I was in a small-town, independent bookstore yesterday, browsing the shelves with no specific plans for purchasing. Lingering in the sci-fi/fantasy section (where you can often find me!), I was considering buying a book by a newish author I did not know, the first in a trilogy (or series -- I'm not sure) set in a world that seemed intriguing (though not particularly distinct from the typical swords and mages setting), when another book caught my eye. It was red, to begin with, and had no illustration except a little drawing of a flower in the center. There was just an odd-sounding title (The Ladies of Grace Adieu) and the author's name (Susanna Clarke) in cream-colored letters, in a font that immediately struck me as familiar.
Some of you may instantly recognize Clarke as the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a huge fantasy novel that came out a couple years ago to strong praise and lots of attention. My memory is not that great. : ) I read and really enjoyed Clarke's novel -- it was definitely not the run-of-the-mill fantasy story -- but Susanna Clarke's name didn't stick with me firmly. Still, in the bookstore, I stopped and put down the book I'd been considering and picked up the one that had caught my eye -- I knew I recognized that font, that style of cover, and I felt like the association was a positive one, though I couldn't put my finger on it . . . . Well, once I checked out the cover more closely, I saw the small print at the bottom identifying Clarke as the author of a book I'd bought and enjoyed -- a book whose cover had exactly the same sort of design -- just title and author's name, in a color that contrasted sharply with the background color, and written in that same font.
Yes, I walked out of the bookstore with the Clarke book (a collection of short stories set in the same world as her novel) and not the one I'd seen first. And I realized that the marketing had "worked" on me -- that the publisher's marketing department had wanted exactly that to happen. More interestingly (given my dislike of typical advertising), I was glad -- I hadn't heard through any of my usual channels about the publication of Clarke's book, but thanks to this marketing move, I ended buying the fantasy book I would have most wanted to buy, had I known, coming in the door, that it was out.
This happens at the end of a week in which I've been reading (on several blogs and listservs) about the collapse of a publishing contract between a small independent press and the poet who won their annual poetry book contest. I'm not so interested in reviving attention to that controversy for its own sake (though it is thought provoking -- Google Stacy Lynn Brown and Cider Press Review, if you like); rather, I mention it because one of the (several) problems that exploded between press and poet had to do with the look and contents of the book cover (in particular, the back cover as the site of -- potentially -- blurbs, an author photo, and/or info on the book prize that the poet had won). Both parties to the dispute, as well as many poets and publishers who have commented on it around the blogosphere, felt very strongly that the matter of what appeared on the back cover was important enough to warrant the poet's concern: i.e., that people can be drawn to buy a book of poems because they are in some way drawn to the author, as represented in her photo.
I know that writers care deeply about how their books look. (I believe there have been a couple of posts about that here in the Red Room in the last few weeks, actually.) I'd love to hear stories and testimonials about that, certainly. But I'm most interested today in hearing about how you (writer or not) respond to book covers yourself. Do they actually influence what you buy, in concrete terms? Are they reliable indicators, in your experience? Does it matter what genre or subject we're talking about? (For me, for example, I respond most negatively to books in the African American fiction category that have strongly eroticized or "gangster"-themed covers. That marketing strategy pisses me off, because its prevalence on the shelves these days suggests that the publishing industry thinks that those types of stories are the only ones that black people -- or people interested in black literature -- want to buy.) Have you ever been seduced by a book's cover, only to wish after reading it that you could get your money back? Tell me about it!
[UPDATE: Finished Clarke's story collection -- found it absolutely charming, for most of the same reasons I liked her novel so much. It was all too short, frankly. I'll be craving more from her until a she publishes again . . . ]