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Book Hype (for want of a better word)

Sometimes I commit to writing something and then think Oh shit.  I did briefly wonder if it’s possible to talk about book hype and the like without it generating cynicism and negativity, which is not the intention. I want to look at an interesting question. How do the various ways we discover books affect our reading choices, expectations and verdicts, and do these change if a book is very high profile? In this piece I use ‘hype’ for want of a better shorthand for the elements which add up to serious exposure, but in general it’s not a term I’m keen on.

For everyone’s sake I’m leaving the writer’s perspective out of it in favour of the one everybody can relate to: the reader’s.  I can’t claim my views are anything but subjective – but then neither can anyone else on this topic. I’m going to be honest so feel free to join me outside the comfort zone.

Today’s post was inspired by the eclectic list of book recommendations from readers who entered my Literary Lunch competition recently, many of which I’d never heard of (click here for a reading challenge I dreamed up).  Obviously it doesn’t follow that they’re not well known – even if you’re plugged into the book world it’s impossible to keep up with everything, as I’m reminded every time a prize longlist is announced. Whether avid or occasional readers, we all move in different spheres of influence, which exacerbates the challenge of ‘discoverability’ in this age of information overload and limitless choice.  You can’t engage with a product if you don’t know it exists.

It’s incredible that when anyone decides to read a specific book, they are choosing it over millions of others and all the other appealing things they could be doing (I wrote about box sets here, and why I think competition is good).  We want some reward for the investment of our time and money – whether we get it comes down to a complex mix of factors including personal taste, intuition, peer pressure and what we’ve been led to expect.  And when a book achieves high profile due to any combination of commercial success, critical acclaim, hype or buzz, expectations run high.  Too high, sometimes.

That’s my personal experience and clearly many readers have similar feelings on the subject. I’ve seen a number of comments on Twitter lately to the effect that someone has read a book ‘everyone loves’ or that’s on such and such a shortlist, or had a lot of hype, and there seems to be something especially disappointing – almost isolating – when it doesn’t measure up. Emotions run deep – I’ve seen talk of feeling furious, cheated or annoyed at having been taken in.

But what is hype? The dictionary definition is ‘extravagant or intensive publicity or promotion’.  As any author will tell you, very few books get that but it stands to reason that those which do have a better chance of ‘gaining traction’ than the thousands which don’t because people keep seeing and hearing about them.  This repeated exposure is important, as per the concept of ‘effective frequency’ in advertising.  With books and other commodities (sorry) involving an emotional response, paid promotion is only part of the equation – we don’t tend to chat about what product we use on the kitchen floor. I’m not convinced that full-on hype can happen unless a significant majority of readers do rate the book highly, or love-to-hate it. In 2015, a ‘Marmite’ book which I passionately loathed sparked some of the most stimulating conversations I’ve ever had!

More often, the term hype refers to exposure in its entirety, including this word of mouth which money can’t buy.  If you look at reader reviews of ‘big’ books, many mention hype regardless of their evaluation; in other words, they are conscious of its influence on the experience and the risk that the praise and excitement may not be deserved/justified.

There can be no definitive answer to that. We all have our own ideas about what makes something worth reading but first we have to decide what to pick up.  Book prizes have an important role in directing readers to work of literary merit but even when subjected to rigorous analysis, it’s impossible to strip subjectivity out of the process. Other judges may have reached different conclusions, and in fact for many readers who follow the big prizes, part of the fun is seeing if they agree.

There is no such thing as a book ‘everybody loves’ – and that’s a good thing.

I’ve been part of a book group with six other women for over 15 years and it is still impossible to predict anyone’s reaction to a given book.  Recently I suggested an American bestseller that sounded very much my cup of tea – and I was the only person who didn’t like it.

“Reading seriously damages ignorance”

Writing this piece has made me examine my attitudes to hype and highly visible books. Since much of my reading is devoted to finding off-beat and different books to feature on this blog, including those put out by smaller publishers, I actively avoid titles which get huge exposure unless I have a special reason to want to read them.

If I hear too much about a book, I can start to feel bored and as if I’ve already read it. I may end up enjoying it years later when all the fuss has died down.

