The Envelope Call, or, “You can’t judge it till you’ve tried it!”

There is an apparently very widely held belief that it is not acceptable to judge a book, TV show, or movie unless you have consumed it. “Give Confederate a chance!” people say. “You can’t decide to avoid a book just because the advance reviewers are saying it’s offensive! It’s censorship to say you don’t want a TV proposal to be made and aired! You can’t judge until you’ve tried it!”

Oh yes I can. Just watch me.

Take Confederate. This programme about a US South that still has enslavement is still at a very early development stage. The makers said they haven’t yet written a script; they have not announced whose point of view it will be; they haven’t said if the Confederacy will be a Dallas-like glittering sexytimes place or the rather more realistic backward hellhole pariah state. They have simply sold the idea of “the South still has slavery” to HBO as just that, an idea; HBO have judged it as an idea and found it good. Yet for some reason those who think it is a bad idea are being told to wait for the finished product to judge.

Mate. If the people at HBO can judge this on the basis of its idea, so can I.

As it happens I think it sounds like shatteringly offensive garbage that will cause real-world damage. Maybe I’m wrong and it will be an artistic and human triumph that finally persuades those people who hadn’t yet grasped that enslavement is bad. But I’ve judged the idea and found it wanting, and I’m not going to give it any money until such time as new information causes me to change my mind. This is what we in the ideas business call “the market”, which is this newfangled thing whereby people decide if they want to buy your stuff based on what they hear and think about it. Nifty, eh?

/takes deep breath, resets sarcasm calibrator/

It’s not just Confederate of course. This happens over and over again in the book world. Copies are released, reviewers cite problems, other readers say “wow, I won’t read that,” and someone comes hopping in to say “Judge for yourself! You can’t judge a book till you’ve read it!”

I was an acquiring editor for 20 years. Judging a book before I’d read it was literally my job. There is a quote that I heard on the radio from an agent, which goes:

People ask, can you really judge a submission from three chapters? You can judge a book from three chapters, from one chapter, from the first page, from the synopsis, sometimes from the covering letter, and in extreme cases from the envelope.

This is entirely true. Like many acquiring editors, I developed the Envelope Call superpower and used to upset interns by handing back unopened envelopes saying “Nope, terrible slush, take it away”. They would protest, “You can’t say that without even looking!”, open it, scan the pages and go, “…oh.”

I can judge a book on any damn thing that comes my way and so can you. The current Romanceland row is about a taboo dark romance* which is a “swoonworthy” father/daughter* story with extended scenes of rape* and incest*. You might have decided to nope out at any one of those stars; you might equally have decided to one-click. Either of those actions is, wait for it, judging the book before you’ve read it. That’s what buying a book or even downloading a preview is: a judgement.

You might of course decide your initial judgement was misplaced, because opinions evolve with new information. (“My friend said it was amazing so I’ll try it after all.” “The first page of the preview made me want to throw up so I stopped.”) But it’s all a series of judgements, positive and negative. If I buy a book, I’ve judged that I want to read it, and put my money where my mouth is. When I read something I am judging that this book is more worth my time than the other seven billion books I could be reading instead. That’s a hell of a call.

I looked at the taboo dark romance in question. The blurb contains the following line in the content warning: “This book is only for the brave, the open-minded, and the ones who crave love in even the most dismal of situations.” Which is to say, if you don’t like rape and incest in your romance you’re cowardly and closed-minded, unlike the braver, better humans who buy it. Okay.

That blurb line is an Envelope Call for me all on its own. Not for everyone; others may find it intriguing or flattering or challenging, as was doubtless the intention. But I am putting a big red R for Reject on the book (and to be honest the author’s entire oeuvre) because of that line, just as people are making the Envelope Call on Confederate. I don’t need to open this envelope of worms, because I have already seen the signs that point to Terrible, take it away.

