Friday, March 5, 2010

Book covers

Amazon's Omnivoracious blog compares covers of US and UK editions of some titles, an idea the writer picked up from another blog called The Millions which did 2010 and 2009 versions. So now I'm disappointed that we didn't get the British cover for Netherland which is so much better than the American. It also makes me wonder about the decisions behind some of them. The US cover for Stockett's The Help is so bland that I didn't realize until recently it had been getting good reviews - it just looked like more quasi-romantic churn. Moore's A Gate at the Stairs is almost as bad in the US version and while I don't think the UK's is too much better it at least looks like something you wouldn't be embarrassed to be seen hauling around.

I get a daily newsletter called Shelf Awareness of bookstore news and every week they quiz some author with a set of standard questions. One is "Book you've bought for the cover" and surprisingly most respondents say they don't buy books based on the cover, almost as if they'd been asked to divulge some slightly disgusting fleshly proclivity. Not a huge majority answer this way but perhaps a bit over half and the thing is that I think they're lying. Now I can imagine "normal" folk not buying based on a cover but writers? Book people? This is our STUFF and pretty much every writer and remotely dedicated reader connects to the physical book in a way that I assume those normals do to cars and clothes. Why even pretend that the cover had no influence in a decision?

I'll have to admit that I rarely buy books purely for the cover alone, at least not since a high school binge where Frazetta covers in the used store meant an instant purchase. Partly this is because I already have too much. There have been a few recently that tempted me, especially those Penguins with the comic artists covers - Ware, Sacco, Jason, Millionare. And the recent cover for Under the Volcano with its Day of the Dead skull though the temptation is at least partly because I was thinking of re-reading it and that would be a good excuse.

But there are also covers that work against books, not merely bad covers to forgettable books (of which there is an endless stream) but ones for books worth reading. Michael Shea's Nifft the Lean is a wonderful, sharply written novel but the cover made it look like the most generic heroic fantasy and a reissue as The Incompleat Nifft was possibly even worse. A friend was reading one of the Flashman novels while riding the bus to work and said she had to wrap it in brown paper because she was afraid somebody seeing just the cover would think it was racist (which you'll know isn't true if you've read any of the books). An entire post could go to textbook covers because they frequently look like somebody just grabbed an image from the stock library. In fact I know for sure that happened in at least one case where our store had a sociology book where the cover was a group of multi-ethnic young people having a grand old time on what looked like a beach. A few months later we got flyers advertising some kind of travel service that used the exact same photograph.

And I might as well mention my all-time favorite textbook cover: the geek joke for John Taylor's Classical Mechanics.