Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Book Sense 101: Covering Covers, the Just the Facts, Ma'am Edition

Notes: This post is a continuation of my ongoing Book Sense 101 series about covers. The first post in the series is “Covering the Basics of Covers,” and the second is a Smart Bitches Day entry called, “Hit with the Pretty Stick (the “Come on Closer Remix”)”.

Covering the Basics of Covers” is a general outline of cover basics and what works in fiction and what doesn’t. I suggest you read that before following this post (although it is not required, you’re not in school).

Hit with the Pretty Stick” applies the same rules to upcoming romance covers. If romance isn’t your shtick, feel free to skip the post.

With that out of the way, let’s get on with the show.

When people make comparisons between fiction and nonfiction, nonfiction is inevitably characterized as the drier of the two. It’s just facts, man. And anyone who has had to sit through some boring lecture, or pour through some obscure text book, will tell you that facts can be very yawn worthy. Who could blame them with examples such as these:

Oooh, white words on a dark background, should I be sensing the dark forbidding power of the No Such Agency? The gradient thing is pretty and all, but the cover as a whole does nothing for me. The only reason I would pick up this book is if I had any interest at all in the NSA, and the part where it says “National Security Agency” is buried under the title and the author’s name. It’s reduced to third billing. Do you think reducing the NSA to third billing could be grounds for being wire-tapped? I think I’d be a bit more careful when writing about a spy agency. They might hit you with this book:

Ack! Gah! Word blindness. Focusing on the white. Then the black. Oy, so dizzy. What was this about again? The KGB? The red on the black background fades in, but maybe that’s my picture quality. Is that what that symbol means? KGB? As far as a cover goes it leaves me with a lot of questions, but it doesn’t do anything to attract me beyond my own interest in the KGB. Combine that with the fact that this book is mammoth and hardbound, and I’ll be waiting for the paperback edition, thank you very much.

These books, with their uninspiring covers, do nothing to relieve the idea that history/current events/etc are only for the person looking for hard, dense literature because they make no attempt to appeal to an audience outside of their built in niche. Now I find this idea insulting to not only my intelligence but also to everyone out there who will read whatever catches their eye.

Of course, this is partially a result of my education and I must remind myself that not everyone had a professor who seemed to be a blend of Robin Williams, Chris Farley, and an auctioneer on crack to teach them the finer points of the history of Biology and Western Medicine. They missed out on writing notes so fast that they had to form a tag-team with the people on either side of them, having said professor play Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” to herald the midterm, enjoying the creme brulèe recipe that he learned from Julia Childs (actually learned from her, not a cook book), and scribbling furiously on the final while he sipped eighteen-year-old scotch.

Good times. Good times.

Was this an arcane from of liberal arts torture? Perhaps.

Did he blind me with science, brainwash me with history? Could be.

Could said “blindness” be why I find nonfiction so interesting and want others to share my obsession? Hell no.

From this professor I learned that history could be entertaining and easily accessible, sure, but I learned the same thing from Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones (and let’s just take moment to remember Harrison as Indy. Ah Indy, much love). History is amazing, and it belongs to everyone so everyone should have some knowledge of it!

Alright, enough of my soapbox. All I’m saying is just because you don’t go looking for it doesn’t mean that you won’t be interested in a subject once you stumble across it, and publishers believe that too. Check out this cover for The Great Mortality:

While this cover shares a bit of the writing overload that affects The World Was Going Our Way , it tempers it in a couple of different ways. The inclusion (and twisting) of the painting, Woman and Death, by Hans Baldung Grien on the cover, ties in the tattered parchment look of the white backdrop to the title. This is a history of the plague of the 1300s (not to be confused with any of the other plagues, and yes there were others), and we’d have a sense of that even if we never saw the words “Black Death” and “Plague” in the subtitle.

Would this book (now in paperback) appeal to the same people who bought Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders? Maybe, maybe not. That’s about a different plague entirely.

Would this book appeal to someone who was just browsing through the section without any idea of what they were looking for? I’ve seen it happen time and again, and I think it owes it all to the cover.

The publishing industry, in an attempt to drive up sales, has decided to embrace this idea of selling outside the box (via these new and attention-catching covers) across the spectrum of nonfiction. What else could explain the cover for Freakonomics?

The use of neon green and orange on the white background is very eye-catching and then they further up the ante by playing the visual trick with the apple. See, it’s an apple with an orange middle. It’s all apples and oranges, but not, because they’re the same even though their different… get it? Get it?

Er, anyway, then you have the large blurb by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell and Levitt/Dubner became tied together after a debate in New York about the drop in crime. I can’t find the link to the article (if you have a subscription to the New York Times you can look it up), but the debate basically ended with Gladwell saying something like “This is normally where I would have a rebuttal, but I agree with what you’re saying.” Suddenly Freakonomics and the Tipping Point (Gladwell’s book) were irrevocably joined. Talk about a snazzy piece of marketing and piggybacking, but I’ll cover those two issues in a later column.

The cover of Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach, shows an example of the same playfulness with the subject matter exhibited in Freakonomics, albeit in a more morbid way.

