Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Poor Book Marketing

One of the best things about people who read books is that they are generally open to other viewpoints. Sure we all get a bit snobbish about what we read, and sometimes it takes us some to come around and see the light, but reading by it's very nature slowly opens our minds and allows us to experience lives we can't live and see viewpoints we don't share, all the while reminding us we're not alone.

So that's why book marketing techniques like the recent Liar cover scandal bug me. We're book people. We should be ahead of the game. And luckily, through the outcry of true book people (librarians, reviewers, and bloggers) the Liar cover was changed. Still not satisfactorily for some, but at least to a cover you could actually argue goes with the book.

The other day on Twitter, Jenn asked if it bugs other people to read "recommended for fans of...." The answer for me is yes, most of the time. First of all, it implies the book is not terribly unique. Secondly, it's often incorrect and appears to be just a way of using a famous author's name to sell the book. And what if you don't like that author? You might never pick up the book and give it a try. I think at times it can be helpful, particularly if it's not a name like Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, or J.K. Rowling that you're using!

But most of the time it seems these recommendations are rather lazy ways of trying to get people interested in books.

Take this case for example: I recently read Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey. Great book. Crime fiction of the classic kind with a flawed detective with unusual gifts. And oh yeah, it's set in Ghana. And what does everyone say?
Recommended for fans of Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency.


Seriously, this comparison, to put it in professional terms, bugs the crap out of me. First I should say that I've only read the first book in the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency at the urge of my South African friends. I enjoyed it. It was a nice novel, slow in pace, but still interesting. But I read it about two years ago and haven't had any strong urges to continue reading the series.

Wife of the Gods isn't really like that book at all. At. All. In fact, the only real comparison I can draw is that both books are set on the continent of Africa. Oh and Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency kind of sort of has to do with mysteries. In a vague sort of way. Go look at a map of Africa. Look I've made it easy for you with this link. Find Ghana where Wife of the Gods is set. Then find Botswana where the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency is set. Hmmm....they're not even neighbors!

This forces me to draw a couple of conclusions:
1) We don't have enough books in English that are set on the continent of Africa that don't deal with the failed governments and/or social justice issues. Therefore, to provide any sort of context for a new book series, it must be compared to the only thing that is somewhat related.

2) Book marketers (and unfortunately reviewers and booksellers) think if you like one book set in Africa, you will like all books set in Africa even if the countries where these books are set are very far apart with separate cultures and the content of the books are quite different. (to be fair, I for example, am drawn to books about and set in Asia, particularly Japan. But I think this sort of marketing closes off people who just want to read a good story)

Wife of the Gods is a good crime story with great characterization made more interesting by the fact that it's set in Ghana. I can't help but think that by comparing it to the most famous book series set in Africa (that's about a private investigator not a detective) many people who might enjoy it will be turned away.

So here's my marketing technique: If you like good crime fiction with an interesting and complex main detective, you'll love Wife of the Gods.

What other examples of poor book marketing have you seen?



softdrink said...

Okay, this has nothing to do with books, but it reminds me of the constant comparisons between US States and other countries. Ghana is the size of Rhode Island! France's GNP is equal to that of California! Okay, not that those are accurate comparisons, but you get the idea. This has always bugged me, because it makes us seem so self-centered. Which we are, but still...

Back to books. I don't like it when they slap a quote by a famous author on the cover, and that author's name is more prominent than the author of the book! There's a recent edition of I Capture the Castle that is a good example.

J.T. Oldfield said...

