Lionel Shriver- author of the excellent prize winning book We need to talk about Kevin- recently wrote an interesting take on how gender influences publishing strategy.
The article covered the myriad of ways that publishers patronize women by specifically requesting covers they think appear ‘feminine.’
Her issues ranged beyond book covers, but the description of how carefully publishers tailor their book covers got me thinking about that subject. Not in the gender-specific sense as Shriver did, but in a much wider way.
Book covers can suck you into a world you would never have joined in the first place. They can be intriguing, subtle, aggressive, tasteless, childlike...a book cover can go straight to your psyche and reel you in.
I recall with fondness the second-hand books my mother used to buy for me when I was a child. Sometimes the covers were stripped down and plain with a single striking image on the cover (With titles like ‘CAPTAIN BUNKER’s GHOST’). Others like (the Moses series) by Barbara Kimenyi (set in an all-male Ugandan boarding school) had a similar principle, but with its black and white figures on the front giving the books a touch of mystery.
Often however, they were colorful and exotic with more going on than your mind could take in without repeated viewing. In either case, the covers often opened up vistas of imagination and adventure long before I had even started reading the first page. You had-in effect- started reading the book before you had started reading it.
Even the most unsubtle covers could win me over. There was something charming about series like (The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew) because their covers had all the subtlety and nuance of a hammer to the head. Villains with guns, heroes or heroines hiding in fear, explosions…there was a brutal honesty about the way they presented themselves.
The same principle applied when I was growing up. What amazed me was how attractive a book could be with even the most basic cover. Two of my favourite books- (1984 and Catch 22)- have the kind of stark covers that some would consider bland, but which thrilled me when I first picked them up. And I am still drawn by Penguin classics book covers.
Those who have visited the book section at Nakumatt Supermarket can probably attest to the classy nature of those covers which often look like Renaissance-style paintings and which are always careful not to give too much away (One great example being Mark Twain’s (Tom Sawyer).
No one can make book covers as classy as Penguin did and I’ve bought many of their books on the basis of these tasteful covers. Science-fiction also tends to leverage the glamour of the genre by having startling covers – Isaac Asimov and Philip.K.Dick to name two tend to have the kind of book covers that can make even a non-fan stop and contemplate buying their books.
I guess it’s pretty much how advertising works-getting to parts of your brain you are not fully in control of. On the other hand, some books succeed despite having ugly and forbidding covers- (The Da Vinci Code) for example.
Perhaps that is why I am distrustful of books whose covers and back are almost completely covered with glowing reviews (‘one of the best books of the year!’ ‘You won’t be able to put it down!’ ‘Gripping and suspenseful!’ ‘Her best book yet!’) It feels almost like an intrusion.
Even worse is when a new edition of a book is rushed out because of a film based on it, with the cover often showing a scene or poster of the film.
It is a dispiriting synergy that violates the very essence of the book cover. A good cover isn’t just a spark for the imagination- it is also art on its own terms.
Minega Isibo is a lawyer