Monday, January 19, 2009

Betrayal

Ever feel cheated by the blurb on the back cover of a book?

And I don't just mean the marketing stuff. I understand the superlatives. They can be tiresome, but that's the basic reality of the market. "This is the most fantastic book of the decade, the best since X, a sterling combination of Y and Z!" That's marketing, that's trying to sell something. I'm fine with it. I mean, I know they can't just go and say "Hey, this is a mediocre novel in a long tradition of mediocre novels on this subject."

But what about the story blurb itself? Ever feel a little cheated? And, while reading the book, you find yourself stopping and turning to that blurb, as if to reassure yourself that this really is the book you thought you were reading? It's not that the blurb is completely alien. I mean, there's usually a number of corresponding and identifiable elements. It's just that they don't seem to fit together in the same way. The story as outlined and promised in that blurb simply isn't the story inside the covers.

Of course, this is subjective. It's a reader's view only (and a single reader, at that). And the blurb probably wasn't written by the writer. (or it was?) It just seems strange. Such blurbs remind me, sometimes, of the phone game. Pass one sentence independently through thirty different people and what do you have? A very different sentence, usually. It feels like some of these blurbs have been edited and reworked and rewritten as little stories themselves, evaluated for marketing potential and then reworked again... without much thought for the actual story inside.

Have you come across this? Any thoughts? And as a writer would you want to write the blurbs for your own books? (or have a say in them, at least?)

8 comments:

Lauren said...

I know exactly what you mean! A book sounds so awesome and then something that resembles the blurb takes up like the first twenty pages and the rest is lame and very different.

However, it has happened that I was pleasantly surprised that the blurb didn't quite match and it was because to match it would have to give away a huge plot twist that occurred in the first 70 pages. That I am okay with. The other, not so much.

Wanu said...

Absolutely. The one that let me down most had a blurb on the back that went something like, "teen mag agony aunt stand-in, (Can't remember the name), finds his temporary role challenging, but never more so than when a fourteen year old girl sends him a letter saying that she saw his picture in the mag. She claims he is her father, and that she's got proof."

It went on a little bit, but the essence sounded pretty good.

I started reading it.

The first chapter was about this guy doing his own comfort-zone journalism - writing about music. Then the next chapter saw him corralled into helping a friend out at a magazine for teenage girls. Then the next chapter was about how he settled in at this new place, who he made friends with, and how... and the chapter after that went suddenly domestic, bringing in a sub plot about his wife wanting children, and him not wanting any at all...

I started skimming, wanting to get to the good bit...

HALF WAY THROUGH the novel, he finally received this letter, along with a photograph of him and a Spanish woman from years ago. This kicked off a huge amount of back story about how he split up with a girlfriend, and then decided to go on holiday with a mate ... blah and blah...

It was crap. The storytelling sucked, and the writing wasn't great. There was something weird about the make up of the prose; it lacked direction, and each paragraph seemed more like an excuse to show a bit of sophistication on the author's part rather than a device to deepen or progress the story.

I seriously did feel cheated, and dumped the book. I even posted to a Critique Connection forum about what a swizz the blurb had been, and other members agreed, some calling that type of marketing cynical.

The cover of that novel featured rave reviews from respected critics, though, so I checked Amazon to see what the general public thought. I read some of the reader reviews, and also learned a bit more about the author.

He was a blummin' columnist who normally wrote for a broadsheet newspaper. It was pretty clear that he already had a dedicated following from that. All of the Amazon reviews that I read were absolutely gushing. One or two included bits like 'love your column... blah blah.'

Incensed.

I don't mind a journalist turning to fiction... provided they have the talent to actually pull it off!

I wouldn't have been nearly so disgruntled, though, if it wasn't for the fact that the blurb on the back of that book served as a stronger hook than the entire first half of the novel!

Blah!

Sarah Jensen said...

Yes. And do you wonder if agents feel that way after reading a query and then getting the MS.

Ms Kitty said...

Oh yeah, I can relate to that.

This year, I found a book by one of my all time favorite authors. It was a continuation of another book in my collection. Great stuff, a nice Sci-fi series, a little dark and gloomy with realistic characters who are struggling, as they fall in love, with a rigid caste system keeps them apart.

Halfway through the book, the style changes. It becomes a fantasy story with weak characters. Next chapter, the style changes again, it's a syrupy fantasy story and the heroine has suddenly become all-knowing Mary Sue for whom all problems magically vanish.

