Reputation and Readers: Curse of the Bestseller

Discovering a new book to read, or finding a new author to stalk follow, are perhaps two of the greatest pleasures a reader can have.  There's something to be said for finishing a book that you have really enjoyed, researching the author to see what else they have for you, and finding a dozen titles to look forward to.  Of course, sometimes working through this list can result in disappointment, which is why it's usually a good idea not to buy the author's entire collection at once.

But what reasons do you have to pick the book up in the first place?  Most people reading this will have picked up a book on the merits of its pretty cover, which a lot will probably agree does not mean the book will be coming home with you.  An interesting title - particularly for a new author - is essential to draw new  readers in.  My favourite personal experience of this would be the thought process that led to my buying The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.  I found the title fascinating, enjoyed the cover image and the fonts (I like fonts...) that had been used.  Naturally, having been burned before, I read the back of the book to see what it was about.  I only managed to read enough to discover that the story was narrated by Death before something in the back of my mind went twing.  Although it took me a few months to buy the book, it was that first encounter which had hooked me onto what became one of the most emotionally engaging books I have ever read.

The strangest and most rewarding experience I have had with discovering a new book has to be C.J Sansom's book Revelation.  The cover, to most people, would probably be boring: styled to look like an old black leather book, with the title in a nice coppery-bronze font.  That worked for me, and earned the innocuous little paperback the chance to get picked up.
Here comes the part where eyebrows start raising: the book earned another point because it felt nice to touch.  Most paperbacks have covers that are smooth to touch, and many have elements such as the title and/or the author's name(s) embossed.  However, all of Sansom's Shardlake series feel rougher, like parchment, which is rather pleasant to the touch.  This kept it held long enough to turn it over and read its "blurb," deem it interesting and turn it round again to confirm that the bright orange sticker said the book would cost me £4.  This experience took less than two minutes, from picking the book up to putting it into the shopping basket, but it was safe to say that the book had sold itself well.

There is, however, one thing that will make me hesitate when looking at a book cover.  This thing is put on the book to encourage people to buy it, and probably works quite well for most readers:

"The Number One Bestseller." makes me cringe when I see that.  I have still bought books with this horrible little claim printed on them, but they have to work harder to do that.

I must explain, because at this point several people will think I'm going barmy.  I enjoy reading very much, to the point of obsession maybe, but I am also a very stubborn character when provoked.  Even if I don't particularly enjoy what I'm reading, I insist on reading through to the end.  A good story should only stop when you run out of pages to read, after all.  However, when I was nineteen, I came across the book that even I could not continue, which earned it - and its author - my permanent disapproval.

Those who know me, either personally or by having read some of my older posts, will know that I class myself as a Christian.  At this point you will possibly we frowning and wondering why I have chosen to make this somewhat irrelevant confession, but bear with me.

When I was nineteen, a friend of mine pressed a book into my hands.  He had just finished reading it, and thought that it was fantastic.  He insisted that I give it a try for myself.

At the time I had not yet developed my distrust of a book with a 'bestseller' claim emblazoned on the cover.  After all, I had proudly and happily counted myself as a Terry Pratchett fan for seven years, and if there was one thing a book with his name on it did, was get sold.  So I took the book, and promised to read it and tell my friend what I thought.

Three weeks later, I had dragged myself through fifty pages of what had felt like the visual equivalent of chewing polystyrene.  I was bored stiff with the novel, and had found only one tiny paragraph that even remotely sparked my interest.  My friend, after asking me about his beloved book, was absolutely stunned that I was not enjoying it!  For his sake, I forced myself though some more pages before finally giving up in frustration.

So what was the name of this dreadful book?  None other than the internationally acclaimed Da Vinci Code by the equally acclaimed Dan Brown, which is - at the same time - the most boring book I have ever failed to read.

Before I am attacked by legions of indignant Dan Brown fans - of which there must be many, as he hasn't vanished into obscurity - go berserk for my attack on their beloved author, I would just like to point out that I am expressing an opinion and nothing more.  I frequently encounter people who don't enjoy the works of Terry Pratchett, which I do not comprehend  in the slightest, but they exist all the same.  I would never deter anyone from reading any book, but I never lie about what I thought of said book either.

A common misconception that I get from people upon learning of my dislike of Dan Brown and his Da Vinci Code is that my feelings are influenced by my religious beliefs.  From what I gather from various sources and overhearing from its fans, a revelation regarding Jesus Christ which would - if true - mean that the whole of Christianity would be based on a lie.  Because of this, many people who don't know me well assume that I don't like it, as though I would be offended by something that I know is a work of fiction.  Said people are usually surprised when I explain to them that it would be difficult to gain a full understanding of a book's plot if you can't get past the first one hundred pages.  They are often even more surprised - and occasionally offended -when I reveal that I found the little that I read (one paragraph the exception) utterly boring.  One hapless bookseller, clearly following instructions, asked me if I wanted to pre-order the latest Dan Brown title whilst I was making my purchase.  I don't think he was expecting the entirely involuntary - I promise - snarl that he got before he had even finished the sentence!  An entirely unfair reaction, which was hastily apologised for, to a book that is undoubtedly going to be a bestseller.

For nearly a decade, I have felt a lot of distrust towards that word,  even though I would like to think that my reading habits have matured healthily in that time.  I am still a voracious fantasy reader, and idolise Pratchett as much as ever, but I do read other things.  One example includes Revelation, which some of you must have guessed found itself being paid for and coming home with me, as I have spoken fondly of it and the other books in the Shardlake series several times during the varied and infrequent lifetime of this blog.  For those who have only come to this blog recently, within a year I had bought and read all of the other books in the series (courtesy of a loving husband), my purchase of a Kindle was sped along partly by the hope of reading a sample of the latest book Heartstone, and I now own both a Kindle and paperback version of said book.  I haven't bought the others on Kindle yet, but there is still time...

If a book is published, and turns out to be a bestseller, then for the most part declaring it as one on the cover will largely turn out for the best.  Its author will largely feel proud that their work has been so highly recognised, and the claim will most likely attract more buyers on the basis that it is a bestseller.

It's just, every now and again, a prospective buyer will frown at the statement, and the book will find itself subjected to more intense scrutiny.  More often than not, particularly if you are in Yorkshire, should you come across a woman doing this it will probably me.  Feel free to say hello!

Has anyone else experienced this kind of disappointment at the hands of a bestseller?  Which one was it, and how did you deal with it?  Did it affect your feelings towards bestsellers in general, or did you just do the sensible thing and steer clear of that author for a while/eternity?

As for The Da Vinci Code, I think I am mellowing towards it, and am getting over the embarrassment.  Maybe one day I will give it another ago and see what all the fuss is about.


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