Today we conclude our series on advertising discernment. It's a tricky world out there, and when trying to look up books without getting burned, sometimes it's nice to have a bit of a system. I've gotten plenty of recommendations, through catalogues, TV, friends, and relatives--and it helps to know where to look. It used to be I'd look up anything, but a few sad and shocking lessons later taught me to be wary, no matter where the idea came from.
So here are my last seven tips for advertising discernment, to help you avoid both the trash and the twaddle that people are trying to sell you.
1. Find out who endorses it.
Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't. But when I saw Douglas Bond endorsing the Kingdom series by Chuck Black, I was more likely to look it up then when I saw it advertised in the teen section of my local Christian bookstore. Because let's face it: most teen fiction isn't worth a second glance. However, a recommendation from an author I trust, who writes brilliant historical fiction, will really catch my eye. On the other hand, don't let a name you don't like put you off from reading a good book. George MacDonald's book The Fisherman's Lady is endorsed both by Elisabeth Elliot and Janette Oke, two names that carry a wide variance of readership and represent two different literary styles entirely. But it would be a pity to miss out on this great story simply because of a name who's genre you don't care for. So a name can be an endorsement or a warning; but remember that the candle of high-quality attracts creatures of all kinds, so be careful not to turn up your nose without taking a good look.
2. Look at what it's advertised next to in the catalogues.
A lot of catalogues now are doing 'shelves' of reads you can by: for instance, a shelf of Amish fiction, or a shelf of historical chick lit., or a shelf of biographies. I don't think I've seen Metaxas' Bonhoeffer next to Pattie Mallette's Nowhere But Up. I suppose it could be done, but the publishers know that a person who likes one probably won't like the other. Generally--though again, not always--books of a kind are grouped together. Publishers know their readership pretty well, and they'll have a whole page that appeals to you, not just a mish-mash of titles all mixed up. They want your continued patronage, not just a one-time hit, and they're trying to show you that they have books to offer you. So if a book is advertised next to authors that you don't like...chances are, you don't want that one either.
3. Read Amazon Reviews.
I read Amazon reviews extensively, no matter what perspective the person is coming from. They give me things to watch out for, books to avoid, and all questionable plot contents. It's almost better than reading a plot synopsis.
4. Scan a sample chapter.
Amazon is the best tool in the world for this, especially if the book is too new to get at the library. You probably all know the "Look Inside!" feature, and it's a great way to prepare yourself for what you might find. I was looking up a book the other day, started reading all the explicit embraces in the sample chapter, and decided it wasn't worth going further. Otherwise, look at it at the library before you even check it out. Why? Because it's a lot easier to leave it on the shelf and walk away then it is to take it home and have it sitting in your backpack tempting you to go further. Plus, it saves a waste of time. How many of us have laid on our beds turning page after page of a book we're not going to read, simply to find out what happens?
Ouch. Moving on.
5. Don't trust the back of the book.
This is meant to be encouraging, rather than a jaded caution not to trust anything. Here's what the back of a book is good for: a sneak peek at the climax of the story.
Well, and sometimes it screams to run the other direction:
About three things I was absolutely positive.
First, Edward was a vampire.
Second, there was a part of him--and I didn't know how potent that part might be--that thirsted for my blood.
And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.
That girl's got problems. ;) While Twilight may be obvious, most books are a little more subtle: Penguin classics that trumpet Jane Austen as a bulwark of women's rights, Dickens' covers purport his works as the friend of socialism or worse, perfectly safe comedies that are advertised as edgy and deliciously wicked. Most of this is the fault of a bad marketing team that is trying to make a good book appeal to the masses. And it would be an awful pity to miss out simply because of a hyper attempt at mass appeal. So read the back for obvious bad plots, and simply for the fun of guessing what's going to happen, but don't expect it to tell the truth about bad worldview: that may just be the editor, so you'll have to dig a little deeper to find out for sure.
6. Don't trust the cover if its a classic.
For another angle of judging books by their cover, read the second article I ever posted on this blog. But for the purpose of advertising, sometimes marketers choose covers that may give you the wrong impression. The first Penguin classic edition I got of Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now had a bunch of highbrow aristocrats eating outdoors. The second had a crowd of smoking, drinking men in a club. Had I not known what the story was about, I might have raised my eyebrow the second time. Cover art is out there for the shock value. Publishers want it to sink it's talons into you as you walk by, so you absolutely cannot pass without picking it up. Take covers with a grain of salt: a lot of times they have nothing to do with the actual book. For instance, I've seen a modern edition of Elsie Dinsmore with enough makeup on the girl to clog a sink drain. She looked like a teeny-bopper from the latest chick flick, and I wish I could lay my hands on it--but alas, Amazon is not yielding up the picture. I suspect that many cover artist have no idea what the book is about in the first place.
7. If in doubt, read the Wikipedia synopsis.
I would almost council never sitting down to a movie you don't know without reading the plot synopsis. A book has a little more give to it, in that it doesn't have the visuals, but even then there are some occasions I wish I had. Practically everyone has a smartphone or some such device now, and it's easy to look it up while at the thrift store. When in doubt, peek at the end. It's better than finding things that you wish you hadn't seen.
8. Never, ever read Penguin introductions.
They're written by professors trained in the thinking of our modern education system, or worse, people confined by the popular opinion of truth and right. Such people would twist the Bible itself into a manifesto of blasphemous ideas; and they'll do a lot of damage if you don't know how to read between the lines. Especially don't trust them when they tell you the author's religion or the worldview of the book. Their interpretation is colored by their culture and their colleagues. To be fair, I'm sure there are some just and honest introductions, but I've given up looking for them at this time.
Thus concludes some of my tips on the Ins and Outs of Advertising Discernment. It can be a tricky thing, picking up a new book. I hope some of these thoughts help you in your reading adventures.