Sunday, July 24, 2011

I am powerless to resist your marketing-fu (also: Zoo City)

Why no post last week? Thank you for asking! The boring reason is that I was flat out busy, but the marginally more interesting reason was that I was reading outside the genre. I did briefly consider putting together a post about the ways in which The Plague [1947] by Albert Camus is a science fiction novel. I think you could make a fairly convincing argument, but I'm not sure if there's anything to be learned from it. Maybe I'll keep that one in my back pocket for later.

I was reading the Popular Penguins version of The Plague. This series has really plain covers, and is printed on low-quality paper, but the books are very cheap (by Australian standards). That got me thinking about marketing. I do about half of my book shopping online, and half in bookstores (high five, Minotaur in Melbourne, and Galaxy Bookshop in Sydney!). Mostly I go looking for particular things, but I do sometimes browse, in the interests of broadening my horizons a little. So what makes me grab a book off the bookshelf, and what tips me over into buying it?

For a start, I am completely powerless to resist picking up a book with a Stephan Martiniere cover. I don't always buy it (in fact, sometimes I think to myself "oh-ho-ho no, you're not going to trick me so easily!"), but I'm sure I read somewhere that the odds of a book purchase increase dramatically if the book is lifted off the shelf.

Once I've picked it up, though, I'm really not sure what tips me over into the purchase. I basically ignore cover quotes, unless they're written by somebody whose work I really (really) like. And honestly, blurbs rarely make a book sound good. A lot of the time they make it sound like a collection of badly glommed-together cliches.

Which brings me, I suppose, to gimmicks. I've recently picked up a few books published by Angry Robot Books: Zoo City [2010] by Lauren Beukes, Servant of the Underworld [2010], and Harbinger of the Storm [2011], both by Aliette de Bodard. I've noticed they have this little box on the top right of their back covers, entitled "FILE UNDER". It lists the genre (Zoo City: urban fantasy, Servant of the Underworld and Harbinger of the Storm: fantasy), and four little dot points about things in the book. It's hard to explain, so I'll just provide the lists for the two books: 

Servant of the Underworld: Aztec mystery, locked room, human sacrifice, the dead walk! 

Harbinger of the Storm: Aztec mystery, nation in chaos, magical overlord, flesh-eating demons! 

Zoo City: gangster shamen, symbiotic familiars, teen star missing, everything breaks.

I'm very willing to concede that I'm a total sucker, but I think this is marketing genius. Any one of those phrases would probably make me think "hey, that sounds kind of cool". Put four of them in a list like that, and I just have to know how the author is going to make them fit together. Even when, if I think about it objectively, the phrases mostly seem pretty cheesy ("everything breaks"?!). It wouldn't particularly surprise me if lots of readers of science fiction and fantasy responded the same way; I think we're often quite susceptible to the cool-sounding hook.

We'll see how I go, but I may come back and say a few words about Zoo City, which I finished off a few weeks ago. It's been getting a lot of good press -- for a start, it won the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award. The short version of my review is this: if you like urban fantasy, even just a bit, you should read it. It's got all the things you like in that (sub-)genre, including a tough, smart protagonist with an excellent name. The setting -- largely, the slums of South Africa -- is engagingly different, and Beukes' crisp, somewhat journalistic writing style lends the whole thing an air of believability that urban fantasy often lacks. This doesn't read like a television show or movie, it reads like real life.

Strangely, the "FILE UNDER" list for Zoo City differs between my copy of the book and the Angry Robot website. On the website, it reads: black magic noir, pale crocodile, spirit guardians, lost stars. Having now read the book, I actually like that list better, although it does perhaps seem a little more genre-heavy than the one that appeared in print. "Pale crocodile", while completely appropriate, is a particularly interesting choice. I'd love to speak to the person who picked that one, and ask her why.

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