Category Archives: covers

3

Stereotype versus Archetype

Earlier this month, at Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace conference, I was part of a panel discussion on “ethnic” writing with four very talented writers, Adam Stumacher, Qais Akbar Omar, Jennifer DeLeon, and Celeste Ng.  As you might imagine, I was—for better and worse—the designated voice of the “marketplace,” and I tried to address the commercial considerations of publishing books that John Cheever didn’t write.

At one point, the issue of cover design came up, and Ng, whose novel EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU comes out from Penguin Press this June, said she felt fortunate that her publisher created a cover refreshingly devoid of elements (bamboo leaves, jade figures, gold coins) that seem to be the go-to images for books by Asian writers. I noted that there is an analogous complaint about books that engage Islam, an overwhelming number of which feature the image of a veiled woman. A couple of days ago I spotted this blog entry that illustrates, quite effectively, that “all books about Africa have the same cover.” This same entry also cites blogger Marcia Lynx Qualey, who provides a gallery of covers featuring ladies in burqas.  

Book covers perform a function; their job is to be visually arresting, instantly evocative and appealing to a consumer. Most rely on archetypal imagery that stands in for larger ideas, and broadly communicates a book’s themes and settings. A cover design is effective not because  (or not only because) it is original or “accurate,” a cover design is effective if it sells the book.  And yet, inasmuch as I am a voice of the marketplace, over-reliance on the same set of images—images that reflect back and shape our own imperfect notions of a place, a faith or a culture– seems problematic. I think publishers need to be careful to avoid trading in stereotype, rather than archetype.

What do you think? Do you see similar done-to-death themes in other “ethnic” or international literature? 

6

Perfection

Just now on Twitter I came across possibly the most perfect line of copy I’ve ever seen:  the revamped cover from Atheneum/S&S Children’s of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret contains the tagline “Growing up is tough. Period.”

Atheneum, I salute you!

“Growing up is tough. Period.”

If you’re not familiar with the book you probably weren’t a preteen girl post 1970 and you also might not know that this, perhaps the most perfect book I read in all of elementary school, is about a girl trying to figure out her religious identity while facing the many struggles of puberty.  (I read it young enough that it was my first introduction to what was coming my way, and I remember having to ask a lot of questions, including interrupting a roomful of people to loudly ask my mother what a sanitary napkin was.)  The copy is coy enough to not offend, except perhaps those who already try to get the book banned for being honest about complicated things, and you can hardly market to that crowd.  It cleverly alludes to the contents for those of us who grew up with it and might need to go snag some Judy Blumes on the way home to re-read this weekend or give to any preteens we know.  And it’s smart since it gets people talking—when I googled it to find the cover image, I saw that the sites that covered it when the new editions were revealed all acknowledged it.

Writing any kind of marketing copy is hard.  As agents, we have to draft it for our pitches to publishers when trying to sell books, and as rights director I often have to write it for foreign or audio submissions (either because it’s too early for publisher-generated copy or because different markets will need a different approach).  It’s one of the toughest things about a query letter or a sales pitch.

So when it’s just right, well, I think we should all give kudos where they are due.  Congratulations, Atheneum, because that’s a stroke of genius.

Ever seen any book copy that made you sit back and take notice?  Share the brilliance with the rest of us below, please!

1

Friday fun

You guys, it’s summer, it’s Friday, and roughly half of publishing is on a plane to one of a small number of conferences/signings/events.  So it seems best to go for happiness and joy for today’s blog post, right?

And what could be more pleasantly inane than Flavorwire’s slideshow of classic children’s books adapted to star Parks & Rec characters?  The illustrations are by the clearly delightful Jennifer Lewis (@thisjenlewis).  They all amused me, but I have to say #10 is definitely my favorite, and I let out an audible “HEE!” at #12.

Not a Parks & Rec fan?  Then what about this Design Observer list of the UK’s best 50 book covers of 2012?

Covers not doing it for you, either?  Well, there’s another mysterious book art sculpture in Edinburgh, says Abe Books.

And if that doesn’t fill your heart with joy, then I can only hope you’ve got Summer Fridays in your world and can take this afternoon to relax, read a book, and remember what happiness is.  Happy weekend, everyone!

5

What’s with all those women’s backs?

A book’s cover art is one of the most important sales tools in our business – it must appeal to the potential reader just as other forms of advertising do.  It needs to be attractive, descriptive and, in my opinion, original.

Over the last year, I thought I must be imagining the fact that a huge number of my clients’ book covers were featuring women’s backs; at first I thought this was interesting and unique – and it was also inviting, urging the potential reader to imagine what the books’ heroines looked like.  Then, I noticed that almost all I was seeing were covers with women’s backs on them.  I didn’t say anything about this until about a week ago, and then in one of our staff morning meetings I asked, “What’s with all these covers with women’s backs on them?”  In the beginning, I guess this conveyed a certain amount of mystery.  And I know that authors often would prefer that the characters they portray in their novels be imagined by their readers rather than literally depicted on the covers.  But so many backs?

