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Do You Judge a Book by its Cover?
Cover of Susanna Clarke's new book, The Ladies of Grace Adieu

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 . . . ]

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The first disconnect I had

The first disconnect I had with one of my own covers was with my second novel, The Matter of Grace.  The cover of this book is a lovely beach scene, footprints on the sand, straw hat cast aside.  Very nice really.  But there is no beach in the story.  A pool.  Yes, a swim club pool.  But no beach.

Later, as I went on with my career, I had this happened again.  With One Small Thing, a lovely cover with a boy and his dog.  No dog in the story.  With Walking With Her Daughter, a mother on a beach with her daughter, except the daughter by the time the beach rolls around has died.  The Instant When Everything is Perfect has a woman about ten years and 20 pounds different than my main character.  Romances?  The three men on the first trilogy are supposed to be brothers.  They may very well be, but they had different fathers if that is the case.

I no longer think of my covers as reflections of my books but marketing tools, and I never buy a book for a cover or judge it by such.  Being an author has taught me that!


Jessica Barksdale Inclan www.jessicabarksdaleinclan.com

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words of experience

Your post is making me wonder if this is a very different story for fiction writers vs. poets.  I tend to focus on whether the cover symbolizes the contents appropriately -- you're pointing to the equally compelling question (not as relevant for poets) of whether the cover illustrates the people or events in the narrative accurately.  I'm interested to see how this plays out as others (I hope) respond...  Thanks, Jessica!

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It's true

Every time I notice how artwork/fonts/colors are drawing my eye, I vow to someday take stock of what, exactly, lures me. Someday hasn't come.

Weirder is that when I'm looking for books on my own shelves, my eyes gloss over ones that aren't sufficiently eye catching -- even just the spines. I can be looking for "I Feel Bad About My Neck" but my eye can skim right past its spine toward something flashier. I miss something that's right under my nose.

Re author photos: This is really interesting. My author photo on Red Room is one that I had submitted as the author photo for my last book. Sometime later, my agent found out and objected strenuously. She said she's convinced that photos with animals in them can cause a lot of non-animal-lovers to immediately dismiss you. She happens to be the agent who represented "Marley and Me" -- one of the best-selling animal books of recent years if not ever. She's also really smart and I trust her completely. Though it was a little late, we got the Penguin to change the photo.

Re cover art: I consider myself VERY lucky. My books have, in my view, extremely good-looking cover art: Flashy and sassy and cool (http://www.grammarsnobs.com/mmss.bmp and http://www.grammarsnobs.com/ggss.jpg). They're by the same artist and similar in a way clearly designed to "brand" me. I'm all for it!

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Here's June to remind me immediately (if indirectly) of the whole umbrella genre of non-fiction prose that I was overlooking in my response to Jessica!  Yeah, your covers really are catchy.

I checked out your "grammar snobs" website recently, by the way, and was interested in how different your author photo was from the one you use here in the RR -- interested, but not surprised.  I love the picture of you and your cat!  But it always seems that author photos need to be formal and "portrait"-like -- or, when "casual," still highly stylized to indicate the author's sophistication or mystique or even down-to-earth-ness (whatever the persona is that they want to convey to readers).  I admire those few authors (often poets, I'll admit, but that's because I read more poetry than other things) whose book cover photos are very attractive, yet seem pretty "candid."  This is not to say that your "author photo" looks stuffy or cold -- just that it looks posed, as does my own.  I don't know what to think about the pros and cons of having one's cat in the picture -- I just know that I myself would never choose against a book on that basis. (But then, I'm a cat lover!)

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Thank you

Yeah, if I ever meet the artist who did my covers, Pascal Blanchet, I'll hug him. (I'm only 99% sure it's a him.)

I used to think that people put tons of effort/attention into which photo to use, which photo goes where, etc. But the disconnect between the author photo and the here photo is mostly because the website went up years ago, back when that photo was fresh. When I signed up here, I naturally gravitated toward a newer one.

The posed/formal look of author photos is interesting. And a bit of a conundrum for me because my books are humor books. I almost wanted to do something ridiculous, but decided to play it straight.

I guess Red Room is a chance to be a little more experimental/casual. For example, my Red Room bio is one I seriously considered have in the book: one smart-ass sentence. But ultimately agreed with others that people reading a bio want to learn something about you, not just read a joke. Play it safe there, cut loose a little here. 

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I know covers get me to buy.  I like subdued type-faces and colors--something that looks academic will urge me to buy.  Also the shape of a book.  The chunkier it is, the more I am likely to pick it up.  But I also love the elegant slimness of chapbooks.The truth is, I don't get to browse bookstores much as we lost all but one independent.  I buy online.

Thanks for the perspective on the ganster-themed covers.  Asian books are invariably given a red cover and not long ago, that awful font called "Chopsticks" was used to signify Chinese script.

I've had 90% control of art on the cover of my own books in America since I am the artist (tho' not the book designer), but a German paperback edition of "Baba" put slinky brocade, abacus, a fan and other pseudo-exotic Chinese-y material on the jacket.  I didn't like it, but I guess that's what attracts the Germans.

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I know what you mean, Belle!  People lose their minds around these stereotypes -- as if they simply stop thinking and just go on auto-pilot.  Even when it's a huge reach!  For example, I have a poem called "my life as china" that was produced as a broadside earlier this year.  The reference in the title is not to China, the nation, but china, the stuff in the cabinet in your dining room.  (Obviously, there is a connection, but still . . . )  I recently went to get a copy of the broadside framed, and the frame store owner kept trying to steer me towards these choices (in terms of the style and color of the frames) that would, in his words, "give it that Oriental flavor."  Heavy sigh.  What century is it on his planet?

Maybe the gangster covers and the hyper-eroticized covers do sell books.  But they also sell a load of b-s about African American culture.  Who profits from these sales -- and who doesn't?