Does a Novel Need a Road Map?

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?

21 Responses

  1. All the help I can get . .
    All the help I can get . . .

    In light of the excruciating struggle involved in coaxing the average person to read three words of my book, let alone to buy a copy (for about the cost of renting two movies from Blockbusters), I need all the help I can get. Notice I said, the “average” person. There are some blessedly enlightened ones on these very pages who have generously given me a chance and they are not unhappy with what they found.

    Now, personally, I seek out books that I have already heard about, either from a friend or in a book review somewhere. I’ve made up my mind to read said book even before I’ve laid eyes on it. But remember – someone put a lot of effort into making those reviews & articles available to me or my friends. Without the budget of a major publisher, I do believe that my book must go the extra mile, so to speak, to promote itself; to at least give people an idea of what it’s about when they see it.

  2. Less is More?JD Salinger once
    Less is More?

    JD Salinger once said that a book cover should have the title alone and nothing else to distract from the written words within (or something to that effect, don’t quote me).

    I kind of agree, to a certain extent.

    When I pick up a book, the first place I turn to is page 1, paragraph 1, sentence 1. Period. I ignore all blurbs etc. They mean nothing to me! I don’t need some other cakesniffing author telling me I need to read this book! If the beginning grabs me, THEN I’ll turn to the back cover for a summary, or just keep reading and ignore that back cover as well.

    So when I published my book, I was in a quandary about how to present it, knowing full well that packaging goes far in today’s world. I opted for no blurbs (none were forthcoming anyway) and a slim 4 line summary on the back page that would hopefully grab readers just enough to pique their interest, but not be so outlandish as to upset the Salingers of the world.

    I wanted the back cover to say “Here’s a taste, but just a taste”. (Read: “Spencer Cuyler and John Shaw are on the lam from the law. Journey with them as they embark on a road trip of a lifetime from Denver to LA, and discover that sometimes… the road less traveled is the one that leads right back to you.”)

    I hope that other people are like me and can get past packaging and read the first lines and decide if they want to pursue it or not.

    To that end, my book’s packaging probably could’ve been better, so next time I will do a little more so I can get a better review from Levi!

  3. I agreeI agree with Chapman.
    I agree

    I agree with Chapman. You could pick up a million books that say on the back cover “best thing since the Iliad.” But none of them will say “boring and poorly written.” Of course the only way to know which of those is the case, is to read the book. If you don’t like the first page, put it down, pick up something else. If you like the first page, continue reading. Blurbs are written by blurbers, novels are written by novelists. If Poe is correct, than every word in the story should be essentially significant, and none more so than the title.

  4. See the Movie FirstI’ve seen
    See the Movie First

    I’ve seen a lot of churches with neon crosses and once even saw a neon Buddhist swastika. After reading this article, I turned over my paperback copy of The Razor’s Edge and recognize none of that twice-seen movie in the blurb nor in what I read so far.

    I looked at the paperbacks in my place. Cosmopolis’s blurb maps out the whole book but mentions a rapper’s funeral which is only significant for forewhadowing the protagonist’s demise.

    The blurb for Holidays in Hell is a summary of the contents, ie, if numbers were added it could be an expanded table of contents.

    Me Talk Pretty One Day is all single sentence reviews and this is the format for several books but Carnegie’s standard bearer–How to win Friends…–has several hooks and three formulas.

    Diamond’s Collapse is two hooks, a single sentence summary and three single sentence reviews. I haven’t read Collapse yet but its back cover is my favorite because the hooks work and the concision is perfect.

    Action Poetry has three hooks and its last about finding out what the mainstream doesn’t want you to know would’ve immediately attracted me, only, possibly, this is a hackneyed cliche for books about alien abductions and 9/11 conspiracies.

    Cosmopolis’s blurb is best but slightly misleading but blurbs work best when they hook and a blank back doesn’t. The money’s been spent for the ink so a concise summary’s definitely in order.

    As for my books, I had no choice and should’ve followed Holidays in Hell’s lead for my first book and for my novel, I’m happy with a picture but would’ve liked to have sprinkled it with brief excerpts from the novel, eg, “I didn’t know how happy I was until I realized how unhappy I wasn’t.”

  5. Give me a tasteTruly, I’d
    Give me a taste

    Truly, I’d prefer not to be lied to, but a little taste of style, content or tone of voice does wonders for my curiousity to actually open the book and check out the font, and the rhythm of writing.

    If the first paragraph does it, I’m sold.

    Sometimes a title alone can persuade me (but that’s mostly non-fiction).

    Blurb does not have to be advertising flim-flam, but rather direct mainlining to my attention. (And attention grabbing does not come easy)

  6. information neededi
    information needed

    i definitely want some information on a book cover as to why i should want to read that book. a cover with nothing on it but the work’s title may look purist, artistic, and aesthetically pleasing, but would only work for me if i already knew what the book was about.

    when i pick up a book in a bookstore, it is usually because i am caught by either author, title, or cover design. the company it’s published at tells me something already, but that’s not enough; so the next thing is, i look at the back of the book — what is the content about? what style is it? what kind of literary idea is behind it? what’s tone of voice?

    i don’t need shrill ad-like praises, but i need to get an idea and a basic feeling for the book. if what i get is positive and sounds intriguing, i then open the book and glance over the first page(s), read the more detailed summary of content, the short “about the author” passage, and the beginning of the first chapter.

    if all that does it for me, the book is bought.

