High-concept Books And Book Buyer Remorse
The book publishing industry is losing customers at an unsustainable rate. I suspect that “high-concept” books that turn out to be poorly written are part of the problem. I know the combination has caused me to cut back on book buying. I’m not sure how to deal with that, at the personal or the industry level.
Over the last few years, for the first time in my life I’ve accumulated a pile of unread books. Actually for most of them the more proper term would be unfinished books. I’ve read a few pages and then put them aside to read later, only I never get back to them. Part of the problem is impulse buying. I see a book with a good-looking cover and an eye-catching concept and I buy it.
Sometimes the book lives up to my expectations. Most times the cover and the blurb on the back are the only things that appeal to me, and I end up feeling vaguely cheated. Part of the problem is that a lot of my standard authors are dead or retired, so I’m trying out unknown authors more. Inevitably some won’t appeal to me. Part of the problem is also that the publishing industry is putting more and more emphasis on “high concept” books–books where the main selling point can be explained in a sentence or two.
Don’t get me wrong. In a glutted market filled with people with short attention spans, a book has to make a strong succinct case for itself. High concept works to the point where people like me buy books based on those sentence or two explanations. The problem is that a concept that can be explained fully in two sentences probably isn’t going to make a great novel. In some cases a great novel will have a good two-sentence summary, but that summary can’t and won’t tell you why the novel is great.
An interesting concept can take a novel only so far. After that, the writer has to do a good job with it. That means creating characters people care about, coming up with plot twists that keep readers guessing, and beyond that, taking the time to get the words right instead of just close. You can’t tell from the blurb and cover whether or not a writer has done that.
Dipping into the book a few places helps, but that just checks the writer’s tactical skill, not their ability to build characters and interactions over the course of a novel. Reviews help too, but most reviewers tend to go for books from the big half-dozen publishers and I have found little to interest me there. When accountants and marketers get to the top of a company, it generally has little new to offer, and they’ve gotten there in most of the big publishers.
Every book that I buy and don’t read makes me somewhat less likely to take a chance on additional books. I suspect that’s true of most people. So I tend to buy books that people I know recommend or books from people I know. I know I’m missing some good books that way, but I don’t want to add to my pile.
So: Do you think high-concept books and buyer remorse is a problem for the industry? Is it a problem for you personally? How do you cope with it or avoid it? What kinds of books do you buy on impulse and later regret buying? How do you find new authors?