7 responses to “Twenty-Five Words Or Less . . . Or More”

  1. Matt the Journeyman

    John Barth, a review of whose work was the first place I encountered the word prolix, once opened an essay on the pleasures of reading a massive novel with the sentence “Much can be said for minimalism.”, which — how I loved him then — sent me into what I believe are called paroxysms of laughter. I’m not perfectly certain why I just told you that, but you’ll know what to do with it, being the only person in my acquaintance ever to use the word prolix without a gun to their head.* I enjoyed this article. Never heard of shelf talkers before (could have used the phrase in my Mitchell piece recently; rats), and you make a great point about why MIB doesn’t use them much, but you might be losing opportunities from people who just can’t bring themselves to ask for guidance. Just sayin’. I’m off to read your LeGuin piece. She’s one of my favorites.
    *Yes, I use the singular possessive form of “they”. Jane Austen did it. Somerset Maugham did it. Hopefully this doesn’t mean it’s all off between us.

  2. James

    Matt, you may be right about us using more shelf talkers at Island Books. I’m going to share your suggestion with my less verbose colleagues.

    I’ve never written a recommendation card for John Barth, although I probably should. I’ve been a fan ever since high school when I went off the syllabus and hacked through the unassigned jungle of my Norton Anthology of American Literature. Reading Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse” was like encountering a vine-covered temple left by an advanced alien civilization, a building and a machine all at once. The artistry! The technique! Was it really bigger inside than out? I didn’t know you could use words to make something like that.

    Hey, I think I just started a new shelf talker.

  3. Matt the Journeyman

    There you go. And if you start at ‘Reading’ it’s a tidy 50 words, 49 if you count vine-covered as one.

  4. Amanda MacNaughton

    Nice piece, James! It is usually very hard for me to fit a review/recommendation onto a shelf talker. I really like the idea of not saying much, or anything, about the plot of the book and just writing how it made you feel, or what you liked about it. Our customers always ask “What is it about?” Do you have that problem? I hate that question! I dislike it as a bookseller AND as a writer.
    I think I actually wrapped up one of my recs with “Just read the book already!” or something like that. Probably not my most brilliant thought. Sometimes I get frustrated trying to encapsulate a book that is just SO excellent, and I just want to grab the customer and thrust the book at them.

  5. James

    Thanks, Amanda. I agree that the what of a book is usually much less important than the how. How does the author say what she has to say? How does the book make you feel when you read it?

    Shelf talkers aren’t academic criticism or even book reviews, really, so I think “I loved this!” is a perfectly appropriate recommendation.

  6. Ivan Schneider

    Hi James,

    Thanks for your kind comments about the Abelard & Heloise shelf talker, which I had the pleasure of writing for Mercer Street Books.

    If I had to give one piece of advice about how to write shelf talkers, it’s this: Address the main thing that’s preventing the most likely customers from wanting to read the book.

    First, who’s the person finding or rediscovering the book? Absent the card, what would be that person’s main misconception?

    In the case of A&H, if you just picked it up and read the back cover, you’d see “tragic love affair” and “medieval romance” and all that. Here, the main barrier to purchase is the presumption that a historical work about a monk and a nun has nothing to say to someone living in the contemporary world. The shelf talker puts the story into familiar terms.

    Don’t repeat what the back cover says, or say that you like or even why you like it. Instead, focus on what’s keeping someone from buying it, and overcome that objection somehow.

    So, for example, if I were doing a shelf talker for “War and Peace,” I’d lay off the genius of Tolstoy and all that and instead promise the reader that the thousand-plus pages (i.e., the potential buyer’s main objection) will fly by, and that you’ll probably finish way before your beard reaches Tolstoyan dimensions.

    Still, there’s no exact formula, I’ve done other shelf talkers that look nothing like this. It’s like writing jokes, where the punchline is “buy the book.”


  7. James

    Ivan, that’s an excellent seminar on writing shelf talkers. Couldn’t have said it better (or shorter) myself.

Leave a Reply