, since much book buying is already done online. Perhaps buyers will come to rely more on reader reviews posted up on sites rather than the 'experts' featured on book covers. I've been browsing a couple of e-book stores (despite having no intention of buying an e-reader in the near future) but I did find very little to assist me in making a selection. If there is no reader review posted then you have only the brief synopsis of the plot to go on. Maybe in the future the presentation of books available to download will be improved. It would certainly be in the commercial interest of publishers to do so. An improved virtual shopwindow could perhaps include the heady praise normally to be read on covers. But of course customers for downloads may also have browsed bookshop shelves to help them decide what they want to choose. Rather like checking a book out in your local library before going to a bookshop. The advent of e-books heralds a different pattern of book buying; the way in which we make choices about books will perhaps change too. It will be an interesting area to keep an eye on. One thing that won't change however, is the 'word of mouth' reccomendation. That probably trumps any critic's review on any book jacket anywhere. And of course there's always the 'Oprah' effect, but that's another story...


© Chris Mills Oct1st 2009
cdmillsratel@hotmail.com
Book Miles
Chris Mills

Have I ever considered the miles a book may have travelled before it reaches my hands

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