Whether it’s in a blurb, a social media post, an email from an author or publicist, or an advertisement, I often see adjectives used to promote books… and while some of those adjectives do their job well, I’ve noticed others immediately rub me up the wrong way. These seemingly innocuous little words provoke grimaces or eye-rolls, instead of doing what they’re presumably meant to do: make me want to read the book.
Of course, these are specific to me and my personal tastes, but I thought for some fun, and in case it helps anyone know how not to promote a book to someone like me, I’d list a few that stand out.
1. Award-winning / Best-selling
I’ve encountered authors and publishers who describe themselves or their books as “award-winning” or “best-selling”. I get why they do it, but these terms are pretty empty and meaningless to me, and make me aware of the fact I’m being advertised to.
To be fair, if a specific award is mentioned, e.g. “SPFBO finalist” or “Nebula-award-winning”, and the book has actually won it, this will work in its favour. Similarly if a specific best-seller list is mentioned it could be a positive… though again, it has to be true. If only 10 people have rated a “New York Times best-selling” book on Goodreads it’s not hard to spot the lie.
But the bottom line is I just don’t care all that much about awards beyond the few I pay attention to in the sphere of genres I prefer. An author could tell me they won the Nobel Prize for Literature and it wouldn’t sway me. I’m much more inclined to look favourably on book that’s honest about the fact it’s trying to gain more readers or acclaim, rather than one that uses a bland term like “award-winning”.
This is the common offender in a whole category of enthusiastic self-help-type words like “inspirational”, “transformational”, “spiritual” and “journey of self-discovery” that don’t work for me, cynic that I am. I’ve read books that changed my life, but I’d like to decide which ones belong in that category… being told by someone else I’ll have my life changed kind of makes me more determined I won’t.
I can handle adjectives like these in a quote on a book cover (and of course in reviews!), since that’s clearly someone else’s opinion, but if the blurb or publisher tries to directly sell to me that way it’s not going work. Aside from sounding a bit conceited, these sorts of adjectives actually tell me very little about the book or what I might like about it… they are pretty much exaggerated variations of “good”.
Don’t misunderstand: I like books that actually and genuinely are empowering. I particularly enjoy books that empower women, being a woman myself. However, the adjective in a book description is a turn-off for me.
Firstly, the emphasis is being placed on the values the book expounds rather than on the quality of the story or the way it’s told… and in my opinion if the latter isn’t great the former isn’t going to matter. It feels a bit like when an education board prescribes me a book because I should read it and will learn good moral lessons from it, rather than because I’ll enjoy reading it – and the rebel in me sets myself against it.
Secondly, if it’s said by the author or publisher it somehow feels a little conceited and patronising, and it’s one of those adjectives in the category of “life-changing” where I’d like to decide for myself if the book is empowering or not.
I don’t like to have my heart broken, or wrenched, or shattered.
Actually if I’m being honest, I do, but it’s still not wise to try and sell a book to me with “heart-breaking” in the pitch. I don’t avoid all grim or depressing subject matter, but I’m also not a fan of stories that have no purpose other than exploring varying shades of misery and unhappiness… so anything that suggests it might be that kind of book makes me worried it’s not the right choice for me.
Also I feel like this adjective is a little overused and generic. All I need to do is read “a heart-breaking tale of love and loss” and my attention is drifting elsewhere.
I guess a theme of rebellion is coming through in this list, but I can’t help but react to this adjective in a book promo with “no I mustn’t!”
I suppose it also reminds me of those “100 books you must-read before you die” lists, which I’ve never really liked. In fact, must-before-you-die lists in general manage to annoy me, fill me with hope and depress me all at the same time.
So there I my top five. I suppose my adjective prejudices might mean I’m walking past lots of life-changing, empowering, heart-breaking and award-winning must-read best-sellers… but hey, I can live with that 🙂
Do you agree or disagree with me on any of these? Or are there other book-selling adjectives that would make your personal do-not-use list? Feel free to share them in the comments!