A novel way of selling fiction

1867, Canada: as winter tightens its grip on the isolated settlement of Dove River, a man is brutally murdered and a seventeen year old boy disappears. Tracks leaving the dead man’s cabin head north towards the forest and the tundra beyond. In the wake of such violence, people are drawn to the township – journalists, Hudson Bay Company men, trappers, traders – but do they want to solve the crime, or exploit it? In this stunning debut, Stef Penney deftly weaves adventure, suspense, revelation and subtle humour to create a book that is at once an exhilarating thriller, a panoramic novel, a study of the human condition and a keen murder mystery.

Does that make you want to read The Tenderness of the Wolves? The problem with fiction, as I’ve noted before, is that if you want a good reading experience there is no strong reason to buy something by a ‘debut’ writer like Stef Penney. There are already more novels by authors with good reputations than most of us could read in a lifetime; and even better most of them can be bought cheaply in second-hand bookstores. So why take a risk on first-time novelist based just on the publisher’s hype (‘stunning’, ‘exhilarating’, ‘panoramic’)?

Penney’s publisher, Murdoch Books, is trying to get around this by adopting a sales pitch I don’t recall seeing for books before: a money-back guarantee (pdf). Superficially, this opens them to reader dishonesty – you could enjoy the book and still get your $29.95 back, because Murdoch isn’t going to bother proving that you did in fact like it. It’s not like a manufactured good for which there can be objective tests as to whether or not it functions properly.

But in reality it is probably a shrewd move, since a money-back guarantee is a strong signal by the publisher of confidence in its product, but in practice even people who don’t like the book aren’t likely to bother recovering their $29.95. To get it, you have to send the book to Sydney, which would cost a few dollars in postage and packaging, do it by the end of June, and wait up to 8 weeks for your cheque to arrive. How much hassle are people prepared to go through to get $29.95 in two months? For most us, not much.

The money-back guarantee won’t affect my fussiness with fiction – what’s valuable to me is not the $30 but my reading time – so I will stick with my usual method of relying on the opinions of reviewers I trust. But for the budget-constrained reader it is a sales pitch that might just help Stef Penney overcome those first-time novelist doubts.