The Cuckoo’s Calling: the true crime is the marketing
Last year (and like many others), I was caught up in the media flurry that resulted from Robert Galbraith’s unveiling. After reading articles on literary worth, the flawed nature of the publishing industry, and a whole bunch of topics that entirely obfuscated the merits of the book itself, I figured that I had very little to add.
However, one thing did catch my eye, and it has less to do with the book than its shiny wrapping.
WHY DID NOBODY MENTION THIS?!
The UK version clearly says:
“This is a mystery/detective novel. It’s set in a historical city and covers the theme of isolation.”
The US version, on the other hand, says:
“Hey ladies, this is a book about fame! It has a hot chick and the paparazzi in it!”
Having read the book, I can confidently state that the US version is an outright lie. That’s bad enough. However, what really concerns me is how this happened, why it happened, and who might be responsible for such a travesty (because let’s face it: this was no accident).
But first, let me build my case. I’ve said the US cover is a lie; now I’ll don my graphic designer’s cap and prove it.
What’s in a cover?
The UK version
A silhouetted man hunches himself against a gusty wind while birds circle overhead. His small, dark figure is surrounded by light-generated ‘white space’, a visual trick which emphasises his isolation. The wrought iron lamppost and fence tell us we’re in a historical city, which might conjure up images of dark alleyways, cobbled streets, and all the things we might associate with a good old-fashioned mystery, while the relatively modern buildings tell us the story is set in the present. The serif typeface suggests this book is in the tradition of serious novels, yet is slim enough to be completely modern, and its placement – hovering delicately above the figure, just out of reach – has also been meticulously chosen. It’s a damn good cover, but because I’ve read the book, I can also say that it’s honest.
The US version
The American version replaces the male protagonist with the female victim, and instead of keeping the figure small, unobtrusive, and isolated, they’ve pushed this gorgeous woman right up in our faces, where we can’t possibly miss her. Even with her anonymity preserved, she’s clearly ‘larger than life’. The background gives us no clue about location, but instead delivers that universally acknowledged symbol of fame: the paparazzi. The typeface is 100% modern, and so unabashedly feminine that – at first glance – you’d think you were picking up a pulpy ‘true confessions’ romance (that is, if you were game enough to pick it up in the first place).
Now, personal taste aside, these graphical cues misrepresent the book in the following ways:
- It implies gender-specificity
- It ignores the fact that the titular model is of mixed race, an important plot point and something which the publishers seem afraid to acknowledge
- It implies a major focus on fame; however, ‘fame’ is a relatively minor plot device used by the author to shine a light on the much more salient issues; isolation, hidden motives, past hurts, finding your place in the world, flawed communication, and personal interest
Reading between the lines
Okay, so perhaps I’m reading a bit more into this than is warranted; these are, after all, just visual cues, and their interpretation might be considered subjective. So I checked the blurbs as well.
“When a troubled model falls to her death from a snow-covered Mayfair balcony, it is assumed that she has committed suicide. However, her brother has his doubts, and calls in private investigator Cormoran Strike to look into the case. Strike is a war veteran – wounded both physically and psychologically – and his life is in disarray. The case gives him a financial lifeline, but it comes at a personal cost: the more he delves into the young model’s complex world, the darker things get – and the closer he gets to terrible danger …
A gripping, elegant mystery steeped in the atmosphere of London – from the hushed streets of Mayfair to the backstreet pubs of the East End to the bustle of Soho – The Cuckoo’s Calling is a remarkable book. Introducing Cormoran Strike, this is a classic crime novel in the tradition of P. D. James and Ruth Rendell, and marks the beginning of a unique series of mysteries.”
“After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.
Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.
You may think you know detectives, but you’ve never met one quite like Strike. You may think you know about the wealthy and famous, but you’ve never seen them under an investigation like this.”
Putting aside the fact that the US version was penned by a monkey, these two blurbs tell vastly different stories. Here are some comparisons:
UK: Strike is a war veteran – wounded both physically and psychologically – and his life is in disarray.
US: After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator.
The inclusion of ‘land mine’ and ‘Afghanistan’ – in the very first sentence – is a clear attempt to engage American readers, who (if the publishers are correct) suffer a collective recency bias when it comes to their interest in wars.
UK: A gripping, elegant mystery steeped in the atmosphere of London – from the hushed streets of Mayfair to the backstreet pubs of the East End to the bustle of Soho.