Perhaps in your head those signs point to a giddy wonderland of reading or viewing pleasure. People vary; my one-click may be your one-strike-you’re-out. Perhaps new information will come along to change my mind. Maybe Confederate won’t be a calamitously bad idea in practice, though I fail to see how.

But the world is full of media and art clamouring for our attention and our money. We constantly sort and winnow and judge based on the idea, the blurb, the envelope, because that’s all we have time to do. And the idea that anyone is in any way obliged to do more than glance at the envelope is creative entitlement of the most nonsensical kind.

It’s our time and our money, and we can judge how to spend both precisely as we see fit. Which means we all have the right to cry: That looks terrible. Take it away.


My latest release is Spectred Isle, a 1920s m/m paranormal romance. You have to buy it now you’ve heard that it exists, because if you choose not to you’re judging it without reading it, and that’s censorship.

11 replies
  1. Bren
    Bren says:

    When I ran the school library, I used to do a class with the youngest students (13 year olds) about the well-known phrase ‘don’t judge a book by it’s cover’; I’d point out that actually we ALL do that and that there are people that are employed JUST to design the covers, the typography and so on and, while wearing my graphic artist’s hat, I’d give examples of poor covers as well as excellent ones and explain that the appearance and design of books are just as much part of fashion and trends as clothes, computer games, film posters and so on. When you have five minutes to choose a book (which was all the students had, unfortunately) you have to make snap judgements. I’d continue the class by pointing out that some of the school library books looked shabby and out of date, but that the stories were well worth reading, and in those circumstances, read the blurb! It always generated a good discussion on book design.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Quite. If we didn’t judge books by their covers a lot of people in cover depts would be wasting a lot of time.

      Of course a book’s cover is basically an envelope written out by someone else, and as we know covers can be grossly misleading or ill-judged, but that’s where publishing professionals [are meant to] earn their pay…

    • Ezzy
      Ezzy says:

      Covers are also ‘written’ in code. Everything from the font, to the art style to the choice of what they depict tells you what kind of story it is. Over time you learn to speak the code. On most covers you could replace every word on it with Rhubarb, and still be able to tell what genre it was.

      Swirly font and pictures of fabulous women at the beach? Summer read
      Earthy colours, pic of a helicopter and lettering that should be made of steel? War book.
      Headless naked manly torso coloured with red and black? What I’m about to read next.

      (Not that you can’t play with that code. People can, and to great effect)

    • Kerry
      Kerry says:

      That’s actually supported by library science literature (for what that’s worth). Updating covers sells classics. Also, so does the Valentine’s themed blind date display where you cover the books and sell based on synopsis. I’ve taken plenty of books out based on an artsy cover and/or catchy title.

  2. Elide
    Elide says:

    I’m not even entirely sure I’d label it as judging. As a side-effect of being human you tend to spend a lot of time with yourself, assuming a minimal level of introspection, you’ll have a solid handle on your preferences, biases and opinions. You know what you like. Assuming you don’t willfully close yourself to any info that might genuinely change your mind, which is problematic, this is basically how we navigate life in general from entertainment to love to jobs.

    For example, if I were to read a blurb along the lines of “After years of bloody war King Harold returns to his kingdom in victory only to find his rivals have abducted his beloved daughter, Henrietta. Harold and his sons must stand together as a dark conspiracy seeks to strike at the heart of him and his kingdom” I know with 98% certainty I am going to hate it.This is because I know, from 24 years of experience, that I am going to seethe with frustrated impatience every page the princess is not saving herself either by guile or by stabbing something. I just have zero patience for that kind of pat/cliche/traditional/cookie-cutter stories. Or, alternatively, that she was behind the abduction in the first place and she’s leading her dad/siblings into a trap cuz she wants the throne. Hmmm, actually are there any books working from that premise? xp

    Out of curiosity what kind of envelope invites immediate rejection?

