To tell or not to tell?

Who knew that that would be a question occupying book promoters' minds? But to judge from a couple of fall books beginning to make the rounds, the idea of withholding information about books seems seems suddenly nobler than the usual practice of disseminating it widely.The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, coming from David Fickling Books at Random Children's, is a YA novel about... well, I'm not supposed to tell you. "We think it is important you start to read without knowing what it is about," explains the jacket copy, which then goes on to say, cryptically, that if you read the book, you'll be taking "a journey with a nine-year-old boy called Bruno," who arrives at a mysterious fence. That the jacket features the infamous blue-on-blue stripe of said pajamas may alert the smart people in the room as to just where this story is headed.

So why doesn't Random House just come right out and call John Boyne's novel a fable about a concentration camp? Because, Fickling told me earnestly, he wanted the reader to live "in the moment," and that he wanted the finished book to re-create for readers how he had felt upon discovering the manuscript. "Manuscripts don't come with blurbs," he said. Publicity people have been told not to say much about the story and reviewers are asked at the very least not to give away the (harrowing, disturbing) ending.

So I won't say any more about the plot of the book. Instead, I'll opine about the wisdom of marketing a story by proclaiming it a secret. It's tricky business—remember The Crying Game?—and unless the book itself proves especially good, or shocking, or powerful, you run a serious risk of getting whipped by a backlash. The other book: a first novel, Academy X, that Bloomsbury will publish this fall, sans the author's name, because, the Bloomsbury people told us, he's afraid revealing his identity would distract from his story. Really? It seems to me that unless the mystery man is Frank McCourt (who taught in New York City public schools and for whom this would not be a first book), nobody is really going to care. At least Fickling's book is aimed primarily at children, who are generally less cynical about both hype and anti-hype and come to these things with far fewer preconceived notions than the rest of us. (No comment about the adult booksellers, reviewers and parents who will likely see it first, though.)

Still, I think this mini-trend may suggest something beyond the obvious fact that book promotion is very hard and that publishers are desperate to find new roads to readers. I think it also addresses the notion of promotion in the age of information overload. Having internalized the idea that in the kingdom of the overhyped, the anti-hyped is king, we're all struggling to behave counterintuitively.

Which may mean: If you want to get heard these days, you have to be quiet. But then you'd better announce loudly just how quiet you're being.

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