US: NO MENTION OF SETTING AT ALL
In other words, “Shhhh; don’t mention it’s set outside the US, or they won’t buy it!”
Adjectives and keywords
UK: Personal cost, complex world, gripping, elegant, mystery, classic, crime, darker, hushed, troubled model
US: Amazing story, legendary supermodel, famously fell, multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, desperate designers, pleasure, enticement, deduction, delusion, wealthy, famous.
Ugh, I’m embarrassed just copying those words from the US blurb.
So what’s the big deal?
All this is very annoying, but the more important point is why? Why were the US publishers driven to such drastic action? Are we to believe that US readers are so shallow that they’ll only pick up something that looks like tabloid trash? Are they so xenophobic that London must be scrubbed from the cover entirely? And while I understand that romance is the biggest-selling genre, are we really at a point where we have to dress up a solid detective mystery in silk, paint its lips a gaudy red, and squeeze it into ridiculous heels just to gain entry to the party?
Honestly, I don’t believe that the American reading public is any more obsessed with celebrity culture than their UK counterparts; nor do I think they are so intellectually lazy that they need to be ‘duped’ into reading books that go more than surface-deep (no more so than other cultures, at any rate).
I think the blame lies squarely with US publishers, who continue to pander to the lowest common denominator in a desperate grab for cash. I think that instead of carefully targeting the niche market that would actually appreciate this book, they simply cast their net as far and wide as they could, without any consideration for the fact that product and consumer would be a poor fit.
Let’s face it; it wouldn’t be the first time.
American Publishers: serial killers of intellect
Way back in 1998, JK Rowling was forced to change the title of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Presumably, the US publisher believed Americans were too flat-out ignorant to know that the Philosopher’s Stone is an actual thing – an alchemical substance with cultural roots that go back around 2000 years – and would probably associate the word ‘Philosopher’ with something dull and old and vaguely Greek.
In other words, the publishers not only treated American kids (and their parents) like a bunch of ignorant morons, but they did their level best to keep them that way.
Oh, and just to rub salt in the wound, the stone doesn’t even belong to a sorcerer; it belongs to an alchemist. Still, I suppose things could be worse. As one astute American put it, “just be thankful it wasn’t called Hank Potter and the Magic Rock”.
Death of a conman: the Information Age dawns
However, Harry Potter was released way back in the late 1990’s. Most of us were still getting our heads around emails and mobile phones, unaware that a veritable online explosion was about to take place. Back in those days, marketing was something imposed upon the public by the corporate giants, and because individuals with eclectic tastes struggled to find a voice, they were generally ignored by the bigger players.
Fifteen years later, we are almost drowning in voices. Social media, self-publishing, and the massive potential (not to mention low cost) of online advertising have granted niche products a larger audience than ever before. It also works in reverse; a plethora of blogs, forums, and websites offer dozens (sometimes hundreds) of consumer reviews. And it’s nearly all free. Now, more than ever, successful marketing is about matching a product to a consumer.
So bearing this in mind, why, why WHY would you try to dupe people with a misleading cover when they have probably researched the book already? It makes no sense whatsoever! All the publishers managed to do was piss off (or at least confuse) two rather large groups of prospective American readers:
- The people who were originally drawn to the story through online reviews (only to be put off by the trashy cover and poorly-written blurb)
- The people who were originally drawn to the cover (who went on to check reviews and were put off by the fact that the story revolves around an unattractive British war veteran who solves crime)
That’s the funny thing about people; they like what they like. They also don’t like being misled. Life is hard and complicated enough without having to interpret the mixed-messages of a slippery marketing team; if you try pulling that nonsense, people will simply walk away. Had these publishers treated their customers – and their product – with a bit more dignity and respect, the book might have sold a bit better before the Big Reveal boosted sales.
The moral of the story
Even prior to Web 2.0, personal endorsements held more weight than a carefully crafted marketing plan (Harry Potter itself only became a big seller when people started recommending it to their friends and family). Any forward-thinking business would understand that word-of-mouth trumps direct marketing; always has, always will. They would embrace the new opportunities offered by a global, instantaneous, and interconnected marketplace, rather than attempting to subvert the entire system with disingenuous marketing ploys.
Look, I know it’s tough out there in the publishing world, what with new issues like self-publishing and piracy and digital copyright muddying the water…but honestly, any publisher still using a shotgun approach to targeted marketing is a dinosaur. They’ll go the same way.