  3. KJ Charles
    KJ Charles says:

    Warning signs may include envelopes that obviously have stuff in them that isn’t paper, especially if it feela like confetti or glitter. Envelopes where someone has tried to “make them stand out” with stickers or pictures. Comedy fonts; wacky ink colours; Jagged Handwriting of Rage, particularly when done in biro that has ripped the paper; excessive sealing with far too much impenetrable packing tape, nonsensical forms of address. Also if it smells noticeably.

    And sometimes it can be a plain typewritten envelope and you still look at it and think…uh oh.

    • Eli Lang
      Eli Lang says:

      I was going to ask what it was about the envelopes that said ‘No way,’ to you, too. 😀 (Now I’m somewhat relieved about my own envelope-sending, also. *wipes brow*)

      This is an excellent post–thank you for bringing out logic and reason, as you always do.

  4. Hart D
    Hart D says:

    I don’t like the trend I’ve noticed in romance novel blurbs of faux content warnings, in general. Something like: “Warning: contains a spunky heroine, a cute puppy, and a hot mechanic!” I feel like these mock the whole concept of content warnings, and I usually avoid books that do this (my own Envelope Call, I guess). I looked up the book you’re writing about and it does have a full content warning, but that line you quoted is completely ridiculous – it seems like it’s trying to shame people into reading the book.

  5. Abbie
    Abbie says:

    I agree with you. However, this post made me chuckle, because I nearly missed discovering your work because you hit one of those hard lines for me in an opening scene. The first book of yours I picked up was The Magpie Lord, and that book opens with a suicide attempt. One page, and I was out. Nope, nope, nope. I am a hard sell on suicide. A book has to earn suicide – really earn it. And no book has earned that in the opening scene. I particularly dislike suicide as a ploy to make us feel sorry for a character, which is how I perceived your opening scene in that book. So I deleted it off my kindle.

    And Amazon kept recommending that series to me. Over and over until I forgot why I had deleted it and tried it again. And I was like, “Oh yeah, this” and stopped reading again. Again, Amazon kept trying to sell me your books. I think it was the third time that I finally read the few pages required to get past the suicide scene, and then I was hooked. I’ve read almost everything you’ve written at this point, and I’ll be so sad when I run out. (Live long! Write more!)

    But, for me, opening with a suicide attempt was a mistake. A flat out mistake. Maybe it was candy for some people. Maybe it drew them in. But it was so off-putting to me that you nearly lost me. But I’m glad I came back.

    I have no interest in The Confederate. I grew up in the American south. I went to high school in MS. I had quite enough of that, thanks. But sometimes a snap judgement is a mistake and you miss something wonderful. You are wonderful. Thanks for your stories.

  6. Franzeska
    Franzeska says:

    We used to play ‘Does the dog die?’ with books at school. (That’s the name we gave the game, but it was a more general guessing game about how traumatizing an assigned reading book would be and how much it would teach us to hate all books and the act of reading itself.)

    The presence of the dread awards stickers would always increase the likelihood of it being a book that adults thought was Improving–and therefore of the dog and assorted relatives dying in ways that were unenjoyable to read about. Mainly, we judged based on the style of the cover art: wood block print-looking thing of a figure alone in a canoe against some scenery? Okay, that one is about a teen whose parents die (horribly) and who then ends up lost in the wilderness and befriends an animal that also dies (much more horribly) by the end of the book. PASS! Vaguely photo-realistic child cavorting with dogs? Probably some Where the Red Fern Grows-level animal harm. PASS!

    Of course, we were aided by the knowledge that any book that adults want to foist on children is generally designed to teach children never to read for fun ever again, but as far as I remember, we had about a 90% success rate guessing what the books were about, even when we made overly specific guesses. Cover art is, after all, designed for the express purpose of helping you judge a book by its cover. I try to be tolerant of small press or self-published m/m because a terrible cover there does sometimes hide a good book, but a major publisher’s covers are usually pretty representative of the content.

    The best advice anyone ever gave me about creating art was to think like an audience member, not a sensitive baby (aka a creator): If it doesn’t look enjoyable in the first two seconds you encounter it, it’s dead. Period. Life’s too short.


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