One of the myriad joys of foreign rights (beyond the mixed blessing that many of the people I want/need to contact right now are spending the month on vacation) is getting to spend time perusing foreign book covers. The ones I love most are the ones that emerge from their packaging to a chorus of “Whaaaat?”s. So I was pleased to stumble across this delightful piece by Sam Kean in Slate about his efforts to understand how his book on the periodic table of elements wound up with a cover in China that features smiling anime sperm. Instead of just sharing the joy and confusion with others, as I usually do, he actually tracked down the designer and asked her to explain. In the end, it actually makes much more sense than I’d have guessed it ever could, and her explanation sums up quite clearly what foreign book covers try to do: “I have to build a bridge to connect our culture to your book!”
But while most publishers are admirably bridging a gap, some make choices that are strangely, impenetrably delightful. My first experience with this was years ago when Michael handed me a foreign edition of a thriller we represent to send to the client. Then I noticed something odd. Christian Slater was on the cover. With Minnie Driver. The publisher had, inexplicably, used a totally unrelated movie still as their book cover. Leaving aside the questionable legality of doing so, it’s a very dubious choice. Unless Slater and Driver are some kind of cult heroes in Russia, I’m not sure why that was supposed to be a selling point for the novel. In Holland, one author’s books are stunningly gorgeous, designed just for that market. Her publisher always asks her opinion before finalizing the cover, which is actually quite unusual in foreign publishing. The author’s reaction to the latest cover draft was something along the lines of: “I love it, it’s beautiful. I really don’t understand why they keep putting wolves on the covers, since there’s nothing remotely wolf-like in the books. But don’t tell them, because I think the covers are great anyway.”
Book covers are, if nothing else, a glimpse into what the publisher has decided the book can be successfully marketed as. In foreign publishing, sometimes things get lost in translation, but at times others are gained. Like a wolfish Minnie Driver subtext the author could never have imagined.