Christina: Every so often you come across a book or a movie that doesn’t exactly disappoint, but is not what you thought it might be. This might be due to a wrong classification, misleading book covers and/or marketing, or even outright lies, like fiction presented as truth.
We thought we’d take a look at some of these works and see how a deceptive marketing campaign can help or hurt a creative work.
First off, titles. A good title is essential in getting people to remember your book, but not if it’s remembered as being misleading.
Chris: Some titles are obvious. Would you be surprised to learn that The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a zombie book? Probably not. You Wouldn’t Want To Be In A Medieval Dungeon is pretty self explanatory. The Godfather is about, surprise, a godfather.
Reamde by Neal Stephenson is a good book. What it is not is science fiction. I heard about it through a sci-fi newsletter. Part of the book takes place in a MMORPG video game world similar to Word of Warcraft (and others), which immediately made me think of the fun sci-fi read Ready Player One. This is probably why Reamde ended up on the sci-fi list as well.
The video game world in Reamde, however, is a front for money laundering. The game has a mechanism to allow transfers of real currencies. A group of young Chinese hackers hatch a plot to hijack computers via a virus and then hold the data for ransom. The ransoms are paid by creating an avatar in the game , meeting up with the hackers game characters, and transferring money to them. This is something that could be done easily enough with today’s technology.
Of course things don’t go as planned, and a variety of people get pulled into the story. Stephenson does a neat job of bringing the characters together, flinging them all across the world, and then bringing them back together again for the big shoot out at the finish. This is a long (800+ pages) action packed book, a thriller with espionage elements to it. But it is not sci-fi, and while I did enjoy it and I do recommend it, I think I would have enjoyed even more with different expectations going in.
Christina: Sometimes it’s the cover that can be misleading. A prime example is Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
The cover is eerie – a black and white photograph of a blank faced girl floating in the air – but the book itself not scary or even spooky. Instead, it’s more of a fantasy tale, with some strange tones but quite lacking in horror.
A great cover can help drive sales, and sometimes publishers rerelease classics with new covers in hopes that it will attract the eye of new readers, possibly someone who hasn’t read the book yet. This seems to be the case with the Twilight-esque cover for Wuthering Heights.
The cover change prompted a series of parodies and vitriol aimed at the redesigning of a modern classic. One reporter wrote, “If Sylvia Plath hadn’t already killed herself, she probably would’ve if she saw the new cover of her only novel The Bell Jar.”
Chris: Sometimes the problem is in the marketing. Take, for instance, the movie edition of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Looking at the cover of this printing, one would logically conclude that it was a 300 page novelization or adaptation of the Will Smith movie. But in fact it is the original 1954 short novel that only runs 160 pages. The rest of the space is taken up with some of Matheson’s very good short stories.
So what has happened is that some people have picked it up, started reading it, and were surprised to first discover that the story wasn’t what they expected (there are significant differences between the book and this movie), and then to have it end halfway through the book. Sadly, Matheson recently passed away.
The Princess Bride. This one can confuse people in a couple of ways. First there is the title itself, which sounds are girly. Girly: adj: 1. all pink and frilly 2. so, like, American Girl), something like The Princess Diaries. Second, it is presented as an abridgment of an earlier book by S. Morgenstern. In fact, the complete title is The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure.
While the title is accurate in that there is a princess bride in the story, it is not a particularly girly book. There is romance, but also plenty of action and adventure: chases, pirates, a brute squad, swordfights, R.O.U.S’s, and more. Heck, Andre the Giant is in the movie, and he is about as ungirly as one can get.
Also, there was no book by S. Morgenstern. It was all made up by Goldman. Most reading the book figure this out readily enough, but others have been fooled, and have been known to inquire at their local libraries and book stores about the “original”.
Ah, M. Night Shyamalan. Doomed by The Sixth Sense, in that every movie he has done since has been held up to that standard. And misguided marketing doesn’t help. Take The Village, his 2004 psychological thriller about, surprisingly enough, a village that is stalked by mysterious creatures. It is by no means a horror movie, though it has its share of tense and dramatic moments. But judging by the marketing you would think that it was a horror movie. How could you not, when seeing posters such as this.
And then disappointment, as the movie fails to deliver real scares, and the subtleties are overlooked. I’m not saying that The Village was a great movie by any means, but it would have been better received (and enjoyed) with better marketing.
Next we have the books and movies that sell you on the fact that they are true. Or inspired by true events, or something similar. Like The Amityville Horror, for instance. I remember reading the book as a youngster and being pretty freaked out by it.
But as I got near the end even my wanting-to-believe little mind became skeptical. And this was about the time I wrote a paper on the Bermuda Triangle, because that was something I believed in. I mean you could read about it in a book from the library. How could it not be true? Of course the reality is that the loss rates of ships and planes within the Triangle are no worse than other shipping lanes. The whole Bermuda Triangle mystery was created in order to sell books.
The Amityville book was considered to be hoax by some almost immediately, and the corroborating evidence does not hold up, but hey, it is still marketed as “true”.
And there are plenty of other examples. James Frey wrote his memoir A Million Little Pieces and had to confess to exaggerations when confronted by Oprah.
Christina: Cracked.com has an interesting piece on five books that were marketed as non-fiction but were fabricated stories. It includes The Amityville Horror hoax and James Frey’s fake memoir. In fact, Frey not only wildly exaggerated his brush with the law, but he also wrote himself into a very real, very fatal train accident so he could make himself look more heroic and sympathetic. No wonder Oprah took him to the cleaners in front of millions of people. Things got so bad for Frey after the Oprah fallout that a federal class action lawsuit was brought against him and Random House, who published A Million Little Pieces.
Chris: Sybil launched a whole branch of psychiatry only for it to turn out that there is no such thing as multiple personality disorder. A good breakdown of Sybil can be found here, and you can also read Sybil Exposed for more info on the story.
Go Ask Alice is a cautionary autobiographical tale written by an anonymous teen author. Or it was. Now you can find it in the fiction section of your local library. It was written by a woman who was in her fifties.
Christina: Beatrice Sparks is also the author of a few other “true” cautionary tales, dealing with AIDS, suicide, teen pregnancy, and eating disorders. Snopes even has a page up about the “diaries” she’s helped to pen.
Chris: Nobody thinks that The Blair Witch Project is true anymore. But they did. I remember having people trying to convince me of this when the movie first came out. This was a case of clever marketing, that helped take an unknown film with a miniscule budget and turn it into one of the most profitable movies in history. Of course the fantastic and truly scary ending helped.
Interestingly enough I just read Last Days, by Adam Neville, a good new horror novel that draws direct inspiration from The Blair Witch Project.
Christina: So what’s the moral here? I think it’s “know your audience”. Don’t give your book a funny, whimsical cover when it’s about suicide. Don’t make your love story out to be horror, or vice versa. And oh yeah, don’t lie to Oprah. Ever. Ever ever. Stay true to yourself and your story, and you’ll do fine.
A list of the titles mentioned in this blog can be found here: https://fontana.nccardinal.org/eg/opac/results?bookbag=20686;page=0;locg=155;depth=0
(Edited 11/5/14 to fix/replace broken links and to correct typos.)