Set the Right Expectations With Back Cover Blurbs, Please

When was the last time you read the copy on the back of a book?

Did the blurb create expectations about the book?

What happens when a book doesn’t meet those expectations?

These two books didn’t match their blurbs. The blurbs were interesting, the books were good. They should have been telling the same stories.

Over the last week, I read two books where the back cover blurb set up inappropriate expectations. I could not enjoy the books as I was reading them because my brain was constantly telling me I had been lied to.

The two books were Buried Fire and The Leap, both by Jonathan Stroud, published by Hyperion. Both are good YA fantasy books, well written with engaging characters, interesting plots, and enjoyable plot twists. Unfortunately, both were marketed as straight-forward hero’s journeys, and neither was. Because I was reading them to understand how other writers are handling YA urban fantasy, I finished the books. But, I am going to question every book from Hyperion in the future.

According to the cover, The Leap is about a girl who follows a dead friend into a parallel universe through her dreams. But, the story as written is not just her story. The chapters alternate between her point of view and her brother’s. The end of the book reveals the value of that structure with a lovely plot twist, but I could not enjoy the journey of reading to the end because I was confused by the expectations created by the cover blurb.

The cover copy for Buried Fire said Michael would wake with dragon powers and would have to choose between freeing the dragon and solidifying his powers or fighting the dragon and saving the people he loved. That was sort of true. In one moment in the climax, he made such a choice, but it was a minor moment. The most important moment involved action by his sister. There is no single protagonist in Buried Fire. The story is told from multiple perspectives and is actually the story of how an entire village reacts to the awakening of the dragon. Michael is a central character, but not the central character.

In retrospect, the books were actually better than the blurbs implied. There was more subtlety in the storytelling: more nuance to the narrative and more complexity in the character development. They should have been more enjoyable to read.

The disconnect between the expectations set-up by the cover and the actual text ruined the reading experience for me.

Is there a book you have read that ended up being very different from what you expected? How did you feel reading it? Let me know in the comments.


About Kate Arms-Roberts

Posted on May 29, 2012, in Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I can totally understand how false expectations could ruin your ability to relax and enjoy the story.

    The times that books have given me false expectations it has always been for a non-fiction book. Much easier to stop reading when it’s someone’s annoying philosophy (rather than a story) that is ruining my experience. But I hate that kind of waste of money on books that weren’t really meant for me.

    I wish publishers marketing books would be more genuine all the way round. I would far rather read endorsements from regular people than a bunch of famous people (whose publicist probably read the book for them – because otherwise how could all those familiar names have such busy careers AND read all those books they endorse?). I resent the concept that I should be more impressed by famous people endorsing a book than by regular book buyers – who usually don’t have a marketing agenda connected to their opinion of a book.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      Yes, yes, yes. Celebrity endorsements are annoying. I do my best to ignore them, but they are insidious.

  2. Back cover blurbs are bad by nature. They are too short to accurately give an idea of what goes on in a complex book. But then if you try and make them longer, there are readers that say that if they can figure out what the book is about from the cover blurb, they can imagine the whole story and won’t read the book. I’ve rewritten mine zillions of times with input from different people and I am never totally happy with it. Sometimes, the real test of the blurb is did the reader by the book. So that ends up meaning a certain amount of trickery in a short blurb.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      Blurbs are hard to write well. Absolutely.
      In the case of the two particular books that I read, somebody clearly did buy the books – not me as they were handed down to us. But, it is very shortsighted of the marketing department of the publisher to have used these blurbs. The inaccuracy of these two blurbs has cast doubt on their entire line of books for me and I am less likely to buy future books from them after this experience.

  3. This has happened so much for me that I tend to take the back cover with a grain of salt and make sure I read other reviews. I was tricked into the first few books of Diana Galbadon’s “Outlander” series because I thought I was getting Time Travel with paradoxes and parallel universes. There was a scene in the beginning of the book that seemed to foreshadow something toward the end, but then, it never happened. Instead, I was given historical romance with a modern-day twist. And yes, because I got involved with the story, I kept reading for a while, but finally gave up. They were becoming far more focused on the romance than the science fiction time travel element.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      I had my suspicions about the “Outlander” series because of something about the cover art. It is only recently that I realized I was right to think I wouldn’t enjoy them.

  4. Here is where I speak with a background in publishing. Blurbs emerge in one of two ways: 1) Authors scratching each other’s backs. 2) Editors/publishers tapping into their own back-scratching networks. It’s important to ask what is the intent of the blurbs: For the publisher, it’s selling books, not informing the potential reader, and for the one providing the blurb, it’s to get his/her name out there more, and receive a good blurb for his/her own work in the future.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      Thanks for letting my readers know how these blurbs come about.
      From a publisher’s perspective, do they not care that selling one book in a misleading way may stop them from selling future books? Or do they figure that it doesn’t really matter since “everyone is doing it”?

      • If a publisher has agreed to sell a book, by definition they think it’s worth reading. I don’t think they pay much attention to how much the quote matches up to the actual content. Should they? Yes. But their main focus, frankly, is how big the name is, not what the blurb says.

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