I love books, always have, and worked for a couple of years in the best bookshop in Ireland (Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway for the uninitiated) but I loved the words IN the book more than the pictures ON the book. I’m sure on recollection that a striking cover has often grabbed my attention but it is the opening page that either gets me to spend my money or prompts me to quietly place the book back on the shelf.
A little more recently, after I’d already begun my teaching career, I remember mocking any of my friends who chose one of the ‘adult’ dust jackets when purchasing the Harry Potter books. I thought it somehow foolish or dishonest not to admit that yes, you were reading a kids book, and by the way you were bloody well enjoying it too!
But someone, somewhere, in the marketing devision of a publishing house decided once upon a time that you could get more people to buy the same book – people of varying ages and genders, people with widely differing tastes in literature – if you offered them a choice of book cover that spoke to them or reflected who they felt themselves to be.
And I guess if they’ve kept doing it, then it works!
Perhaps they’re playing to how predictable most of us tend to be. We know what we like, and what we don’t like, we tend not to like change and not to take risks. So if a book looks like science fiction from the cover – and we ‘know’ we don’t like sci-fi, we probably won’t even pick it up. Similarly, if a book is in any way pink – or even worse – pink neon! – I will treat it like it has a highly contagious disease. I have decided, in my wisdom, that if it looks anything like romantic fiction, it’s not for me!
So why my sudden interest in the topic? Well, I have to admit to a fascination with the twists and turns the leaving cert. paper 1 in English throws up on occasion. I like the thought that were I to sit the paper, I’d have to apply my knowledge to something I really know nothing about; the notion that I’d have to “ad-lib… unselfconsciously with overflowing speech” and think on my feet in order to do well. Two years ago one such minor curve ball appeared when one of the comprehension questions asked students to compare two contrasting dust jackets for the same novel, “Fahrenheit 451”. As well as identifying the extent to which they captured the essence of the text visually, you were expected to figure out why one appealed to you more than the other. In the process I guess you were identifying who the target audience was in each case and why you were more attracted to one dust jacket over the other.
Rather than waffle on any further about my own lack of knowledge, I instead want to send you in the direction of people who know infinitely more about this than I do. The first is a blog post in response to an article in the New York Times, the second is a Ted talk I stumbled upon by accident by the truly eccentric book cover designer Chip Kidd.
p.s. thanks to Julian Girdham’s twitter feed @sccenglish, I also have this link for you http://www.shortlist.com/entertainment/the-50-coolest-book-covers