The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Amateur Covers

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

In book selling basics, the author attracts the reader and the first page sells the book, but nothing allows a potential reader to disregard a book like an unprofessional cover. The US Review encounters poor book covers on a regular basis: drab, confusing, amateurish designs or some combination of the three. So let’s take a look at book cover basics.

1) The main title should be visible from twenty feet away. This is accomplished through a combination of font, size, and color contrast. A title that is viewable from a distance in a bookstore is as easily read when reduced in size for on-line sales.

2) Title visibility applies to the spine as well. For most of its commercial shelf life, a book will be placed spine out. The title should be as large and as high contrast as possible.

3) Make the subtitle informative. While I’m not a fan of employing subtitles, except for nonfiction, book series, or very short main titles, the subtitle should be essential to the book’s message. Overall, the title and subtitle combination should not be overlong. The best titles are brief—something a typical person can remember and tell another.

4) Don’t forget the back matter. The back of the book is where business takes place. Most retailers won’t sell your book without a standard bar code in the lower right corner or a clearly visible price and genre designation.

5) Keep the book summary to 100 words or less. It’s true. A book can be explained in one short sentence. The New York Times Bestseller List bestseller list has been doing this for decades. Avoid putting a book on the back of a book. (FYI, the author bio is not a back cover essential. While it must be included in the book, it’s easily located on either the last page, inside flap, or back cover.)

6) Gather authoritative endorsements. People want to read quotes regarding the book, but not from the author, publisher, or author’s friends. Build authority for the book with commentary from recognizable experts (i.e. known authors, celebrities, or subject-related practitioners), as well as feedback from professional book review publications.

7) Employ thematic artwork. Artwork that definitively relates to the content describes the book in advance. There is a reason why romances feature a rapturous women and science fiction titles present glossy hi-tech images on their covers. The correct audience is subconsciously drawn to it. Furthermore, the color palette used evokes different emotions. Horror titles make good use of black and red. Young adult romances paint the cover in virginal white and pink. Also, men and women are attracted to different colors for different genres. The psychology of color is an advanced science, which leads us to the final element of cover design.

8) Hire a professional. Most authors are not visual artists, but a professional book designer or even a talented artist should have an innate or trained sense of image and color. Book designers can be contacted through the Internet. At the very least, struggling artists can be found locally. Check their portfolios to see if their work matches the sensibilities of the prospective book. Fees will range from nominal to pricey, but a good cover is worth it. Photoshop’ed self-made covers constructed on the cheap (and often like kindergarten artwork) are easier to spot than a title from twenty feet away, and they will debase the entire book.

The much-used aphorism “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is philosophically correct, but in reality, more people do this than don’t. A great cover sells the book as well as the author sells the book. When considering a cover design, visit a bookstore for trends and ideas within the genre. Taking the time, as well as hiring a professional, gives a book that likely took months if not years to write the jacket and marketing potential it deserves.

Next in The Book Killers series: Inferior Word Choice

Previously in The Book Killers series: Poor Structure

Broadway General Manager: Demystifying The Most Important And Least Understood Role In Show Business

by Peter Bogyo

Allworth Press

book review by Dylan Ward

…general managers oversee all the financial and business concerns of a show. Even more, they are the linchpin of the entire production, upon which every aspect of the show must rely.”

A lover of theater since the age of five, Bogyo, a veteran Broadway general manager, is no stranger to show business. Having worked with notable heavyweights such as Cicely Tyson, Stephen Sondheim, Carol Burnett, and Richard Dreyfuss, Bogyo holds an esteemed reputation in the industry. Now he graciously shares his expertise with an honest, inside look into a critical but misunderstood role. His objective here is to answer the question of what precisely a general manager does in an unvarnished book he wishes he had when first starting out. He explores the myriad ways in which a general manager “interacts with people at every level of the production.” Beyond that, Bogyo examines with precise detail the inner workings of theater and production management and the complexities these entail. He literally walks us step-by-step through the day-to-day functions and requirements for developing, organizing, and administrating a major stage production from birth to end.

