Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Something I missed ...

... We do judge books by their covers. (Hat tip, Maxine Clarke.)

Some years ago I wrote a column on this very topic. This little bit got me into some trouble:

Say it's Sunday morning. You stroll down to the local drugstore to score the morning newsprint fix, and while you're standing at the counter waiting to pay for it, you take a glance over at the book rack. There, prominently displayed, is Fabio, flexing his pecs on the cover of something called Passion Fruit.
You know immediately that the book so adorned is different from, say, Portrait of a Lady. Fabio is on the cover to make sure you understand that. Notice they didn't put him on the cover of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. Notice, too - and make of it what you will - that no one thought to put Hawking on the cover of Passion Fruit.


  1. Frank,

    In your former life as a book review editor, buried in gondola loads of books that were never going to be reviewed, didn't you judge nearly all books by their covers?

    Distributors and bookstore buyers make purchase decisions based almost entirely on the basis of covers, usually months before the books are available, often before they're completely written. A poorly designed or executed cover will doom even a great book to instant oblivion.

    Perhaps you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but it's a canard to suggest that you can't.

  2. Interesting query / theory, DM; but, for the record, book-review editors (and, by extension, reviewers) usually don't see covers because they're generally on the receiving end of galleys or page proofs. Frank describes an observation he imaginarily gleaned in a local drugstore, not in his office. (Often, publishers of advance-release catalogues use mock-ups or generic images to accompany descriptions of upcoming volumes.)

    I found this assessment bang-on, though; the cover's plug-ugly; and, I immediately thought of Art Durkee's spine-tingling revelations in a discussion here earlier this year on cover design and thought (cue twilight-zone tones), the universe is serendipitously serenading some one or who. (But, Art, we were on the same page about a book about covers since I recently read a review of exactly *that* book, in The Times or Telegraph, IIRC. Bet DL would know . . .)

  3. CED,

    I know it used to be the case that reviewers got bound galleys. My understanding is that in the last few years, virtually all review copies have gone over to ARCs, with color covers.

    Maybe Frank will offer a guesstimate as to the percentage of white-cover bound galleys vs. color ARCs these days.

    In any case, publishers take covers seriously, often paying more for a cover design than they do for producing the whole interior or printing the first press run of the book.

  4. You're abso-deffo correct, DM. I see ARCs more and more; OTOH, since I generally review poetry, I often see finished covers since there's usually no great rush to review same, as you prolly know.

    One lovely ARC I did receive, though, a fact which speaks more to name-checkery than value a priori? Michael Ondaatje's collection of poetry (which was later short-listed for a Governor-General's Award). Lemme think, it was called . . . tap . . . tap . . . tap . . . oh, gotta G'ogle . . . Handwriting.

    Yeah, Frank's out schmoozing at some fancy-schmancy luncheon; what else is news . . . NOT?! I'd be interested in hearing what the ratio was by the time he retired, too; he did say it was several years ago he was wrist-slapped, though.

  5. I was just at the paper last week and the bulk of the galleys remain the plain old uncorrected paperback variety. But the publicity material usually includes a shot of the cover and he's right, even as a review editor a good cover was likely to catch my eye. I don't think one ever influenced me to review a book, though. I reviewed some books because they were books you had to review - the latest John Updike novel, that sort thing. Others because of a hunch or a personal interest or because the publicist's pitch was persuasive (some of those people are very good - and often surprisingly reliable).
    Lots of reasons and lots a factors.

  6. Okay, Frank, thanks. Hope yer luncheon was lively and delish.

    Makes sense; and, I stand dunce-capped in the gutter :). I am sorry, DM; but, I do appreciate your civil and gracious correction. The good news is that I did find that review of book covers and I kinda doubt DL would've paid much attention to it, given its context / content:

    "As Mills & Boon celebrates its 100th birthday, a new collection of cover illustrations reveals how all those blushing virgins and square-jawed heroes have evolved over the decades. Louisa McKay is gripped . . .":
    (Telegraph, 15 August romantically sexy-covers edition)

    Hrm . . . how in the hell could the tag writer resist ending that lead-in with "her bodice is ripped?" Harlequeen preen.

    Not only did I not review books based on their covers, over the years editors stopped sending along pub bumpf and press releases because I refused to read those, too; preferred to make my own decisions and often, the biggest prob was how many pages a book contained, BION.

    IMO, a book contains as many pages as it contains page numbers (prelims included, natch) and, IIRC, both MLA and CMoS agree with me; not according to publishers who argued the blanks figured in the count. Nit-pick-wits in their throes of octagonies. Weird bizth.

    And, yeah, Martin tends to work the same way you did, Frank; he feels compelled because of ad revs to pay attention to "branded" authors; but, he's often gone out on limbs based on what he reads in the roots and shoots — ladders, leaves, and chutes? — but, he's championed several authors now considered not-to-miss bliss. Good on and for this country's collective body of work (which shrinks daily, ISTM). End of glory. Another sorry story.

  7. You're right, Judith, I didn't pay attention to that article, but I did this one because of its being linked to by Peter Robins in his "Should you judge a cover by its book?":

    "The great chick lit cover-up":

    "Publishers are now adding chick lit-style covers to any book written by a woman, whether it fits the genre definition or not."

