30 April 2007

Don't Get Strung Out by the Way I Look

... don't judge a book by its cuh-uh-ver.

That, however, is not what the publishing industry would like. Even foreign publishing obsesses over cover design without acknowledging that it's just worrying about packaging.

And things get even more disturbing — especially if you recognize the context of this screed's opening — when you consider some of the other "elements" that end up on book covers. And in ad campaigns for books. That is, the usually meaningless blurbs. GalleyCat riffs on a piece that appeared in the NYTBR:

We'd like to think that while the quotations in movie ads regularly feature near-hysterical raves from marginal or even nonexistent critics, the genteel world of book publishing is above all that. But that doesn't seem to be the case, and some say publishers are becoming only more brazen. "It's gotten much worse recently," said Po Bronson, the author of What Should I Do With My Life? and a member of the board of advisers of Consortium, a book distributor that specializes in independent publishers. "There's a feeling of, 'Ah, no one's looking anymore.'" The liberal editing of promotional verbiage can extend even to blurbs that publishers ask successful authors to provide for less-established ones. "Usually they come back with changes and say, 'Is this O.K.?,' and it's very different from what I gave them," Bronson said.

Sometimes the publishers don't even ask. On seeing the finished version of Never Eat Your Heart Out, a memoir by Judith Moore that he had blurbed, Bernard Cooper was surprised to see that his words of praise had been topped off with the hosanna "Bravo!" "I certainly thought her book was deserving of a hearty exclamation," Cooper said. "It's just that my saying 'Bravo!' is about as likely as my saying 'Touché!' It made me sound like someone who wears an ascot."

Henry Alford, "Literary Misblurbing" (29 Apr 2007) (typography corrected; emphasis added). If "no one is looking anymore," why bother? Is this perhaps — just perhaps — related to the industry's continuing misimpression that the same sales techniques one uses for getting books onto bookstore shelves work for getting them into shopping baskets? Do I know how to write a convoluted rhetorical question on Monday mornings?

Of course, part of the problem is one I pointed to relatively recently: Most book reviews do not reach a clear, comparative conclusion. Somehow, book reviewers are "special," in that they are not required ultimately to make a clear judgment; instead, they are allowed to go on at whatever length they're allowed and close by writing a few pithy phrases that, when unpacked, don't really mean much of anything. Contrast this with the overprecise "star ratings" typically assigned to film and music reviews (except, of course, in the NYT), which if nothing else leave one with little doubt of the reviewer's actual overall evaluation of a work. It is actually in reviewers' best interest to so label their evaluations — it makes it much less likely that a blurb-miner at some publisher is going to take the one, skewable, positive statement from a negative review and recast it to sound like an endorsement. If this sounds to you like the creationist practice of "quote mining," give yourself an extra piece of chocolate for paying attention.

If the publishing industry refuses to self-regulate on this sort of thing — and it constitutes false advertising; the cover of a book, contrary to a misguided lower-court opinion in New York, is advertising material subject to regulation as commercial speech, not pure First Amendment expression — then it is inviting government intervention. Nay, not just inviting — begging for it. Let the handwringing commence!