The Vexed Question of Book Covers

Rummaging around in the book cupboard last week, I came across Virago's gorgeous selection of new covers for books by Emma Donoghue, Rosamond Lehmann, Miles Franklin, Sarah Waters, Rumer Godden and Maya Angelou. Last year, they released titles by Molly Keane, Elaine Dundy, Elizabeth Jenkins, Daphne du Maurier, and this one by Elizabeth von Arnim.

I love them all - and if I was going to buy an edition of one of those writers' books, I'd probably plump for the updated new Virago one, rather than a paperback version.

But how many of us actually buy books because of their covers? I started to think about occasions when I'd actually gone into a bookshop, browsing for something new to read, and picked up and bought a book because of the cover.

I think it's only ever happened once - I was looking for some holiday reading and my eye caught the paperback edition of Julian Barnes's Arthur and George. Now, I'm not a fan of Barnes's prose at all - the sensation of reading him reminds me of when I was at primary school and we had to do some 'intricate' sewing. Sitting sewing tiny stitches, one after the other, actually made my skin itch - and made me long to scream out loud into the bargain. Not an experience I look for from a book, generally. But the story was historical, real-life inspired, just my cup of tea - and the cover was so lovely. Reader, I bought it.

I've never read past page five. But when sales are so important to a writer - more important these days than people actually reading your books, it seems - perhaps readers getting past page five isn't so important. Certainly, it's possible to do the very opposite and actually put people off your book with a lousy cover, as this brilliant article points out: My heart breaks for those classics, covered in such horrors. William Faulkner, how you must be turning in your grave....

Writers who publish with smaller publishers tend to have a little bit of a say in how their books look. I was consulted about the cover of my first book, The Picnic, which was published by Black and White. The proof looked something like this:

I didn't like it at all - no more backs of women looking off into the distance please! I felt that had become a cliche, and I didn't want it at all. Private Eye regularly highlights the problem of copied or cliched covers - it's amazing how often it happens. I didn't want mine to be one of them. So we talked, I got to put my ideas to the designer, and we ended up with a rather more lurid, but more cinematic cover that I really loved:
It was fun, too, to be part of the process. But are authors really the best judges of what should go on the covers of their books? I didn't choose for my book, Between the Sheets, but I like both hardback and paperback covers. I'm not sure what I've have picked if it had been up to me. But I know many writers who have thoroughly disliked what publishers have done - at the launch of one of her books, Laura Marney lamented the 'chick-lit' type cover her publishers had imposed on what she saw as a much darker kind of novel. I've seen covers, too, that I think are deliberately misleading, designed to hook a certain kind of audience - books that aren't about women at all, but are aimed at women, who tend to buy more novels than men, and aimed quite disingenuously. Women writers have long complained about the pink-and-pastel shades of their books, when something darker is going on inside the covers, and it happens to male writers increasingly, too.

Which is all a bit of a shame, really, because seeing the cover of your book for the first time is one of the biggest moments in a writer's life. And it's especially a shame, when beautiful covers need not be 'girly' or vapid. One of my favourite covers ever is this deliciously rich one for Heather McGowan's 2006 novel, Duchess of Nothing:
I admit it's the back of a little boy, as opposed to a woman, but I still love it. Another favourite is the US edition of Nicole Krauss's Man Walks into a Room:
It's plain, understated, cool (I mean cool-feeling, not the other kind of 'cool'). Both copies would make me buy them, but I couldn't help wondering, looking at the last image, if I like US covers better than UK ones. I only have a few brief visits to Barnes and Noble and Strand in New York to really compare, but I loved the profusion of  Art Deco type I saw on so many titles, and the imaginative designs.

People think that with the advent of e-books, covers will matter less - you might have a title page, useful for online advertising, but it doesn't have the same impact as a real artwork, many argue. A couple of years ago, as the e-book market started to take off, this was a real issue for publishers, hence the effort to beautify their covers. People who have always bought print books likely value the book as an object, too - from an early age, I had a (slightly rickety and handmade) bookcase for all my Enid Blytons, Nancy Drews and Agatha Christies. I went through a short, flush stage later on when I signed up for Folio Books, just so that I could have those gorgeously cased books on my shelf - most of the ones I ordered I'd already read so it wasn't as if I actually needed them.

A beautiful book is a thing of great pleasure. We stroke books (well, I do), we give them as presents, we remember what they look like, sometimes better than we remember the title and author, we use them to decorate our homes. Is this superficial of us? Maybe - but I still love them, and especially when they're my own!



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