I enjoy reviewing indie/small press publications here on LitKicks, and when I do I never hesitate to critique the packaging, the marketing and the graphic design as well as the writing. I have no patience for badly published books, and in our age of easily affordable high-quality printing, design and promotional resources, I believe poverty or “indie status” is no excuse for sloppy work.
One set of reviews I put up two weeks ago was probably crankier than usual, as I complained that three out of five books were virtually dead on arrival due to bad packaging decisions: an intriguing book about a soldier in Vietnam that couldn’t decide whether to bill itself as memoir or fiction, a comic novel about a deep-country hillbilly musician with a computer-generated cover illustration that looked anything but deep-country, and an well-written but obscure-looking novel called Stet that failed to provide any explanatory text — no back cover summary, no review excerpts, nothing — as to what the book contained. I quickly concluded that nobody will read this book, since the author is not a known name and the book package presents no compelling reason to dive in, and that was the end of my review.
I then received an email from James Chapman, the author of Stet, who was vexed at my rude dismissal. He pointed out that the book’s publisher, Fugue State Press, had included a press release with my review copy, and I responded that I never read press releases when I review a book, since I’d rather see a book the way I would if I picked it up on a bookstore shelf. Why, I asked Chapman, would anybody publish a novel by a new author and fail to provide any text on the back cover to let me know what the novel contains? What would possibly motivate me to devote many hours of my life to reading a book when I have no idea what reward awaits me inside?
Here’s what Chapman wrote back:
“A book is the artifact of a very special experience, and it should absolutely not contain any crap on it, no advertising language, no blurb language, no language that goes against the language of the book, which is sacrosanct. If I ran a church, I would advertise it in the newspaper, but I wouldn’t put a neon ad for the church right on the altar.”
I appreciate the author’s response, but I still feel strongly that back cover blurbs and review excerpts are essential to the “selection process” every reader goes through when looking at a new book. A publisher who presents a blank back cover on a novel by an unknown author, in my opinion, must not be thinking about how potential readers are going to look at this novel. The purist approach Chapman describes sounds admirable, but I don’t think it translates into reality. I am simply not going to devote my time to reading a book without some idea why I should read it. A novel needs a road map, and to fail to provide some explanatory text when publishing a new author is, in my opinion, a fatal mistake.
What do you think? When you consider reading a book by a new or unknown author, how much influence do the back cover blurbs and frontpaper promos have on your decision to read or not to read?