Smells Like Teen Caffeine

Alison Morris - October 21, 2007

(STOP! Before you read this post, please read "Starting Over from Scratch (A Correction)," which I posted on 10/30 to correct some of the information contained below.)

I was going through a publisher’s catalog a few weeks ago with one of our sales reps, when the discussion turned to a title on the spring list that will feature—yes, it’s true—a scented dust jacket. A scented dust jacket. The book in question is a novel largely set in a coffee shop, and the dust jacket will smell like coffee. I kid you not.

While I was rolling my eyes at this nasally invasive marketing scheme, Lorna—who buys our "grown-up books" at the desk right next to mine and had overheard the whole conversation—jumped in with, "I’m sorry, but I think scented book covers are a true sign of the Apocalypse." I get the giggles every time I think about that remark. Plague of locusts or scented book covers?

While it’s probably hyperbole to put odoriferous dust jackets on par with, say, famine and pestilence, I do agree that this is going too far. Can you imagine what bookstores will smell like if other publishers decide to follow this lead, adding whiffs to their wares? For us booksellers it’ll be like working in a pack of Mr. Sketch markers or the headquarters of Yankee Candle. Having colored with the former and visited the latter I can tell you that my nose couldn’t spend 8+ hours/day with either. Yankee Candle proudly refers to its South Deerfield, Mass., location as the "The Scenter of New England," and I’d prefer we didn’t rival them for that distinction.

I do find it funny, though, to imagine what scents one might apply to specific novels or (why stop there?) works of non-fiction. Of course books with an edible angle lend themselves to some obvious odors: The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies, for example, or Sharon Creech‘s Granny Torrelli Makes Soup. But it’s much more entertaining to think of less obvious flights of fragrance. The Eyes of the Amaryllis by Natalie Babbitt could smell like the ocean, for example. And Looking for Alaska = cigarette smoke. (Mom: "Have you been smoking again??" Teenager: "No, just reading John Green‘s first novel.") Other suggestions?

There’s a reason I can associate these books with particular scents, though, that’s got absolutely nothing to do with their dust jackets—the writing in these books brought their settings to life. Their authors successfully followed that old "show, don’t tell" adage, which I suppose could also be restated as "tell, don’t smell."

If I’d written a novel that was largely set in a coffee shop and my publisher wanted to put a coffee-scented jacket on it, frankly, I’d be a bit insulted. While I’m sure this publisher’s very savvy marketing team never intended to suggest that their soon-to-be-scented book has any shortcomings, I can’t help but wonder whether scenting this book is giving it something it doesn’t have or forcing it to do double duty. After all, if the writing in this book is up to snuff, it oughtn’t need any help with setting the scene for its readers.

What do you think? Am I wrong? And if not, where do we draw the line? Vibrating YA novels, perhaps?

5 thoughts on “Smells Like Teen Caffeine

  1. Ellen Richmond

    I, for one, hope this doesn’t become a trend. As someone with allergies and a real sensitivity to odors (as more and more people are!), I dread the thought of my bookstore starting to resemble a Yankee Candle store. Actually, I might just deal with those books on a special order basis….and not even give them shelf space.

  2. Sam

    Scratch-n-sniff covers could be fine — why should only kids get to have the fun? But I completely agree with you about covers that are scented like those horrible perfume cards in magazines. Ugh.

  3. Beth Revis

    Hmmm…I can see where the publisher is coming from; it IS a good concept. However, I’d be worried about the after effects. *remembering old scratch-n-sniff stickers* Eventually it’s not going to smell good at all; in fact, sometimes they end up smelling rather foul, which may ultimately turn someone off from buying the book. Perhaps offering scented bookmarks with the book is a better idea than scenting the jacket–a bookmark is disposable, and can be more easily discarded than a jacket.

  4. Edith Tarbescu

    I have a lot of allergies and would not buy a book with a scented cover– unless it smelled like lavender. Only joking. If I wanted a lavender odor, I would buy the plant. I hate those scented cards in magazines, tear them out ASAP.

  5. ShelfTalker

    Beth, I love the idea of offering a scented bookmark over a scented jacket. That gives allergen-sensitive folks an “out” without having to skip the book entirely. I’m also flashing back to when Penguin created HORRIFYINGLY GROSS car air “fresheners” for The Stinky Cheese Man that smelled like (what else?) stinky cheese. Gross as they were, they were brilliant — such a funny idea — and a scented marketing promo. that I fully applauded. Had they scented the book’s jacket like stinky cheese, though, I’m not sure Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith would be quite as well-loved today!


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