The author’s intended purpose here is not for this to be a memoir but rather a reference or guide with firsthand knowledge of the behind-the-scenes operations and management of show business. His book becomes instantly invaluable, a gift bestowed with his mastery and comprehension on the subject. It is a book written for the theater student, the aspiring theater manager, the future producer, or even a new producer just beginning. Of course, it is also a book for the theater lover who simply enjoys reading about insider secrets of stage productions.

Bogyo begins by recounting briefly his roots and the surprisingly simple way he got his start in management as a company manager. For Bogyo, company managers are “the hardest working and the most underappreciated [sic] people in theater.” He then informs us of the necessary personality traits and key interests one should possess to be successful as a general manager. He then segues into the nuts and bolts of how large-scale productions are pieced together and run, which fills the bulk of his book. He plainly lays out complex breakdowns of operating budgets and salaries, along with the sometimes staggering numbers of production costs. Just reading this makes one appreciate the work and stress that goes into producing these shows. Above all, he highlights the demands that come with a career in theater management and the importance of a trusting “marriage” between producer and general manager in an industry “built heavily on relationships and reputation.”

Several chapters alone are devoted to specific examples and breakdowns of contracts for various roles in the production, such as actor, director, designer, and of course, general manager. Where necessary, Bogyo infuses cursory overviews of historical context and facts to aid us in understanding present-day productions. While fans see and relish the glamor of stage performances, it is the unseen business behind the curtain that Bogyo brings to light, one that must be coordinated like a well-oiled machine. He also candidly points out that a general manager requires “extensive knowledge” and must “possesses a breadth of experience” to ensure prosperity in this role and give audiences a winning show.

While Bogyo’s narrative is revealing, frank, and altogether informative with excellent tips, it never feels weighty or dry. Nothing is wasted here, and everything is carefully selected to craft this book. One should pay especially close attention to the note sections throughout, where Bogyo gets more personal about his experiences. They are fascinating and worth reading and emerge as the gems of his book. These real-life cases fall into a range of funny, serious, or baffling. One such example is a confusing email correspondence with a producer that was misconstrued by a particular subject line. Another recounts the unfortunate situation of a major star unable to perform due to a bad back. Then he reveals the practical use of certain contraceptives with wireless microphones. These and others demonstrate Bogyo’s capacity and knowledge gained that helped shape his talents, skills, and intuitions to oversee multi-million dollar productions at every turn.

Included throughout is a wealth of information as well as charts, instructions, and terminology. In addition, a glossary is helpfully supplied at the book’s end. With each page, Bogyo’s fondness and upmost respect for the profession become clear. Though the narrative is accessible and digestible, it doesn’t quite have the personal touch one finds in Michael Reidel’s Razzle Dazzle. But Bogyo’s book does share a candidness and depth similar to William Goldman’s The Season coupled with the straightforward practicalities of Michael Shurtleff’s Audition. Bogyo manages to condense years of experience into a reliable, singular book. It is essential reading for anyone to learn and understand the ins and outs of “the life of a show.” Though it will primarily appeal to specific audiences, Bogyo’s empirical and fascinating look at life in the theater can be admired by anyone.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

That Famous Fig Leaf: Uncovering the Holiness of Our Bodies

by Chad W. Thompson

Cascade Books

book review by Nicole Yurcaba

The body was not designed to be enjoyed apart from the spirit that resides inside.”

This work explores the history and psychology of the body and its connection to the mind and, more importantly, the spirit. By examining church leaders’ stances, psychological and sociological studies, biblical studies, and a large swath of literature, this book researches society and religion’s seemingly imposed dichotomy between the body and the spirit, and it poses why no dichotomy should exist whatsoever. By exploring how members of Western society predominantly shape their attitudes towards their bodies during childhood and adolescence, this book examines how an oversexed society loses respect for itself and its members through body objectification and how through an understanding of where these ideas develop and the disconnect that often occurs between body image, body acceptance, and faith, believers in any faith can accept their bodies and their sexuality as inseparable from their spirit.

