Monday, July 18, 2011

Judging a Book by Its Cover

I often like things that look lovely in a set. I confess to having all my Harry Potter books (both British and American editions, because I'm strange like that) lined up on a single shelf, so that one can admire the simple perfection in two sets of seven matching spines (and the snitch that serves a a bookend). I love attention to cover design that puts all of an authors' titles in similar covers so that I can find them easily, and I've been known despite my broke-grad-student status to replace books in order to have a matching set.

Last month, we had a little promo table at the store with trade paperback editions of all of the novels of Emily Giffin, in honor of the film release of Something Borrowed. St. Martin's did a lovely re-release of all four backlist titles and the new paperback of Heart of the Matter in honor of the film release, and they have these wonderfully simple covers in coordinating pastels. As a group, they look pretty stunning. The table was at the top of one of the escalators and next to the booksellers' desk, and so I often wandered past it, straightening the copies and making a point to enter a warehouse order any time we run out of one of the titles.

So, after fingering the books repeatedly and checking out the price with my employee discount vs. Amazon vs. Google eBooks for my Sony reader, I picked up Something Borrowed. I found it a fun, light read to start off my summer, especially surprising since I found myself rooting for a main character who was essentially committing adultery. On my next shift, I found myself reading Something Blue on the nook. I got through a hundred pages during my shift, so I brought that one home as well.

At this point, I may well burn through the other three just so I can have a matched set.

Cover design was something we agonized over at the house I used to work for. One of our freelance designers lived nearby and he was a regular at the office, bringing us new designs almost every week. We spent a lot of time double-checking designs against other designs, and making sure that our newest design didn't look too much like a different book. When we did have a series, the goal was to keep the covers as similar as possible, so that they were readily identifiable.

In Linguistics, we call it semiotics: the way a given arbitrary sign can have meaning, whether that sign is a word or something more abstract. In the case of Emily Giffin, the sign is the similarity of the book covers--the same font, the small foil bit, the matte pastel, which gives us the meaning of "same lighthearted women's fiction." Even though the characters only carry through Something Borrowed and Something Blue, the book covers' similarity serves as a sign to tell me that I might enjoy the others.

Now that I'm back on the layperson's side of publishing, I often find myself contemplating covers, the way they work, and the way they don't. Since I work in a megabookstore, I can see dozens of cover designs, plus, if someone leaves me alone in a section with enough time and the task to do zone maintenance, I may well put them in rainbow order or something equally pleasing to the eye. When we set up a table for a given author, the directions from corporate tell us to use very specific ISBNs, even though for many authors with a large backlist, there might be many editions available. The reason for this is simple--we build the table with the books in the same cover design. The similar covers cause the readers to recognize the author's other works, and to transfer any feelings for a first title to others. In addition, similar face up on a table are visually appealing, and appealing means more people are likely to buy.

And perhaps it's simple of me, but I'm one of those people.

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