On those tricksy book covers and what readers actually want

This is an interesting subject: are publishers trying to “trick” you into reading their books? Well, I suppose you could call it that. Or, you know, “marketing” works as well. Of course, there are limits. Like back when we did the Bookninja Cover contest and put “sellable” covers on literary books. Imagine someone coming to Ingrid Paulson’s version of The Road while looking for parenting advice. Would that be considered a trick-too-far? In the end, marketing’s main job is to make you want something, but without making you aware that it’s the marketing making you want something. So if readers are feeling duped, they’re going to make their displeasure known — whether in their book clubs or in Amazon reviews or on the flaming shitpile breeding ground of lowest-common-denominator stupidity known as GoodReads. And that will hurt the book finding its actual audience.

I’ve seen this happen a lot lately with “literary thrillers” that have a hard time finding a proper audience because the literary set finds to the books too predictable and the thriller set finds them too slow. People want what they want. That’s why when I finally publish my fantasy novel, I’m going to insist on a 1970s-style oil painting on the cover. Possibly with bosom and biceps on display. Here’s what I wrote: Enjoy it. Crack the spine and spill margarita on it. Move on.

Is it just me, or does it sometimes feel like publishers are trying to trick us into reading certain books? 

Picture the scene: it’s been a rough week; a rough year and a half. But it’s Saturday night and you’re determined to escape into a romance novel you’ve seen all over Bookstagram. People have called it hot and fun and perfect for fans of X TV show! That sounds like just what you need after the last year and a half of pandemic, political upheaval, and whatever else life has thrown at you. Maybe you’ve lost someone close to you and you’re still processing that grief, but you just want a few hours away from that. And then, bam! The book turns out to be all about grief, and you’re punched in the gut all over again. Nobody had warned you — not the Bookstagrammers, not the BookTokers, and certainly not the publishers, who were determined to play up the hot and fun and perfect for fans of X TV show of it all in all their marketing, starting with the cover.

Fun, cheerful covers are eye-catching on Instagram and TikTok, and they scream “here is the light relief you’ve been waiting for” to a reading world feeling beaten up by life in general and the pandemic in particular. But sometimes, it feels like trickery.

Pen and Paper or Keyboard and Screen?

Do you enjoy writing with a pen? I keep journals and notebooks around, but find that over the years I’ve taken to storing notes in “the cloud”, which means typing. The great part about digital text is the ease with which you can move it around without re-writing the letters down one at a time. That said, there’s something to be said for labouring and lingering over a word and its constituent letters and sounds. In the end, as a Gen Xer stuck between the analog and digital worlds, I like the IDEA that I like writing by pen, but often find the digital world more convenient. So I will continue employing a mixture of both worlds (the romance of the pen and the function of the screen) so long as my fingers stay limber enough to move. (Also, I’d probably use paper more if I could read my own handwriting, which oscillates between cursive, print, and ALL CAPS, for some reason.)

Read a creative essay on the above at LitHub.

To write a poignant sentence or a precise description is a joy, but the pleasure of writing is not content-dependent. Making marks is the thing. I have distinctive penmanship—small letters, precisely assembled, compact but not cramped, legible. But sloppier, dashed-off notes come with their own satisfaction, a race between head and hand, stretching out letterforms from small blocks of ink to interconnected shapes that approach the undulating waves of my mother’s cursive.

Monday Monday

Can’t trust that day. But I went to my first movie in two years on Friday and, even with only about two dozen people in a 300 seat theatre, it felt, for a moment, frighteningly normal. Which is to say, I don’t know how to behave anymore and should probably just stick to my hermitage? Anyway, Dune was great. A lot of Hollywood action movie aficionados will be upset by it, but I loved every slowburn moment of it.

Translation scandal over M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!

Zong!: Philip, M. NourbeSe, Boateng, Setaey Adamu: 9780819571694: Books -  Amazon.ca

A reader who knows I’m a huge fan of Philip’s work, especially Zong!, which I think is a masterwork of enormous brilliance, turned me on to an ongoing battle the author is having with an Italian publisher and translator that has released an unauthorized Italian-language version of their work. It’s quite the saga, but in the end, I feel the author is obviously right, especially given the nature and subject of the book at hand, and that the work at hand should be pulped. Read the timeliine story from the author’s POV here on Philip’s site and if it moves you so, sign this petition to the publisher at Change.org. Got to say, I’m a little surprised none of the mainstream news outlets have picked this up, but even moreso that niche ones like Quill and CBC Books haven’t either.

1. In 2016 Renata Morresi, wrote to me stating that she was interested in translating Zong! into Italian.  Renata Morresi stated that she did not have a publisher. I advised Renata Morresi that she would have to get permission from the publishers, Wesleyan University Press (WUP).  At the time it appeared to be something of a passion project and assumed that she would be in touch with me once she had a publisher.  I heard nothing more from Renata Morresi until June 11, 2021 when I received congratulations from Benway Series Press on publication of a translation of Zong! by Renata Moressi. 

2. In 2020 WUP sold the translation rights to Benway Series Press for $150.  WUP did not inform me that the rights had been sold nor did they put me in touch with the translator Renata Morresi or Benway Series Press. 

3. At least five people, including representatives of the Canada Council which funded the translation in the amount of some $13,000, have been involved in this Italian translation of Zong!, all of whom are white, and yet no one thought it necessary to consult with me, the Black and African-descended author of  the  said work, which engages with the transatlantic slave trade and which, as plainly stated on the cover—as told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng—involved Ancestral voices. 

Monday mourning news

I’m back from the first week of travel in three years. Was weird and generally anxiety-ridden, but I’m not sure how to articulate the difference between my normal housebound routine, which is also weird and anxiety-ridden. Perhaps I should dwell. Yes, yes. I think I’ll dwell.

Governor General’s Literary Awards shortlists

So, I am currently out of town for the first time in three years, typing to you from a hotel room. It’s been a little surreal, but such is life in these times (elevators are worse than airplanes, is my main takeaway). Had to pop in though to signal boost the announcement of the GG shortlists. I was a juror for English language poetry again, the first time in 12 years, and what a year it was. I’m really proud of the list (my choices are well-represented) and I would defend to the death any of these books, but what I really want the Canada Council to do is allow for a long list. You should have seen the quality of the books that DIDN’T make it to this list. What harm would there be in announcing 10 or 12 books six weeks ago then five today? The thing about judging contests like this is that it’s really easy to get down to a list of about 15 books that are contenders, but then it becomes (to crib a metaphor from the Olympics) a race of 10ths, even 100ths of a second. That said, I think we did a good job and I’m excited for you to hear the winner in a month or so.