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Why Bogus Flap Copy Erodes Readers’ Trust

Using platitudes like “remarkable” and “dazzling” in flap copy is forgivable, but calling a book “funny” when it is anything but is a much worse crime.

Editorial by Nico Vreeland

Nico Vreeland is not amused

Flap copy always lies. It’s sickly understandable, considering the competitive marketplace for books. But, as a reader, it’s intensely frustrating to wade through book descriptions where the truth is more fungible than on James Frey’s resume.

There’s one word I hate the most, whenever I see it, because…well, because it describes the kind of book I most often want to read. It’s not “dazzling” or “heartbreaking” or “innovative,” or any of the other bland superlatives that muddy up dust jackets. The baldest lie of all is when a book gets called “funny.”

I love funny books, as does the world: George Saunders won a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” Amy Hempel won a Guggenheim, and David Sedaris could sell books of filled-out crossword puzzles. People like to laugh. The difference between me and a book publisher is that I define “funny books” as “books that are funny.” Publishers, or at least their flap copy writers, do not.

Of course, there’s no accounting for taste and no guarantee of talent; I’m not talking about books that try to be funny and fail. For instance, last year’s The Sheriff of Yrnameer (Pantheon, 2010), written by former Daily Show writer Michael Rubens and inspired by (i.e. nearly plagiarizing) Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide series. I found Yrnameer painfully difficult to read, one of the top ten most memorably bad novels I’ve ever read. But it was at least trying to get laughs, and when its flap copy calls it “raucously funny,” it’s only a lie of inches. At least I can prepare myself for the particular disappointments an unfunny comic novel might bring.

What really infuriates me is when a publisher calls a novel “funny” when it’s not trying to be. Take Rosecrans Baldwin’s 2010 debut, You Lost Me There (Riverhead, 2010), its flap copy says, “By turns funny, charming, and tragic…”

In fact, You Lost Me There is a wrenching novel about a loving man who realizes his failures as a husband only after his wife’s death in a car crash. It’s a well-written portrayal of a man’s powerless regret. But it’s definitely not funny. If they’d cut “funny,” and left “charming and tragic,” they might have performed a coward’s end-run around the question of humor, but You Lost Me There would more accurately be called pathetic, in the sense of inspiring pathos.

Certainly I can understand the decision not to call a novel “pathetic.” “By turns pathetic and tragic” doesn’t have the same ring. But fleeing to the opposite end of the spectrum and lying to potential readers…this smacks of positioning to me. It feels like goons in suits tracking spreadsheets and seeing that a debut novel called “funny” will sell X more copies.

It’s not that simple, of course, nor do I think publishers are quite that ghoulish. But there’s more than a little fear at play here. Per Petterson’s latest novel, I Curse the River of Time (Graywolf, 2010) also got painted with the funny brush. Its jacket reads, “an honest, heartbreaking yet humorous portrayal of a complicated mother-son relationship.” Humorous, is it? It’s a novel about a depressed man whose wife is divorcing him and whose mother is dying. As for that “complicated mother-son relationship”: she hates him because he’s a Communist and took a job at a factory instead of going to college. She thought it was a stupid decision. She was right.

There might have been some jokes told in the factory where these books were printed, but both are far from “funny.” More importantly, neither try to be funny, and calling them such misses the point of their stories, the equivalent of a restaurant describing their dishes by detailing the history of the china they use.

Certainly, I appreciate the stupefying, thankless work of the flap copy writer. I work at an independent bookstore. Each month I write capsule descriptions of ten new featured books — forty words each. That’s a sum total of 400 words per month, and still, soon enough they begin to sound the same (I’ve have to cut the phrase “outstanding prose” more often than I care to admit).

However, I don’t try to position books — I don’t skew descriptions to sell more copies, just like when a friend asks me for a recommendation, I don’t grab the nearest book and bellow, “THIS WAS DAZZLING.” I try to find a book that specific person will like. When I write those capsule descriptions, I do it with the intention of accuracy, in an attempt to match the right book with the right person.

If we were selling chocolate instead of books, using a platitude like “remarkable” would like saying all your chocolate was “delicious,” which is misleading but defensible. Calling a book “funny” when it is a wrenchingly tragic exploration of regret and misery, that’s like claiming a chocolate bar is filled with caramel, when it might actually contain nougat, or almonds, or little shards of metal. Certainly, that technique will move the metal-shard candy, but over the long run, it’s bad for business.

This is a principle of bookselling that Amazon has understood since its very inception. (Listen: I’m no Jeff Bezos fan. I love e-books but I do not trust the Kindle; its proprietary system feels to me like a comfortable lounge with free drinks and nice people, where the chairs leech your blood from your veins. That said, Bezos is right sometimes. Not morally, certainly, but technically, like people who use the word “quotation.”)

When Amazon first started, publishers told Bezos not to allow negative reviews of books on the product pages, saying, “Maybe you don’t understand your business — you make money when you sell things.”

Bezos responded, “We don’t make money when we sell things, we make money when we help people make purchase decisions,” and left the negative reviews up.

Nowadays, negative ratings and reviews are a part of Internet life, but group ratings of books are ironically among the least helpful. (For proof, try to find a book on Goodreads that’s not rated between 3 and 4 stars.)

It’s a telling detail that, even with something as inconsequential as negative Amazon reviews, publishers squirm to admit any kind of weakness. The real weakness is that lying flap copy, which betrays an attitude of selfishness. Every time someone reads You Lost Me There expecting a funny story, that publisher is eroding trust. However, that publisher also sold another copy.

The real reason publishers lie on their flap copy is simple: it works. I would never have bought You Lost Me There if it hadn’t said funny. And, while I enjoyed it, I can’t say the same for I Curse the River of Time, also an atmospheric exploration of misery, also called “funny” on its flap, also nothing of the kind.

