Back Cover Copy Can Be Confusing

So, the most recent SFBC mailing arrived, and of course I always glance through it to see what all is included. A good many thrillers and other stuff these days, btw, which is an interesting trend. For example, in this particular mailing, I see the following:

SF – 13 titles
Post Apocalypse / Dystopia – 7 titles
Fantasy – 21 titles
Thriller / horror – 11 titles
Comics, graphic novels, and media tie-ins – 9 titles
Short story collections – 5 titles
Nonfiction – 4 titles
Literary fiction – possibly 1 title, hard to tell

Dystopias and post-apocalypse are subgenres of SFF, so about two-thirds of all the offerings are SFF titles, plus some of the horror (but not all) would probably count. About one-third of the titles in this mailing are something else. Then there are the comics and graphic novels and so on in beteween.

I don’t recall the SFBC offering thrillers and nonfiction even a decade ago, and a decade before that, I don’t think it offered many media tie-ins and comics and graphic novels. Of course I’m guessing about which category some of these belong in; for example, from the description, one book might be a thriller, a horror novel, possibly SF, conceivably fantasy – hard to tell sometimes! I assigned it to the SF category because it’s by Myra Grant – the book is Into the Drowning Deep. Here’s the description:

Seven years ago, the Atargatis set off on a voyage to the Mariana Trench to film a “mockumentary” bringing to life the ancient sea creatures of legend. The ship was lost at sea with no reports of survivors. Some cynics have called it a hoax; others have called it a maritime tragedy.

Now a new crew has been assembled. But this time they’re not out to entertain. Some crewmembers seek to validate their life’s work. Some seek to experience the greatest hunt of all time. Some seek the truth. But for the ambitious young scientist Victoria Stewart, this is a personal voyage to uncover the fate of the sister she lost aboard the Atargatis.

Whatever the truth may be, it will only be found beneath the waves.

Now, this is interesting. I imagine anything by Myra Grant will probably sell pretty well, but this particular description doesn’t seem to me to be doing the story many favors. For one thing, is it a thriller, or SF, or horror, or fantasy? Do you agree it’s hard to tell from this description? I’m guessing horror-ish with an SF type of plot, but who knows?

I’m confused by several things in this description. For example, how can this real trip to really film real organisms in the Mariana Trench be expected to produce a “mockumentary?” Doesn’t it seem like if you go to all that trouble you’d really film real organisms and produce an actual documentary? If you wanted to entertain with a mockumentary, why not stay home and use special effects? I don’t get it.

I’m puzzled by other things too. The search for the truth about what? The greatest hunt of all time, for what? How can anybody think the disappearance of the ship was a hoax if people really disappeared, such as Victoria Stewart’s sister? When a ship actually disappears in the real world, does anybody leap to the conclusion the ship was a fake and it wasn’t really lost? A lot of this just seems strange to me.

This particular mailing includes more than one description that seems puzzling and unclear to me, rather than enticing. Here’s one of the featured selections:

Outpost by W Michael Gear

When Supervisor Kalico Aguila’s ship arrives on an alien planet called Donovan, she discovers its government overthrown and the few remaining colonists gone wild.

Talina Perez, one of three rulers of the Port Authority colony, could lose everything, including her life. For Dan Wirth, a psychopath with a death sentence, Donovan is a last chance. Captain Max Taggart is the Corporation’s enforcer. But is it too late to seize control of Donovan?

Then a ghost ship arrives with a dead crew, and reeks of a death-cult ritual that deters any ship from attempting a return journey. But it might be worth the risk, a brutal killer is stalking all of them, as Donovan plays its own complex and deadly game.

Ooookay . . . what?

Are Talina Perez, Dan Wirth, and Max Taggart all passengers on Aguila’s ship? Or were they on the planet when whatever disaster happened? In that case, why have they not “gone wild” like everyone else?

Who wants to seize control of Donovan? All of them together? Seize control from whom? If the government is gone and there are only a few colonists remaining, it doesn’t look like there’s much seizing to do. Is the Corporation a government entity? If so, is it subordinate to the port authority, so that Taggart and Perez are on the same side? How does Aguila fit into this seizing power thing?

A death-cult ritual, fine, but it deters any ship from attempting a return journey to where? The place the ship came from, I guess, but is that the same place all these people came from? Can’t they get back on Aguila’s ship and go wherever they want, leaving the dead ship to itself? Is this brutal killer that’s stalking everyone the planet itself? Is the planet an actual conscious entity?

Incidentally, shouldn’t that be a colon rather than a comma in the last sentence? Just saying.

Well, whatever.

I’m curious to know whether your mileage varies here. Does this description work for any of you?

This is not to say that every description in this particular mailing seems more puzzling than enticing. But for me, this time, the very brief one-sentence descriptions work better. For example, this thriller, End Game by Baldacci, sounds pretty interesting: “Assassins Will Robie and Jessica Reel search for their missing handler, Blue Man, in this breathtaking thriller.” Very simple. If you like assassin protagonists, here you go. In some cases, telling the reader just one important thing makes a description so much more enticing than trying to encapsulate the whole complicated situation in ten sentences.

Here’s another very short description that I think really does the job, for The Chimes by Smaill: “In a dystopian London, memory is outlawed and music is one of the only means of expression – and a tool for oppression.” We know practically nothing, but doesn’t that sound intriguing? Anybody who likes dystopias and would like to see a new and peculiar twist on the genre might well want to pick this up and just see how this idea is handled.

Well, as I think everyone agrees, back cover copy is hard. Mailings like this are an interesting way to see what works better and what perhaps less well.

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4 thoughts on “Back Cover Copy Can Be Confusing”

  1. Whoever edited the blurb for Outpost has inspired me to offer a tutorial. Commas: What They Are For And When Not To Use Them.

    The description for The Chimes does sound intriguing!

  2. I’m pretty sure that the SFBC had some non-fic titles at least a decade ago, only because I recall every person in my circle of acquaintances getting a copy of The Star Wars Encyclopedia for Christmas due to a special SFBC offer.

    By blurb alone, I’m interested, but skeptical, of the Myra Grant one because
    1) “the drowning deep” is a tag I use in my library, so I’m seduced by the title.
    2) high probability of tentacles, and I’m a sucker for tentacular creatures
    3) The description reminds me of Cat Valente’s “Radiance”, which I loved, and which will cause me to be disappointed when I read this one and it doesn’t have space whales.

    The blurb for Gear’s book, grammar aside, makes it sound like the sf-nal elements are just dressing, and that’s very upsetting because I’m also a sucker for ghost pirates. and…. wait… You know, as I write this, I realize that when it says “a ghost ship arrives with a dead crew”… it probably doesn’t mean ghost pirates. Now I’m more upset :-(

  3. You’re probably right about the nonfiction. I think they have more now, probably.

    If you take a look at The Drowning Deep, drop me a line and let me know what you think. No space whales may not be a dealbreaker for me . . . but I’m betting there’s an improbably vast conspiracy somewhere in the story, which is not something I like very much.

    Yep, pretty sure no ghost pirates in the Gear novel. Too bad!

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