Cover story that leaves authors out of picture
Financial Times June 21 2007
When Storm Thorgerson, the acclaimed designer of a host of ground- breaking album covers, published a book of his artwork earlier this year, he was relieved to be able to design the book jacket without hindrance.
The man behind the images for albums such as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon did not find it so easy the last time he published a book. “I did a book called 100 Best Album Covers for Dorling Kindersley and the original cover was rejected by retailers,” he recalls. “I was so upset. How can a retailer know more than the artist about what suits a cover?”
As the music industry celebrates the most famous album cover in history this month with the 40th anniversary of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – designed by Peter Blake – the contrasting roles of authors and music artists when it comes to cover design look increasingly stark.
“In the music business, even if the band is not a big name, the record company is happy to let them choose the cover,” Mr Thorgerson says. “It’s beyond me why that isn’t the same in publishing.”
As well as authors typically bowing to the wishes of their publishers, publishing houses themselves have been paying increasing heed to retailers.
“The paperback is overtly commercial – it has to sell a lot – and the cover design does involve the trade,” says Joanna Ellis, marketing director at Faber and Faber.
When one UK bookshop chain told Matthew Kneale’s publisher Picador that it did not like the jacket for his new novel, When We Were Romans, published this month, it was changed without complaint. Mr Kneale, who won the 2000 Whitbread Book of the Year for English Passengers, told the BBC that the retailer “felt it looked too much like a book for children and not enough like a book about children”.
Similarly, author Amanda Craig found the original cover for her last novel Love In Idleness rejected by US retailers because they feared it would offend the religious right: the cover featured an unmade bed. Time Warner Books changed it to something less redolent of illicit sex.
Book retailers tend to be conservative and to demand covers that fit into identifiable categories. Though publishers are reluctant to go on the record to criticise supermarkets and chains, privately they admit that getting new ideas past buyers is tough. “If Asda says it would order 100,000 copies with a different jacket, you change it. Simple as that,” admits the marketing and sales director at one of the biggest publishing names in the world.
In part, authors’ powerlessness lies in the fact that a jacket can sell a book. While musicians are sampled through radio play and as background music, a book sale depends on a reader being enticed to open its cover.
“If an album doesn’t achieve its sales target, the sleeve won’t be blamed,” says Orla Lee, head of marketing at Polydor UK. “With a book it is a different kind of impulse buy and the jacket matters.”
If retailers try to assert their power with record companies they receive short shrift. When Mr Thorgerson shrink-wrapped Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here in black plastic the reaction from the US retailers was hostile. “The US record company was furious about this and rang up in the middle of the night to demand we change it,” he recalls. “The UK record company said that is what the band want and the album went on to sell 16m.”
Terry Felgate, managing director of EMI Records, says: “The artist always has creative control and as a company we would always want to support that.”
However, the increasing power of televised book clubs such as that hosted by UK daytime chat-show presenters Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan has given rise to new sources of influence to compete with the retailers. Amanda Ross, the producer of Richard & Judy who selects titles for its Oprah Winfrey-style book club, has become a powerful force in the industry. Sales of Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea rose by 350 per cent after it was reviewed on the show. And Ms Ross is challenging booksellers’ traditional caution over design.
“Last year I got to the stage that if I had seen another woman in costume with no head and the title in a slanty script I would have thrown it across the room,” she explains.
As she sifts through 700 titles for each choice, she feels she is in a better position than publishers or retailers to judge design. “We get a real snapshot of the publishing industry and often the covers are similar. Television is visual so we think in terms of what will catch the eye,” she says. Ms Ross’s emphasis on attention-grabbing originality will be music to the ears of Mr Thorgerson.