The greens provide an alien antiseptic feel, the feet with the toe-tag screams body, and the title—off-kilter as if written on the toe-tag—captures the morbid sense of humor. The cover, like that of Freakonomics, manages to portray the tone and subject matter of the book in the best way possible. A true bravo moment given that this is a book about dead bodies (one I highly recommend to anyone who has a keen sense of the absurd).

“Okay,” says you, “I get that they can make Freaky economics interesting looking, and I’m sure cadaver lovers fall in the same category, but what about something normal? Can they do something to that?”

Well, that depends if you think that the cover for Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Plot to Become the Smartest Person in the World works or not.

Personally I think it does, and my customers seem to agree as this is one of the bestsellers off my trade paperback table. It’s got some great things working for it from the title (hello, hyperbole—smartest man in the world—plus false modesty—humble quest—equals this guy either has a real tongue-and-cheek sense of humor or he’s an ass, and ass’s only get their blogs published), to the picture that follows the sight-line down the title, and the books falling from the top of the stack, which tells us he might not have succeeded in his effort. The whole presentation is clean against its white backdrop and despite its “grandiose” claims, lacking in too many embellishments. I truly hope that the book can live up to the promise of the cover (it’s in my TBR pile).

“Okay, so history books, economics books—when they are about freaky things—can have interesting covers, science books about cadavers, and biographies can have interesting covers, but they’re about interesting things—if you’re a sick freak, which obviously you are. What about business books, huh? Have you seen the cover for The 48 Laws of Power?”

God yes, and it’s so bloody ugly. I hate shelving that book, I really do. And despite it’s bold use of orangey-red and blue I’ve developed some sort of book blindness to seeing it, which may or may not be caused by my hatred for that cover. Business books as a whole tend to be a bit blah. Every once in a while you get chairs on the beach (a la David Bach), which just screams retirement-let-me-show-you-what-to-do-with-your-money, or a marketing book like The Deviant’s Advantage, but as a whole, for a area of books that want to make money off of teaching other people how to make money, they don’t try to hard. This makes the ones who do stand out better. Take, for example, Laura Penny’s, Your Call is Important to Us.

From a distance you get smacked in the face by the bold combination of yellow and red. Yellow and red, by the way, are the two most eye-catching colors (think about that next time you are in Micky D’s), combined it’s almost retinal overload, but it gets your attention. Once you get closer, the use of white draws your eyes to the main title, even though it is smaller than the subtitle, and then your eyes follow the handle of the shovel down to—POW—the word Bullshit. Want to get someone’s attention in the United States? Put a pejorative word in your title. Works every time. Just make sure you’ve got something to back it up. In this case Penny does. Despite using some great marketing techniques to grab your attention, her book is about how marketing and the customer service industry screw with your head. Oh, and she says bullshit a lot.

Anyone want to guess why they chose to put a shovel on the cover? I think it’s pretty clear.

Is this the most attractive cover I’ve seen? Well, if your using the word attractive to ask whether or not I think this cover is pretty, then the answer is no. I do not think this cover is pretty, it does, however do the job.

To recap: A cover can be butt ugly if that works with the marketing strategy to get customers’ attention, which has evolved to be the sole purpose the dust jacket/cover in this bookselling age. Fiction, nonfiction, or strange hybrids in between, the point of the cover is to get the attention of the shopper who may not even be looking for this book. A pretty cover, if it can’t differentiate itself from the crowd, can be just as much as a detriment as a boring cover, so start praying to the Tiki Gods for your (if you’re an author) design department to choose, and choose wisely because you want to hook all the browsers you can.

Getting people to actually go out looking for the book is the role of marketing and publicity departments, and most importantly the author, but that’s the subject for my next column (which will hopefully appear in the next couple of days, I’m following a closing shift with an opening one, so no promises).


jason evans said...

I'm just sitting here drinking in all the wisdom. I have nothing to add. Thank you again, BSC.

Kate R said...

Good stuff.
But mostly I just want to say yahoo to Stiff. I LOVED that sick, inspiring book.

Bookseller Chick said...

Yeah, I loved that book too, Kate. I'm currently rereading it again.

Thanks Jason.

Melanie Hayden said...

I'm a sucker for covers. I actually picked up The Illuminator last weekend based on the cover alone, and didn't even look at the back cover blurb until I was halfway to the register.

Drea said...

So, I'm going to use the "Covering Covers" topic as an excuse to ask you about your take on Frey's AMLP snafu. I like the cover (even if it does make me wish I was in second grade and eating cupcakes with sprinkles).

What do you think about Random House's decision to offer refunds and encourage dissatified customers to try and return the book to the store where they bought it? I thought my poor bookstore manager would cry. We live in a very-suburban-Oprah-watching area;).

Excellent post (as usual),

Bookseller Chick said...

Mel, start praying to the Tiki Gods now for when you get published.

Drea, you brat. I read your very well-timed post and thought very, very bad words. One, because I had yet to hear about Random House's nice little offer because I opened this morning, and two, I'd been trying to come up with a way all week to avoid the Frey-thing for the most part (or at least only deal with it in passing, I'm on a schedule, damn it). Now it's going to have to get it's own column. Bloody hell. Consider the next column because of you.

discount vendor said...

Book cover marketing is important for book promotiong now.I can see many good book cover designed in bookstores,also on amazon.