Friday, September 16, 2005

Selling a book by its cover: Did flap lead to new jacket?

Steven Zeitchik, a senior editor at Publishers Weekly who writes regularly on pop culture and technology
Published September 11, 2005

When reports surfaced several weeks ago that the cover to Rick Moody's new novel, "The Diviners," had been changed because of bookseller ambivalence, it caused something of a tingle in the book industry.

To some, the jacket on a book is inextricable from the words inside it--and equally non-negotiable. If we're changing the cover because of what other people think, what's next? Altered prose? New endings?

Whether the final product--which has a similar image, but one that appears on a movie screen--proves sufficiently different might never be known. Certainly Moody publisher Little, Brown, is hoping it does. Publisher Michael Pietsch said he believes the new cover still conveys the book's humor while also satisfying more readers, and, while he liked the original, "there was this crescendo of resentment that was simply unignorable."

The incident (which came after printing but before publication) brought to the fore one of the little secrets of book design: Jackets are now one of the most marketing-driven pieces of a title.

Indeed, jackets are routinely scrapped and redone, often many times, sometimes for dubious reasons. It's just that it's done in publishers' offices, out of sight of the rest of us, while here there was a quasi-public backlash as members of the media and booksellers balked while at an industry convention.

An anecdotal study by my own magazine, Publishers Weekly, shows that Kevin Guilfoile's genre-bending thriller, "Cast of Shadows," went through dozens of covers before the publisher decided on the red, neo-Impressionist version. And reports abound of jackets that have been changed after high-ranking employees at the country's bookstore chains intimated a certain cover would mean a lower order. For all their designers' ambitions, covers are like everything else that surrounds our cultural products: the result of assumed commercial appetites.

Certainly there can be unsavory consequences to this. Dicey marketing logic has led to the absurd proliferation of women's legs on book jackets. And critics seem right to fear that changes around the book could slippery up the slope and lead to changes to the words inside it.

But there's a reassuring parallel here too. The fact that designers and publishers now worry a lot more about what people think means their role has changed. They now balance their own ambitions with the perceived wants of an audience. They have become, in other words, just like authors.,1,5377385.story?coll=chi-leisurebooks-hed

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