I am unsure about how I feel about this. I give recommendations at the end of every review under the heading, if you like this book/novel, you might like blah blah blah. The thing is, I don't explain my often eclectic lists. I might list a book because it deals with similar issues, places, or has a similar style. So, for example, my list of book you might like if you read the Poisonwood Bible (which I've picked since you've mentioned Africa) is:

Heart of Darkness (F) by Joseph Conrad
A Bend in the River (F) by V.S. Naipaul
Saving Fish from Drowning (F) by Amy Tan
Hawaii (F) by James Michener
Three Cups of Tea (CNF) by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, The Man Who Would Cure the World (CNF) by Tracy Kidder
One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd (F) by Jim Fergus
Song of Solomon (F) by Toni Morrison
What Is the What (F) by Dave Eggars
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (CNF) by Ishmael Beah
Half of a Yellow Sun (F) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Purple Hibiscus (F) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Everything Good Will Come (F) by Sefi Atta
Ancestor Stones (F) by Aminatta Forna
The Lovely Bones (F) by Alice Sebold
Peace Like a River (F) by Leif Enger
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (F) by Jonathan Safran Foer
Little Women (F) by Louisa May Alcott
Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (CNF) by Nelson Mandela
Beethoven Was One Sixteenth Black & Other Stories (F) by Nadine Gordimer
Jump & Other Short Stories (F) by Nadine Gordimer
My Son’s Story (F) by Nadine Gordimer
The Pick Up (F) by Nadine Gordimer
Things Fall Apart (F) by Chinua Achebe
The Power of One (F) by Bryce Courtenay
Silence (F) by Shusaku Endo
King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (NF) by Adam Hochschild

Like I said, I don't explain myself in these lists. Because there aren't a lot of books about Africa, I did stretch and include things like Half of a Yellow Sun and A Long Way Gone. It's more like I'm saying, in these instances, here is some further reading. Some are more specific about the same African themes, particularly the Mandela and King Leopold books, and Nadine Gordimer (as part of Poisonwood Bible does take place in South Africa).

Then some things are a little more obvious...little women because of the closeness of the sisters and mother, or Hawaii, because of the puritanical missionary.

My point is, though I've read neither Wife of Gods (though I really really want to!) or Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency, If I were reviewing either book, the other probably would make my list, because they involve detectives and Africa. Because with my lists, there is something in common between this book I've reviewed, and these books. Like I said, further reading.

That doesn't, however, mean I would market it that way if I were a publisher.

Sorry for the ridiculously long post.

Pam said...

I actually read something a week or so ago about a crime book that had Dan Brown's name so big on the cover people bought it like crazy thinking he was the author.

Jen - Devourer of Books said...

I hadn't heard that they changed the cover of "Liar," yay! I'm going to have to make sure to actually purchase this now. In fact, maybe I'll request that my library buy it, read it from there, and purchase a copy for myself, just to make sure that they see that 'black' covers can sell.

Michael Stanley said...

I would include J M Coetzee, Alan Paton, and Deon Meyer in my list of prominent Afrian writers, and Elsbeth Huxley and Agatha Christie in my list of writers about Africa

Michael Stanley

Jodie said...

Pam I was totally going to talk about that - thunder=stolen ;) A romance website held a contest for their readers to photoshop covers in a way that might make people think they were buying a book by a much more famous author (some very funny results):

So many other annoyances (I hate lazy recommendations too, if nothing is accurate don't compare it to other things!). The repackaging blurb is a particular bugbear of mine right now - where you read a blurb which makes you think a story might be genre fiction (eg mystery) but in fact it turns out to be something else entirely (sometimes you still get a great book, but man is the lying annoying). Covers with visual indicators are starting to annoy me now as well - too many headless women appear to indicate chick-lit, romance, womens fiction. I like chick-lit but I'm so much less likely to buy it if it features a headless woman now.

To see what kind of cool, different covers could be appearing on genre fiction and not alienating the target audience check out the original British covers of 'The Little Lady Agency': . It's classy, unusual and yet I can still clearly see that it's a chick-lit title.

Beth Kephart said...

I think this begins before the public even gets wind of a book, when agents begin to market books to editors (and, indeed, when authors begin to market books to agents). It seems that one has but a sentence or two within which to "sell" the book. And so there's the inevitable, "it's a cross between Gogol's The Overcoat and The Ya Ya Sisters." Usually I look at those combos and say, Say, what? ANd usually I ignore the recommended for readers of as well.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I hate to make accusations, but I'm thinking that the book marketers may be too heavy on marketing and too light on book knowledge. These suggestions that they make on the cover of the books I find are often very bubble-headed and ditzy. They find a title, or author or series that is hot, and try to link it with the book in question. You'll like this one because it is a mystery too! You'll like this one because it has a strong female protagonist too! Sorry, that just doesn't work. I think perhaps we might have a future in marketing?

