Saturday, March 22, 2014

Some Thoughts on (Somewhat) Deceptive Back Cover Blurbs

This week I finished reading The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. It was fun and funny with some cool alternate-reality worldbuilding and I enjoyed it. However, the story I read was not the one the back cover blurb led me to expect.  Here's the blurb:

"Welcome to a surreal version of Great Britain, circa 1985, where time travel is routine, cloning is a reality (dodos are the resurrected pet of choice), and literature is taken very, very seriously. England is a virtual police state where an aunt can get lost (literally) in a Wordsworth poem, militant Baconians heckle performances of Hamlet, and forging Byronic verse is a punishable offense. All this is buisiness as usual for Thursday Next, renowned Special Operative in literary detection, until someone begins kidnapping characters from works of literature. When Jane Eyre is plucked from the pates of Bronte's novel, Thursday must track down the villain and enter a novel herself to avert a heinous act of literary homicide."

Here's what I deduced about the story from this blurb:
- The worldbuilding is going to be lots of fun
- Jane's kidnapping is going to be the inciting incident
- We won't know who the villain is until the end
- Thursday is going to enter the novel fairly early in the story

Only one of my deductions was correct: The worldbuilding was really fun. Jane did not get kidnapped until around page 300, we knew who the villain was in the first five chapters, and Thursday didn't enter the novel until near the end (the novel is where the final battle took place.)

Now, everything the blurb talked about did happen. It wasn't that the information it presented was wrong, but the way in which it was presented led me to believe certain things about the story that weren't true. This took a little of the fun out of reading, because I was expecting things that weren't happening and weren't happening and weren't happening. As a result, the beginning felt a little slow. I kept waiting for the mystery to start, and it was taking it's sweet time. Who cares about Thursday's nutty inventing uncle? Why does it matter that she meets the werewolf-catching guy? Do I really need to hear more about that war she fought in? I thought I'd been promised Jane's kidnapping, so where was it?

As it turned out, the nutty uncle and the werewolf catcher and the war were all important pieces of groundwork that played huge parts in the climax (in fact, there wouldn't have been a story without one of the uncle's inventions,) but because I expected something different, they felt like they slowed the story down.

Here's what I think would have been a slightly better blurb (may contain mild spoilers, as it includes information not presented in the actual blurb, and I'm a not the best blurb writer):

"First the original manuscript of Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen. All clues point to one man, Acheron Hades, a villain of the basest sort. Who is also invincible. After a showdown in which Hades supposedly died, Thursday's uncle and aunt are kidnapped, along with her uncle's Prose Portal, a device that softens the line between fiction and reality, allowing people from either side to cross to the other. Again, all evidence points to Hades. The official record may be that he died, but Thursday is sure he's alive, and that he has both the Chuzzlewit manuscript and her uncle's machine. If the Prose Portal is used on an original manuscript, the user could change the story forever. He could kill characters, and they would simply disappear, never to be read about ever again. Thursday and the other literature detectives must stop Hades before he does something to Chuzzlewit, or any other original manuscript he can get his hands on."

That isn't a great blurb by any means, but it is (in my opinion) truer to the story. We know who the villain is, so it looks like a "How're we gonna stop him?" as opposed to a "Whodunnit?", we know that Thursday's uncle's machine is involved in the story, and that the villain now has some serious power over what happens in Martin Chuzzlewit, or whatever other original manuscripts he can get his hands on.  And it doesn't mention Jane Eyre, who doesn't really make an appearance until the end anyway (though there is foreshadowing from the very beginning).

Now, that could be considered a good thing, in that it adds some surprise to the end of the story (Oh, no! Hades has Jane Eyre! What ever will Thursday do?!), however, from a marketing standpoint, it could be considered a weakness. Jane Eyre is far more loved that Martin Chuzzlewit. Readers, I should think, are more likely to pick up a book in which Jane Eyre is harmed than Martin Chuzzlewit. Chances are most people have never even heard of Martin Chuzzlewit, so who cares about him? Mentioning Jane instead of Martin raises the stakes by putting the more beloved book in danger.

From that standpoint, I can see why they'd mention Jane instead of Martin. But the cost of that is annoyed readers waiting and waiting for Jane's kidnapping. And possibly putting the book down when that doesn't happen soon enough. (At one point I read the first chapter of Brandon Sanderson's The Rithmatist because The Eyre Affair was too slow.) I'm no professional nor do I have any experience in marketing, but potentially annoying the reader seems like a kinda steep cost to me.

The Eyre Affair was still a really fun book, and I might pick up the sequel, but I do think there's a lesson to be learned from it in how readers interpret back cover blurbs: Don't make the book look like something it isn't, and by talking about the climax instead of the inciting incident, you risk annoying the reader. Readers are impatient and want to be thinking "What happens next?" not "When is XYZ going to happen?"

What do you think? Have you ever been annoyed by a deceptive back cover? What were your thoughts? 


  1. I very much understand what you're saying. I dislike deceptive blurbs to the point that I've started literally judging books by their covers and rating on Goodreads. I don't even read blurbs anymore, unless I'm really confused by a story. (I'm not very genre picky, so normally I like a book based more on the characters and writing than on the plot anyway) I've found that a lot of times books either don't have good blurbs or their blurbs contain spoilers. And half the time, instead of a decent blurb on the back, it just says how much "so and so" famous author person loved the book.
    Wonderful post!
    ~Sarah Faulkner

    1. Thanks!

      I find it incredibly interesting that you don't read blurbs. I always read the blurb, unless it's for a sequel to a book I loved (and I don't want to risk spoilers), then I don't bother. Blurbs with spoilers are incredibly annoying. If the blurb gives away too much, then what's the point of reading the story? I know how hard it is to distill many thousands of words into a couple hundred, but it seems to me you'd want to put in the effort to make it a good couple hundred.

  2. Good post! I've encountered deceptive book covers and book blurbs that have mislead me about the concept about the book. They are paramount to whether I pick up that book. I like ones that give me an idea of the story, who the characters are, tell me of the inciting incident and the goal. I love the Hunger Games, but honestly the front and the back cover blurb which really wasn't a back cover blurb was not that amazing to me. It was only by word of mouth that I decided to read it and I'm so glad I did!

    Stori Tori's Blog

    1. Thanks! I agree with you. If the blurb doesn't sound interesting, then I don't bother with the book.