Comparing Books: Helpful or Harmful?
Virtually every new book published in the traditional manner today will feature a blurb on the cover from some bigger-than-its-author author. Debuts are touted as the next <insert title here> by bestsellers whose names are tossed around dinner tables and draw big crowds at their signings or are compared to blockbuster books that have been made into high-grossing movies. Although I've been generally aware that the process by which new authors get their blurbs is a difficult one (and in the words of many publicists, humiliating), it never really bothered me. Frankly, I never even paid much attention to them because I knew that they didn't mean much and that it was just another marketing tactic within the publishing industry. This quote from Salon.com pretty much sums it up:
So when publishing people look at the lineup of testimonials on the back of a new hardcover, they don’t see hints as to what the book they’re holding might be like. Instead, they see evidence of who the author knows, the influence of his or her agent, and which MFA program in creative writing he or she attended. In other words, blurbs are a product of all the stuff people claim to hate about publishing: its cliquishness and insularity.
So why do publishers do it? The obvious reason is because it gives the new book some legitimacy. After all, being called the next Gillian Flynn will guarantee that some of her fans will pick up the book. It also gives the author an ego boost for the same reason - who doesn't want to be compared to one of the most popular writers in the last few years? The problem is that I've picked up some of these books and, it turns out, they are nothing like the book they are being compared to, which got me thinking about whether or not this type of publicity actually does a disservice to debut authors.
Think about it. If a new author is being touted as the new <insert author here>, then it will generate sales from that author's readers. But if the comparison is completely off the mark, then it will leave the reader disappointed. But more importantly, it alienates potential readers. It stands to reason that if people pick up a book because of the author comparison, then there are just as many people who will likely not pick up the book for the same reason, which means a lot of people are missing out on a lot of great books because of how the marketing process works.
What it all boils down to, I imagine, is money. If a book is selling, that's a good thing because it generates revenue, which keeps publishing companies in business. But if there are 100 authors being touted as the next <insert author>, how do we know which one is for real when not all books are created equally? And how does a publisher know whether the marketing tactic is working? Is there a way to calculate how many people bypassed the book for the exact same reason that others purchased it? I don't know the answer, but I imagine it's hard to calculate the foregone revenue. It's quite possible that a book might actually be more lucrative if it wasn't compared to a more popular book had a different marketing strategy been used.
In the end, I'm left with a lot more questions than answers. I do know that the comparisons work because if they didn't, publishing companies wouldn't invest in them. What I don't know is whether this is a good thing. I can't help wondering about the readers who are missing out on great books or the authors who are pigeon-holed into a specific sub-genre and as a reader, this leaves me uneasy.
What do you think?