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I think using the line 'if you like so & so author, you'll like this book' is counterproductive. It draws attention away from the book itself. People read that and think, 'yes I do like so & so - wonder if they have a new book out?' and just like that, they've clicked away from the first book!

L. Diane Wolfe “Spunk On A Stick”

City speed dating said...

I think this begins before the public even gets wind of book,when agents begin to market books to editors..

bermudaonion said...

What a great, thought-provoking post! I can't think of any example, but I'm glad you said what you did about Wife of the Gods. I read a few of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books but tired of the series quickly - glad to know Wife of the Gods is different!

caite said...

I'm not sure that I am as anti comparison regarding books as are some that have commented here...maybe because I realize that I just did it myself on a review

Personally, I think it can sometimes be helpful to a reader to give them more information, another sense of what a book is like and whether they will like it. Which is part of the goal of marketing and even our reviews. Of course, it assumes the person making the comparison knows what they are talking about and is being honest about the comparison...

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Thanks for this great post! I totally agree with Sandy. And I would broaden it to include many publishing decisions as well. Or who is it who decides that we will not be interested in multicultural books or books featuring handicapped protagonists or books that are in general not about vampires or zombies? (Not that I am opposed to the undead, but I think the reading public would also like a nice array of other options, and we don't have to think it is just like some other best-selling series in order to be interested!!)

wordlily said...

I think this is something prone to happen (unfortunately) more frequently in regards to Africa. I can't count how many times I've heard someone refer to Africa as a country, for instance. Partly, this is the map's fault; on our normal world map Europe is at the center (Guess who made the map? Yep, a European.). The countries also aren't shown is sizes that correlate correctly to each other; rather, the sizes are distorted rather than the shapes being distorted (Ah, the difficulties of depicting flat something spherical!). This makes things in the north seem larger, in comparison, than they really are, and things in the south relatively smaller. The Peter's Projection map shows all continents and countries in correct relations to each other, both size-wise and positionally, but it looks distorted to our eyes accustomed to our "normal" map. It also makes Africa and China look huge compared to Europe and the USA (which they are).

Susan B. Evans said...

My sister is a reader's advisory librarian - it's her job to give prople recommendations based on what they've already read and liked. I'll tell you one biggie that bugs her: if you've liked Interview with a Vampire or Dracula or anything with vampires, people automatically tell you to read Twilight. Like a vampire novel is a vampire novel is a vampire novel. That's just one recent one that I can remember her complaining about. Great post :)

Jennsbookshelf said...

Great post, an issue that obviously bugs me. My biggest complaints are authors whose writing is compared to the "big authors" like Stephen King, Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, etc. Each author has their own writing style, so these comparisons are invalid. I see those comparisons on book covers all the time, and it truly turns me off to that book. I'd rather read the original author's work than someone deemed similar.

Meghan said...

The comparisons do annoy me because you're right, they are so often not useful at all. So many historical fiction novels come with some comparison to Philippa Gregory and then don't pull it off. Everything is compared to Twilight. It really puts me off and I could be missing out on great books because the book marketers weren't thinking too hard and just thought sales + sort of the same genre = put famous author name on cover!

I do think they can be useful, though, if you've read enough in a certain genre. I can definitely say which historical fiction authors are most alike without comparing them to PG. Often a book will feel similar to another book and in that case I will want the recommendation. So, I guess it depends, but the overwhelming majority of the time it is useless and annoying.

Marie said...

I think sometimes "recommended for fans of" is very misleading, as in the example you cited. Recently I read a book about India also compared to No.1 Ladies, as if all light fiction about non-white-people is the same. Lame. Sometimes it's very helpful though and can yield good recommendations so I think it's not so much the technique as it is the person applying it. Librarians use the read-alike thing all the time and a skilled & knowledgeable one can come up with good stuff. It's just that some people who recommend books are neither.

