A Matter of Taste

Woman tasting foodSome of us flack products that can be scientifically proven to be quite good. A certain make of car can win an award for luxury; a brand of paint can be tested to show its properties of longevity; a hotel can have scads of positive reviews from guests.

Some of us, on the other hand, are representing products that are good strictly as a matter of taste. I work for a publisher, for example, and books are notorious for being judged on a very private, personal scale of excellence. One critic may think a book was sent down from heaven itself with a whole gaggle of angels; another may think it’s the worst thing every to be put on paper. There’s just no accounting for taste.

Yes, scholars of a certain genre or people who are solid bookish types will be able to tell a bad book from a good book. But they’ll never, ever agree to what exactly those parameters should be. And even if they could, what would it matter? Lots of books (and other products that are largely a matter of taste, like clothes or food or art) that have been shown by experts to be definitively not very good have sold pretty dang well anyway. Like I said, there’s just no accounting for taste.

So how do you represent a product that is only as good as the match between itself and the consumer? You just do your best, I’m afraid.

When a reader contacts me to say “I didn’t like this book very much,” I don’t say, “Well, the International Guild of Mystery Writers awarded the book a prize, so I suppose you must be mistaken” or “Have you tried reading it when you’re in a better mood?”

I do the only thing you can do when your product’s strength is a matter of taste. I ask, “What didn’t you like about it?” The problem with this is a lot of people (I hesitate to pick on Americans specifically, so I won’t) were never taught to express why something doesn’t match up with their tastes. As far as art goes, we’re sorely lacking the vocabulary to be critical. When asked why one doesn’t like something, one’s foremost response is “I just don’t,” which is no kind of answer at all.

I am lucky in that the readers who seek me out to chat about books are good eggs and can usually get some evidence to back up their opinions. Then I can help, sometimes, by saying, “It sounds like this book was a little too young for you. Why not try this one?” or “I guess you like more action/romance/mystery in your stories, and here are some that might fit the bill.”

But very often, I can’t say anything other than “Thanks for that feedback, and I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the book.” It sounds a bit feeble, but readers (and, in general, consumers of goods like movies and video games, things that you can’t experience in whole before buying) understand that these things happen. Their purchases are gambles. They may not like what they end up with. It’s not as if disliking one single book will put them off reading forever. (Unless, like a very dear friend of mine, the book in question is Ethan Frome.) Just as with gambling, these sorts of goods are an addition, a fairly cheap, exciting, worthwhile addiction.

In my experience, there’s nothing you can do to change someone’s mind about a book, or anything that’s a matter of taste. It goes against a flack’s instincts to give in to this, but instead of treating products like this like the best thing since sliced bread, a flack’s job is instead about being familiar with the landscape, knowing what sorts of people should enjoy certain kinds of products, pairing them up as best you can, and offering a sympathetic ear if it doesn’t pan out. Not every blind date ends in marriage, after all.

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