Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Beware the Back Cover

I’m about halfway through Scott Phillips’s excellent novel, Cottonwood. I’ve liked everything about the book from Page 1, but for one thing: the back cover.

I rarely look at the back covers or jacket notes on books I’ve already decided I want to read. I don’t need any teasers or endorsements; I already know I want to read the book, either because of author recognition or through a trusted recommendation. All the back cover can do is give something away, like it does for Cottonwood.

To wit:
In 1872, Cottonwood, Kansas, is a one-horse speck on the map. Self-educated saloon owner Bill Ogden is looking to make a profit or get out. His ambition brings him to the attention of Marc Leval, a wealthy Chicago developer who plans to turn Cottonwood into a boom town. But as Ogden becomes dangerously obsessed with Leval’s wife, an apparently ordinary local family plies its sinister trade unnoticed, quietly butchering traveling salesmen and other weary wanderers.

Maliciously fun and full of surprises, Cottonwood brings to life actual crimes, carried out by a strange clan known as the Bloody Benders, that befell Kansas in the late 1800s…

The book is maliciously fun, but not quite as full of surprises as it was before I read the damn back cover. I didn’t read it until after Bill showed his attraction to Leval’s wife, so Phillips’s deft easing me into it wasn’t ruined.

The Bender reveal was seriously compromised. Phillips foreshadowed it well; I knew something was wrong, but not exactly what. It would have been nice to feel the scales fall from my eyes along with the townspeople’s when they realize what’s been going on.

I understand marketing people want to sell the book. They should be aware that’s only half the transaction. We read them to see what happens. There’s no need to tell us, except in the most vague terms. Maybe the marketing types could devote more of their time to determining which marketing techniques they increasingly leave to their authors actually work, and less to giving away large chunks of the story.