Most readers—me included—will pick a book off the bookstore shelf because its cover interests us: the title intrigues; the cover illustration attracts; the author’s name is one we trust.
If you don’t know the author of the book, the nature—and implied promise—of the cover becomes even more important.
If the book does not deliver on the promise of the cover, it will fail with many readers despite its intrinsic value. A broken promise is still a broken promise. I say cover, not necessarily the back jacket blurb, because the front cover is our first and most potent introduction to the quality of the story inside. How many of us have picked up a book, intrigued by its alluring front cover, read the blurb that seemed to resonate with the title and image, then upon reading our cherished purchase been disillusioned with the story and decided we disliked it and its author?
This is because, as readers, from the moment we pick up a book, we engage in a covenant with the story’s author (but in actual fact with the entire publishing company) for a story whose promise we have interpreted from its cover image, title and blurb. It begins with the cover. A book’s cover is its sales pitch: “This is what I’m about!” the cover proclaims in shades of color and texture. The cover sets the tone and attitude with which a reader will interpret the book’s title and back jacket blurb and its interior.
It had better be true.
Let me tell you a story…
Some time ago, a writer colleague of mine secured a New York agent—based on her excellent query and synopsis—for her imaginative dragon fantasy. The agent pitched the book to a large publishing company, who made my friend an offer, and the agent secured a three book deal on her behalf. My writing friend’s career as a published author was launched.
Because the publishing company was one of the large firms, my friend’s ability to participate—never mind influence—the cover design and blurb was restricted. Decisions lay in the hands of the people in the marketing department, who may or may not have read the book (most likely not). This is why it is so important to write a blurb/query/pitch that both scintillates AND accurately portrays the story. All too often, the marketing department misrepresents the story (to sell more books) and you end up with an unsatisfied reader. This is what happened to my friend. Through no fault of hers, the marketing people developed a cover that did not reflect the true nature of her story. The trilogy my friend had developed was a dark tale of deceit, betrayal and suffering. The cover portrayed a lively and sultry seductress, draped with flowing robes and bared thighs against her dragon; hardly the ponderous story shrouded within. The blurb at the back was sufficiently vague to aid and abet the deception.
What followed the book’s launch and accompanying ad campaign was a barrage of bad reviews and censure, unfortunately aimed mostly at the author. It was unfortunate that my friend suffered the brunt of the accusations for breaking her promise to the readers, when she had done no such thing; her publisher and marketers had created false expectations. And now she was paying for it.
I, too, experienced the effects of mis-marketing. I’d written a dark science fiction romance that ended with resolution but was far from the traditional happy ending, typical of a romance. The publisher marketed it as a romance with science fiction elements instead of a science fiction with romance elements. Reviewers applauded it but it bombed with romance readers, who expected a different kind of resolution. Science fiction readers, however, enjoyed it; they didn’t have the same expectations.
The take home lesson for writers is this: write a scintillating but accurate synopsis, blurb, pitch and query that clearly establishes your genre and audience. Chances are your publishers will use it in their marketing department. If you don’t get in with the “Big Boys”, and decide to go with the small presses, chances are very good that you will have more control over marketing and cover design; that is a big bonus. If you are like me, creative control of your intellectual property is more important than the big bucks you get at the expense of your art. Don’t give in to the temptations of wolf-marketing.
I’m still learning that lesson.
The take home lesson for readers is this: don’t judge a book by its cover; certainly pick up the book if it looks interesting, then read with an open mind and let the story take you to where it needs to, despite what you may have expected from the false advertising. Chances are, the unexpected journey visited upon you may be a welcome surprise. And don’t blame the writer for something he didn’t have control over.
I’m still learning that lesson too.
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.
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