The other day I was stock-checking the Fiction section when I noticed that we only had four novels by Anita Shreve, all of them spine-on. Three years ago she was the bestselling author of mid-market women's fiction and would have enjoyed at least a whole shelf to herself with every title face-out, but her sales have dramatically declined. Why?
One half of the answer was three bays to my left: Jodi Picoult. Her sales have risen as dramatically as Shreve's have fallen and she is an essential addition to any 3 for 2 promotion. However I think there is also another reason. Several years ago when Shreve topped the bestseller lists, the British arm of TimeWarner decided to change the covers, or as they would put it, refresh the jacket treatment.
They decided to change this:
Which looks remarkably similar to Jodi Picoult's covers...
And is if by magic, the sales started to drop off. Perhaps they would have done anyway, but I can't help wondering what would have happened if TimeWarner have done nothing. I can see the publisher's logic - they didn't want one of their best authors to have jackets that looked dated. However, those jackets were part of the successful Shreve 'brand'. The same thing happened with Freya North, whose books sold like hotcakes until some bright spark at Hodder decided to try and make their mark (if I was her I would have sued for loss of earnings). If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
It's interesting noting how publishers slavishly copy each other when one of them has a hit. In the early 90s, the success of Joanna Trollope spawned a wave of imitation aga sagas and tasteful, slightly insipid covers with watercolour paintings were de rigeur for a few years. Then Bridget Jones appeared and spawned the Chick Lit revolution with jackets that were curiously very similar to each other, but not to Bridget Jones.
At the moment most sub-genres have fairly predictable jackets, but that isn't a criticism - in a section with thousands of different titles, book covers are vital signifiers. If you want a Napoleonic Wars naval adventure or a post-Gladiator swords and togas romp, you'll be able to spot the books pretty quickly. And it's also amusing how a Da Vinci Code brand emerged so quickly for the dozens of historical-conspiracy-thriller novels that suddenly popped up in the wake of Dan Brown's success.
Here's one of my favourite examples of copycat publishing:
The lovely Martina Cole (and I'm not saying that in a sneering, ironic way - she really is lovely) has many imitators including the annoyingly-named Mandasue Heller...
And arch-miserablist Kevin Lewis...
I'm a self-confessed book jacket anorak, but in mitigation I plead over-exposure to books.