Sunday, January 08, 2006

Book Sense 101: Covering the Basics of Covers*

*In response to "Food Coma induced ponderings and questions" and questions asked on "Give'em the hook."

I would like to start this essay with a disclaimer:

I am not an expert. I do not have a degree in bookselling, I’ve never been a book buyer for a national chain and I’ve never worked for a publishing company. All of my thoughts and opinions are based on what I’ve learned in the five years I’ve been selling books. What my customers buy does not necessarily represent the whole of the United States or even the whole of my state, nor should it. Geographically barriers breed distinctions; that’s the basis for evolution my biology professors always used to say and it’s the basis for book buying too. Just because my customers love a certain title doesn’t mean that the good folks of Tuscaloosa, Alabama are going to greet it with the same enthusiasm. On a more local level, what people buy in an urban store (my designation) vs. a suburban store will also vary wildly. Comfort levels and convenience factor in to a high degree.

What I can promise is this:

Having worked in both suburban and urban areas on the West Coast, and having made it my business to stop into every bookstore I’ve ever come across on my travels, I can provide you with my opinion of what works at the store level and what doesn’t. The few (read: very few) classes I’ve taken in book design and publishing have helped shape these opinions, although I’m sure that someone who’s been in the book business could give you the charts, graphs and marketing breakdowns that I cannot. What I can provide you with is an in-depth study of what my customers buy, and what my observations (and their comments) have told me about their buying habits.

If this helps you as an author to focus your audience, then great; I’m glad I could be of service. If this helps you as a reader to pin down finally what attracts you to books, then I’m glad that I could help explain that “I know what I like” feeling. If you read this all and come to the conclusion that I’m full of shit, well, I’ve been told that before. There is a reason why the initials of bookseller are synonymous with those for bullshit, and I am in the business of selling people stuff they don’t need.

That said, if you want to check out two great books on the book business as a whole (by people who have much better credentials than I, but with whom I agree), I would suggest reading Jason Epstein’s, Book Business: Publishing Past, Present and Future, and AndrĂ© Schiffrin’s, The Business of Books.

Now that we’ve gotten my credentials and disclaimers out of the way (I’m also not responsible for any lost or stolen objects while you read this post), let’s focus on book covers. Primarily I’m going to focus on book covers in their trade paperback form for books that have sold well off my front table, although I will also hit upon some hard bound books that did (or didn’t do well) with their front of store exposure. While some have now gone on to be bestsellers, when the boss and I picked these titles (we don’t follow any company provided planogram for the two areas of focus) they were either fresh titles or titles that had yet to receive a lot of press (this does not mean that they hadn’t already been well reviewed, but that’s a section of this essay meant for a later day). For display purposes these books are placed on the table face up in pyramid stacks, so the first thing a browsing customer would see upon entering our store is the cover.

I must make one thing clear right now: books are almost always judged on their cover alone by a browsing customer, and this is the customer to whom all books want to appeal. I’m not saying an awful cover cannot be overcome with great press and reviews, or that a gorgeous cover equals high sales. As your mother always said, it is what is inside that counts in the end, and in the case of books causes the word of mouth recommendations that bring in more people for your title. But the average browser makes the choice to buy a book within the first seven seconds of picking up. In seven seconds the customer has barely had time to flip the book over and peruse the back copy.

Don’t believe me? Test this the next time you are out book shopping.

  • Go to your bookstore.

  • Pick up the first book that catches your eye.

  • Now look at the seconds hand on your watch, and remember the time.

  • Read and look at everything you usually read and look at on the cover.

Finished? Before you flip that book over look at your watch again and see how much time has elapsed. Probably a lot more than seven seconds.

A successful book cover must:

  • Catch the eye

  • Appeal to the target audience

  • Represent the book in some way (plot, theme, character, or setting)

  • Stand out when placed with other books

We no longer live in a time where only a small number of books come out every season, instead we’re bombarded by thousands of new titles every year, with 25,184 new fiction titles being released in 2004 alone (around 195,000 new titles in total book production) (Publisher’s Weekly, Cranking It Out 5/3/05). Book covers have attempted to evolve using the latest marketing techniques to catch the browsers eye and hook them into picking up the book. Somewhere in a publishing company far away there is a marketing team attempting with the same precision of Swiss watchmakers to find the perfect hook to attract the target audience. This immediate hook is most often achieved through the cover art and the overall appearance of the book. It is then up to additional hooks of the title, author’s name, and blurb to keep that book in the customers hand during those crucial seven seconds. If the customer gets past the cover to the back copy you’ve almost guaranteed a sale.

