Sunday, August 19, 2007

You can judge a book by its cover

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:

For 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.


Jo Ashcroft said...

Personally, I think it's a shame that publishers feel the need to standardise book jackets. When I was at uni, I used to go into the big local bookshop and choose a book solely on the merits of the picture on the cover. I read many things I would not normally have touched. This exercise is now almost impossible as so few covers stand out from the pack.

Gonçalo Veiga said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gonçalo Veiga said...

Very interesting post! It's funny I used to notice the same thing over here: there are authors in Portugal whose book covers are literally the same, being the only thing that changes the title and the colour used in the covers, like in the case of this author called Vergílio Ferreira, published by Bertrand; or, in another case being that only the title changes (the rest remaining the same), like Saramago's books published by Caminho. And what I used to like about it is that you know what to expect inside: a great book from a great author. Even if it wasn't true! It was already a trademark!

Then, there are the flops: like these book covers which were replaced by new ones from movie photos, if they made a movie from it! The Perfume by Suskind is one of those! It used to be the biggest best seller! I used to sell around 8 a month while I worked there. And for a small bookshop that's something! Now that the cover has changed, it rarely sells. Sometimes people really don't know what they're doing.

The say that the vest doesn't make the monk BUT sometimes it does!

Elizabeth Baines said...

It's very interesting to get a bookseller's perspective on this. Be nice if copy-cat publishers took note..,