The hittable reflex
So most of may not know this, but waaaaay back in the day, typography and photography and the sweet sexing thereof was a large part of my day. So beyond the notion that some of them are MINE, book covers hold a kind of arty-nerdy-cravat-wearing-Merlot-spitting fascination for me. I’m not saying I’d rather read a book on typography than go joyriding in a time travel hovercar with the ghost of John Belushi or anything, but if I could bring the book with me, that’d be awesome.
Looking at their own cover, every author wonders the same thing – whether people will like it, whether it says enough about their book, whether their author blurb is from someone famous enough for people to give a solitary fuck about, etc. I’ve done a couple of Supanovas now, and Manifest last year, and I’ve been watching the way people (sometimes dressed as Cybermen or Black Starrrrrr, but people nonetheless) interact with books – my book in particular, but also books in general. While the sample size might be small (around about 60,000 people attended these events, and most wandered/shuffled/moonwalked past my booth at some point) I’ve drawn some conclusions about book covers and readers that I’m gonna dribble about here. I don’t claim this as the gospel of book covery to be carved into the skin of dead librarians and stitched into the pages of the necronomicon – these are just conclusions I’ve drawn from the expos my sorry ass has been lucky enough to get invited to.
Do covers matter?
The first and most important question. I mean, look at the original Harry Potter covers. They blew goat, man – huge, angry, horny goat – and they sold enough copies for their author to buy a castle in fucking Scotland. So authors, I guess what I’m saying is first and foremost, don’t break out the AR-10 if you’ve landed a cover that sits on the wrong side of suckitude. But do covers matter? Are they really all that important?
Oh mighty betentacled Cthulu, yes. Yes, they are.
A cover is basically an ad for the book it’s hugging. In a very short amount of time, it has to convey a sense of what the book is about – if the wordery inside will make you happy or mopey or all tingly in your naughty bits, whether you can own up to reading it at (s)wanky dinner parties, whether the protagonist is a three-schlonged sloth with mommy issues, etc.
A cover has to tell the potential reader “this is a book for you”. You read books about kung fu girls who kick ass in sailor outfits? This book is for you. You read books about angry circus midgets and rubbing the lotion on its skin OR ELSE IT GETS THE HOSE AGAIN? This book is for you! You read books about three-schlonged sloths? So you’re the one. . . BUDDY THIS BOOK IS FOR YOU. And the thing is? A cover has a remarkably short period of time to convey this all important consumer motivating information. How long you ask, young droogie?
About two seconds.
This is literally the time the average nerd punter, who more than likely reads books, indeed, has come to a geek expo with a fistful of greasy dollars LOOKING TO SPEND THEM will give your book. If it’s an office drone on their lunchbreak with a coffee in one hand and an electronic peepee iPhone in the other? Even less.
It’s kinda the library equivalent of speed dating (takes hair out of ponytail, whips off glasses, “why Miss Jones . . . you’re beautiful. . .”). Two seconds is about the time certain scientists say a person will judge whether somebody they’ve just met is desirable or not (aka, the “hittable” reflex). With people, as with books, in those two seconds, one of two switches will trigger in their little consumer head-things. Either the “I would totally hit that am intrigued” trigger or the “aw hellllll naw” trigger.
If your cover tripped the “hell naw” switch, sheeeeet partner, you’re SoL, because unlike the dating game, your book can’t fall back on a funny one-liner or a Porsche Boxster to drag it’s sorry ass over the line. But just like that first encounter in the dimly lit nightclub with the <insert gender appropriate descriptor of hittableness here>™, if you tripped the intrigue button, you can’t immediately carve a notch on your bedpost – you just haven’t fucked things up yet. The POTENTIAL for sauciness is there, but victory is by no means assured. Thereafter commences what I came to refer to as “the courting dance”, and of the thousand odd people I saw picking up my book over the course of these expos, the steps are almost universal.
The Courting Dance (commences only after the “hittable reflex” has been triggered)
Step 1: Pick up book. Look harder at cover. Does this really look like a book about something I’d enjoy, or have I accidently picked up a book about three-schlonged sloths? If yes, go to Step 2. If no, go to Step 8. This decision takes around 2 seconds to reach.
Step 2: Flip book over. Skim jacket copy. And I mean SKIM. “I didn’t ask for your fucking life story, just gimme the gist of it, oh look, it’s a dude dressed as Tifa Lockheart and now I’m wandering away…”
After watching these thousand odd people read book covers, was I glad I wrote big bullet points like “A DYING LAND” and “AN IMPOSSIBLE QUEST” in my jacket copy so the story can be covered off in a handful of seconds? Droogs, if I was any happier I’d have puked rainbow-colored puppies.
