Recently, I borrowed the book Talent by Juliet Lapidos from the library. It was the book’s delectable-looking cover that swayed me (it featured sprinkles!)
Well, that’s not strictly true.
I mean, the cover does feature sprinkles. But that’s not the only reason I borrowed the book.
Here’s the detailed version of the story. I read the description of the book because of the sprinkles on the cover. And I borrowed the book because of the description.
Judging books by their covers
Many publishing resources emphasise the importance of a great cover for precisely this reason. And I think they’re right. We do judge a book, first, by its cover. If the cover’s not interesting, we won’t even bother to read the blurb. There’s simply too many books for us to sort through today – hundreds of thousands of them a year. Pretty much every time I log in to my local library’s e-library, there’s another five hundred volumes added to their virtual shelves.
So what got me interested in this particular cover in the first place?
A Pop Tart.
Yes, a tasty-looking Pop Tart.
In a way, it tells you nothing about the book. (Talent is about a young woman struggling to find the inspiration she needs to finish her doctoral dissertation on… inspiration).
In another, it’s perhaps perfectly designed to appeal to those of us who have juvenile culinary tastes. (Similar to those of the main character.) As a former doctoral student whose favourite foods include chicken nuggets, I found a lot to relate to. (I would probably like Pop Tarts too, if a) I ate breakfast, b) wasn’t trying to give up sugar, and c) they weren’t so expensive… as an imported food, I’ve only ever seen Pop Tarts for $10 or $12 a box. That can’t be normal!?)
In the end, though, as with many a delectable-looking cover, I felt deceived by that of Talent. You see, while the cover depicts a frosted, sprinkled Pop Tart, every one of the pastries actually consumed in the book is of the unfrosted, unsprinkled variety.
Dear reader, I felt much the same as I imagine romance readers do when they discover the red-haired heroine on the cover actually has brown hair in the book, or vice-versa.
I know a plain Pop Tart would have been far less appealing as a cover image. But despite everything I read about marketing, I can’t help but feel that covers should stick to the facts.
And before anyone asks, I don’t think authors should change the content of their books to make the cover more appealing. The main character’s choice of unfrosted Pop Tarts in Talent is significant. It’s her concession to adulthood and responsibility. A halfway (well, not quite halfway, but a step on the continuum) between eating iced pastries for breakfast and the steel-cut oats she can’t stomach the thought of preparing, let alone eating.
In a way, the use of a frosted, brightly-coloured, sprinkled Pop Tart on the cover of this book is indicative of its marketing. And indeed, the state of book marketing more broadly. According to the blurb, Talent is ‘deliciously funny’, ‘wickedly caustic’, and a ‘literary romp that delights in its wicked lampooning’. That’s a tall order for any book. But then, it seems every book that has even one joke or passage which might be construed as humorous must be described as ‘hilarious’ these days.
Unsurprisingly, almost every critical review I read of Talent made reference to the promises of it being ‘wickedly funny’ or some variation upon this theme made by the book description and various endorsements.
Just as the cover images that attract purchases or borrows don’t necessarily reflect the content of the book, the blurbs that attract purchases and borrows don’t always either.
And I think this is to the detriment of both readers and writers.
Readers wind up disappointed because the books they buy turn out to be something other than what they were promised. Other readers, who might have enjoyed the book about girls with brown hair or plain Pop Tarts never discover it. And writers wind up disappointed because the marketing of their book attracts too much of the wrong audience, not enough of the right one. Their reviews, and later, word-of-mouth based sales, reflect this.
The only one who profits is the publisher.
(That’s not to say that this has happened in the case of Lapidos’ novel. Like anything published and well-read, it has had some critical reviews. But overall responses have certainly been positive).
Ice cream and sprinkles
As a reader, I am never more disappointed than when I have selected a book to match a particular reading desire. A laugh. A cry. Or, a scare. But the book fails to deliver it. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. But when I order a strawberry ice cream, and receive a mint ice cream inexplicably dyed pink, I’m not going to be happy. If I’d wanted mint, I would have asked for mint, not pointed at the pink ice cream. And likewise, when I want a literary read about academia – an area I am interested in – I’ll buy or borrow a literary book. I won’t look for one marked ‘wickedly funny’ with a Pop Tart on the cover.
Food and sex
Perhaps I am food-obsessed, but a number of books have caught my eye over the years based on the foodstuffs depicted on their covers. I suspect marketers have latched on to our biological need for food. (In much the same way they have harnessed our desire for sex.)
Diet related books can be unforgivably cruel. Consider ‘Sweet Poison’, a book which extols the evils of sugar on every page. Its cover, depending on your geographic location, depicts either the most sprinkle-covered donut you’ve seen in your life, or a cupcake loaded with enough frosting to sink a ship.
Or consider ‘The Lazy Girl’s Guide to Losing Weight and Getting Fit’. It features, yet again, a delicious cupcake on the cover.
Who are you trying to attract?
On the one hand, we can argue that those of us most attracted to these sugary images are in the most need of reading such books.
But my concern is that, once purchased and taken home, or downloaded onto our devices, the covers of these books act as a form of temptation. Most people trying to lose weight or get fit or quit sugar would not display posters of donuts around their home. They wouldn’t keep a framed picture of cake on their night stand. But the covers of the books we read become part of our everyday environment. They form part of what researchers call our ‘linguistic landscape‘. We see words like ‘Sweet’ and ‘Lazy’ staring out at us from our bookshelves or screens. We see pictures of foods we’d like to eat – and that maybe, we go and get.
Check out these recent covers – donuts are a prominent theme:
None of the messages conveyed by these covers are very conducive to the types of behaviours actually recommended inside these sorts of books.
#Bookstagram and #Foodporn
We live in a visual age. Book covers need to look good for ‘bookstagram’. Even food purchases, at least by those wealthy enough to make such choices, seem to be made on the basis of ‘instagrammability’ as much as they are on the basis of taste or nutritional content.
But I can’t help but think how wonderful it would be if the cover designers and food stylists for nutrition books spent a little more time making healthy food look delectable. Instead of relying on our long-established weaknesses for frosting and sprinkles.
(Then again, there are some books I’m glad don’t have more appealing cover designs. Such as the book recommending a diet of celery juice to heal all sorts of ailments, on the basis of what a spirit tells him. Or another offering on Amazon, which advocates a 2-week long diet of boiled eggs. As much as I disagree with their content, at least their covers are honest.)
Many countries around the world (though certainly not all!) have strict laws against the deceptive marketing of foods. Breakfast cereals and microwave meals alike with styled images on the box must note that it is a ‘serving suggestion’. Shouldn’t books do the same?
Rules are, of course, even stricter when it comes to the description of ingredients. In Australia, a “meat pie” must, by law, contain at least 25% “meat flesh”. Ice cream must contain no less than 10% cream, otherwise it is technically “ice confection”. And in the UK, McVities insisted its “biscuit sized cakes” were in fact “cakes” in order to avoid the value added tax which is applied to chocolate-covered biscuits (what American readers might perhaps call a “cookie”), but not to chocolate-covered cakes. Irish courts ruled the “cakes” be regarded as such, and eligible for the reduced rate of tax. Why? Because they meet the minimum moisture threshold of 12%. (Despite being normally eaten by hand, not with a fork, in a few mouthfuls, being shaped and sized like a biscuit, and being sold in the biscuit aisle).
Again I ask, shouldn’t we do the same with books? Books described as ‘hilarious’ should meet a minimally agreed upon threshold. Those described as ‘wickedly funny’ should be obliged by law to specify what percentage of their content is both evil and humorous.
It’s only fair.