In praise of faint praise

The display stand at the Virgin bookstore at Vancouver airport was promoting a dozen or so books when I wandered in, but none caught my eye more than a paperback on how our brains respond to puzzles. I am not one for doing puzzles. I don't buy puzzle books and I don't buy books about doing puzzle books. But this one leapt out at me regardless. It was the review quote that did it.

The book was The Playful Brain: The Surprising Science of How Puzzles Improve Your Mind, by Richard Restak MD and Scott Kim. I picked it up and turned it over in my hands. I read a few pages, frowned at some puzzles, read some more, and closed it again. There, proud and bold, over the joyful, curving title font, was the cover quote:

“Informative” - The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Informative. As in “giving information”. The marketing decision to go with that quote was presumably anchored in the belief that it will entice readers to part with their cash and rack up sales by making clear that among the pages of this tome are not just any old words, oh no no. The words in this book are the sorts of words that convey information.

Now let's say on reading that quote you realised the very least you wanted from your non-fiction was for it to be informative. Let's say it crossed your mind how extraordinarily hard it would be to write a book that failed to impart at least a smidgen of information. On the flight back from Vancouver, I started to wonder.

The cover quote gave me instant joy because its praise was so faint I felt awkward. For the book, that is. I wanted to pick it up, show it some care, make it feel loved. What if this was the publisher's plan all along? Maybe that quote was chosen by a marketing genius.

If so, then other publishers can learn from this. Review quotes that make it onto book jackets are mostly gushing, and readers know that a damning comment will never appear, no matter how many reviewers despised the book. But what if your cover quote is conspicuously weak? Maybe you could forge a fresh bond of trust with the reader? Or at least gain their sympathy.

To see how other books might appear were this maligned logic pursued, I took a quick look at the science bestsellers on Amazon UK and selected cover quotes from their reviews, optimised to score highly on the faint praise index. No matter that they take phrases horribly out of context, to the point that distorting the intended meaning is too mild an accusation. That happens in book publishing already from time to time, only with a positive bias.

This is the sort of thing you get:

Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements, by Hugh Aldersley-Williams
“Continually makes one sit” - Sunday Times

17 Equations that Changed the World, by Ian Stewart
“Some holiday” - The Guardian

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
“A story about science” - Susan Orlean

In the midst of life, by Jennifer Worth
“Few readers” - Times Literary Supplement

The man who mistook his wife for a hat, by Oliver Sacks
“Eerie metaphors” - New York Magazine

You get the idea. And rather than putting me off, I now feel strangely compelled to pick up the ones I have never read. I wouldn't be at all surprised if we see a fresh trend in grossly understated cover quotes from this moment forth.

Now this sort of frivolous and legally dubious irony might seem a dangerous game to play, given that I wrote a book of my own. So in the spirit of fairness, I have skimmed through some reviews of Massive and come up with my own list of less-than-awe-inspiring candidate cover quotes. Marvel at their enticing power:

Massive: the missing particle that sparked the greatest hunt in science, by Ian Sample

“Accessible” - Pubishers Weekly

“Mr. Sample's story remains unresolved” - The Wall Street Journal

“More of a book report” - The New York Journal of Books

Who knows, maybe one day they'll appear on the cover of a future edition? Now that would be informative.



UK edition               US edition
Jan 2013               Jan 2013


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