My colleagues laughed and pointed out that a number of years ago covers used to feature cut-off heads.   And, then then there was a spate of covers with only landscapes on them.  All for the sake of mystery and imagination.

Finally, yesterday, the New York Times Magazine picked up on this phenomenon in the piece “Show Some Spine” by Chloe Schama.

My question is:  where is the originality that I remember in book jackets and covers when I began in this business so many years ago?  Isn’t using the same device on all of these covers making them more difficult to tell apart and therefore sell?  Finally, what is the next trend going to be? – it is time to do something different, after all.

12

Covers and gender

Not sure what’s in the air, but there’s been an awful lot of chatter about covers and gender lately. Lauren just sent me a link to this piece, and then there was this, which reminded me of this.

I’m forever fascinated/disturbed by the accepted wisdom that boys don’t want to read about girl characters, but girls will read about anything. First, I’m just not sure it’s true. I don’t think we have the marketing information to back it up. But second, and more importantly, if that is the case, what the hell are we all doing wrong in raising our boys? Are we still such a sexist society that for girls to read about boys is acceptable, but for boys to read about girls isn’t manly?

The pieces above raise interesting questions, and I’m curious to hear how you think this affects you. Do you think your audience is limited by a gendered cover? And do you find yourself writing for one gender or the other purposefully? If so, what do you think that means for our culture?

3

Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

You may have read that the reception to the 50th Anniversary cover of Sylvia Plath’s THE BELL JAR has been less than welcoming on account of being more akin to the cover style of the chick-lit genre. Reaction to the cover has moved through the spectrum of anger, derision and even parody. Out of the many critiques, the general feeling seems to be that the cover dilutes or misrepresents the content and dark subject matter of Plath’s writing. What surprised me, perhaps naively, about this whole debate was that those most vociferous in their abhorrence of the cover, were intimately familiar with the text. So much so, that they had assumed a role of custodian over the text, arguing that the cover should reflect what lay beneath and not stray from that path.

Now, the reaction to this redesigned cover was articulated by generations of readers who identified with the work and had personal memories with which the new ‘chick-lit’ like cover had no resonance. What about newly released books, though? Their covers have no history, so to speak–they are there to draw the reader in, tempt them to open the book to the first page, and ultimately purchase that book.

As the Plath incident shows, there is no universal design that can satisfy everybody. Which is why I was curious when I came across the piece in the Millions that examined the difference between US and UK covers.

Being a Brit living in the US, I feel unofficially qualified to pinpoint and understand the difference in covers and offer an explanation. The result: I can’t. In fact, I preferred the majority of the American covers. I’ve racked my brains, and all that I can say is that my judgment is based on purely aesthetic taste, whether it be on the type, composition, colors, or images; rather than national sensibilities that I grew up with “across the pond,” or have picked up while living in America.

What kind of cover draws you in? What’s your favorite cover? And have any redesigns of your favorite book stirred your emotions – good or bad?

 

5

A writer’s life

So, it’s December, which means it’s list season—in other words, the blog posts write themselves (I wish)!

Well, rather than look at the best-of-2012 lists (which would end up showcasing how few of the best-of-2102 I’ve actually read), I thought I’d share this little piece from Jason Pinter on the Huffington Post on the great and not-so-great aspects of being a writer. It’s all good fun, though I do find it a little disturbing that so many of the “great” things involve validation from other people—and that so many of the “not-so-great” are external as well. Do you find that to be the case, too? Are there any great/not-so-great things you would add to the list? I’d imagine writer’s block would fit in somewhere…

And for more good fun, DEFINITELY check out the bad book covers link he mentions!

 

11

Judging an eBook by its Cover

 

With an increasingly digital marketplace for books, is cover art no longer a priority? According to Chip Kidd, Associate Art Director for Alfred A. Knopf, cover design is a dying art.

This recent piece from NPR explores the idea that as eBooks increase in popularity, the importance of a great cover is waning. (As a side note, Chip Kidd is responsible for some iconic book covers, including JURASSIC PARK and NAKED.) Kidd says that people often check out a specific eBook because of a great review or a recommendation—not because of the cover design. So in a rapidly digitizing world, a great cover is no longer a priority. (And there are some really, really bad ones out there.)

A bad cover leaves me with a bad impression about the book—if you can’t bother to put the effort into making sure your book looks good then why would I want to read it? And that is something I always emphasize to authors in our eBook program—a bad cover will never help your sales and even turn readers away. So I find Kidd’s words kind of surprising. Do you think eBook covers are still important? How do they influence your ultimate decision to buy (or not)?

