Bookseller's Dilemma: a Cover is a Cover
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A book’s attractiveness matters. Pretty books attract the eye and are picked up more often in bookstores. I know because I’ve ordered books for the little bookstore on the north campus of the University of Washington for over thirty years. I’ve watched excellent books with bad covers fall unnoticed by the wayside, and mediocre books with great covers soar to the top of our sales chart. I’ve made it my mission to help people find the good new books, to feature and promote the best new titles, the ones that really provide a satisfying reading experience. But my zeal to let the world know about the best new literature being created today is limited by one big unavoidable factor. The books need to sell.
To achieve that goal, to get the good ones to sell, for the last seven years I’ve been doing a bookstore promotion featuring the best new book of the month. Helping readers find the good ones is extremely satisfying when it works. It doesn’t always work. The publishers have to do their part. A book cover is competing with a store full of other covers.
Take Animal’s People, a perfect example. The British cover captured the novel completely – the delightful boy narrator’s face, the teeming marketplace, the flavor of India. Check out the American cover. It looks like a white book that was dropped in the mud. I was so incensed I wrote passionately to the publishers. Some dimwit in the Simon and Schuster marketing department thought the new cover design looked like a chemical spill. Never mind that the spill in the novel is a gas, not a drippy, splattery mess like this dreadful cover, surely a nominee for worst cover of the year, and the sales destroyer of a warm-hearted, huge-souled novel that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and a bestseller in Britain. Our bookstore couldn’t give away the American copies.
Okay, don’t get me started on how publishers destroy their own products through insane packaging. Let’s just look at the decision ahead of me right now. I need to choose the September book-of-the-month. I’ve just read one that would fill the bill very nicely – Xiaolu Guo’s Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth. The cover is eye-catching, the girl is drop-dead lovely, the title is too long to remember but with a cover like that, it won’t matter. With the large young Asian population on the University of Washington campus, I could sell this one easily. It’s short, practically begs you to pick it up, the title lines are comically bent, as though typed by a very poor typewriter. It’s a charmer. The story is light as froth but somehow affecting, the characters are forgettable sketches but effective at the moment, the book is a first novel by a very young writer who is utterly sincere. I was sold on Twenty Fragments until yesterday.
Then I began reading Jean-Claude Izzo’s newly-released final novel, A Sun for the Dying. Well, Izzo is a master, and this was his last book before an untimely death, and he’s at the top of his craft, the creator of the existential Mediterranean noir now so greatly imitated, the crime novel that takes on social inequality as well as crime and does it with such artistry and passion it feels like it was written by Albert Camus. Instantly there’s no doubt – I’ve hardly begun turning the pages, and I know that this is a real novel, with teeth and guts and wisdom, that it’s going to take on the human condition. A couple chapters, and I’m completely choked up. I’m starting to remember how blown away I was by Izzo’s The Lost Sailors, the last one Europa published, and how wrecked I was by the ending.
Well, this new one is about a homeless man who’s best friend, another homeless man, has just been found dead, and Rico has decided to return to his own favorite spot (and the author’s beloved home), Marseilles. At the top of the second chapter we get the line, “If he was going to die, he might as well die in the sun.” Considering the title, this doesn’t sound like it’s going to end well. No, it’s no teen comedy, definitely not beach reading, and to make matters worse, the cover shows a wretched homeless man huddled up on the ground.
Well, dang it, that’s a big problem. That cover is going to kill it. This novel is already five times the novel that Twenty Fragments is, and yet the bookstore won’t sell a single copy. I should make Izzo’s last novel my September book-of the-month, except – is this really the cover I want on my back-to-school signage? What was Europa thinking to put such an unattractive, bleak cover on such a superb novel that could have used a little help in the marketing department?
Enough ruminations on the poor choices of publishers and the injustices of life. The morning is young, the wild lilacs are shoving their purple blossoms in through the open window, my cat is sprawled comfortably beside me, and A Sun for the Dying is within reach…