Today we’re talking about that Special Relationship….
I’m in the amazing position of having The Night Rainbow being published in several countries, including the U.K. and the U.S.A., where the cover designs have now been developed (I had input into both). I’m delighted with both of them, but they are markedly different (U.K. on the left, U.S.A. on the right):
I’ve asked some very kind booksellers in both countries, and my editor from Bloomsbury U.S.A., to talk about the importance of a book cover, and to try and define what defines the differences in our tastes. Here are some of the first responses:
First, Robert Gray, who from 1992-2005 was a bookseller and buyer for the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vermont.
He has also been a contributing editor and columnist at Shelf Awareness since 2006. As a writer, his work has appeared in numerous publications, ranging from Tin House to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine toPublishers Weekly. He has an MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College. Rob tweets as @Fresheyesnow
The cover was always a factor for us when buying in stock, though not the deciding factor (excepting, of course those counter books that could be sold as gift items on strength of their covers or titles alone). If a book with a lousy cover was still something I loved and knew I could handsell, content always trumped art. But if a book wasn’t so great and the cover was irresistible, then the decision came down to a question: “Is this a book I know there are readers for, even if I’m not crazy about it?” Another factor I don’t see discussed often: When booksellers are building displays, a great cover always has a better chance of being showcased.
I do think customers instinctively reach for a book with a great cover if it’s on a display or face-out on the shelves. If it’s spine-out, then the game is over before it starts. Ideally, what a great cover does is get the potential reader to pick up the book, maybe scan blurbs on the back cover, open the book and flip through the first few pages.
Anything that inspires a customer to initiate that ceremony is critical.
Looking at your covers, I do think the U.S. cover will appeal more to American readers. I’m not sure I can be more specific than that. It’s an instinctive reaction for me, since I’m not a graphics or even a particularly visually-oriented person. I’ve just watched thousands of books being sold over the years.
Anna J G-Smith has worked at Stroud Bookshop for the last 15 years.
Stroud Bookshop is an independent book shop, keeping books on the High Street and part of Stroud’s cultural heart. Anna is passionate about her job – even more so since she started writing, and rarely seems to have her bookselling hat off these days. Her writers blog is here and she tweets as @eryth
When ordering a new title in for stock, the most important thing is the write-up, and any advance reviews. Also if we like the premise, and feel it fits with the zeitgeist of the moment in which it is published. BUT, once the new titles arrive, then we can assess how best to display them, depending on jacket design (and heft!). I tend to be the one mostly responsible for the displays, as I am acknowledged to have a good eye for overall balance of colour/design. If I think a book looks particularly beautiful, then I will display it as prominently as possible, and especially if it is a hardback. With paperbacks it is slightly easier, in that the bestsellers tend to be displayed depending on how many we have in stock, and what the prevailing colours/designs in paperbacks are at the time. For example, Julian Barnes and Graham Swift look well next to each other at the moment:
Design is important to customers. Hardback design in particular: if they’re going to shell out on a new title they might not otherwise buy (unless they’re die-hard author-addicts who can’t help themselves!) then they like the idea that they are buying something beautiful. Smaller hardbacks in particular fit this niche, (Julian Barnes – again – was an example last year), as do books that they might like for themselves, but can only justify if buying a gift for someone else. Paperbacks are where the most committed browsing takes place. For backlist/classics it helps to have either a smart and recognisable livery (Oxford, Penguin, faber etc) or something beautiful and striking. Joanne Harris’s Chocolat still stands out years later, because of the rich purple; David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns Of Jacob de Zoet is another good example.
When a title is new, and selling well, then it is more likely to be displayed face-out. This is where good design comes to the fore.
A good cover helps a book more than a bad cover hinders it. If a customer really wants to read a particular title, then a poorly designed cover will not put them off – though it does cause comment. This does happen a lot, and especially if the design is changed between hardback and paperback, or between trade paperback and A-format. Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English is a good example here. The original design was very striking in red and yellow. The A-format paperback is less memorable, and especially when there are so many other blue covers around.
Now to your covers. They are BOTH beautiful. I much prefer the English cover for the hardback - and it will look lovely stacked high in the middle of my hardback display, and in the window! – the U.S. edition is too much like other jackets I have seen, but will look very strong as a paperback cover, whereas I think – lovely though it is – the striking detail on the UK cover will be diminished once it is scaled down. And I’d be very surprised if my customers don’t greatly admire the hardback cover. It is unlike anything I have seen in a very long time, so will stand out well. Bloomsbury do have a knack for GOOD covers that buck the mass market; Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell being another example.
Rachel Mannheimer is my editor at Bloomsbury in the USA
It’s difficult to pinpoint how important is the cover design for a novel. With the closing of so many bookshops, and the rise of online shopping – for print books and especially for e-books – I think there are fewer face-to-face encounters, as it were, with the book cover. There are new ways to find books, which are great, but it’s rarer for readers to discover books based solely on an eye-catching image. Still, when I’m in a bookshop, it’s definitely still my eyes leading me. (Then I read the blurbs or reviews on the back). And a memorable image still makes an impression if you see it online, in an advertisement, wherever. The cover conveys something about the style of the book before you know anything else.
When you consider the difference between what readers in the U.S.A. like in a cover, compared to the U.K., I think it’s a matter of a slightly different visual language, and just what the customer is accustomed to seeing – what connotations different visual cues have. Successful British book covers look like other successful British book covers, and successful American covers tend to look like other American covers. And I would say, to be supremely reductive, that British covers can look a bit schmaltzy to American eyes, while American covers can look stiff and boring. But sometimes something works perfectly in both markets! It just depends.
I love the cover we came up with for The Night Rainbow; it’s evocative and stylish. There was discussion early on about how difficult it would be to match the title literally (though the UK cover does come close). But it’s also such an interesting phrase, “night rainbow.” The designer had to work with both its sweetness and its mystery. Also, you had been clear about not wanting a straight representation of Pea; you wanted the reader to have space to imagine. This image the designer found, I love that it shows a little girl, but it’s a bit disorienting; you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at. You want to read and learn more.
Many thanks to Rachel, Anna and Robert for taking the time to comment.
For more discussion on UK versus US covers:
Here’s a link to a brilliant talk by Chip Kidd on Book Design on Seth Godin’s blog.
Some very interesting comparisons of the last year’s novels on The Millions.
Not just a wildly different cover, but a different title too, from Morag Joss
For more information/to see other work by the designers of my covers:
UK: Holly Macdonald
USA: Jennifer Heuer