03 September 2017

CoverFail 6.07

Just about everyone in the West has heard some variation on "don't judge a book by its cover." That's ordinarily sound advice: The marketing material comprising the "cover" seldom has diddly-squat to do with the contents; frequently, even the purportedly factual material is misleading or worse. Consider El Presidente's purported seminal work The Art of the Deal… which is not "by" him in any sense. (I've even seen some reviews that claim its content didn't then, and still doesn't now, reflect his actual business practices.) Consider overblown titles like "The Only ____ Book You'll Ever Need" — or most trade nonfiction titles beginning with a definite article (falsely implying that there is no possible contradiction or alternative to the rest of the title). Consider misleading cover illustrations, such as putting a picture of Supergolfer X on the cover of a book about golf courses that includes only one course on which X has ever even played, let alone had any actual affiliation with; or that shows Superchef Y smiling in a TVgenic kitchen that Y has never actually cooked in (let alone done any of the cleanup or prep work in, or actually shopped for equipment for, or food to cook in).

But all of that is typical marketing fluff, as misleading as it is (and as regulated out of existence as deceptive trade material it would be in, say, the packaged-dinners section of the grocery store, or an auto-parts store). Publishing is often worse than that. Indeed, by default publishing is worse than that.

  • Those annoying Chevrolet commercials claiming that Chevrolet is the "most awarded" (American) manufacturer just copy decades of publishing-industry examples of throwing "Award-Winning Author" on the cover of completely noncomparable works. Just in the last couple of years, for example, I've seen a long-ago-published (execrable and should have been disowned, because the author has grown a lot in the years since) novel remarketed with a "___-Award-Winning Author" fake medallion, because the author recently got an award for a work of short fiction.
  • There's also the "Bestselling Author" tag… in an industry that treats actual sales numbers as proprietary trade secrets, and won't even tell authors about them until 18 months later (presuming the accuracy and honesty of royalty reports in the first place). There is literally no wide-spectrum tracker of sales in publishing: Every single one neglects Amazon (and those who haven't had a college student in the house would be shocked at how many textbooks get ordered from Amazon, putting even nontrade books in play). The largest database — Nielsen Bookscan — is not only expensive, but horribly underinclusive.

    And then there are the survey-based bestseller lists, most prominently (but not exclusively) the NYT lists. Leaving aside the arrogance and almost-certain conflicts of interest involved in establishing such a list allegedly reflecting the nation as a whole from the city that purports to be the center of trade publishing, the attempts to "protect" the list by keeping the reporting stores "secret" frequently backfire. I offer this as an alternative:

    Be Inspired! Create Your Own!

  • Blurbs and endorsements. What more can I say? No matter what signed "proof" publishers have that the provider of a blurb has actually read the manuscript, a high proportion hasn't. (Or, as for certain Bay Area authors a few years back, couldn't… having died before the manuscript was with the publisher.) They're also startlingly unhelpful, virtually always extracted out of context… and, more often than not, based on the blurber's perception of the author as Deserving Marketing Help, aside from the merits of the work at issue. They're actually less meritorious than the typical celebrity endorsement, which must at least reveal whether the endorser actually uses the product or service.

Sadly, there's a common thread to these particular marketing efforts: They all display a certain contempt for the reader, depending as they do on uncritical acceptance for products that, by their very nature — even when marketed as "just entertaining stories," let alone anything else — require at least some semblance of the opposite. Indeed, they're not aimed at the actual purchaser of books at all (well, perhaps they're in part aimed at library-system buyers); they're aimed at 1980s-gestalt chain-bookstore Buyers, to get them onto the shelves in the first place. The last time I checked (about five minutes before posting this), it wasn't the 1980s any more… and the public has a helluva lot of alternatives to browsing at a mall-based Waldenbooks, especially that part of the public living more distant from Manhattan than Paramus.

It's not just deceptive. It's stupid. It's not even a case of "selling buggywhips," but one of "using only the buggywhip distribution system, and methods that seemed to work for buggywhips, three decades later for aftermarket-replacement ignition keys." And as the background information in that link on the YA-list gaming of the NYT list indicates, it's not just — or even primarily — publishing: It's underlying memes across the entertainment industry.