Assuming it’s broadly my kind of thing, I have realised that I’m no more or less likely to enjoy a heavily promoted or very popular book than any other, and my chance of taking pleasure in it will increase if I try to ditch unrealistically high expectations.  I should know that there’s a lot of luck involved in all this.

Some high-profile books I’m very glad I did read in the last year are This is going to hurt by Adam Kay, Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie and Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. I’d got completely the wrong impression of the last one despite hearing so much about it. Goes to show…

Publishers need to sell books.  Hype is going to happen.  Playing fields are not level.  But I like to see people reading and talking about books and I’m increasingly inclined to see anything which encourages that as a positive.  What’s your view?

Click here for the list of Literary Lunch book recommendations – I’m inviting you to join me in choosing a book you hadn’t previously heard of so we can compare notes.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


9 thoughts on “Book Hype (for want of a better word)

  1. Hi Isabel, I agree about avoiding much-hyped books; perhaps the hype sets them up to fall short of expectations?
    Also, I’m feeling increasingly like prey being stalked; and I’m weary of having my heart wrenched or my soul seared, being devastated, emotionally harrowed, and the rest of the oft-used words. Although ‘uplifting, joyful, happy’ tick boxes for me, but they’re in perilously short supply.
    To this end, I’ve started looking to older books. I inherited my grandparents’ laden bookcase and am reading through it. Although neither of them was a great reader, the shelves contain many 20th century classics that must have been bought when they first came out (and therefore not classics at the time) – which interests me.
    In amongst the James Bonds and Agatha Christies, are Nevil Shute, Monica Dickens, Nicholas Montserrat, Norman Mailer, Arthur Conan Doyle – authors I haven’t had time to read much of, while the TBR pile of new releases teetered.
    It’s been (and is) fascinating to see how styles of writing have changed: e.g. much more ‘tell’, much less ‘show’ – but the ‘tell’ is generally very good ‘tell’; and psychic distance: Wot’s that?
    Some are dire, of course. But others are a joy – great romping yarns of derring-do and exploration with fabulously rich characters unfettered by modern sensitivities, and thumping good page-turning reads. I’ve really felt that I’ve been told a story and not had my emotions wrangled. I’m also noticing how shocked I am by some assumptions and views, whereas I might not have been had I read the books nearer to their publication. So they’re historical records of how our thinking has changed as well.
    Sorry – gone off-topic there. It’s only relevant to the topic as an illustration of how I’ve switched off to hype.
    Too much hype makes reading a chore, not a pleasure (‘You OUGHT’ to read this’), and that’s no good. But I do accept that if nobody’s heard of a book, how will anyone read it?
    It’s a conundrum and I don’t know the answer.
    Perhaps the choice is too great, now? So that creates anxiety: so many books, so little time. Thinking back to how I chose books as a child, I’d look at the shelves in the library and pick out those that attracted me; or swivel the carousel in the newsagents. A much more limited choice, and therefore easier to choose. It was a pleasure of anticipation. I’ve just realised that that’s what I’m doing now: looking thought my grandparents’ shelves and picking one of them.
    I dare say I’ll return to new releases – I still do if personally recommended – but I *am* enjoying this non-hype phase.

    Posted by Whisks | October 3, 2018, 15:59
    • Thanks for your great and thought-provoking comment, Susan! Your project with the older books sounds very rewarding. I’d never really thought about it but I suppose in the past (esp in the UK), people were far less emotionally open than now. As a writer, I’m conscious of wanting and being expected to engage the reader emotionally, and I do expect that as a reader myself. But there are limits. I don’t like books which promise to be uplifting, feelgood and all that (you must be pleased to hear ‘up-lit’s the next big thing?) – I think I’m a bit too fascinated with the dark side of life, but that said I want some light in the darkness, preferably a bit of humour, not really miserable downers. The world is depressing enough!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 3, 2018, 17:27
      • Thanks Isabel.
        Ah yes, humour. I do like a bit of dry humour, too.
        If you’ll permit me, I’d like to go off-topic once more and record my complete surprise at Conan Doyle. I’d read a Sherlock Holmes many years ago and it didn’t make much impression on me. But I’ve just finished The Lost World, and I bet he had such fun writing it – the easy humour bubbles along quite naturally all the way through. Who knew Conan Doyle could write like that? And with such clear characterisation, too.
        Promise I’ll shut up after this request:
        May I please share his opening three sentences which made me smile? JUST the opening three sentences, although they’re 96 words – over a hundred if you take out the hyphens. And only nine commas. Would it pass an editor’s beady eye now? :

