Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Go Ahead. Judge Those Books.

We've all heard the old idiom, "Don't judge a book by its cover." Some of us may even use it ourselves. It's a fantastic little phrase that expresses the reality that things aren't always as they appear, that looks aren't everying. But while I fully support this sentiment in the figuartive sense, when it comes down to a physical book, I can't disagree more.

A book's cover is perhaps its most important marketing tool. It's the reason a consumer picks up a book in the first place. In a room full of hardcovers, trade paperbacks, mass markets, box sets, etc. etc. we only have our eyes to guide us. If it doesn't catch our attention, we aren't picking it up. And if we aren't pricking it up, we aren't reading the cover copy and finding out what the book is about. And then we certainly aren't buying it. The same goes for book buyers, the bigwigs who decide what books the store will even sell. If they don't find a cover appealing--or at least anticipate the public finding it appealing--no way is it going into a store's inventory. Publishers have even been known to change cover art because an important buyer didn't like it. This is serious business.

But what about when a book is so well-known that most people already know what it's about? No one's eye needs catching, they just want the content. Like the Classics, for example.

Most house that publish classics do so en masse. They have a specific classics line full of books with simple, formulaic covers. These covers are more iconic than anything, trying to the get the consumer to buy the same Bloomsbury Classics edition over the Folgers Encriched Classics. Likely they're being forced to buy them anyway by a college or high school, so they are going to buy it one way or the other. The time has past for publishers to try to hook new consumers on these books. Or so we thought.

Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions has recently taken three classic novels, all of which could be construed as chick lit on some level, and redesigned them, giving each title a fresh, new, surrealist look. The books are even being described as "beach reads." Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and The Scarlet Letter would not be my personal idea of a beach read, but this new art just might draw in a new audience. Last year, Penguin did something along the same lines, using a cartoonist to draw up some new covers for classic novels like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Lady Chatterly's Lover, and Frankenstein.

HarperPerrenial Classic Stories also updated its look to grab a new audience. Using brighter, bolder colors and a pop-up type photo of the author (I'm guessing?) give the books a much more modern, though kind of oddball and slightly creepy, feel.

Whether these tactics will work or not is hard to say. But it's clearly working for UK publisher Waterstone with their release of a re-vamped Wuthering Heights. The new edition has been designed to resemble Stephanie Meyers's Twilight series--it even displays a burst reading "Bella and Edward's favorite book--and as a result, WH has hit UK bestseller lists.

Shocking, but true. So, as you can see, the judging continues in full force. Kind of as it should.


  1. I have to say that I totally support the idea behind revamping classic covers. I have always been a reader who has ABHORRED the classics. I just don't get into them. And part of me wonders if the covers have something to do with it. Are there some classics (definitely not all) that I would have been able to fall in love with easier if I had been able to get behind the covers.

    I'm a very visual person and for me, as a reader, I need to love the cover to really love the book. If I am reading a book and I can't go back to the cover and gaze at the cover with appreciation, or if I can't visualize an iconic image in my mind as I read, I find it hurts the experience for me. The cover is part of my reading process and it sets the tone. If the wrong tone is set (for classics, in my opinion, that tone tends to feel a bit stifled and boring) then it can definitely get in the way.

    So while I think the old, classic covers should still be available, I say bravo to the publishers who are trying to freshen things up a bit.

  2. Excellent points, T.S.! A book's cover can definitely affect a reader's experience, and the cover should sum up the tone/theme/plot of the book in some way. Classics covers, as you mentioned, are typically bland and boring, which can affect a consumer's perception of the book. I'm very interested myself to see how these new spiffed up covers do sales wise!