Lana said...

I actually quite like 'recommended for fans of' IF (and this is a giant if) the books are similar in 'feel' or tone rather than both about vampires or something.

As an example, I recently read Palace Circle by Rebecca Dean which personally I thought read a lot like Philippa Gregory (high on drama and soap operatic). So the comparison on the cover didn't bother me (although I don't really like PG). I've always thought Jane Eyre and Rebecca are read-alikes.

So when novels are recommended that way, it doesn't bother me, but when every vampire book leads to Twilight (for that matter, every YA book leads to Twilight), I get really irritated.

heidenkind said...

Hmm, very interesting post. To be honest, I've never really thought about it. I do sometimes say "For fans of..." if I honestly (as a fan of both myself) think that people who liked blah-blah-blah with have a PARTICULAR interest in the book. But I certainly don't mean to exclude others by saying so.

The No. 1 Ladies' Det. Agency & the Wife of the Gods example that you gave is simply deplorable. Although now that you've got me thinking about it, even books with similar plots and feel that use the "for fans of" line don't always work. Someone rec'd Need to me a few weeks ago because I liked Twilight. Yeah, that book was pretty much exactly like Twilight, with just enough changes to prevent a lawsuit. And the writing was pretty bad. I wound up seriously hating it. So you're definitely right; in the end, it's more about how a book is executed than its plot that makes it a good read.

Thanks for bringing this up, Amy! I think I am definitely going to stop using that "for fans of" line from now on. :)

Alexia561 said...

Very interesting post. I usually ignore the if-you-like recommendations, as I've yet to come across any that I've believed. While I will sometimes pick up a book with a blurb by a favorite author, the work must still stand on it's own. Thanks for starting such a good discussion!

Serena said...

I really don't know what to say about this except that I try not to make comparisons of books to one another because someone who enjoys James Patterson, for instance, is not likely to like a more complex, less plot driven mystery. Does that makes sense?

I think we should be talking about the merits of an individual book without comparing them to others in the same genre.

Elena said...

This is a great post, I'm actually doing a course in publishing and one of my subjects right now is book marketing. We were discussing these very points the other night: how book marketing (compared to other types of product marketing) is extremely poor quality, and often lazy.

Controversies like the cover of Liar and the cover of The Death of Bunny Munro (in Australia) tend to work on the mass public, but book devotees are more discerning and skeptical. I think recommendations work ultimately if you trust the source of them.

If a giant poster tells you fans of "x" will like it, it's hard to swallow. Whereas people or bloggers close to us who have expertise in books or even in our own tastes are much more trustworthy, I think.

That Dan Brown story is funny, people get so caught up in hype

Amee said...

I actually like recommendations like that. If I just read a great romance and there are recommendations for other great romances, then I'll probably want to check them out! I find it works for me, but I can see how sometimes it might get jumbled like lumping geography or vampires into the same categories.

Literate Housewife said...

What a wonderful topic! I saw Liar mentioned on another blog (sorry, I can't remember which right now) and I couldn't believe it. Who makes that kind of mistake? I feel horrible for the author in that situation.

I don't mind recommendations when they aren't plastered on the book's cover. When they're on the cover, I wonder why the novel can't stand on it's own. Why does it need a "If you like HUGELY SUCCESSFUL AUTHOR" mention on it. It's hard for first time authors to get attention. I understand that. I don't really think that's a good way to go about it.

I also don't like seeing books where the author's name is larger than the novel's title. I know that this is what they do with said HUGELY SUCCESSFUL AUTHORS, but I'm reading the book for the story. Making the author's name larger than the title implies to me that it's interchangable with any of the author's other novels. Not a good idea. I don't like reading authors when one of their novels is the same as the other...

Book Chick City said...

I don't particularly mind the recommended for comment, but I must agree with you that at times it could put you off reading that book especially if they are linking it with a book you didn't like. For example I didn't really like Ladies No1 Detective agency and couldn't get into the book at all. I never finished it and like you do not have the inclination to try again or read the rest in the series no matter how popular it may be. So when you mentioned Life of the Gods and how it was marketed to be like No.1 Detective agency, it put me off thinking about readng the book.