This book offers insights for those struggling with tough questions. With its focus on modern-day questions and attitudes towards teaching children about their bodies, about emphasizing to teenagers the importance of accepting their bodies as theirs and God’s, and about carrying positive body attitudes throughout one’s life as one grows in his or her faith, this book becomes a must-read for anyone interested in the history and the research behind many Western attitudes towards nudity, sex, and the body. Supported with a variety of both religious and secular research, this book provides fresh insights about age-old questions and struggles. It is a must-read for those who prefer a more academic approach to faith and spirituality, but it is also recommended for anyone seeking to provide insights to young adults and teenagers about coping with body issues, sexuality, and faith.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Bad Grammar

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

The first mistake that sells out a new writer is bad grammar. Misspelled and misconjugated words, incomplete and malformed sentences, and confusing syntax are the hallmarks of poor editing. The book could be a great concept, but will be considered a fumbling error. For example, a common mistake is to label the foreword section as “Forward” in the heading. An even bigger mistake is to not work with an editor.

Technically speaking, grammar is a set of rules that governs the composition of words and phrases in a language, but, linguistically speaking, proper grammar and its related syntax allow the reader to understand the words on the page. Many emerging writers bend grammar to their own cadence of thought. This is fine for draft work, but it’s a rookie mistake to expect a reader to decode the writer’s thought process. The whole point of reading is to reproduce the writer’s information, imagery, and energy inside the reader’s mind with some semblance of the original thought. The shared rules of grammar and style facilitate this for the widest possible audience. When the reader is forced to decipher the language—most often demonstrated by having to recycle over words and phrases—the reader will likely close the book and move on. A good editor brings another pair of eyes that will identify these deadly mistakes.

Fiction writers are given some elbowroom to stretch the language, but this is best done, and most powerfully so, as an exception to the rule. Nonfiction writers have less leeway. Not only must they write to strict grammar conventions, they must write to the style of the publication, which is a discussion for another time. The US Review of Books, like most publishers of books and articles, uses The Chicago Manual of Style as its standard. The AP Stylebook is used exclusively for article writing, although it is mostly a subset of Chicago. Professional writers have both and use them often. (Tip: The previous edition of both style guides can be purchased at a fraction of the current edition’s cost.) Don’t rely on your editor to catch every detail. The cleaner the manuscript, the more an editor can focus on bigger issues like structure, tone, and overall content.

Self-awareness is a bridge a writer crosses on the way to success. At some point, a writer recognizes his or her flaws and strengths without the prompting of a mentor. Successful writers revise in cycles, ending the process with a close examination of the actual words and phrases, as well as focusing on habitual errors. We are the sum of our vices. It seems that when we conquer one bad habit in our prose, another emerges to take its place. This can change from year to year, book to book, and even article to article. While writing, build a checklist for editing, and end revisions with a review of this list.

With so many books being published each year (i.e. approximately one million annually in the U.S. alone), it’s difficult to bring attention to a single book. Bad grammar is the great crippler at the starting gate for many self-published and first-time authors. Remember to learn the rules of grammar, have a reference guide at the ready, be wary of bad habits, work with an experienced editor, and give your manuscript one last review.

Next in The Book Killers series: Poor Structure

The Beginning of the Affair: What the US Review Sees in Book Starts

Again and again, we notice a pattern at the start of a successful book. Great nonfiction, a genre designed to inform, employs a compelling narrative to connect with the reader, while great fiction, a genre for storytelling, informs the reader about life. Each genre delves into the others’ skill set to engage and teach with equal measure. The nexus between the two is universal truth, and after only a few pages, the reader must desire to uncover the truth in a book.