  7. “cakesniffing” – that’s a
    “cakesniffing” – that’s a good phrase.

    I like the part of your book with Hemingway’s son, or grandson, whichever it was. That was cool.

  8. Book By It’s CoverLevi is
    Book By It’s Cover

    Levi is more than right. It’s slightly weird that there’s nothing reflecting what’s inside the book on a book’s cover. Strange. I am very twisted so if I saw such a hybrid, I’d be apt to open the book.


    I am suspicions by nature…

    Having learned…

    And my experience with publishing is an impression of extraordinary laziness on the part of employees.

    People are always screaming that writers don’t understand “business.” I don’t think this is true. Writers are not stupid. What I don’t think they understand is corporate culture.

    When you work for a publisher, so many books may pass over your desk, you are simply not even reading all of them; many people in publishing find themselves “pretending” where they’re pushing books they haven’t read and have no intention of reading.

    There is a huge dichotomy currently going on. It is an interesting conflict.

    With more and more imprints being gobbled up by corporate monstrosities, you have a culture where an employee — let’s use the example of a publicist — is judged by whether or not she’s “at” her desk. I am not kidding. These people have to contend with three things beginning with but not limited to making zilch or barely enough to live in Manhattan hoping they never need dental work.

    1.) Their corporate communications and exactly where they’ve been on computers is monitored and tracked as are their phone calls.

    2.) What are their sales figures.

    3.) Why aren’t their books selling.

    A publicist will handle 99.9% of her clients right there at her desk. She never leaves the computer (she has never met an author in her life and probably never will) or the phone and she has no idea what your book is about and she could care less because she’s got 100 people just like you.

    If she DARES to leave her work space it will be duly noted.

    You get a list of bookstores. You get a list of bookstores who put in their “order.” These come from what bookstore owners see at the ABA. Or who they want to appear in their bookstore. You make reservations. You fax the schedule to the writer. The writer has no input whatsoever. His job is to show up. You, the publicist, are on the phone with bookstores, and you’re sending email. You get a lot of email. Basically your paradigm is the bookstore — the people who leave the paradigm that the managers for the stockholders have set up which is BOOKSTORES — do not keep their jobs because the risks are too high, and you-as-publicist are a glorified travel agent and not a good one. You are on the phone with radio stations. Basically, you’ve got a title but the minute you exhibit anything like a brain you’re finished. This is not the world of books. It could be widgets. This is corporate culture.

    Now, here’s the rub.

    Publishing is becoming more and more niched. Today, in fact, I think I will begin my dreaded task of setting up a “My Space” account; which for me is tricky because I have to make it look like I am not a hustler. Too much self-promotion gets the book blogs in a froth.

    I could scream in the Internet that — I’m a writer and schlepping my work around is what I do — but it wouldn’t matter. They’d scream no matter what I do or say. Because according their “their” paradigm, we’re supposed to be “discovered.” And I’m Lana Turner with big tits and a sweater at Schwabs. With the business becoming more and more “the specialized” book, the publicist who can’t leave her desk (she will lose her job) becomes less and less effective. In fact, 99.9% of them are entirely ephemeral. The paradigm of writers appearing in bookstores is becoming very, very tired and it is like beating some poor dead horse’s chewed up corpse being turned into luggage.

    For a publicist to leave THE BUILDING means this is a book they are going to invest in Big Time. For a publicist to actually KNOW Courtney Litz who is the person who books writers on the Charlie Rose Show (yes, you may kiss the royal hem of her dress) means you are in a group of about twelve people (whose emails she returns) who have risen up through the ranks of publicists through the use of risk, ruthlessness, and creativity.

    Or you would not be hired.

    People like Kim Hovey at Random House only go to meetings. She often nixes books and entire book deals (this is when you get the letter and it’s one of the few you will get that is sincere that says while your book is interesting, go find someone else because they just don’t know how to sell it and it’s true, they don’t) because she can’t niche the right publicist and she employs an army of them and they are expected to be in their cubicles 9-5. Period. Sometimes she hires outside talent but only for the big guns like Updike and then the publicist travels with the author. But these are publicists who are creative and work for themselves and get contracts.

    For a writer to not even get a blurb on a book is rather amusing.

    Most campaigns are lackluster, dull affairs that 1.) keep people in their jobs. 2.) Can’t even get your book in the front of the bookstore. And 3.) Had better fit into the corporate paradigm because if it doesn’t you’re better off with the books in the trunk of your car on your way to blaze the bookstore trail.

    There is a word that in publishing translates into the word POISON — and that word is creativity. It’s bad enough with writers (I love Updike’s ties) but with publicists — you’re talking a dozen creative types (who mostly have their own companies) versus a thousand drones at their desk paying the rent.

