Thursday, March 1, 2007

Bane of My Existence: Author Quotes

By BadgerDaddy

I love books, I love reading, the whole experience, from finding a great second-hand bookshop to the kind of conversations those same bookshops encourage. The smell, the feel, everything about books and reading is, on the whole, positive.

Except one thing.

It might only be me that gets mad about it though. Bear with me here. This could be completely irrational but… I doubt I’m the only one.

Author quotes. They annoy me beyond belief. You know the ones I mean; on the front or back cover of a paperback, at the top or bottom of the page. A quote, bigging up the book in your hands, not from a professional critic/reviewer, but from… another author.
This annoys me on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start. I’ve worked as a reviewer, as a paid critic, and I always tried to remember one thing, a rule I passed on to all my staff then and since: always review something as if you’ve paid for it. As if it’s your seven or 15 quid from your own pocket, as though that’s the only book or DVD you can afford that week or month. I know very few other reviewers use that as their base criteria, so I ignore reviewers when it comes to… Well, everything. But I can see how positive quotes can help in the perception of a buyer, when you see nine or ten people have really loved the book it might sway you.

But author quotes… Why? Why are they there, and how do they get there?
Honestly, I have no idea. In some cases, it’s because the authors are friends; take Zadie Smith, for example, part of London’s ‘Literati’ and friends with every highbrow author out there. Smith and Dave Eggers seem to swap quotes like they’re saliva between horny teenagers. Is it reliable? Is it fuck.

Richard Laymon was an author who had some success in England, and every one of his books has a quote from Stephen King on it. Every one. I know for sure that didn’t add to his success – he’s a prime example of the most powerful tool marketers can never abuse: word of mouth.

So why did King do that? I’m guessing he wanted his friend to succeed, as he had been largely ignored and had some talent. His books were fun, and King is no dummy; he doesn’t put his name on shit. Unless you count his books from about 1988 to 1998, that is.
Do marketers really believe that an author’s endorsement will make someone buy the book? Are they that stupid? In some cases, it has made me put the book down and not buy it. Dan Brown’s endorsement, for example, will always result in a big, fat NO SALE sign coming down in my eyes in the style of Looney Tunes.

What marketers and reviewers need to remember is that we, as readers, remember. We only need to get stiffed once and we won’t go back. The quote whore authors need to remember this as well; if they declare that this is ‘the page-turning, rip-roaring read of the year, it’ll make your eyes bleed with joy and then you’ll weep milk to heal them’, we read it and discover it’s shite, then that’s their credibility at stake. And it is exactly that serious; in the author-reader relationship, trust is everything.

I used to respect Dennis Lehane and admire his writing, but he’s become a quote whore too. Once he hit the big time and started shifting big numbers, his name started appearing on everything. “The greatest washing-up liquid of the summer!” “The greatest muffin of our times!” Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but you know what I’m talking about.
It’s incredibly common. Even some publications are quote whoring; in the UK, if you see a quote on the front of a book from the Daily Mirror, the Daily Star or The Sun, don’t touch it with a barge-pole. Why? Those newspapers don’t have book reviewers, the quote has been bought. Maybe not with cash, but bought nevertheless. Perhaps the author is a columnist for the newspaper, or worse, a friend of a columnist for the newspaper. These quotes are that cheap, but we’re not – right?

It’s degrading for all of us, from the author of the book, to the quote whore on the cover, to me, the buyer and reader. It always, always makes me feel like the publisher thinks I’m a fucking idiot, and there’s no way I’m giving money to someone who treats me like a fool.


Fence said...

I tend to work on the principle that if I dislike an author, and s/he recommends a book I won't try it. So nothing that Eggers likes. Or that Dan Brown says I should read.

But sometimes the author quote will make me pick up a book, but it isn't enough, by itself, to make me buy it. You soon come to spot the authors who "love" everything.

Heather said...

I can't stand it when I pick up a paperback, turn to the back hoping to find out what the book is about, only to be confronted with a lot of quotes by people I don't know telling me what they think about the book. I don't care what you thought, I just want to know what the thing is about. What the book is actually ABOUT will lead me to read it, not what some academic or writer thinks about it. More often than not I put it back down.

Bookfool said...

I'm with Heather. Give me a blurb about the book (and, please, no spoilers!) but skip the quotes on the back where the info belongs. I won't buy a book if I can't figure out what it's about.

Just an FYI on my own experience with author quotes: yes, publishers do believe that an endorsement from an author of notoriety will bump up the sales. I don't know if there are any statistics showing that author quotes help or hurt, but when I had a short story published in an anthology, our publisher went on a hunt to find an author who was willing to read the stories and provide a brief sound-bite quote. I'd never heard of the author and I hated the quote, but that's just me. Everyone else knew of her.

I also recall reading about Janet Evanovich trying to squeeze in all the books she'd agreed to read and quote upon. Since nobody ever says, "This book is the kind of drivel that makes you want to sob or start a fire," you know those quotes are pretty meaningless.

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