So, most of the time I find books recommend for fans helpful , I do believe that it can be detrimental to the novelist that being compared, unless, as you say, it's linked with a very successful author.

Thanks for the post. Very interesting.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

I know they sell books, but I don't like the movie tie-in book covers. I think readers (OK, *I* )then can't get the actor/actress image out of their minds and really be transported by the book.

WIFE OF THE GODS is a fantastic book! I haven't read any of the NO. 1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY books, so I can't/won't compare.

In my reviews I may comment about a book in comparison/contrast to another book by the same author, but rarely compare to other authors. Hmmm, although I did that just this week, saying Nancy Bachrach's THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE often has a flippant tone, but isn't raw like Augusten Burroughs. I guess I'm a study in contradictions!

Lana said...

Dawn - I usually hate movie tie-in covers, too! The only exception I've found? When I pick up a book because I loved the movie (rarely happens), I gravitate toward movie tie-in covers (Stardust & A.S. Byatt's Possession come to mind). But maybe that's because I know I'll already picture the actors as the characters?

Britt said...

The one you mentioned really bugged me! I didn't really like the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, so I didn't like to see a book being compared to it that frankly looked better!

I don't mind when like Amazon gives me a page of recommendations based on what I've bought, though. That doesn't bug me. Just keep it off the books themselves!

D.M. McGowan said...

I'm very, very tired of the line "this doesn't sell." If it's entertaining anything sells.
This line is usually from someone who makes a career of jumping on someone else's success and going along for the ride.
If it's entertaining and someone says "this doesn't sell," then you need a new salesman.

Pam said...

Such a good point, Amy! I tend to compare along writing styles rather than subject. That way it's not glossing over but using a stylistic reference. I'm a hopeless connector so I can't help but zip back to make lines to things I've read before. That said, as mentioned, I don't compare on plot, on how the story is crafted. There are thousands of vampire stories, that doesn't mean we have to compare them all. While there aren't as many African crime novels with female protagonists, we should ALSO not compare them. Or, well, maybe we can if, say they're both written in the same style but even then, that's only one itsy bitsy detail and should be mentioned in passing NOT as a review mainstay. I also get your point about turning people off. One of my all time favorite writers is John Steinbeck. I recently referred to him in describing the writing style of a brand new book and while I ADORE him, I realize that might turn other people off. Hmmm...maybe I should think about that. Again, though, I only do that out of fondness for authors, not to simplify.

Jenny Girl said...

No there are not enough books out there about Africa and/or its issues. I enjoy reading about differnet cultures and issues and that's why I read a wide variety of things.
As far as marketing goes, as soon as I see "If you liked, blah, blah..." I turn away.
I feel as though they can't be original or something.

Becky LeJeune said...

I don't think that the "if you like this you might also like this" comparisons are bad as long as they're appropriate. I worked as a bookseller and I know that a lot of people do not read as much as I do and with the sheer amount of new titles out there to choose from, they sometimes want a recognizable comparison to help them make their decisions.

The thing you have to be careful of, again, is making sure the recommendation is appropriate. I try to make recs based on tone and feel, or style of the books. So if you like Charlaine Harris and are looking for another funny paranormal read, I might make one suggestion as opposed to another. I find it's helpful if you have a new author that someone may be unfamiliar with, to compare them to an author that the reader is familiar with so they can decide if they want to try something new.

I would never make a rec based on "if you like vampires try this vampire book." But I would say "if you want gory horror like this gory horror author, here's another gory horror author to try." Inappropriate and uninformed recommendations are the ones that get to me. I never recommend Anne Rice to any reader because I don't enjoy her books. I've not read them all, though, so it would be irresponsible to me to recommend her books based on the fact that a reader might be looking for a vampire read.

I make recs based on my own taste and books that I have read. I think it's an honest and good way for readers to connect with other readers and get people to try new things when it's done with those intentions rather than just to sell books.

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