Friday, 24 June 2011

A Book By Its Cover

Today a family of Chinese tourists came into the store and insisted on having a picture taken with myself and my co-worker, as though we were tame animals or interesting pieces of architecture. It is disturbing to think that, because of this, we have been inserted into their precious holiday memories for ever more; in fifty years' time, when they are leafing through their photo albums, they will come upon the horrible grinning picture of the two of us, look at each other and say, "Who the hell were those bitches?"

My only consolation is that I was wearing my new Great Gatsby t-shirt (eyes right, if you please, for the full effect), so at least the middle section of me was looking presentable. Book cover t-shirts are our newest non-book selling venture, and I think the ones we've got in are quite brilliant (here's the supplier's website if you want to have a look). I was hoping we'd get the Hound of the Baskervilles one in, since it has a satisfyingly floppy and hound-like dog on it, but in its absence I went for Gatsby. True, Daisy's eyes do stare blankly out at the world from the lower part of my bosom, and when I put it on I am probably aligning myself with roughly a million unique hipsters, but it's such a wonderful cover that I truly don't care. It's a picture of the
girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs,
 - which is the book's in-joke reference to its cover, rather than the other way around: apparently Fitzgerald saw the cover art before the book was finished and liked it so much that he wrote the image into one of his descriptions of New York. Fitzgerald, by the way, was a proto-hipster himself - he coined the phrase 'jazz age' to describe the 20s and seems to have spent most of the decade mad drunk, using long words and talking about the meaning of life. A hipster if ever I heard of one.)

And that, in a very roundabout way, brings me to what I had meant this post to be about in the first place, which is book covers, and how much they affect the way people read. Of course, there are people who claim that covers, like clothes, do not matter - it is what's on the inside that counts. These people are sweet, and well-intentioned, and they are also completely out of their minds.

Until I was about thirteen I bought into this notion, fed me by my mother (who is American - this may or may not be relevant), at which point I realised that although appearance certainly does not reflect inner goodness, there is a lot to be gained in life by not looking as though you have just emerged from a witch's lair and/or the 1970s.

The same is true for books. A book can be beautifully written, but if it looks like ass then very few people are going to want to get close enough to it to discover this fact. Conversely, you can disguise almost any content within a package that promises a certain reading experience and people will go mad for it - and if you don't believe me, consider the recent re-release of Wuthering Heights, cunningly disguised as teen romance.

Its target market might not typically touch a Bronte with a bargepole, but because the cover of this edition tells them that it's Edward and Bella's favourite book, their minds are suddenly filled with desire and they buy three copies on a whim. Or at least that is the theory. (Even though I'd love to get snooty about this concept, by the way, I'm fairly sure that the Brontes would have gone absolutely mental for Twilight, given their fondness for angry, brooding males. Much as I hate to admit it, this is one bit of marketing that they are probably heavily endorsing from beyond the grave).

Book covers can also totally influence the way you think about a particular story for ever more. When I first read Jane Eyre, when I was twelve, I had the old Penguin Classics edition, a painting of a girl sewing in a garden. Now, beyond her taste in clothes and her punch-a-hole-in-a-wall-with-the-power-of-her-mind stare, this girl bears no physical resemblance to any of the book's descriptions of Jane, as she is a hefty lass with a hint of monobrow, but all the same she has become absolutely and forever my mental image of Jane.

These days I get irrationally annoyed whenever I see any other Generic Out Of Copyright Painted Lady taking her rightful spot on the front of Jane Eyre. Even worse, my Jane has now been given a gig pretending to be Dorothea on the front of Penguin's new edition of Middlemarch. SinceI know that Jane Eyre, if called upon to do so, could take Dorothea Brooke down, this is deeply offensive to my mind.

A good book cover, I think, ought to be eye-catching, good-looking and go some way towards explaining to a potential reader what the book is really about. One of my all-time favourites is Penguin's cover for On the Road, which is just brilliant in its simplicity.

Here is a book, it seems to say, that is all about male friendship (friendship? friendship), with main characters that are closely based on real people who have been elevated into Icons of Hipness. They're badass, they're cool, and don't you want to buy this book and become just like them? I bet you do. I know I do. Or maybe I just really fancy Jack Kerouac.Whichever.

So, in conclusion, covers matter. A good one can boost sales and a bad one can crush the selling potential of its book like a bug. If I had to make a list of my favourites I'd be here all day, but some of the ones I'm fond of at the moment include: Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke (so blue! so swirling!); Rachel Hunt's Mr Chartwell (the dog looks like Winston Churchill, genius); Alexi Zentner's Touch (I am a sucker for gold leaf) and the repackage of China Mieville's backlist to coincide with the release of Embassytown (I just want to buy them all because they are so creepily attractive.)


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