Have you ever found a fascinating-looking book, at least judging from its cover, on a shelf — picked it up, admired, then flipped it over — then read something like this?
PRAISE FOR JAMES P. SWANMINGLER
“Incredible . . . Swanmingler does it again . . . lace up your boots and unlace other garments, because it’s going to be a steamy ride.”
— The Library Foundlings Society
“Wow. Just wow. I couldn’t put it down . . . the delicate romance of a Clancy thriller, the jovial simplicity of a Tolkien legendarium.”
— The Minnesota Statesman-Inquisition, Featured Book Review
“The autumn blockbuster is back, and you’ll feel the chills and make the autumn wind yourself by how fast you’ll be turning these colorful pages. Swanmingler is once again at the top of his seasonal game.”
— The New Jersey Port Authority Herald
“A first-class shiner.”
— Eddie Bowtruckle, author of Blood Omenship, Swoon of the Moon, and Sunken Decks of the Dead
In a bookstore not long ago, I found such a book, and was struck by a total lack of what I had wanted to find: something about the story. The author’s name was new to me. Already the publisher, graphic designer, and/or cover artist had made the “sale.” I wanted to know some about the imagination behind that fantastic cover.
So what was the novel’s actual story? A dark secret to be sought within, I guess. Now look at me. I can’t even recall what on the cover was so impressive. It’s gone.
Naturally, I had to write my own endorsement, inside 119 characters:
When I pick up a novel to read its back cover, don’t give me Endorsements about the Product. Tell me about the *story*.
Some back covers, of course, get the story very wrong. I suppose I would prefer reading no plot description, over an inaccurate plot description. For example, an edition of That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis says: “Finding himself in a world of superior alien beings and scientific experiments run amok, Dr. Ransom struggles with questions of ethics and morality, applying age-old wisdom to a brave new universe dominated by science.” I have no idea what that’s talking about. The only accuracies were “Dr. Ransom” and “scientific experiments.” I suppose you could say that summary is spoiler-free.
Other back covers flagrantly reveal real spoilers. Readers, and I’m sure authors, may get frustrated by this. Back-cover spoilers have ruined more than a few books for me. Still, come to think of it, they may keep someone reading. When’s the part when X occurs?
But presenting only vague endorsements doesn’t work for me. I can’t recall any time when they did. Perhaps I have read too many books, endorsed by authors whose works I loved, that ended up not being as good as those novels. More likely, I simply don’t know that author or care for the publication that is named. And I have to wonder:
- Without reading the newspaper review, what does its excerpted opinion matter to me? Especially when it’s not the newspaper, but one reviewer, who said that?
- If the story is good, does the author really need “propping” from another, more-popular author who got there first? This practice may come across as humble, and I don’t want to oppose that! Yet I wonder whether statistics or anecdotes would support the concept of one author’s fans “transferring” to another author.
- Any new author is not C.S. Lewis, or anyone else. Please, cut out this comparison.
- Endorsements aside, why not at least tell me something about the novel’s story?
Really, I keep coming back to that last question.
Maybe you do, too. Or perhaps you find a lot more attractive about the endorsements, at least those from other fiction authors, than I do.
Perhaps I have something to learn here, from other readers who can share what they like, or from authors or editors stopping by who know more about the reasons for publishers preferring back-cover endorsements over story summaries.
Or perhaps you only want to reply with something specific and helpful, like this:
“Wonderful column. Burnett does it again. I couldn’t put it down. You have done excellent explorations to the topic.”