Sunday, February 22, 2009

Judging a Book by Its Cover

C'mon, we all do it. We see a book or a DVD on the shelf and we read the jacket flap or the summary on the back of the case and we think, "Been there, done that." Or worse, "Been there, done that, hated it."

You don't think you do? All right, I'll go first:

A few months ago, I received a galley copy of a novel called "The Book of Unholy Mischief" by Elle Newmark. The jacket copy made the story about a chef's apprentice in Renaissance Venice who gets caught up in a murder mystery sound, in a word, lame. I was convinced the story would be overwritten, the dialogue stilted, the plot contrived and so it sat on my TBR pile for weeks without me even taking a peek at it. When I finally did - by accident, I think - I was intrigued from the very first chapter. It's a fantastic novel and I have since loaned my copy out twice and recommended it to others.

The same is very true of DVDs: we use Netflix a lot and often, the service will try to recommend movies for us based on which movies we have previously rated highly. Using a complex formula involving lots of numbers and some pixie dust, Netflix will tell us what film we should see next and how much it thinks we will like it.

Example: "Tropic Thunder," the comedy starring Robert Downey Jr. , Jack Black and Ben Stiller. We like all of these actors and Netflix told us we would love their new movie. We were skeptical and thought we would hate it; after all, lots of groups had protested it for many reasons and it seemed sort of weird: Robert Downey Jr. in blackface? How can that not be racist?

And we loved it. Unlike many comedies, it had no lapses in the joke department, no sudden sweetness producers throw in to make the movie perfect for a couple on a date. This was just a very funny parody on all things Hollywood.

I mention these examples because recently, the book blogger Thao Tran reviewed my book, LOVE, MEG on her blog, Serene Hours right here. She very honestly says she didn't think she'd like it - and in an email to me, she told me she had won the book in a contest but had, in fact, been hoping to win my other book, ALL ABOUT VEE. But a free book is a free book, right? (LOL - my words not hers...)

Thao thought the story would be cliche, the characters uninteresting- she believed she had seen this before in other books so she really wasn't expecting to like it. She also wasn't crazy about the cover - it gave her an impression of the story being something she probably wouldn't like. Now, with all of that going against it, how can my little book possibly succeed?

But it did! When Thao read it, she began to enjoy it and you can read for yourself her review and how the book changed her mind. I love hearing this! It suddenly makes a 3 or 4 star review feel like 5 stars! While I would love to hear from a reader that she thought she'd like my book and then loved it instead, I will take the surprised reader too. I would so much rather surprise someone than disappoint them.

And this is not the first time this has happened in a review. Many, many times I read in reviews of my books, particularly ALL ABOUT VEE, that the reader thought she would be bored and was instead shocked at how much she liked the book. In these instances, I definitely want reviewers to say that: tell me, tell potential readers your honest opinion, let us know you thought you'd hate something but instead loved it. That will give other readers an incentive to give my books - and other books they thought they wouldn't like - a shot.

Thanks, Thao, for encouraging others to give MEG a chance.