International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: On Books
Jacket Puffs: Judging a Book By its Cover
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?
than King, Scarier than Koonzt, funnier than Woody,
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
arent 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 authors
best friends 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 gentlemans 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 its
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 its 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 doesnt 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 thats
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 dont tell you anything useful about
the authors 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 readers interest sufficiently to make him/her read
the first pages there and then. Ive picked out some examples of
each to illustrate the point. And Ive saved up a couple of my
favourite reviews until the end. First lets 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 Norths 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.
now offer a money back guarantee should you not enjoy the book. Ive
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 Gerritsons
Keeping the Dead billed As good as Kathy Reichs or your money
back! Im not sure how such claims can be verified. Presumably
publishers dont 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 offers 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 youll 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 youre not new youre not
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 thats the
right verb) Val McDermid on Declan Hughes All the Dead Voices,
If you dont love this, dont 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. Im
not sure whether it would actually convince anyone who wasnt already
a fan to buy the book though. It doesnt 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 shell 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 lets take a look at one from general fiction.
New author Emma Hannigans 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 isnt 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? Its a pretty sure bet that if you like your crime
messy and gory then this ones for you. Blunt and to the point
(thats 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 shouldnt 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 Hills work
as masterly and stunning, a compliment indeed.
The publishers have focussed on the quality of the writing and have
carefully edited Rendells words for maximum effect. The review
would attract aficionados of Hills work, but also catch the attention
of a browser. Note that there is no mention of the possible effects
of the novel upon the readers 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 wasnt 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
© Chris Mills Oct1st 2009
I ever considered the miles a book may have travelled before it reaches
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