The plot runs thin, details are sketchy, but 'ta-da' they are 'back' home and all is well. Not only that, but they are married and she's six-weeks pregnant. Now, she wasn't good enough to marry this guy at the start of the book, but Mary Sue has won the day, effortlessly as usual.

I later found out that the original author died in the middle of the book. The replacement is never mentioned by name, but the style is unmistakable.

It should have been labeled a joint effort between the two writers.

Ink said...

Lol, I hope if I die some hack doesn't come in to finish my books! Mess with my literary immortality!

Sarah,
Yeah, I bet agents get that a lot. People get so keyed on query letters, and probably write and rewrite them, and get crit, and rewrite again... while at the same time handing in a first or second draft novel to the agent that's not ready yet. I picture all these nice lit agents sitting in their chairs and suddenly perking up when they hit one of these good queries... and then this sad, forlorn little sigh as they read the pages and the story doesn't match up. So sad...

My new motto is: however many drafts of a query letter I do, the manuscript has to have more. And no cheating out. :)

Bookworm1605 said...

Blurbs!

We live in a culture of blurbs, do we not?

I often find myself sitting through a movie mentally checking off scenes from the trailer (the cinematic equivalent of a blurb). I know the ending is near when I've completed the checklist and in almost every case, the trailer was better than the movie.

Have you ever tried to write your own blurbs? For some reason when I started my novel and placed the first chapters for critique I felt the need to write a blurb for it. Surprisingly difficult, reducing your magnum opus to a paragraph or two.

I also have experienced that sense of betrayal when a book doesn't measure up to its billing. I wonder if nowadays the blurb is written by marketing folks. This would obviously lead to an exaggeration of the more sensational parts of the story at the expense of others, creating a feeling of imbalance in the reader.

An interesting question arising out of this discussion would be, how often would you buy a book without a blurb? How important is the backside of the book (or for you fancy dancy hardback book buyers--the inside of the dust jacket)?

Personally, I probably would have a hard time picking a book without some kind of teaser.

Wanu said...

Yeah, spot-on, Book, they're pretty much a necessity.

I haven't brushed up on query letters and such for a while, but I remember reading some post-contract info that went, 'if you're lucky enough, you'll get to write your own blurb.'

I think that's your answer: mostly done by marketing guys.

Mind you, if an author is good enough to write and polish a commercially viable novel, I'm pretty sure they could also use their wordsmithery skills to write an outstanding blurb. Seems odd, with a professional grade writer on tap, who knows the story, to turn to someone else to write the teaser.

Market conventions, I suppose.

This whole idea of saleable skills gets a bit silly when the specialisation defies logic.

A loooooong time ago, I worked in a distribution warehouse, 'hand-balling' product. That is, lifting boxes from the Euro sized pallets on which they arrived, and re-stacking them on the UK-sized pallets so that they'd fit into domestic lorries.

Pretty simple, huh? But after a few weeks, I realised that the people around me viewed this 'skill' as a saleable asset! "You could get a job at xyz company if this runs dry, they do box throwing too."

What!?

Genuine advice, that, when people have only seen you throwing boxes around.

I've always had a bit of a job getting my head around this.

I wonder if there's a poor guy who gets contracted by agents to write blurbs? He's probably a magnificent writer, but so bogged under with blurb-requests that he never gets time to work on his own novels.

I can imagine him, all baleful, going, 'But I can really write!' I expect his professional contacts rub their chins, and shake their heads, and say, "I've never seen you do that... Sounds a bit risky... I've got a great blurb-job for you though!"

Sarah Jensen said...

Caren Johnson asked for blurbs about books for 24 hours or so. She wanted two or three lines.
I went to my queries, and yes, I have more than one, and put together this...

Would you be interested in a novel where a seventeen year old girl has freakish dreams in which she lives the life of a murdering monster? Add to the dreams, a vision she’s wide awake for-watching an attack on her love interest as if she were the monster. Then to make things more bizarre, our protag somehow finds herself attracted to the creature in real life. All this while dealing with high school, boys, and a blind grandpa.

Loosely based on the Cherokee Legend The Stone Shield, this young adult urban fantasy LEGEND OF THE PROTECTORS is complete at 90,000 words.

She asked for 20 pages, so I guess it wasn't bad. But it wasn't easy to come up with it. Of course, I wouldn't start a book blurb with "Would you be interested in..."

But it is disappointing when the blurbs don't match.