Is the book still hittable? If so, got to step 3. If not, step 8. Duration: 2 seconds (no, I’m not kidding, people can, will and do flip over a book and put it down again after reading half a dozen words of jacket copy)
Step 3: (step three is often preceded by a quick flip over to the front of the book again, just to check it hasn’t magically become about sloth peen in the meantime) Read jacket copy carefully. Would I actually read this? Because I can get sexual favors in the right part of town for $20, so this book had wanna be better than a wino hummer™.
Is the book still hittable? If so, got to step 4. If not, step 8. Duration: 10-30 seconds.
Step 4: Notice author blurb. Is this a person I’ve read before? Did I like their book? Even if I liked their book, do I honestly believe these nepotistic writerly tossers don’t just sit around and swap blurbs with each other without even actually reading the book they’re blurbing?
(The Aus edition of STORMDANCER has a Patrick Rothfuss blurb on the back. Pat is one of the most well-known authors in modern fantasy. I have had exactly one person act like he gave a shit that Pat blurbed it. He said “ooh, Patrick Rothfuss!” and then didn’t buy the book. True story. So yeah, maybe don’t get too bent out of shape about blurbs, peoples. Some readers are swayed by them, no doubt. The vast majority of folks I watched, however, could count the fucks they gave on no hands)
Is the book still hittable? If so, got to step 5. If not, step 8. Duration: 2-3 seconds.
Step 5: Open book at random page. Start reading. I’m not sure what folks expect to see in there, but everybody does this. They never start reading from the opening page, either. It’s always some random page in the middle. So I guess make the middle of your book awesome? If you’re gonna throw in boobs or six-packs abs, I’d recommend the middle. Maybe some kind of centrefold would work . . . actually, that’s an awesome idea NOBODY FUCKING STEAL IT IT’S MINE
Is the book still hittable? If so, got to step 6. If not, step 8. Duration: 10-20 seconds.
Step 6: Check cover again. Still no sloth dick? Gooooood, got to step 7. If you somehow missed the sloth phallus, step 8. Duration: 2 seconds.
Step 7: Check price, or ask someone for the price. (at this point, it’s very hard to fuck things up, the fish is in the boat, just don’t charge $70 for a B paperback or tell him/her you can’t become aroused unless he/she dresses in a pink koala bear outfit)
Is the book still hittable? SALE. If not, step 8. Duration: 3-4 seconds.
Step 8. Aw hellllll naw. Put book down, shuffle away without making eye contact with ANYONE. Spend money on plastic sword/amusing geek t-shirt/someone else’s book instead.
That’s pretty much how it works. Almost every single time.
Other things I learned about these expos:
1. High Concept
Being able to drop a two second high-concept elevator pitch like “Romeo and Juliet with zombies” (NOBODY FUCKING STEAL IT IT’S MINE) is a major boon. Everything you heard about high concept is true, people. If someone asks you “what’s your book about?” and all you’ve got is “well, there’s this group of heroes and they go on this quest to find this magic thing and save this kingdom and zzzzzzzzzzzz” then you’re probably screwed. I watched one of the Dymocks guys trying to on-sell my book to people at the counter with limited success until he hit on describing it as “Samurai Champloo meets Eragon” (or something like that) and bam, people started buying it from him. (I haven’t read Eragon. I stopped watching Samurai Champloo mid season. So I have nfi is this is an accurate riff)
Keep it simple. Comparison to concepts they’re already familiar with is golden.
2. Boys do not buy books
This is not a myth. I’m sorry to say it. But most dudes couldn’t give a hairy tinker’s cuss about books if the audience of 60,000 geeks I just watched is any indicator. Of the sales I made at SN Melbourne and Gold Costs (sold out of STORMDANCER both weekends, huzzaaaah) I’d guess about 5% were to guys. And it wasn’t because I have a girl on the cover of my book, it’s because 95% of guys would not even PAUSE as they walked by the Dymocks booth. If they were forced to stop near the booth (for example, waiting on their gf who WAS buying a book, and seriously, hooray for all the ladies), they’d be texting or crowd watching. The only books I saw guys (young or old) stop off and look at with any consistency were books about comic books (like THE AVENGERS ENCYCLOPEDIAAAA) books about video games (THE COMPLETE HALOOOOOO GUIDE, I mean wtf gentlemen) or Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones.
Books are like kryptonite to dudes, apparently.
3. People don’t read horror.
No, really. They just don’t.
I’ll continue to monitor behaviors at these expos as time goes on, just to see if the patterns stick. So if you see some tall beardy dude watching you from behind the racks like a honey badger stalking prey, just ignore it, it’s all above board I assure you.
KINSLAYER Cover reveal on May 17th! WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA