HOW TO SELL IT LIKE SARAH JESSICA
The Independent on Sunday may 2005
You might write like Baudelaire, but you’ll be sold like baked beans. That’s where book jackets come in, explains Danuta Kean
If you really want to see the white of an author’s eyes, ask them about their book covers, because few things in publishing can rupture relations between writer and publisher like covers can. Stories abound of retailers turning down titles for lucrative shop front promotions because the covers were “not right for their market”, or, as is alleged about one high street retailer, because the background colour was clashed with the rest of their display.
Cover design meetings in publishing houses are among the most fraught. Scott Pack, über-powerful head buyer at Waterstone’s, was invited to sit in on one and witnessed a full-on row about penguins – the bird not the book variety. “The proposed jacket had an artist’s illustration of a penguin on it and they were getting really heated about whether the penguin had the right expression on its face,” he recalls. As tempers frayed, Pack was asked his opinion. “I told them that it was a rubbish cover whatever the penguin’s expression.” The cover was dropped.
When W H Smith told one romance novelist’s publisher that her cover “was not right for them”, the publisher redesigned the cover 30 times in the hope that the retailer would relent and stock the book. “After all that, Smiths still didn’t take it,” bemoans the novelist.
Supermarkets are most likely to nix designs. Tesco books buyer Caroline Ridding is credited with causing more sleepless nights in the design department than anyone because she has such firm views about what will shift off her shelves. “If retailers say they won’t stock your book because of the cover, you would be silly not to listen,” admits Nick Sayers of Hodder & Stoughton. He adds candidly: “99% of the time the booksellers can survive without a book, but a book can’t survive without them.”
Covers provide a bruising reminder for authors of the gulf between art and commerce. They may write like Baudelaire, but they will be sold like beans, warns Philippa Gregory. “When you are sitting in your study for two years writing the best you can, you are an artist. When the publisher takes it out into the world it is a very different experience. They are marketing it at a level where someone like Tesco or Smith’s will choose it as a product to put on their shelves.”
And when it comes to flogging product, presentation matters. Covers are the best advertisement for a book. With more than 125,000 new titles published each year, most of which will not be reviewed, their job is to seduce readers into picking them up and taking them to the till. Get the cover right and the book will be propelled into bestsellerdom, the design setting trends for years to come. Get it wrong, and a book will languish on the shelf, yet another piece of bookshop wallpaper.
A glimpse down the list of recent word of mouth hits proves what a cover can do – regardless of what is inside. Louis de Bernier’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-time, Kathleen Tessaro’s Elegance and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code all had iconic covers that spawned a thousand imitations. A flood of Me Too designs featuring freehand typefaces followed in the wake of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, from encyclopaedias – How to Do Just About Everything – to novels – Pauline McLynne’s latest The Woman on The Bus. Back in 1996 the clever-clever cover of Martin Amis’ The Information, which featured no copy just an “i”, was blamed for the book’s failure, despite Amis’ half million advance.
Nowhere is the design pack instinct more obvious than in chick lit, where the spidery cartoons on pink or green backgrounds started by Marian Keyes’ Rachel’s Holiday and Lisa Jewell’s Ralph’s Party have been replaced by female body parts. Gone are the quirky little cartoon girlies and in their place are legs sticking out like stumps from sofas and beds – see Adele Parks’ Husbands – or tripping over handbags or toys – see Pascale Smets’ and Benedicte Newland’s And God Created The Au Pair. Even Jilly Cooper has had the body part treatment for her latest, Prudence, except in this case it is a limbless torso that manages to sinisterly manages to keep hold of a clutch bag.
Blame Sex and the City says Jennifer Richards, senior designer at Time Warner. “The show made women want to look cool and sophisticated, and we should make books appealing in the same way,” she explains. Books are no longer simply a good read, but an accessory. The same is true for men’s fiction: how many full-blooded males would read a book with fashion on the front? Instead they read hard-edged thrillers in no nonsense brown or black, real books for real men from Iain Banks to Ian Rankin, Dan Brown to Andy McNab..
Publishers hit pay dirt when covers create a brand, as happened with Zadie Smith’s White Teeth or Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. But brand name authors are not always powerful. Even McCall Smith admits his publisher Time Warner only consults him. “I was involved to the extent of being shown the covers and commenting on them,” he says.
In fact bestselling authors frequently play second fiddle to retailers when it comes to covers, according to Philippa Gregory: “When my publisher gets a cover they like, they show it to me and at about the same time to the booksellers. Even if I like it, it gets changed if the retailers don’t like it.”
Most authors keep their mouths shut if they are unhappy about their cover for fear that making a fuss will land them with the most damning of publishing sobriquets: “difficult”. “If you make a song and dance, even about meeting the cover artist, it can be a black mark against you,” Amanda Craig warns.
