When packaging kills plot points
April 3, 2012 § 8 Comments
Possibly my greatest fear about getting a book published is that a story that I’ve worked for months or years on will get saddled with a cover like this. Now I understand that there are marketing folks at publishing companies that try their darnedest to sell your book and if they choose a cover like this it’s (hopefully) because they think that cover will convince more people to read that book than one with cover art that I might choose. But it’s not a cover that would make a book leap of the shelf into my hands, and I’d be a little self-conscious recommending it to friends and family. I understand that everyone has different tastes and maybe bare-chested heroes (with shaved armpits) on the covers of books appeal to some people, even if they don’t to me. That said, there is one kind of book cover that drives me bananas:
When the packaging or promotion materials ruin plot points of a book (or movie, or story of any kind).
I’m the kind of guy who avoids reading the backs of books and won’t watch trailers for movies that I’m excited to see. I go out of my way to avoid knowing anything about the stories I’m about to read, watch, or otherwise experience, so I find it rather frustrating when my efforts are thwarted by the people at publishing companies.
For example, I recently read (and loved) Kenneth Oppel’s Matt Cruse Trilogy, and I highly recommend for anyone and everyone as it’s a great story of adventure and airships, with a sprinkling of romance for good measure, but when I got to book two, Skybreaker, the cover showed an ornithopter (similar to an airplane but the wings move up and down) with four occupants inside. I naturally assumed the aircraft on the cover was the Skybreaker mentioned by the title and that we would be introduced to it in the first few chapters. I was wrong.
(Spoilers coming here that the packaging more or less gives away, but I find spoilers so opprobrious that I feel obligated to tell you anyway. Skip the next paragraph if you want to avoid them.)
The whole story is about trying to find a lost airship, The Hyperion, that has been circling the globe at an altitude higher than most aircraft can fly and that is supposedly brimming with treasures. Only Skybreakers, a special kind of airships can fly this high. It probably won’t surprise you very much to learn that our hero sets out to find The Hyperion and, just in case you had any doubts about their eventual success, the first pages of the book has a map of The Hyperion so you can easily track characters’ locations once they find the ship. Now that I could have forgiven, after all, it’s assumed that the main characters will be at least moderately successful, but up to this point we still haven’t seen the ornithopter from the cover. Then, about halfway through their exploration of The Hyperion they happen upon, you guessed it, a four-seater ornithopter docked aboard the airship. At this point any remaining doubt I had about the conclusion of the story is eliminated: some disaster will befall our heroes and they will be forced to escape aboard said ornithopter. So when things start falling apart and it looks like there will be no way for our heroes to escape in one piece, I’m yawning while I should be on the edge of my seat.
I might be a little bit more discerning (my wife says “nitpicky”) than the average casual reader because I’ve spent so much time plotting my own stories, but some packaging just cooks my grits. For example: The Warded Man. I loved this book, demolishing it in a single day last summer (which for a reader as slow as myself, means a lot of hours), but the title compromises a major plot point. For three quarters of the book they ward doors and posts and the ground, but no one even thinks about warding themselves. As much as I loved the book, I found myself constantly waiting for the main character to ward his own body. It’s like if the first Harry Potter book had been called (spoiler alert) “Harry Potter and the Stuttering Professor of Dark Arts Who Was Also Voldemort”. Fortunately there were enough other things to love about the book that it didn’t ruin the experience, but it would have been such an awesome surprise… if I hadn’t been waiting for it.
My wife says thinks I’m perhaps a bit too hard on these folks and that most people don’t care as much as I do about this. Thoughts? I’d ask you for other examples of books ruined by their promotions or packaging, but honestly I’d just as soon rather not know.