Stephen McGinty: Judging a book by the cover

F Scott Fitzgerald was so impressed by the cover of The Great Gatsby he inserted a line to reference it. Picture: Complimentary
F Scott Fitzgerald was so impressed by the cover of The Great Gatsby he inserted a line to reference it. Picture: Complimentary
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In the competitive world of publishing some authors may have to bite their tongue when presented with the marketing image, while others are literally inspired by them, writes Stephen McGinty

THE genesis of the phrase, “don’t judge a book by its cover” comes, apparently, from the Roman writer, Juvenal who said: “fronti nulla fides” or “never have faith in the front”. George Elliot was the first English author to squeeze the more familiar translation into print when she had a character caution another for commenting on how beautifully bound was a copy of Daniel Defoe’s The History of the Devil. Yet, in whichever direction I should nod in thanks for the phrase it is one with which I tend to disagree, as I frequently judge a book by its cover.

Surely the whole point of a book’s cover is to allow us to judge if it is, or is not, for us? Shouldn’t the phrase then be: “do judge a book by its cover”? I know that I certainly judge a book by its cover and find many wanting. In some cases my response makes no real sense. A few years ago Bill Bryson wrote a well-received book titled A Short History of Nearly Everything in which, with his wry humour and insightful intelligence he sought to explain the world around us. I read the reviews. I liked the reviews. I’d read his previous books. I wanted to read this book. I should have been an automatic buyer, and I was, right up until the point where I saw the cover of the hardback piled up on a table in Waterstones. The cover showed a hand-drawn image of the world with a wind-up handle, like a Meccano kit and, well, I just didn’t like it. I picked it up. I looked at the cover. I put it down.

Clearly, I was almost entirely alone in my visual prejudice as the book became one of the year’s best-sellers and the cover proved so popular that it was held over for the paperback, which meant I didn’t buy that one either. In fact, to this day I still haven’t read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, although I did briefly consider buying an American edition on Amazon in order to circumvent the whole cover issue.

So if my good self, who considers himself a rational book lover, can be so swayed by a book’s cover what about the average purchaser anxious for a good beach read? Clearly covers are important. You just have to walk into a book store today and see how the jacket design of EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey has influenced a whole new sub-section of books on mild flagellation and sexual domination. Every copy is designed to make a potential reader think: “Excellent I know what I’ll get with this one, lashing of handcuffs and hot sex.” The same thing happened a few years ago when “misery memoirs” were in vogue and every second book had a white cover of a troubled little girl and a title that screamed: “No, Daddy, No”.

What is interesting is that both these new genres of books, what became categorised as “difficult lives” and today’s vogue for “bondage romance” are overwhelmingly read by women – not surprising as women still make up the majority of readers and purchasers of books. However, a number of female authors are increasingly unhappy about their publisher’s attempts to pigeon-hole their books as solely attractive to female readers by cloaking them in feminine covers. Earlier this week the American author Maureen Johnson took to Twitter to denounce the practice of putting “girly covers” on every novel by a woman, regardless of the content matter. Her new book, The Key to the Golden Firebird, is, as she explained: “… about three sisters who are dealing with the sudden death of their father. May, the middle sister, is trying to hold her family together and learn how to drive.”

However, the cover has a neon pink background, on which is featured an attractive teenage girl displaying part of her stomach with the words “a novel” formed in a dark pink heart. As she wrote on Twitter: “I do wish I had a dime for every e-mail I get that says: ‘Please put a non-girly cover on your book so I can read it – signed, A Guy.’”

To illustrate the innate sexism of the publishing industry she asked readers to re-imagine the covers of popular novels by male authors as devised by a marketing department anxious for female sales. Stephen King’s first novel Carrie now has a smiling blond with red lipstick on the cover. Maureen Johnson is not alone in waging a war against sexist covers. Jacqueline Wilson, the popular children’s author, has banned the colour pink on any of her novels in case it puts off male readers and in 2011 Polly Courtney quit HarperCollins in protest over what she described as the “condescending and fluffy” covers they had put on her novels.

I can see the issue from both sides. As an author you want a cover that you can be proud of and reflects the sweat and toil pressed into each page. The initial cover ideas for my second book, Churchill’s Cigar, resembled a stogie-smoking egg, surreal but unattractive, while the second pass was perfect. However, I can also see the marketing department desperately hoping that if they can link their author to Jodi Piccault and her millions of readers the potential sales bump would be worth all the hassle of an angry author and if the difference between a cover you hate and one you love is thousands in sales and a new contract, is it worth swallowing? However, the fact is, the chances of sales being huge are slim and authors may just prefer to have something they are happy to slip onto their book shelf.

So what makes a great cover? If he was still alive we could turn to Sadamitsu Fujita, who designed the iconic covers of two best-sellers, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.

Fujita first worked on the covers of John Updike’s novels and enjoyed reading the books in manuscript then discussing the themes with the author and only then settled down to work with his quill pens and indian inks. As he said during an interview before his death in 2010: “I showed Truman Capote my idea for In Cold Blood. I thought of a red hat pin that I stuck into the title of the book to suggest death or something like that. He said: ‘It can’t be red, because it wasn’t a new death, it didn’t just happen.’ So I changed the colour to purple and added a black border to suggest something more funeral. Capote loved it.”

Fujita enjoyed even greater success when he envisioned Mario Puzo’s The Godfather as a puppet master and extended the “G” so that it rose up and linked with the “d and so, as he said: “I created a house for ‘God’”. He received the ultimate compliment when he looked out of his office window and saw the poster for Francis Ford Coppolla’s movie going up on Broadway. When he saw that they had kept the same design he immediately called his agent and secured a second payment.

If recognition from Hollywood is one way to characterise a great cover then we should also pay our respects to Roger Kastel, the illustrator who was asked to devise the paperback cover of Jaws by Peter Benchley and saw the silhouette of a girl swimming in a black sea while a mouth rises up from the deep. Then there was Chip Kidd, who devised the cover to Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton and the unknown illustrator of Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho in which the letters are themselves as cracked as the mind of Norman Bates.

Sometimes it takes years for a book to find its perfect cover. The classic image of A Clockwork Orange with Alex and his cog-eye was designed by David Pelham for the 10th anniversary edition published in 1972. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand never looked better than when envisioned by Nick Gaetano for the 35th anniversary edition in 1981, and the sensual exoticism of James Bond was stretched out over the cover of the Ian Fleming centenary edition of You Only Live Twice in which the letters appear to wriggle across a Japanese girl’s naked body.

Other books get the right cover first time. F Scott Fitzgerald was so impressed by Francis Cugat’s image of “celestial eyes” in which are reflected a naked woman peering down over the city of New York for the cover of The Great Gatsby that he inserted a line into the novel to reference it. The novel has always enjoyed great covers. Years later a paperback edition had a man sitting in a chair, half draped in shadow and using the “y” as a cocktail glass.

Yet now even the dead are subject to the new fashion of branding novels according to the sex of their eventual reader. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar was once a forbidding vortex of concentric circles into which the reader was disturbingly drawn, the anniversary re-boot has a woman peering into a compact as she applies her lip-stick.