Judging books by their covers

As I’ve described, my office occasionally receives galleys of forthcoming books, usually fiction directed toward women (although last month we got something that looks like a mash-up of World War Z and Sex in the City). Sometimes they come addressed to the marketing department, sometimes to me or to the marketing assistant. Usually, publicists send galleys to potential reviewers, which we are not in the position to do (unless we do so on Goodreads, which I just quit). Instead, we make fun of the books, most of which sound like they came out of a focus group (see above example!). The arrival of a new galley therefore generates a certain amount of excitement, although probably not in the way their publishers anticipated.

My coworker brought one in this morning and read the full title, which offered a twist on the current fashion of subtitling everything “A Novel.” (In this case, it’s “A Novel of Suspense.) The cover was dark and grim, depicting a room photographed so out-of-focus as to seem abstract.

The marketing assistant began reading the copy: “‘Chasing a hot story, journalist [redacted] uncovers information that sends her back to the past–‘”

“And a kidnapping,” I interrupted. “That cover says kidnapping to me.”

“‘–to the disappearance of a close friend who vanished without a trace a decade ago,'” she continued, and laughed. “Called it!

We in the academic publishing business have our own cover conventions, certainly, but it’s a lot more fun to mock the repetitive imagery of trade books, particularly those that are marketed or shelved into “literary fiction” and yet packaged as genre fiction. Maureen Johnson’s #Coverflip is getting a lot of attention for this reason: when you take covers of books by well-known male or female authors and then redesign the covers as though the author were gender-neutral or the opposite gender, it becomes strikingly obvious how books by women are packaged as though “books by women” were a genre, featuring the same plot elements and character archetypes over and over again. The repetition of similar themes or elements in cover design, like the fashionable title constructions du jour, is a legit marketing strategy: the similarities signal to us what to expect by alluding to previous books we might have enjoyed or at least heard about. When employed less artfully by potboiler books pushed out on the market too soon and too carelessly, the allusion becomes a caricature.

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