“With the truth, you need to get rid of it as soon as possible and pass it on to someone else.”Jean Baudrillard

The question in any book is equally about what the author has learned as much as what the reader needs to discover. If the author has done the work, both aspects are featured up front—as in immediately at the start of the book. A successful nonfiction effort presents the lesson plan and suggests what the reader will take away, while fiction launches the journey and hints at a possible ending. For both, the essence of the book is either overtly mentioned or found in the subtext (i.e. tone, setting, pacing, etc.). The author is in control from the start—not the second, third, or fourth chapter. This might seem obvious, but too often while reading a book for review, we encounter directionless narratives. While we’ll eventually uncover its main thrust, the average reader will not, having moved on long before it reaches that point.

“Life will not bear refinement. You must do as other people do.”Samuel Johnson

Every book has a singular purpose. This is why editors, booksellers, and the media are constantly asking for a tagline: What is the single sentence description of the book? They know that a reader won’t pick up a book unless it is well defined and promises the aforementioned truth. The book’s opening pages affirm that this truth will be fulfilled. By this point, the reader has traveled a long way on the journey and is probably hooked. Whether it’s an excellent biography on Benjamin Franklin or a tawdry human-dinosaur sex romp—yes, those books exist—the purpose and direction are established with lightning speed and often within the first few paragraphs.

“There is no such thing as chaos. It’s just a pattern you haven’t learned to recognize yet.”Albert Einstein

The complexity of an opening narrative widely ranges from genre to genre and from author to author, but the work required from the author hasn’t changed in centuries. Readers, who comprise the most intelligent segment of society but are overwhelmingly not writers, have been trained to sniff out the truth or utility of a book in short order. A book that quickly establishes its predominant narrator, tone, and story question/thesis holds the reader for the duration, as well as the next book by the same author.

“[Writers] achieve clarity in a preponderance of words, as opposed to the poundage of the pages. Smart writers are greedy with words.”Write to Publish, Christopher Klim

The Crowded Hour:  Theodore Roosevelt, The Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century

by Clay Risen

Scribner

book review by Christopher Klim

“Strictly speaking there is no single San Juan Hill.”

At the turn of the twentieth century, before America entered Europe to join the WWI campaign, the US was an isolationist country healing from the great war of the previous generation when its north and south did all but completely tear the union asunder. It had pushed to the California coast, claiming the nomadic plains from Native American tribes as well as Mexico’s Spanish legacy. The scars of battle were fading, but the mythology of the Wild West was taking hold. Both a romanticism and dread of the past competed in the American psyche, as it headed into a bold and fearsome future.

Meanwhile, the long reach of Spain, one of the last European empires, loosened if not entirely retracted. It’s holdings across the globe were no longer strictly under its control, and where Spain could, it kept the people in line through colonial brutality at the tip of a bayonet. Cuban was one such place, blown-up and divided via a series of indigenous revolts spread over more than one hundred years. For Cuba, independence was at stake. For Spain, the loss of its final new world foothold, including significant financial benefits, hung in the balance. Eventually, the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana, which may have been a military accident and not Spanish aggression, mobilized the US to Cuba’s side, thus beginning America’s longstanding policy of global intervention for freedom.

There exists periods in history when a man is born for the times. Theodore Roosevelt was one such man. Revered by many for his frontier exploits and often reviled by those in higher offices, Teddy Roosevelt had the capacity to charm, repel, lead, and recoil men. While benefiting from a privileged upbringing, stoic might be a primary word to describe him, but he wasn’t a quiet man. He lauded the selfless deeds of others, while booming his dissatisfaction with the military’s general lack of preparedness. As an assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, he pushed for an increase in naval forces. While many in power lingered in the terrible memories of the Civil War, Roosevelt asserted that weakness in fact attracted outside aggression. After the Maine and against recommendation, he resigned his post to assemble a special force for the looming engagement with Spain.

