How can you tell if a book is going to disappoint BEFORE you buy it?

NO crappy booksI’ve been asked two questions recently. One was easy to answer, the second — rather surprisingly — wasn’t.

Let’s just quickly talk about the easy question.  How does a book grab you? What promises it’s going to be a good’un?  Many people probably share the same views: eye-catching cover, a well-written book description that draws you in, a ‘Look Inside’ that makes you want to read more, you’ve already read a good book by that author, and, if applicable, an engaging exchange with the author if s/he’s asked you to review the book. It doesn’t have to be all these things, but basically, it’s all about an immaculate package, isn’t it?

Now, the second question. Why do you turn your back on a book? What makes you think it’s going to disappoint?  My instant reaction was, well, if none of the above applies, then surely the book’s going to go into ‘oh dear’ pile. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised it isn’t quite so cut and dried.

Let’s take the cover, for starters. Most of the books — ninety-five percent, in fact — that I read are review books. So, an author contacts me to request a review.  I’m sometimes directed to the Amazon page, sometimes I’m just sent the Kindle version with some blurb.  Many times, the book hasn’t yet got a cover, so on the basis of what I’ve been told about the book, I just dive straight in. Now, one book I read was very enjoyable, I really liked it but wasn’t available on Amazon. BUT, when it eventually was and I posted my review, I was horrified, yes, horrified, by the cover. It was simply dreadful. Had I been doing a bit of book-surfing, this book wouldn’t have got a second glance and I wouldn’t have read a very good book. Never has ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ been so applicable.

Next, the book description. So, if that is a bit of train-wreck, does that mean the book’s going to be the same? In my experience, no, not always. Authors have often sent me a brief synopsis of their books, leading me to say, yes, thank you, I’d love to review your book. And again, the book’s been great. But when I’ve checked the book’s description on Amazon, post review, once more, I’ve been shocked by a different version: sometimes disorganised, sometimes misleading, sometimes badly written. Another instance, where I might have missed out on a good read. (Mind you, the reverse has happened: the synopsis of one book was so impelling, I couldn’t wait to read the book. What promised to be a thriller (topical at the time, with the London Olympics as a backdrop) was probably one of the most boring and tedious books I’ve read.)

What about the ‘Look Inside’. I’m often convinced this could be the death knell of some books. It’s when you can really pick up on the book’s future. The first couple of chapters will tell you about the quality of the writing, style, editing and readability. Of all possible factors to help you decide on a book, this is probably the most helpful. Although…I’ve got to be fair and say, that some books which have started out slow in a how-am-I-ever-going-to-finish-this way, have suddenly got moving a bit farther in and turned out just fine.  Similarly, I’ve read some really good novels where the punctuation/grammar and some spelling has been much to be desired. Didn’t mean the book was bad; it just needed more professional editing.  It’s all a learning process for new authors.

Unless you’re a reviewer, you probably aren’t going to engage with the author. So, as far as I’m concerned, rude and impolite authors are largely ignored.  I believe a lot of the author — maybe unwittingly — goes inside his or her book. In one back-to-front instance, I reviewed what I thought was going to be an excellent thriller. It wasn’t, sadly. It just wasn’t.  It was badly executed and badly edited.  It didn’t solicit a particularly favourable review from me, which in turn solicited some exceptionally bad public behaviour by the author. I won’t read any more of his books, even though one bad book doesn’t necessarily mean another. Can you judge a book by its author?

So, how can you tell if a book’s going to suck? I don’t think you can. But I’d wager that since the majority of readers don’t come by their books like I do, they go to Amazon and peruse. There’s so much choice with the advent of eBooks and self-publishing, and therefore, they may not feel they have to ‘give books a chance’. If a reader is choosing between three books, all equally impelling, that reader is going to choose the best presented. Because of my experiences, I’m more inclined to read all three!

What spells ‘don’t buy’ for you?

Author: Cathy Speight

Reviewer Cathy Speight is British and lives in England. The Kindle revived her passion for reading and after stumbling on a Facebook group of independent authors, she now does her best to encourage and assist indies as much as possible. Books by indie author form the majority of her collection. Cathy shares her views on the books she has read on her blog.

8 thoughts on “How can you tell if a book is going to disappoint BEFORE you buy it?”

  1. Good post, Cathy. I think the book description is sometimes the author’s Achilles’ heel. We write novels, not 2-paragraph blurbs. So many authors want to cram ALL the details of the story into the description, few of which are necessary or compelling at this point. And while I agree with you that the description can be pretty muddy but the book can still be good, the disorganized description can give some unfavorable insight. If the author is not disciplined or savvy enough to write a sharp, lean description, maybe they just need more time to mature. When I’m looking for a book, I’m looking for something to grab me right away, not bludgeon me to death with “little darlings.”

  2. Great article. As an author, I can say the HARDEST part of the job is doing that back cover blurb! I hate those! I even try to sweet-talk my best friend into writing them for me. As for covers, I’ve learned that if I can’t get it the way I want it, I’ll hire an artist who can. Content, well, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Not every book is for everyone. I do look at reviews and see what people thought of it. Mostly good reviews (3 stars or better) I don’t worry; loads of bad reviews, I think about doing more work on it. And even if I get a bad review, I will never be snarky about it. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about a book.

  3. Thank you for your insights, Cathy. I empathize with authors about the difficulty of writing a description. Of course I want it to draw me in, but unless it’s rife with typos, I don’t give the description the most weight when it comes to selection or thoughts of potential disappointment. I go to the “look inside” to get a sample of the writing. I can usually tell from that if it’s a “don’t buy” for me.

  4. So it’s almost impossible to tell by the usual ways if a book will pass muster. Yet, what I see from this is that those factors: cover, blurb and look inside can kill sales even when a book may be very good. Writers need to take note of this. If their book isn’t selling this may be why.

    It’s the blurb that is most difficult for me.

  5. I can sympathise with the blurb-writing bit…it really must be the hardest part of the book to write! I find it hard enough summarising the book in a few short words for review purposes!

  6. Good post, Cathy. I think your line about the author still learning may be the key. Telling a good story is what most authors and wannabes are going to be most focused on. They’re more likely to have that piece nailed down before the others. The flip side (and most important to a reader looking for a good book) is that if they’ve nailed down all the pieces you can check before buying, the rest is more likely to be done well.

  7. Cathy, a badly-edited blurb will *always* be the death knell for me. I know how tough it is to write a good blurb (believe me — I’ve still got the scars…), but if the thing is rife with misspellings and punctuation errors, or if the phrasing is convoluted, it’s guaranteed I’ll take a pass.

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