        Mt Hungerton, her father, really was the most tactless person upon earth – a fluffy, feathery, untidy cockatoo of a man, perfectly good-natured, but absolutely centred on his own silly self. If anything could have driven me from Gladys, it would have been the thought of such a father-in-law. I am convinced that he really believed in his heart that I came round to the Chestnuts three days a week for the pleasure of his company, and very especially to hear his views on bimetallism – a subject upon which he was by way of being an authority.

        Sorry for subversion. As you were, everyone else 😀

        Posted by Whisks | October 3, 2018, 18:16
  2. I get suckered in by book reviews mainly, particularly in the weekend papers. I’ve wasted a lot of money on buying books (mainly nonfiction in this case) that I hardly read because most of what was interesting about them was condensed into the review. This can also, sadly, be the case for fiction.

    As a traveller on the tube, book posters are also a source of hype. However, the nature of advertising means that the ones that are lesser known seem to be advertised as me-too sort of books (the new X or if you liked Y then you’ll love this).

    I’m not a great fan of the forward-looking book hype articles that come out at the turn of the year — Ten Authors Under 25 Who Will Blow Your Mind in 2019 and so on. Quite often these books sink without trace, which must be awfully deflating for the authors themselves. None of these books will have had the help of word of mouth and often the journalists hyping the author haven’t seen the book — it relies on PR spin, which can be self-fulfilling.

    Also hype tends to play on intellectual FOMO — often you see Prize shortlist’s published with broadsheet comments and bookseller emails suggested the reader is going to be an outcast in the world of the intelligentsia if they haven’t read the whole 800 pages of each book cover to cover by next week.

    One of the best aspects of my Creative Writing MA was the “reading as a writer” courses where the tutors set novels for the students to read and comment on. I discovered some fantastic fairly contemporary novels that I’d never have come across otherwise — e.g. from limiting myself to selections from the Top 100 books of the year, etc. That’s also why I like browsing in bookshops and just picking up something that takes my fancy.

    Posted by Mike Clarke | October 3, 2018, 20:43
  3. PS. Blame iOS autocorrect for the glaring typo.

    Posted by Mike Clarke | October 3, 2018, 20:44
  4. Great post and discussion, Isabel. I do approach heavily-hyped books more critically and perhaps also review them more harshly also if I’m not impressed. But I’ve also learned that popular books often don’t appeal – except when they do! And I’m very pessimistic about the rise of feelgood literature which I often find superficial. With politics so dreadful, it’s predicted to endure 😦

    Posted by Annecdotist | October 4, 2018, 11:30
  5. Ha! Paradoxically, I’m also pessimistic about the rise of feel good literature if it’s hyped as such, Anne – I was struggling to pinpoint my reaction when Isabel mentioned it earlier. ‘Pessimistic’ sums it up; as does ‘superficial’. They rarely seem to have much depth to them. Perhaps because they set out to be ‘feel good’, and are therefore contrived? Meh. I’m sometimes told that my own efforts are ‘feel good’ and this always – but always – takes me by surprise, as it sincerely wasn’t my intention when I set out to write a tale. When I set out to do it on purpose, it doesn’t work and those stories never see the light of day – or even get finished. But perhaps this is unfair to writers of genuine up-lit, who possibly didn’t intend to write up-lit, much like me; I don’t know how much control they have over their own hype.
    Regarding influences of hype, I’ve been thinking about it overnight. I do notice hype – how could I not. But my policy now, is more wait-and-see. It the book is still around in my consciousness a few years later, still being talked about – then I’ll give it a go because it’s evidently stood the test of time. So when I return to reading more contemporary fiction, I’ll pick the books written from back then, which I hope will be the cream that remains. It’s a kind of time-slip strategy.

    Posted by Whisks | October 4, 2018, 12:19


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