This is the evolution of Roosevelt’s famous Rough Riders, a throwback cavalry ranging from greenhorns to seasoned adventurers, war veterans, and frelance cowboys who volunteered on horseback to avenge the Maine. In fact, they were the country’s first volunteer cavalry. Every bit of the American spirit and experience seemed to assemble outside San Antonio, and at first blush, Roosevelt wondered if they’d ever get this regiment of around one thousand men into working order. They were lean and rugged, and many barely operated with a sense of discipline. Order had to be maintained, even while rules were bent to accommodate those who’d spent a lifetime demonstrating the essence of liberty and independence on the frontier.

While the entire campaign is outlined in this book, the turning point, as well as one of Roosevelt’s personal high water marks, is superbly detailed during the Battle of San Juan Hill. In breadth, length, and barbarity, the battle fails in measure against any involving US troops before or after, yet it remains iconic in American history. Perhaps this was because the troops themselves were somewhat iconic even before they set sail from the Florida coast. For months, Roosevelt feared that the conflict might conclude before they reached Cuba, and although his troops eventually did land and see action, when the famous moment arrived along a rise known as Kettle Hill, he rushed forward with his charge almost out of a sense of overall frustration as much as his concern to protect his men. For the most part, the battle was paced and labored, gathering many casualties, not the storming uphill gallop depicted in art and lore.

In The Crowded Hour, eponymously named from Roosevelt’s battle description at San Juan Hill, journalist and author Clay Risen narrates a pivotal moment when the US rejoined in the aftermath of the Civil War and western expansionism and turned outward to launch its mandate of spreading democracy around the world, or at least pause the succession of imperial, dictatorial, or socialist growth.  As is always the case, motivations are never pure, and Risen does well to identify both the genesis of our actions and the naivety of the times.  He also dedicates significant pages to establishing the assembly of the troops and the attitudes surrounding them and those of their peers and countrymen. In many ways, these noncombat aspects are more important than following a roughly two-month “war” in the Caribbean. In the end, a maturing country had finally chased the last vestiges of the old world from the new world, while beginning a global policy that exists until this day.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Howard Stern Comes Again

Howard Stern Comes Again

by Howard Stern
Simon & Schuster

book review by Christopher Klim

“I thought, What if I could listen to my guests the way my therapist listens to me?”

Over the decades, media personality Howard Stern has evolved into one of the finest live interviewers. He has reined in his legendary narcissism—actually employing it as a tool—to disarm his subjects and reveal the perplexing conundrum of humanity that is common to us all. From rising stars to established veterans, from the average Joe experiencing his fifteen minutes of fame to the ruthless and infamous plying their trades, many have found their way onto Stern’s interview couch. Some of the best of these can be found in this compendium, which includes commentary and annotations from the author.

Stern begins by essentially interviewing himself regarding the construction of the book and the Stern-esque intimate details of his cancer scare. From there it launches into transcripts of favorite interviews, including Stern’s thoughts regarding his subject as well as post-interview reflections. Word is out. When you sit on Stern’s couch, it’s going to be deeply personal, exposing both the subject and his/her creative or working process. Many resist, but most allow Stern to push in a door or throw open a window in places. At worst, a Stern interview is entertaining. At best, it’s stunning and memorable.

You’re not going to find a Stern-like interview on late night television and other outlets. Others serve up mere advertising pitches for whatever the subject is pushing at the moment. Perhaps you’ll encounter a single laugh or insight, but typically you won’t with the myriad talking heads on almost as many channels. A Stern interview is a different animal. He comes across as loose and playful, but he is profoundly serious in his approach. He jokes. He probes. He uncoils enough rope for his subject to tie himself into a corner. Stern isn’t satisfied until he’s unearthed nuggets of gold.

If you’re an avid listener, you’re not going to discover much new material, although Stern’s commentary is insightful with the occasional anecdote. It also doesn’t include any of the spontaneous interviews, such as Charlie Sheen calling in during his ignominious 2011 meltdown, which was like witnessing a live detox session. Instead what you get is a beautiful near-coffee table book full of famous people going on the record in ways they’d never imagined when they entered the room, even though they probably expected something akin to that. Stern’s office hours are open and his couch is waiting. Come inside.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review