    And those postings reminded me of something I read in a posting by Patrick Kurp about finds he made at Powell's, "The City of Books":

    'Another gem: Caught, also by Henry Green, originally published in 1943, but I found a Berkley Medallion paperback from 1960. The brown pages smell reassuringly musty but the real prize is the cover: A sultry, disheveled blonde, apparently unclothed, lies under the covers, arms crossed behind her head. She looks stage left, yearningly. Superimposed over her image and the entire front cover is a fishing net. Get it? Caught? The cover is pure pulp and so is the accompanying tagline: “A Novel of People Enmeshed in the Passions of Wartime London.” I hope Green got to see it. By 1960 he had already published his last novel, but would live another 13 unhappy years. The cover price is 50 cents. I paid seven times that and would gladly have paid more.'

  8. Ah, DL . . . Anything the Dalkey Archive publishes deserves attention and respect. I think Shoemaker & Hoard recently sold itself to the press, not necessarily a bad thing because it keeps David Markson's work circulating.

    Patrick Kurp really touches upon the heart of the matter when he describes the Green cover, though; and, that word, "enmeshed," just seamlessly pulls the sleek synchro-feel of it all together, IMO. Noticed georgyriecke left a comment about a Green three-book omnibus he couldn't bring himself to read because of its cover. T/Here's an example of what I want called PrickLit or DickLit (but, I like the Dick in DetectLit better).

    I compulsively read the Telegraph's Peter as well as Sam Leith; and, I did follow that discussion on the Guardian blog as it progressed, noting the systemic sexism of such as Chairman Mills as well as despairing, a little, concerning what seems to me to be a near-pathological passing of the druck-buck mentality. Compelling, Dave; but, you do know how irksome quirksome jerksome I consider this ChickLit label to be. (You remember the kerfuffle over Smiley taking Warner to task earlier this year; so, I won't belabour it except to revel in the recall of the eventual disclosure Smiley was practising PKBullshit after her own ChickLitter-lookin' book appeared.)

    How sadly bankruptured our literary arbiters (and I use the term loosely) have benumbly become: There's an entire visual world out there with so much to offer, if only its producer-pushers or focus-groupie sales-forcers could see/k quality over quantity when it comes to the hi-pri schlox of lowest-common-denominator dynamocks.

    What really impressed yours truly in the ChickLit commentaria was when "SnowedUp," Emma, MD for SnowBooks, laid it on the bottom line and offered up her top-notch perspective vis-à-vis the slop-glop that had shaped same. She was eloquent, patient, convincing without raising her caps, a really classy dame who acknowledged she was caught between a hawk and a high place in the pomo-mindset publication game. Really liked her POV and acuity.

    And, yet . . . those noir covers were the pinnacle, IMO; and, any self-respecting producer of books (through the entire mood chain) could take a page from that kind of exquisitely thoughtful design.

    (My most-cherished Chandler Murder cover's one of the original paperback editions . . . Pocket Books? Signet? Damned if I can remember right now and it's under a tarp since I got uncovered when half the roof got blown to smitheruins during a storm last month; but, insurance will cover most of it, thank keerist.)

    Sex sells (and, interestingly, Digital Arts recently ran a longish exegesis concerning that statement's implications: "A dash of raunchiness is certain to get your work noticed, but at what cost? We examine the pleasures and pitfalls of using sex in your designs."):


    (I hope you didn't already read this, Dave, you're so finger-on-pulse of it all, breathtakingly so; but, I would've said "teaser-pleasers and licketty-splat pratfalls" in the above synopsis.)

    Yes, oh, yes, she said, though, yes, yes, yes. ("No, no, no, no, no." :).)

    Sex does indeedly swell-sell; we all know that; IT sells everything from toothpaste to hush puppies to fertiliser; but, what those classic designers also knew, probably intuitively so?

    There's a difference between "sex" and "gender" in terms of appeal; and, reverence factors into that drool-worthy equation. A great cover, a temple almost — respectual worshipry? — an I-catcher cover such as the one Patrick describes featuring on the Berkley Medallion edition of Green's Caught, really compresses the essence of what I think he feels and I mean by reverence, a basic aesthetic decency (honouring inspiring / instructive truth and timeless beauty) which has nada to do with morality — or he writes / she writes — and mucho to do with veracity, longevity, and The Book of Eternity. There's a razorfine line on those fishnet stockings; it's the difference between crass and class. Ballard calls it all the veronicas of our mutilated inventions / intentions or perversions; I'm paraphrasing; but, I think it's simply the difference between slush-mush and the imaginatively seductive p/lush-rush (in the finest senses of that tactile phrase).

    I did like some of the covers on the Boons & Mills books, not to mention les noms des plumes; a couple or few proferred up a tongue-in-cheekiness that speaks to the subversive side of me. Because I'm a target in the sex-seller game? Doubt it. Most likely 'cause I'm just as much a sucker for a natty pair of ballistic eight-denier fish-net stockings as the next dame.

    I justify the length of this comment by the good news insurance will cover the damage yesterday; so, half a drenched house trumps a royal flush; but, we are construction — not deconstructively speaking — city for the next week or so . . . shingles, tar paper, adhesive, flashing, yum! (IOW, I will be able to read but not yap for a while; see you when I'm — ahem — under better cover — urgh — and the roof's redone.)

    JF a.k.a. CED
    "A publisher's role is to get our authors' writing in front of readers." (Emma, MD, SnowBooks)