    Any writer who bucks this paradigm will be regarded as (guess what) Trouble.

    In River City.

  9. Churches do advertise insideI
    Churches do advertise inside

    I like backcover blurbs. And I also find them even more useful on places like than on physical shelves. It’s another “way in,” as they advised us in art school, when we all wanted to title our paintings “Untitled 1,” “Untitled 2,” etc.

    And I think churches do advertise inside. What is all that iconography about after all, statues and windows and banners and candles? Even austerity can be seen as an advertisement, for purity, unity, and the power of the word.

  10. Here’s a MySpace tip: Make
    Here’s a MySpace tip: Make your default picture the cover of your book, or if not that, something that can act as an ad and tells the viewer about yourself. This is because some people don’t allow html on their comment space, but your default picture always shows up when you post a message or a comment. I use a special version of my book cover. Special, because I had to make the title bigger so it would show up in the little picture. Some people on MySpace are very cool about letting you past an “ad” type html on their comments as long as you don’t do it very often, and they will post a similar thing on your space. Others don’t like it. One of the bio MySpace choices on MySpace is “networking” in addition to “dating,” “making friends,” etc. but I think a lot of people don’t understand what “networking” means. Maybe I’ll see you there!

  11. It’s more than just
    It’s more than just blurbs

    Great comment by Nasdijj! Thanks.

    Levi is absolutely right. In the comments, everyone seems to be focusing on blurbs, with good reason. However, another thing that sells a book, big time, is jacket design. People *respond* to a good design and are more likely to pick up the book if it is aesthetically pleasing. Look at the cover of Action Poetry. Which book would you look at first in a book store – Action Poetry or a brown paper bag with pages?

    Phony purism is for schmucks. You wrote the damned thing and you want people to read it. First they have to pick it up and buy it. Then your message can get out. Use the brown paper bags to wipe your butt.

  12. I’m glad you pointed that
    I’m glad you pointed that out. You’re right – it’s not just the blurbs, it’s the look. I agree.

  13. hey bill – i can’t take
    hey bill – i can’t take credit for “cakesniffing”. i lifted it from the lemony snicket books – one of the characters uses it frequently.

    thanks. btw, i saw my blurb for your book on blogads – pretty cool!

  14. just to clarify
    just to clarify something…

    as you can see from the way Stet is listed on the publisher’s website, i don’t mind blurbs or explanations.

    but the reality of this kind of obscure small press book is that it won’t be found casually in bookstores anyway. it will mostly be ordered by people who already know something about it.

    also, as an object, the book is not a purist “brown paper bag.” it has two intense oil paintings on the front and back, that do i think give an emotional guidance to the reader. they give you something to stare at while you’re reading, that reinforces the emotional mood a lot better than some junky ad copy would.

    finally, the thing i told levi about churches and all that–it’s just my own feeling. i’m not saying anybody else should have that feeling.

    but it’s how i feel. and so, just as i wrote the book according to my own feelings, i designed the cover according to my own feelings. whether it’s practical or not is my own problem.

    but i sure do wish levi would at least read the book. or else try to read it, fail, and let me know what it was in the book, not on the cover, that he didn’t like.

  15. you’re so right. the purpose
    you’re so right. the purpose of the simplicity of Stet’s cover was to say, “here is an austere book for a change. this book is different. maybe the way a church is different than a mcdonald’s. if that sounds good to you, then please read.”

  16. it’s a funny thing. because i
    it’s a funny thing. because i never do read the ad copy on the back. i pick it up (based on the front cover) and i flip through it immediately, looking at some sentences.

    if i like the sentences, i start to read a little from page 1.

    if i like that, then i buy the book.

    it’s not like it’s a whole lot easier than that to read the back cover. and so many of the back covers are crap that get you nowhere.

    it’s like you’re offered a free sample of a piece of cheese, and you say “no, i won’t bite into that, i have to read the wrapper first.”

    ford madox ford had a system, he used to pick up any new book and read page 99. that works pretty well too.

  17. the function of reviewsthe
    the function of reviews

    the idea of sending a press release to a reviewer is that he will get oriented by it, then read the book, and then explain the book to his readership.

    then his readership, with the memory of that review in their minds, will buy the book, already knowing what it’s about.

    that’s why it’s a good idea for the reviewer not to throw away the press release!

  18. Maybe I will, James … I did
    Maybe I will, James … I did already read enough of it to know you are a skillful writer. Thanks for being a good sport about this, and for helping to inspire this discussion.

  19. James, I’m reading the
    James, I’m reading the excerpt from Stet on the publisher’s website and I had to take a moment to say, I really like it! It does have an unusual texture, but not hard to follow at all. It make me want to read more.

  20. levi,thanks so much–i hope i

    thanks so much–i hope i didn’t sound testy!

    i think it’s because i’d spent a couple months getting the perfect artwork for that cover. the cover went through about ten versions till i had it solid. and then i heard you say “sloppy” and i blacked out, and woke up with the knife in my hand and the police standing over me.


    thank you–that’s really good to hear.

    that’s the opening section of the book, page 1 to page 33. to me that’s the real blurb on any book…

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