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The Impact of Format on Interpretation

"Don't be too harsh to these poems until they're typed. I always think typescript lends some sort of certainty: at least, if the things are bad then, they appear to be bad with conviction." - Dylan Thomas

On Friday I reviewed applicants for my replacement at my half-time job. I don't have the final say on who I consider most qualified, but the hiring committee (essentially the director and administrative assistant) will consider my input when they choose people to interview. After two hours of poring over the resumes of people who claim to be web developers because they once fixed some broken links on the company blog, art students who couldn't care less whether people can make heads or tails of a website as long as it's pretty, and computer science students who seem to think PHP must be another name for Python, my heart goes out to HR employees everywhere. I also discovered that, when you're on this side of the application portal, trivialities in presentation can make the difference between "pursue" and "delete."

Before I began, my supervisor sent me the cover letter and resume of her top pick. His only web development experience was a single course on introductory HTML/CSS, and his sample projects would have looked better if he'd just closed his eyes and picked colors at random, but she said he was the most qualified of the bunch.

"Jeepers," I said. "If there's only one person in this 40,000-strong city with a minimal command of HTML looking for work, I must be a much rarer treasure than I thought! Potential employers should be tripping over themselves to send me suitcases full of green!"

But then she gave me access to the other submissions. And one after another, almost every applicant had the same basic competencies in HTML and CSS. Many far outstripped Mr. Best Qualified in talent and training—at least five had associate's degrees in web design and development, three were master's students in the School of Informatics with a proven record of projects using PHP and SQL, and not one of them declared on their portfolios, "I have a lot of different hobbies that I like to master before moving onto the next hobby. Recently my hobby has been web design."

(Seriously. I'd love to try that at my next interview. "Why do I want to be an Electronic Resources Librarian? Well, I have a lot of interests, and I like to exhaust each one before I get bored. Right now I find librarianship pleasantly diverting. But next month, who knows? LOL!")

So what gave my supervisor the impression that this guy was the best applicant? It's simple.

  1. He can program in techy-sounding languages like Python and Visual Basic. That's what smart people on CSI use to track down IP addresses! Never mind that both are utterly useless for our purposes.
  2. He's self-confident and a decent writer. His cover letter makes him "sound" smart.
  3. He has not one, but two portfolios. They're terrible, but they're there.

Any web designer/developer who doesn't have a portfolio has as much chance of landing a job as a snowball does of surviving a Calvin and Hobbes strip. The other highly qualified applicants could list an infinite number of impressive projects they've worked on, but they will not make the cut because they don't have portfolios.

However, there were a few with portfolios that put my own to shame. Where did they go wrong? Well, one was from India, and for some reason the Indian students here tend to write really ugly resumes, with a poor choice of fonts and a skinny black border around the edge. My supervisor probably didn't even open his portfolio because the resume made a negative impression. Another had the opposite problem—he made his resume much too fancy. It was full of jargon and icons that only people "in the know" would understand. He listed his programming languages in shorthand (e.g., JS for JavaScript) and represented his software proficiencies with Adobe icons (pink Id for InDesign, blue Ps for Photoshop, orange Ai for Illustrator, etc.). I could recognize them, but they're doubtless incomprehensible to both the administrative assistant and the director, who actually make the hiring decisions.

Humans are naturally, inescapably shallow. The split-second first impression made by an amateurish cover letter or an ugly/intimidating resume will crowd out the underlying content to the point that my supervisor couldn't see that her top pick wasn't any more qualified for the position than 50% of the others.

The same thing applies to books.

No matter what other writers will try to tell you, in their tireless effort to fuse the world that "should be" with the world that "is," great writing doesn't sell books. Covers sell books. Sexy, snappy blurbs sell books. A familiar publisher's logo, a glowing review from a trusted newspaper, a handsome-looking first page with lovely fonts and a cute heart-shaped leaf between the chapter title and the first paragraph...those sell books. The first sentence or two sometimes sells books, but only after you've passed the other hurdles.

People in the modern developed world tend to think of information as something abstract, removed from its physical representations. So many self-publishers insist that formatting doesn't matter much anymore because everyone uses e-readers and the text stands for itself. But in reality, the interpretation of information is inextricably tied to the medium of delivery. I learned this in the first grade, when I won the top prize in a 500-word essay contest not because my mastery of the English language was much better than any other 7-year-old's, but because I used WordPerfect to make the title at the top all pretty and blue. That "cheat" still works 18 years later.

