I'm currently enjoying a book, The Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton, that I almost didn't read because of some of the ways marketing can go wrong. I'm happily reading it now because well done reviews can help right that wrong.
The Ninth Daughter is first in a new historical mystery series featuring Abigail Adams, wife of future President John Adams, in pre-Revolutionary War Boston. A setup which sounds fairly domestic and, well, cozy, creating certain expectations for me about the type of story inside. Especially since its publisher is a primary source for the few historical mysteries that run cozy enough to demand that label in fairness to prospective readers. Historicals as a rule run middle of the road traditional in tone.
The cozier than I'll like feel was emphasized by a cover which was also on the cozy side. Not actively cutesy-cozy, mind you, but a domestic scene rendered with an intentionally soft-edged look (such as my cynical side imagined was meant to mirror viewing life through cozily rose colored glasses), reminiscent in style of other cozy historicals from this publisher. I'm not sure why, but a medallion portrait of the heroine at the top reinforced that idea.
The similarity in style probably means it's just a sort of "house look." Which also means I probably shouldn't read too much into it. Except that's the point of "branding” with a house look—using a pattern to create expectations and assumptions. Doesn't guarantee they'll always be the right ones, of course. Which my cynical side notes is also part of the point. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck as it fluffs its feathers at you, you're not likely to to expect a giraffe to appear. The look is supposed to make you think in terms of other things they offer that quack and waddle and fluff, precluding any thoughts about skilled use of duck calls and paste-on feathers.
Anyway, the cover branding in this case did a few things wrong. Not only did it mislead me about the relative coziness of the story inside (And don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that the story I'm reading is really Revolutionary Noir, all about lurking in shadowy lanes made mean by more than the biowaste from Paul Revere's horse passing by. But it does sit more toward that traditional mystery middle I expect and prefer.), it also left an equally offputting impression of the book being as much or more about packaging and marketing as storytelling and writing. The medallion definitely was part of this, feeling more or less like the historical mystery counterpart to a recipes and patterns inside banner across the top of a modern cozy.
Hadn't occurred to me before, but having to go with a house look (and there are other publishers who clearly have one) has to be an additional source of frustration for authors already upset at lack of power to pick their covers. Lack of control over them is bad enough, but being forced to reach out and embrace a cookie cutter on top of that (can I mix a metaphor or what?)...
Another key bit of marketing gone wrong involved the author name. It's a pseudonym. I understand the reasons people use pseudonyms, but I also understand how maddening they can be for readers. Rarely over being fooled into picking up a book by an author you know you hate, even though that's one of the reasons they're used. The frustration is almost always about missing out because you don't know a book is by an author you love. Had I known initially that Barbara Hamilton was aka Barbara Hambly, I'd have been more interested in the book and MUCH less concerned the other issues.
There was one last key marketing point I found offputting, although I'm fairly sure it was supposed to work the other way—real life famous person as protagonist. From my experience, most historical mystery fans give the idea a thumbs down, although I could see it being more popular amongst those who don't read widely in the genre. I think the problem is that the person in the book never matches the portrait we already have firmly fixed in our head. That's why this usually works best with secondary or bit part players on history's stage; people we don't know as well or have as many expectations about. I found Abigail Adams fit this category nicely as I actually read, where what I knew about her turned out to be just enough for the portrait and relationships to ring true, but not enough to create annoying conflicts.
So why did I finally end up reading this book? Well someone on a discussion list mentioned it and someone else reviewed it, and the book they talked about certainly didn't fit the one I'd imagined it was. I discovered the aka while researching to add the book to the historical mystery site I run, piquing my interest. And that lead me to go out actively looking for more reviews. Not all of them consistently liked the book, but the issues they did have were not the concerns that made me avoid it. And while I don't trust every review by every stranger, if there's a consistent pattern in what enough of them say (or don't say), you can at least trust that pattern. So despite the publisher's worst efforts I started reading.