Thursday, August 28, 2003

You read it here first, but...

Book cover designers go out on a limb for latest trend

By Maureen Ryan
Chicago Tribune

August 27, 2003

You can't walk through a bookstore these days without seeing gams galore. Legs in boots, legs on roller skates and legs ending in bare feet abound, but stroll by the "new fiction" table, and what you'll see most often is a curvy set of legs in a sassy set of spike heels.

Many of the books are post-Bridget Jones, Sex and the City-esque tales, wherein a plucky gal-about-town eventually gets the great job, loses the weight and/or finds the perfect guy. And she does all of the above, if the book covers are to be believed, in a great pair of shoes.

In the past year or so, the appendage trend has strolled out of chick lit and started walking all over serious fiction.

"There is this zeitgeist thing with book jackets, where one trend kind of takes over," says noted book designer Chip Kidd, who has created covers for books by Donna Tartt, Michael Crichton and Cormac McCarthy. "I'm proud to say I don't think I've contributed to it."

Kidd thinks for a moment, then sighs. "I just did Platform by Michel Houellebecq, so I'm guilty," he groans.

Well, at least Platform, a bleak tale of sadomasochism by a bad-boy French writer, doesn't feature a perky heroine and her dating travails in the big city, a la classic leg-centric titles Jemima J, Someone Like You and Women About Town.

"They're all following me, they're all pretenders to my throne," jokes writer Jennifer Weiner, who got a leg up in the fiction world with her saucily titled 2001 novel, Good in Bed, which depicted a pair of curvaceous legs from a provocative angle.

Not content with the galloping success of Good in Bed, which peeked out of countless beach bags and eventually was sold to HBO, Weiner refined her winning formula for last year's In Her Shoes, the cover of which features two sets of feet in fabulous heels.

"The legs work on lots of different covers for [the] same reason they worked on Good in Bed," Weiner says. "They let you suggest lots of different things about your character with out specifying too rigidly what kind of person she is."

Weiner didn't even want legs on the cover of her first novel -- she wanted a "rumpled, sexy unmade bed," but that idea was shot down quickly.

"The [leg] jackets are fun and vibrant, they don't look like work -- some covers can look sort of daunting," says Stacy Creamer, executive editor of Doubleday, which published the leg-centric The Devil Wears Prada, and deputy editor of Broadway Books, which publishes a host of perky-gal tomes, including the limb-centric oeuvre of Jane Green.

What publishers don't want on most fiction covers is a full depiction of a woman, says Creamer, especially if the book's plot has an element of romance. Put a woman and a man on the cover, show their faces and you get dangerously close to the cliched "clutch jackets" of traditional romance novels, she notes.

Hence cutting a woman's face out of the picture entirely. For The Devil Wears Prada, Creamer and her team chose the image of a woman from the neck down in spike heels because "we really thought it would be iconographic, and that it would reproduce well for advertising. That was a big plus," she says.

Candace Bushnell's latest novel, Trading Up, also features a sexy pair of heels, which is not surprising, given that as the author of Sex and the City, she practically invented the concept of the urban heroine who has exhaustive knowledge of both heartache and $400 heels.

According to Bushnell's editor, Leigh Haber of Hyperion Books, earlier versions of the cover tried too literally to portray the idea of a woman looking for a better man, or "trading up." But "when you're trying to say too much with a cover, it doesn't work," Haber says.

Hence the sexy -- and simple -- shoes. "They best epitomized what [the heroine] Janey is about -- she's a Victoria's Secret model with great legs and great shoes," Haber says.

Given the success of the chick lit genre, Linda Bubon, co-owner of the Chicago bookstore Women and Children First, sees more and more titles with these kinds of perky, leggy covers. But she thinks the trend sells both writers and readers short.

Bubon cites Melissa Bank's 1999 story collection, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing -- one of the first kooky-shoes-on-the-cover books to hit big -- as well as Mary O'Connell's Living With Saints as substantial titles that potential readers may have dismissed as fluff, given their covers.

"As a bookseller, it concerns me if you don't pick a book up because you think it's silly and not worth your time," she says.

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