For our first example, let’s look at The Illuminator by Brenda Rickman Vantrease:

Since I placed this title on our table a week ago, we’ve sold out and had to reorder our copies from a local distributor. From a distance the first thing that you see when looking at this cover is the gorgeous artwork and the touch of gilt foil to highlight. This is a great improvement over the old cover (which is what you will see if you click the link above), which was much too busy in my opinion. Upon closer examination, you then take in the title (above which the book informs us it was a “National Bestseller”) and the author. Your eyes are then drawn to the very incongruous looking blue box in the lower right hand corner that informs you that this is a Reading Group friendly book. In the age of the book club tyranny (and yes, I too belong to a book club), this is very, very important. After taking all of these other elements in, the average browser only then gets to the nice blurb from the Boston Globe that proclaims this book to be “a sweeping portrayal of the distant past…ample in romance, mystery, and adventure.”

My, oh my, how can you resist that?

“I’m not into historicals,” you might say.

Or, “I’m a guy. What do I want with romance in my books?”

Well, obviously this book is not attempting grab the postmodernists or the Clive Cussler crowd (although Clive’s guys do get their share of the ladies). It’s aiming for the group of readers out there who picked up Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl or Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, and it has been selling well in this trade form to women and men. Sure some may remember it from the press junket a year or two ago, but the majority of my customers who pick it up off the table do so because something about it appeals to them: the cover.

A couple of years ago we ordered in Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn because we liked the cover, and the trend at the time seemed to be a great love of all things Middle Eastern (see: Kite Runner) and Asiatic in general (see: Memoirs of a Geisha) at our store. We didn’t really know anything about it—not that it was an International Bestseller (as the cover claims) or that it would soon become a New York Times Notable Book (an emblem you can find on later copies)—just that it was keeping with a trend and sounded interesting.

Within a week all six copies we’d placed on the table were gone (which is fast for my tiny store), so we ordered in six more…and then six more…and then the next book in the series (and six more of the first book because we were out again). We couldn’t believe it, and we couldn’t get customers to explain why they picked up the book to begin with (“It sounded interesting,” I got time and again). God forbid that you ask when they came back for the second book because they’d look at you like you were an idiot. “Don’t you know? It’s on your table. You mean you haven’t read it yet?”

We started watching the customers shop the table and what we saw was fascinating. What the boss and I viewed as a reasonably attractive cover (although nothing to write home about) had the power to keep drawing the customers gaze. Did they approach the table for that first book? No, not unless someone specifically sent them in for it. But as they looked at all the different covers on the table that was the one they kept going back to time and again. Soon they were picking it up, and the next thing you knew they were buying it. I finally checked out a copy myself just to see what all the fuss was about and was surprised how much I enjoyed the series. To this day it is one of my favorite recommendations, and it continues to draw people with all different genre loves from fantasy to straight historical fiction.

Another book we ordered in because of the Middle Eastern trend was The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.

Divakaruni is a pretty well known writer of India-themed stories, poetry and short stories. Her fame is reflected in the fact that her name is only slightly smaller than the title (in this later printing, this was actually her first book). If you ever want to know how much a marketing department thinks about the selling power of an author’s name look at its placement and prominence on the cover. Patterson, Grisham, Roberts, Martin and others have names that often are larger than the titles themselves. Divakaruni might not be an automatic bestseller, but as a fiction writer she does pretty well. The Mistress of Spices cover is bright (reflecting the culture it stems from), the cover art hints at the “magical realism” techniques incorporated throughout the story, and overall appearance appeals to the feminine reader (who is targeted with most of Divakaruni’s work).

This cover is a bit of a cross-subgenre hybrid; meant to appeal to the female reader that wants something different but not Chick-Lit, and the Chick-Lit reader who wants a little lyricism and culture (this cover was changed before Chick-Lit started its venture into the Bollywood-esque lives of Indian women). I’m interested to see what they’ll do to the cover if the movie based on the book (which has already premiered at the Toronto Film Festival) is released here in the United States.

For the final cover today, let’s look at Marie Bostwick’s book, Fields of Gold.

Unlike many books these days, Fields of Gold was released directly to trade. The water color quality of the cover (done in soft purples) and the quote from Gaffney makes it clear that this title is focused towards the Women’s Fiction audience and not the sharper edged Chick-Lit crowd. The old-fashioned plane in the distance tells us (the viewer) that the book does not take place in the present. The reason why I chose this book as an example is because unlike the other books it does not hit all the points of a successful cover and it shows in the sales.

Is the cover an accurate representation of the concept of the book? Quite well.

Does it appeal to its target audience? Yes.

Does the cover catch the eye and make the book standout when placed with a group of other titles? Not exactly.

I’ve noticed a curious thing when it comes to this title; it has a tendency to blend in when placed with other books on the wall display bays. When the author visited several months ago we placed her book on the table, and there it sold out in a couple of weeks. While in the process of reordering the title, we changed the table around and there was no longer an open space for it, so we stuck it in a wall bay. The book was still presented to the customer face out, but instead of lying on its back on a table, the book was now about chest level and facing out from a wall. In its new home, despite from of store marketing, it has barely moved at all.

