The Integrity of Book Jackets

by Steve Potter
Commercial Trading Manager at The Book Depository

Above left: Deborah Lawrenson's book Songs of Blue and Gold published by Arrow Books.
Above right: TVFH mock-up cover for the book by Fossfor.

A discussion on book covers prompted by Deborah Lawrenson's book above.

As book jackets become more and more generic, it becomes harder to ‘never judge a book by its cover ’. And whilst this is not a problem for those authors /genres that would want to be identified by specific themes – Crime, Science Fiction and Fantasy for example – it is more problematic when cover art is alienating half of the book’s potential audience. Worse still, when it is the audience which the author wanted to reach out to in the first place. There will, of course, be authors and titles that are aimed very much at a gender specific audience, as the annoyingly named ‘chick lit’ testifies – but what of books with cross gender appeal? And just because women represent the majority in terms of book buyers, does it really make sense to jacket a book with a purely female audience in mind?

It is, of course, indicative of a wider issue – as what publishers are striving to do is pass muster with buyers at the high street chains, many of whom – with first time authors in particular – will look straight past the synopsis and concentrate on the cover ( and I shamefully admit to having been guilty of this myself on many occasions .) Jacket images are as much driven by booksellers as by book buyers.

The money spent on jacket design (as well as editorial, sales, marketing etc) ultimately has to be recouped in sales. And herein lies the dilemma for any author / publisher in terms of the integrity of their book jackets.

As we are all too aware, retailers operate around seasonality and offers to attract customers, and we are just around the corner from the annual 3 for 2 Summer Reading promotions that will dominate bookshops for the next few months. In the current economic climate, books – even at full rrp – represent fantastic value for money. But for many, if a book is part of an offer, it becomes that much more compelling and it is here that the jacket image needs to do its job.

Book buyers have always responded well to recommendation – and that is what the book jacket has become. A recommendation based upon the style of the jacket – the jacket will tell the reader all they need to know without even having to consult the blurb. For many low frequency book consumers – 2 to 4 purchases a year, generally for holiday reading – the images on a book’s cover can be more compulsive than the plot. Generic jacketing has allowed books to become an impulse buy.

But book jackets need to be seen – they need to be featured in that 3 for 2 summer reading promotion. And here is the vicious circle, because they won’t ever appear stacked high on tables at store fronts unless the jacket image has ticked the appropriate boxes that tie it to the theme of that promotion - and as such they will continue to be generic and uninspiring.

So, whilst publishers and designers will say their ambition is to create stylish and innovative covers, the reverse seems to be true. Stereotypical jackets are increasingly the norm – and one can clearly see why publishers and retailers would want to continue with a formula that sells books, but couldn’t they be selling a whole load more by not alienating half their potential audience?

The best example I can think of are the books of Douglas Kennedy – whose jackets bear an uncanny resemblance to Deborah’s, the same designer perhaps? Here is an author that was given the typical ‘summer reading’ treatment to appeal to a mass female audience. And yet, Kennedy is a writer whose novels are set against the backdrop of pivotal moments in history, often have a mystery element and are in parts real page turners – in other words, books with definite cross gender appeal.

In essence, the book jacket has morphed into something that conforms to perceived stereotypes – blokes read books about war and action heroes and women about love and sex. Ultimately there is nothing wrong with jackets being genre specific – one only has to look at the original Penguins which were differentiated by colour and are now considered to be classics of their kind. Though it does seem silly to pigeon hole authors by cover image alone. That being said, I am sure that Kennedy is not complaining – with the aid of targeted jackets his books have moved from midlist at best, to key frontlist / promotable titles.

Independent booksellers and the smaller presses, by their nature, tend to fall outside of convention – and that the two continue to exist will ensure that innovative writing and stylish design will flourish. An example that seems to typify this difference is that of Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost.

The success of this book can be attributed to many factors – not least that it is a stunning novel. It found its early success from the support given to it by independent booksellers and the quirkiness and originality of its jacket. That the cover stood out, and did not hint at any gender inspired content, ensured the book garnered fans of both sexes. As the book gained its more than deserved success, it was rejacketed and given what in my opinion is a much more non descript , almost non-fiction feel. The quirkiness of the original jacket seems to add life to this book, whereas the new one seems to be much more along the lines of the generic covers we increasingly see. All that aside, I would encourage everyone to read What Was Lost , regardless of which jacket you find.

In all – it seems that the gender specific jacket is here to stay. And who can blame publishers, when jacket images allow their books to sit in 3 for 2 promotions – titles which otherwise might have languished in mid list obscurity. The main concern is that the potential book buyer is being put off by the cover, and this seems a great shame – particularly as some of my favourite fiction in recent years has been found hidden behind a book jacket that was definitely not aimed at me.

It could be that as the importance of the jacket image for web based bookselling – where every cover is available to view – becomes more apparent , that we will see more innovative and inspiring jacket design come to the fore again. Until then we should, after all , never judge a book by its cover.

Steve is Commercial Trading Manager at The Book Depository
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A word from Deborah Lawrenson to TVFH on her covers ...

I love the new cover design. It captures the essence of the book: the dreamy literary aspect and the colours and word-pictures that were an important part of writing about "Lawrence Durrell", aka Julian Adie. As a reader, this really appeals to me as well; the gorgeous sea-greens, blues and yellow would certainly draw me closer to it on a bookshop shelf. Intriguing, too: abstract becomes a recognisable image. Very clever and lovely.

But I can completely understand why Random House published with the cover they did. They would say this one is too "literary hardback" for a wide commercial audience. For a them, it's all to do with author branding and recognition, and theirs was a design to match my previous novel for them, The Art of Falling.

My beef is with the publishing-wide obsession with branding, target marketing and following current trends, often dictated - deep breaths - by the now hugely influential supermarkets. It meant that Songs of Blue and Gold was pushed out last August (summer read! beach scene!) in sea of similar covers broadly aimed at the lucrative women's beach-read market. Sadly it also ensured that many people (including men who are interested in Lawrence Durrell) who subsequently raved about it, would never, ever have picked it up in a shop.


Stella said...

Interesting piece!

I usually dislike the artwork on the covers of sci-fi and fantasy - often they make it look like you're reading something trashy and/or juvenile.

Jen P said...

This was a great piece.

There's an interesting parallel article in The Bookseller, in which they (Damian Horner, founder of Mustoes and publishing marketing consultant and Little, Brown creative director, Duncan Spilling) talk about jacket designers not even having a title to work with when they design covers, and how the title affects the design.

Bookseller jackets article

kathleenmaher said...

I'll need to start paying closer attention. Too often the books I read have a plain white or beige pre-publication cover or else they're battered old things from the library with a loose green weave material covering cardboard.
But I know it makes a difference and probably affects me more than I know. Last summer we car-pooled to a yoga retreat with a young woman who insisted she would never read a book with a shiny cover. She was devoted to the matte texture. I wasn't sure why it mattered until later in the conversation: smart people read matte-covered books. Shiny covers looked trashy to her. Her vehemency surprised me, but for all I know she might be right.