Thursday, July 07, 2005

With Covers, Publishers Take More Than Page From Rivals

When a book hits stores with a cover nearly identical to another's, it's the publishing equivalent of arriving at a party wearing the same dress as the hostess. But while book jacket look-alikes may chafe publishers, it happens more often than you might think.

The image on the cover of Todd Hasak-Lowy's short-story collection, "The Task of This Translator" (Harvest Books, an imprint of Harcourt), released in June, shows a hat floating over a necktie-wearing headless man - nearly identical to the one on a 1999 story collection, Barry Yourgrau's "Wearing Dad's Head" (Arcade Publishing).

The hall of mirrors continues: both books appear to riff on Fred Marcellino's celebrated floating-bowler-hat illustration for Milan Kundera's novel "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," which itself appeared to be a homage to the Belgian Surrealist painter René Magritte, who frequently depicted men with bowlers.

Sometimes the photographs on book covers are not just similar, but exact duplicates. Rather than pay photographers' day rates, most book designers turn to stock-photography agencies. Top agencies charge $1,200 to $1,500 a photograph, and twice that for exclusive rights, a premium publishers are loath to pay.

That's where the trouble starts.

Seven years ago, an edition of Mary Sheedy Kurcinka's "Raising Your Spirited Child" featured on its cover a stock photograph, from the Photonica agency, of a girl running with outstretched arms. Five years later, another parenting book, "Children at Promise," by Timothy S. Stuart and Cheryl G. Bostrom, featured the identical photograph, as does a recently released paperback version of the book.

Mary Schuck, senior art director at Harper Perennial, which published the first title, learned of the latter only recently, when directed to it on the Internet. "Oh, wow," Ms. Schuck said. "They used the same photo. It's just a huge mistake for this publisher to have done this."

At that other publisher, Jossey-Bass, an imprint of Wiley, the look-alike cover also came as news.

"It's in all our best interests to make sure that image isn't already being used in the same medium," Jean Morley, Wiley's vice president of creative services, said in an e-mail message. "When our designers use stock art, they routinely ask if the image is being used for other purposes, and most stock houses will volunteer that information."

She added, "I suspect the reason this happened was probably because that information wasn't shared or possibly because we thought that first book was outdated or not directly competing in the marketplace."

"Raising Your Spirited Child" hardly appears outdated: the book was recently No. 38 on Amazon's parenting and families top-seller list; Wiley's "Children at Promise" didn't make that Top 100 list. (The older book's overall sales rank was 645; the newer was 314,488.) It's unclear how many bookstores stack them near each other; both address parenting, but only "Children at Promise" is Christian-themed.

David Neilson, the chief executive of Photonica, said in an e-mail message that "it's likely" Wiley was warned of the previous book cover: when a "client calls in to request a photo, we will check the image's history automatically."

In any case, neither publisher has any recourse against the agency, as neither paid for exclusivity. Ditto for Bloomsbury and Doubleday, which paid Photonica for nonexclusive use of the same photograph of a knee-socked woman, though used upside down in one case. The books - Melissa Pritchard's "Disappearing Ingénue" (Doubleday) and a British edition of Jeffrey Eugenides's "Virgin Suicides" (Bloomsbury) - were both published in 2002, in May and October, respectively. Mr. Neilson said "crossover is likely to have been minimal," as "The Virgin Suicides" cover in the United States differs from the one in Britain. In British bookstores, however, the covers are likely to be the same: Amazon's British Web site shows the Pritchard and Eugenides books with the identical images.

As the covers of "The Task of This Translator" and "Wearing Dad's Head" suggest, photo agency rates do not explain all such cases. Book designers can wade into familiar waters even when they choose different photos. The cover of "The Task of This Translator" is "similar enough to other projects that someone should have a red face about it," said Giles Hoover, a book designer who with his wife, Amanda Smith, runs the book-design blog Foreword (

"If I had done that, I would be super-embarrassed," Mr. Hoover said.

Jennifer Gilmore, director of publicity at Harcourt, publisher of "The Task of This Translator," said she had not been aware of the cover of Mr. Yourgrau's book. She said the similarities were "strictly coincidental."

With Covers, Publishers Take More Than Page From Rivals - New York Times

No comments:

Search This Blog