 

7

Cover talk

“It’s about baseball. A person who likes to play baseball but also takes care of a plane. ”

Obviously, we are talking about the classic novel Catch-22 here. Or, at least, that’s what could be inferred from the iconic cover. Through the eyes of a six-year-old who hasn’t yet gone through an English class or lit course, and so has no frame of reference for well-known works of fiction, the possible subjects and plotlines of various novels were discussed on this post from strollerderby the other day. The inferences the little girl makes based solely on the book covers may seem ridiculous at first, but after taking a step back and forgetting everything you know about the books already, could actually be feasible…for most of them. I’m not entirely sure about the “very hairy eagle who hangs out with fancy ladies” in Steppenwolf, but many of the others could certainly be argued for.

Once you’ve clicked through them all, and after the laughter has subsided (meaning, I’ll see you in a couple of hours), there’s really a lot to be said here for the importance of a book’s cover. While, of course, the actual text is what makes a book what it is, the cover is what draws the reader in. So much depends even upon the typeface, color, whether there’s a picture or not. Even if a cover is agreed upon as a “good cover,” in that it’s aesthetically pleasing, gives an idea of what the book might be about, etc., assumptions about the contents as well as the audience for the book will always be made. Genre-specific books tend to have a similar look about them, in order to get people who love romances, sci-fi, Westerns or thrillers to pick them up off the shelf, despite what the flap copy says. If a YA book and an adult book have basically the same storyline, just with the characters at different ages, it’s still almost immediately obvious which book is which, simply by looking at the cover.

Almost universally, unless the book is by an author I’m already familiar with, a book’s cover determines whether or not I even pick it up off the table or shelf. That’s not to say I haven’t read books with unappealing covers, but they always tend to color the way I approach an unfamiliar novel. For example, one of my favorite books, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, has, in my opinion, an absolutely terrible cover. I bought that book along with several others, and it remained at the bottom of the pile until I had no choice but to start in on it. I approached it reluctantly, not even sure why I had purchased it in the first place, and was only half-invested in the words on the page for the first couple chapters—until, of course, I realized how much I was actually enjoying the story and went back to read parts that I know I hadn’t given much attention to.

As much as we’re told not to judge a book by them, covers are important. There’s a reason publishers are constantly putting out their own, updated versions of the classics to appeal to the younger, contemporary market. The text inside is still the same—it’s still Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, Jane and Mr. Rochester, Dr. Frankenstein and his monster—but each time, it looks like an entirely different book geared towards an entirely different market.

How much are you affected (honestly!) by book covers? Have you ever been tricked into thinking you’d like a book because the cover made it look just so darn good? How about the reverse?

7

Naughty books

A few weeks ago, someone who saw me reading on my Kindle while my son had his karate class asked me if I’d heard of a book called Fifty Shades of Grey.  As I usually am when anyone asks me if I’ve heard of a book and I haven’t, I was a little embarrassed (never mind that with a gazillion books published every year, it’s not possible to know about every last one of them or that my memory for titles and authors’ names is shockingly poor for someone who, well, works with titles and authors—do I sound a little defensive?).  I asked her what it was about and she told me it was a romance that she was trying to get a copy of without success.  I suggested Amazon and promptly forgot all about the discussion.

Of course, I now know that Fifty Shades of Grey is the latest publishing phenom (an allegedly not very well written kinky sex fest for Twilight fans who thought the vampire saga was too squeaky clean, according to Jezebel) and that Vintage has plopped down a ton of money for the print rights to a book that is currently selling like hotcakes…online.

Which raises a number of interesting questions.

As the Wall Street Journal  points out in a piece about the rise in sales of books that women have traditionally been embarrassed to be seen reading in public, e-readers have made sales of romance and erotica skyrocket precisely because of the privacy they afford.  So, how wise is a seven-figure investment for print rights to a book that people may not want others to see them reading?

And, does all of this mean that books in these categories will go exclusively digital in the near future?  I know lots of smart, professional women with a weakness for what we used to call “bodice rippers” in the good old days (before Kindles and romance branding) who didn’t want to be caught dead on the subway behind a cover of some buxom lass being ravished by a half-naked Fabio type.  I can also imagine all the soccer moms who don’t want their kids to know what kinds of books they’re devouring while they extol the virtues of Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter.

Personally, I do think that e-readers are liberating in that way.  In my line of work, I occasionally have to read things that may be a little hard to explain to casual acquaintances or even my six-year-old.  What about you guys?  Do you find yourselves sneaking around reading naughty things on your e-readers?  And, do you think this is one of the “intangibles” that publishing people have overlooked when trying to figure out the value of e-books vs. print books?