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?


About the author

Dale lives near Chicago with his wife, daughter, three cats, and a lot of books. Dale is a computer programmer and teacher as well as a long-time science fiction fan. He has a huge and diverse range of interests, ranging from computers and history to martial arts. He loves animals and did a stint as a foster home for orphan Samoyeds. He has spent his last two summers improving his writing under instructors like science fiction grand master James Gunn and Nebula winner Kij Johnson.

»» 5 Responses to “High-concept Books And Book Buyer Remorse” »»
  1. ~Sia McKye~ says:

    Thought provoking post, Dale.

    It used to be I read all the books I bought. Now, there have been a few that I’ve bought and like you, the cover and back blurb drew me the inside left my interest wanning.

    I have been trying new authors and tend to read excerpts first before purchasing. Amazon sometimes allows you to pick pages at random which helps.

  2. Beth says:

    I feel more than vaguely cheated if I find a book doesn’t live up to my expectations. I feel that someone’s put something over on me, tricked me into paying for something not worth the money. But I typically read a few pages into a book so I don’t often buy one I can’t finish.

    Actually, the only books I’ve not finished are from recommendations or from authors I know and expected to enjoy. I bought them on the strength of reputation, not because I checked them out. Thus, I’m wary of books recommended by others unless I know they like what I like.

    As for high concept, I’d never thought of it. But I can’t imagine I’d buy anything based on a couple of lines. Anything can sound good in two lines. But as you said, the execution can’t be gauged that way.

  3. Kat Sheridan says:

    I rarely buy boks based only on a one or two sentence description. My book buying dollars are too tight. However, as writers, we do need to be able to describe our books in a high concept way, in only a line or two. This is especially useful for an “elevator pitch”, or when we are in a live situation with a potential buyer and only have a few seconds of their time to make a sale. Sorry, but the world really does fly on sound bites these days.

    If I’m intrigued by that high concept description, then I’ll delve deeper, often reading reviews before buying. But in a book store or a book signing, you really do have to be able to define your book in a high concept way. Have I been disappointed by some of these books? Yes. But sadly, in my opinion, it’s still necessary for us, as writers, to be able to do the high concept thing.

  4. Pat Bertram says:

    You’re right — if a book can be described in a sentence or two, generally, they aren’t worth reading. I need something more, a depth that can’t be easily explained in a short description. I’ve been checking out a lot of new authors, some of whom are highly touted, and though their books are quite good, they are also quite ordinary without a glint of brilliance.

  5. Vivian A says:

    Book remorse is a sad thing. I like to read extended excerpts and outside of the first three chapters that have been sharpened to see if a writer’s tone and style holds up and keeps me interested.

    Lately, the most disappointing literature has been my daughter’s English class assigned reading seconds. There’s been some dreadful stuff! I read the first 35 pages of one and said to myself, this premise and the characters are so ridiculous and contrived that I couldn’t stand it. I felt sorry for her.

    I like high brow and common books, so really, all I need is an entertaining tale to distract me for a couple hours. A lot of books I read are movie substitutes. I haven’t read a real hardcore LIT book in awhile, ’cause nothing’s appealed to me. I’d rather go back and read a classic knowing that I won’t be disappointed then read contemporary literature.