Bright shiny books — and that’s the problem (SBP column)

It started, I think, with Cormac McCarthy. There I was, browsing through the airport bookshop when I noticed McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men, sitting on a shelf before me. It was McCarthy — and yet it was also, somehow, not McCarthy.

While my edition of the novel is academic and authoritative-looking, like an old university professor with 17 degrees and a shotgun, this new version of No Country for Old Men looked like it was auditioning for a book beauty pageant. It was plump, sunset red smart and had a distinct air of testosterone-charged John Grisham about it. Had I not been familiar with the title, I would have thought it wasn’t even a Cormac McCarthy novel, but a thriller by a young buck with the same name.

It transpires that Cormac isn’t the only author getting a face-lift. Having belatedly realised that commercial novels by female authors are vastly outselling them, male authors everywhere are getting in touch with their feminine side. Take Tony Parsons — his last book, My Favourite Wife, came wrapped in a purple book jacket with sparkles all over it. Sparkles! Had he gone the whole hog, and called himself Antonia Parsons, he couldn’t have signalled his intent any more clearly: chick-lit is selling brilliantly, and one Mr Parsons wants a piece of the action. 

Without doubt, there will be plenty of authors out there who have no interest in aping the book covers of chick-lit authors or commercial John Grisham-style novelists. But they may not have a choice. The process for book cover design varies from publishing house to publishing house.

While some design departments liaise with their authors, soliciting their opinion about book covers, others ignore them entirely and base their book designs on their own ideas and concerns. Right now, those concerns seem to amount to — `make the literary authors look commercial, and the commercial male authors look female.’ Zoë Heller’s philosophical and distinctly un-chick-littish new novel The Believers is covered in tiny hearts. “My editor said, `I thought it was clever’,” Heller has said. “And I said, `I don’t mean to be rude, but a heart is never clever. A heart is anti-clever. That’s why it’s a heart.'”
Book jackets also vary depending on the territory they’re being sold in. In France, something moody and existential might be seen as a viable choice, owing to the French preoccupation with moody existentialism; in England, it would more likely be greeted with horror.

Since her Booker Prize win, Anne Enright’s book covers have also acquired a distinctly more glossily commercial look — as if to suggest to the reader that her book about dark Irish family secrets is really a spirit-enhancing tale of affirmation.

What all this suggests is that publishers these days seem to be actively trying to misrepresent their books. Instead of a book that’s dark, cryptic and gloomy having a dark, cryptic and gloomy cover, it’ll have a pink shiny cover with wedding confetti and ribbons on it. There’s no harm in something looking commercial, but does it have to look this commercial?

Shortly, you fear, you will walk into a bookshop to discover that every book in there is pink and wrapped in a bright shiny bow a la Cecelia Ahern’s The Gift — and where will we be then? Like The Beautiful South sang, where “Everyone is blonde and everyone is beautiful/They become so dull and dutiful.”

Cormac, stick to your guns.

4 thoughts on “Bright shiny books — and that’s the problem (SBP column)

  1. I’m so torn. I’m always attracted to the bright, shiny, pretty, sparkly books but old, battered hardbacks sans dust jacket always look so nice on shelves at home…

  2. I’ve just got two new sets of bookshelves and — book nerd that I am — I’m positively relishing the prospect of filling them with loads of hardbacks. Have to say, though, I like to keep those dust covers on…

  3. I noticed the Anne Enright change in cover – it’s gone all MisLit now, which irks. I’ve had dust jacket fights with me feller, but I tend to keep ’em till they fall off. That’s my tuppence worth – nice blog.

  4. nadine…this article hit the spot…just published my debut novel ( march 1st) and was painfully aware that i needed to put something bright and cheery on the sleeve even though i had other ideas. in the end i kinda went half chicklit and half cormac mccarthy. visual at….

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