Difficult authors get a reputation that spreads fast in an industry with the appetite of a village post office for gossip. “If you are difficult and create chaos early on your book is generally attended by chaos for the rest of its life,” says Elizabeth Buchan, who witnessed the power of the makeover when Penguin gave her a new treatment with The Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, which shot up the charts.
As far as she is concerned, authors should write and publishers should publish, because they know how to package books to maximum effect. But she admits: “It can be depressing if you have a very downmarket cover and have written a rather good book that deserves better support.”
Similar concerns trouble one well-known author whose latest features adolescent gay boys. He was overheard recently bemoaning the use of a busty blonde girl on the cover. If he objected his publishers ignored him, obviously believing that the blonde has more pulling power than the boys.
Only the J K Rowlings of this world have the power to stop a cover, the rest are merely “consulted”, a word vague enough to mean everything from “opinions sought” to “final cover shown”, as literary agent Clare Alexander, whose clients include Mark Haddon, explains. “All publishers have the same clause in their contacts but for some ‘consultation’ means the author is merely shown the cover, and by the time you are shown it it is too late to change anything.”.
Agents mediate these discussions, persuading clients against their more off the wall ideas – which have been known to include family snapshots. “It is a very passionate subject for authors because it is their first opportunity attract the public,” explains poacher turned gamekeeper Sheila Crowley, a former sales director and now agent at A P Watt. “If you get fantastic reviews and publicity people will look for your book in shops, but otherwise consumers walk into a shop and it is the cover that will make them pick up the book.”
For once literary authors are better off than their massmarket counterparts. Literary covers are about conveying atmosphere and artistic merit, and designers love them. “As a designer it is lovely to be told that your market for a book is Waterstone’s because literary books give you more creative freedom,” says Sara Marafina, who as creative director of John Murray has just overseen a redesign of the august imprint.
New Murray titles are funkier than the fusty image of the 200-year old company. They feature bold graphics, strong colours and images aimed at conveying the breadth of a list that has expanded into edgier books, such as James Frey’s experimental memoir A Million Little Pieces. “I am lucky because the titles err to the literary side of the market and so I don’t have to pander to the supermarkets,” admits Marafini.
Massmarket authors have the most problems with covers. Readers of genre books, be they crime, romance or science fiction, are conservative by nature. They choose their reading according to what they know and like. A debut chick lit title needs to have resonance with the rest of the genre so that potential readers will want to pick it up, but it should not merge into them as so often happens. Worse if a cover is identified too closely with a genre up-market booksellers may leave it to the supermarkets.
This was the problem faced by saga writer Josephine Cox, whose previous covers placed her firmly in the clogs and shawls market – not a comfortable place for any author because it is ageing and of limited interest to the big name retailers. On her move to HarperCollins Cox’s covers were revamped. She is over the moon. “My readers range from 14 to 90 and 35-to-40% of them are men, but you couldn’t tell that form the old covers, you can now,” she explains.
Keeping the likes of Cox happy is important however powerful the likes of Smiths and the supermarkets are, as one publisher explains: “If we get it wrong it can rupture an author’s confidence, and that is a disaster none of us want. We need them to keep writing.”
Icons: The designs that inspired a host of copy-cat covers
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Berniers, published by Secker & Warberg, illustrator: Jeff Fisher
The Number One Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith, paperback published by Abacus, illustrator: Hannah Firmin
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, published by Hamish Hamilton, illustrator: gray318
Chocolat by Joanne Harris, published by Doubleday, illustrator Stuart Haygarth
Cover lines : Waterstone’s head buyer Scott Pack has a bee in his bonnet. Why do publishers insist on using quotes from critics that tell readers next to nothing about the book? “Very few quotes sell books,” he claims.
Quotes should be concise, clear and reflect the lifestyle aspirations of potential readers, not the opinions of a handful of literary critics, he insists. “Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani had the best quote I have ever seen on a book. It simply said: ‘I love this book – Sarah Jessica Palmer’. There is an aspirational element to the quote, because Sex and The City fans who want to be like Sarah Jessica Palmer will want to read it.”
Readers are more savvy, he says, about the use of quotes and realise that “a miracle” may be culled from a sentence that once read “a miracle this was published it is so bad”. They know that authors get their mates to furnish them with good reviews. What works better is a decent story summary.
On a roll Pack picks out his worst offenders. “Alan Hollinghust’s The Line of Beauty has a quote on it ‘The work of a great English stylist – Tim Adams, the Observer’. Who cares what Tim Adams thinks? It won the Booker. It doesn’t need a quote.” The worst one he has read? “It said the book was ‘an immensely satisfying crossword puzzle’. Well they are going to be running out in their droves to buy that one, aren’t they?” he answers dryly.