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.

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