Case in point: When I distributed Bubbles Pop to people as a blah-looking eBook, before I learned how to format them well, they couldn't come up with enough criticisms. Ostensibly, their complaints were about the content—the characters aren't likeable, nothing really happens, the ending is so sudden and lame. But miraculously, when I distributed the same text in professional-looking paperback, the people who read it couldn't come up with enough compliments. The characters are so real, I couldn't wait to see what happens next, the ending is just right.

I don't think this was purely an accident of the sorts of people who read each version (though the teenagers who read the eBooks tend to be harsher overall). The same phenomenon has happened multiple times—when people read my Word documents to give feedback, there's always something wrong. They don't just find fault with my writing—they hate it. But when people buy the finished product wrapped up in pretty packaging in the Amazon/B&N/Kobo store, I get nice shiny 4 and 5 star ratings.

The essential difference between these formats is in the appearance of authority. Take a book of middling quality, dress it up in hardcover binding with impeccable internal design, and people will pick it up and say, "Ah. This was written by someone who knows what she's doing" and rate it highly. Take the exact same book and publish it as a grainy spiral-bound from Mr. Copy down the road, and people will glance at it and say, "Ugh. This was written by some local amateur" and rate it one star before they even read the first word.

Even professional critics admit to selecting which books they review based on the appearances of the submissions that come in on the trolley. I can't find the article again, but last year I read an interview with a critic who admitted that whether a title made it into the paper depended on three things:

  1. Does the book look professional?
  2. Do I recognize the publisher?
  3. Does the back cover blurb catch my interest?

A "no" on any of these meant the book went straight into the box destined for the local Friends of the Library. The glue on the spine is crummy and the cover art is lame? Not worth my time. It's published by HarperCollins? Great! Algonquin? Eh, maybe. Self-published? Pathetic. Only after this did he actually look at the content...and he wouldn't even open the book to the first page if the hook on the back sounded boring.

Notice that in the standard publishing paradigm, none of those criteria has anything to do with the literary skills of the author. The quality of a physical book depends on the graphic artist and the printers contracted by the house. The name of the publisher depends primarily on luck and connections. And the back cover blurb is written by the editor or a low-paid copywriter.

But, like it or not, this is how people evaluate potential reads. That critic probably finished his yay-or-nay process in mere seconds per submission. Looks cheap—out. Looks good, unknown publisher—out. Looks good, Penguin logo, sexy copy—okay. The book-buying public does the same thing, though the name of the publisher is less of a deal-breaker. Customers in a brick-and-mortar bookstore will gravitate towards familiar brands and pick up the books that appeal to them visually. Customers of an online bookstore will scan hundreds of thumbnails in a few minutes of leisurely browsing, and for the most part they'll make their selections from the ones from big houses that Amazon puts on the front page.

Self-publishers can be as idealistic about the democratic future of literature as we want, but we can't slack on presentation. We can't pooh-pooh that great stories drive sales, and all that shallow marketing stuff is "beneath" us. What a lovely world this would be if all we needed to succeed were talent and mastery of "the craft." Alas, customers will not intuit the mystical glow of our genius through a hideous cover and halfhearted blurb. But they might give us a chance if we make the title all pretty and blue.

Comments

Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt (October 1, 2014, 12:29 am)

It takes someone of some depth to move past the visual appeal BECAUSE the reader figures that the author should be at least basically competent at the presentation: there are so MANY books out there to compare yours to, and imitate, that a writer ought to be able to see what's wrong.

I confess to having read very little of an Inside the book feature because the writer of twelve novels (all listed on his Amazon page) composed the interior of the ebook in Courier 12, double-spaced.

Fatal flaw - I think I tried to read a bit because he was a person I had met online. But Courier SCREAMED amateur.

I know my own WIP needs a big chunk of work on its cover, website, my blog, etc. - and I'll get to it. But I spend a lot of time evaluating the information out there on cover design, and analyzing why I like a particular author website. I am developing the ability to evaluate these details by making a big effort. I KNOW I'm not done yet, and why.

As when I began writing, the quality in my mind and the quality I can produce on screen haven't merged yet. I shrug - and read some more blogs on what goes into a good cover.

Pride's Children won't go 'live' until I'm satisfied - I accept no deadlines but my own. It's easy for me to say - I won't depend on the income, ever - but I also have limitations others don't, and I need time to overcome those.

I shall think about making the title all pretty and blue - I haven't picked my final fonts yet.

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