To paraphrase Bezos, publishers would make more money if they helped people find books they like — the problem is that individual books sell more copies when they let the salesmen write the copy.

Nico Vreeland is a bookseller at Trident Booksellers in Boston. He is a graduate of the Emerson MFA program and a founding editor of the books website ChamberFour.com.

DISCUSS: Are Author Blurbs a Waste of Space?

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9 Comments

  1. Posted May 6, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    Nico, I just got a great message from a beta user on a publishing website I’m developing. The site is designed to take the concepts of a social writing site like Fictionaut or Bookcountry and full integrate it into a publisher. The beta user emailed me yesterday to say “I’m digging Red Lemonade so far. I like that the idea is to critique as opposed to praise. I was surprised to find that the opposite was the case at [other site], and I was relieved when I saw people making thoughtful suggestions for improvement at RL. Do what you can to keep that the culture going forward. I’m sure it means more fireworks, but it’s the only way work gets better.” I also admire you, as an independent bookseller, are willing to quote Bezos admiringly. Great kudos to you for this, and as more of us build businesses around candor, I believe we’ll discover that the writing and reading people will benefit the most.

  2. Posted May 6, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    I’ve gotten suckered by this too many times to count. The funny (i.e., not funny) thing is, seems like the books that make me laugh the most are the ones not at all billed as humorous.

    These days, I read jacket copy only through the plot summary, then stop. And regarding blurbs; I’ll look at the names, but not the blurbs themselves. I mean, not every *&*(^&# book can be “haunting,” and do lots of “rendering” and “engulfing.”

  3. Posted May 6, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Reasons like this keep pushing me further and further away from wanting to be traditionally published and from reading traditionally published books.

  4. Posted May 6, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    So much of this has to do with the erosion of our critical vocabulary. We’re inundated with empty sales-speak and are left with little capacity to absorb and deploy prose that is meaningful in any way. Too often we fall back on “dancing adjectives” to get our point across — it’s all the more reason why we need to support and maintain the critical class of reviewers and writers who are not beholden to the industry (often because of they publish their own books or have a desire to do so in the future).

  5. Posted May 6, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    I work in Publicity so I don’t write flap copy but I refuse to use the word “lush” in my press releases. I don’t like hyperbole either–Book Review Editors and reviewers will see right through it; why destroy your credibility? That said, your post is great. I never noticed the misuse of the word “funny”. I bet I’ll see it everywhere now.

  6. Posted May 6, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    @Richard — I would love to see a website like that that actually worked. I like the idea of Goodreads, but as I briefly mentioned, it’s no help at all in actually culling good books (or books suited to a particular taste) from bad. For me, still the only way to get reliable recommendations is to find critics I like and agree with, and that’s an arduous process.

    @David — “dazzling” is my other bugaboo. Not just because it’s on a huge amount of flaps, but also because it’s entirely meaningless. It’s a visual description attached to a non-visual art form. It’s like calling a painting “delicious.”

    @B.C. — Yeah, I sadly see where you’re coming from. One of the biggest advantages major publishers have left is simply capital. If you hire an editor, get a big distributor, and have a ton of money to spend on publicity, there’s not a whole lot else Random House can offer you. (Contacts, too, I suppose, but if this ship keeps heading in this direction, those will be for sale soon too.)

    @Edward — Yes. If critics get even scarcer, it will only hurt publishers. Sadly, I don’t see them getting more plentiful anytime soon.

    @gabrielle — I think the sad thing is that it’s tough to keep track of credibility. Perhaps a book review editor might figure out that, say, Random House flap copy was worse than Penguin, but your average reader doesn’t care enough to factor that into purchase decisions. One of the reasons this works so well.

  7. Posted May 6, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    @Nico Yes, we’re really going to try to work to preserve that quality in the site. Check it out any time. Note though that it is not really classically a recommendation environment. More an environment where a critical discourse occurs around books and through a little dabbling in it, the serious reader ought to get a lot of guidance. The hassle (and strength) of Goodreads is its breadth. So you get lots of opinions, which is good, but not enough awareness of the opinion-issuers to know which ones matter.

    @Ed and @Nico, had an interesting chat with a very good critic, Paul Constant, of the Seattle Stranger, who noted that book criticism is the only form where the form of the critique (language) is the same as that of the thing critiqued. Figuring out the implication sof that isn’t straightforward, of course, but I think it’s something to turn to our advantage, if we can.

  8. Posted May 7, 2011 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    I ignore cover blurbs pretty much entirely, even when they’re by someone I know and respect. They’re often a few words or a phrase taken out of context — even in a really negative review there are almost always a few words of praise, and publishers don’t seem to have much compunction about selectively using those.

    My own book reviews do sometimes descend into cliches… As you say, it’s hard to avoid when writing capsule reviews.

  9. Posted June 22, 2011 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    I spent 20 years writing book catalog and jacket copy for publishers, and always worked hard to present the author’s work with integrity, yet making it appealing to the person who would want to buy the book. I took pride in crafting great cover copy, with the full understanding that I was not a reviewer but a marketer. I wrote covers for good books, not-so-good books, and some downright awful books. Each had to be presented so that the right audience would be attracted to the book (I can’t tell you how many awful books sold because they had an audience, not because they were worth reading. However, publishers have cut back on thoughtful marketing copy, substituting blurbs and self-serving copy (often written by someone in India). I’m a “dinosaur” now who has seen the work I did devalued and watched that world disappear. I can understand why there is more distrust of the book cover “descriptions.” So now I only do marketing writing for my own e-books, and for other kinds of clients who value a way with words and integrity.

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