I propose that this has nothing to do with content and everything to do with the softness of the cover. On the table the stack’s height help differentiate it from the titles around it, whereas on the wall depth perception is inhibited, and customers begin to suffer from what I call book blindness. When people just look at the wall (with its massive amount of titles and gray backdrop) without focusing on any one point, the covers blur together into one giant mass. Covers that are bright or edgy manage to “pop” despite this, and become points of reference, but the softer covers blend into the background. Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones suffers from the same problem, and it’s only the well known story (and book clubs) that keeps people coming in for it. Even then they ask us to find it for them.


That’s all the covers I have the energy for today, I hope this has been helpful. Tomorrow I’ll hit some more genre specific covers (romance for smart bitches and such), and then we’ll move on to nonfiction (a.k.a. that thing that sold so well over Christmas) and hardcovers. After I be all I can be with the covers, I’ll go on to hit the marketing aspect of books, such as TV appearances, book clubs, and why you should worship at the Cult of Oprah (or not). If you have anything else you want me to add (or explain) as I go along, please let me know.

ETA: The romance aspect of covers is covered in the next post, "SB Day: Hit with the Pretty Stick (the "Come on Closer" Remix)."
If romance isn't of interest you can skip on to the third in this series, Covering Covers, the Just the Facts, Ma'am Editon on nonfiction covers of note.

If you want more cover recommendations check out this listing from Bookslut.


Nicole said...

Great post! Yes, when browsing, either in the store or on Amazon, it's the covers that make me pick it up or click on the link to learn more. Covers are very important. With so many choices, how else are we to choose? Reading every single back cover or excerpt would take up way too much time.

I have the first two books in the Otori series, but haven't read them. I might have to someday.

Bookseller Chick said...

Re: the Otori. Oh, you must. They are wonderful. We almost have the Boss convinced to read them and she doesn't even like to read fiction.

And you've nailed exactly why covers are so important. We've created a culture that makes snap decisions and is always rushing around--even in bookstores--this means they have to make their decisions fast.

Anonymous said...

Great post, BSC!! I don't know why, but I didn't really appreciate that a book doesn't just need a great cover, it needs a great cover in interraction with all the other covers visible in store. That was a great example of a fine cover which gets lost in the crowd.

Thank you for putting in the time and effort to write it. I'm looking forward to the next installment.

Kate said...

I went to an RWA talk by Warner's promo woman and just about gave up writing then.

She talked about how the grocery stores etc etc buy the books. Do buyers flip through the books? Or even bother to read the back? Nah. They throw the books down on the floor and shuffle them around to see how the covers look from a distance.


An interesting fact about my 2nd mass market paperback's cover: Read the back, look at the cover picture NOT A HINT that it's a historical. The only way to tell is the tiny word on the spine. That's the trend, apparently--or was last year. Obviously not this year!

Bob & Muffintop said...

I bought The Illuminator & Mistress of Spices based on the covers (yes I agree I'm shallow). I have an older copy of Mistress of Spices though, the cover is a photo of different spices spilled across a table. Loved Mistress of Spices although I haven't read The Illuminator yet.

I don't know that I'd buy MoS with the new cover. The older one was very attractive. My question is, if the pubs have realized cover art is so very important to sales, then why are there still so many horrid covers out there?

Bookseller Chick said...

Jason, thanks. It helped me really pinpoint the reasons why I buy books, and if it helps someone else it's worth it. I too really like Bostwick's cover, but it blends in too well. Just goes to show that a good cover can still be a detriment.

Kate, I know it's horrible but it is pretty much industry practice. A buyer for a bookselling company has to look at so many books that they don't have time to read through them. By laying them on the floor and shuffling them about they are not only figuring out what they think will sell, but what combination will sell. They send this info on to their book company and that company comes up with planograms based on how much the publisher has shelled out for marketing along with their own thoughts and ideas.

As for the trend you're talking about I think it was a cop-out on the side of the publisher. It's easier to churn out covers with that style that supposedly will appeal to more people (because of no clinch cover), but in reality makes all the covers seem very homogeneous, and does not allow for much differentiation at all. Easy to make though, and gives the art department a break.

Amanda, Mistress of Spices has had three covers, I believe, and is on its fourteenth or fifteenth printing. Tipically the publisher seems to change the cover when they think they've exhausted one reading area (in this case Women's Lit) and want to broaden their appeal to another (the Chick-Lit crowd). I think this cover for is attempting to both appeal to the women's Lit-ers and the Chick-Lit-ers.

As for why do publishers put out bad covers, I'm going to cover that soon. It has a lot to do with how they feel about the book, the book's placement on their list, and how overworked the art department is.