Saturday, March 26, 2011

Friday, March 4, 2011

You Can Tell a Book By Its Cover—sort of

Bookstore browsing was a family affair for us—Eoin would wander the entire store, not just the children’s section, I’d aim for the True Crime shelves, and John would scour technical books and psychology tomes. Once surrounded by books about serial killers, mass murderers, mad bombers, and assassins, I’d blissfully spend a half hour scanning volumes until I found one I just had to add to my collection. I didn’t realize it but I would skip over any that did not have red and black in the cover. If pressed to put my unconscious thoughts into words, I would say: “Where’s the blood?”

Pretty shallow, right?

But perhaps my prejudice isn’t so irrational. Because, despite the old adage, you can determine a lot about a book from its appearance. Publishers work with psychologists and market-study companies to design books that appeal to a specific audience. They know that after years of reading, shopping for, and assessing books, you, the reader, can tell almost at a glance if you’re interested in a specific volume or not. Various factors of a book’s design register with you and steer you unconsciously toward or away from it.

Is it hardback or paperback? A paperback may fall more within your target price range, but a hardback implies there’s something inside to recommend it; after all, the publisher thinks she can make a profit on it, expensive as it is. Check the clearance table for older hardbacks, and track the release dates of your wish list in paperback.

What size is it? 11.5x18, 8.5x11, 6x9? A 3.75x5 silly joke book may be just what you’re looking for, but any art book that does justice to its contents should be at least 8x10. Note the spines as you walk around: skinny or thick? Small size and a thin spine may indicate the publisher is trying to get away with skimpy content (particularly if the cover is thick). To get your money’s worth you expect a paperback novel to be at least 4x6, to be printed in a font size of not less than 10 and not more than 12, the print to fill up the pages, and a length of at least 200 pages.

What’s the color scheme? You won’t often find multiple, bright colors on the cover of a classic, a law reference, or a volume of serious poetry. A jacket with pink dominating indicates “For girls only.” As noted, crime fans look for a color-message that conveys: “There’s blood in here!”

Do the fonts appeal to you? You are not going to consider a title in screaming bold if you want an old-fashioned romance novel, and a hard-boiled detective fan is not going to pick up one in elaborate script imposed on a scene of muted colors.

All this data registers with you and influences your window-shopping selections before you are even close enough to read the actual titles. And once you do see the title, author, and publisher—

Does the name of the book pique your interest? Does it give a fair indication of what’s inside?

Is the writer someone you’re familiar with? One of your favorites? (I take a “Got it, need it” list for the very prolific Christie, Francis, and Sanders when I go mystery shopping to avoid buying duplicates.) Or do you want to take a chance on a “new” (to you) writer, perhaps someone recommended by a favorable reviewer or a friend? (Fair warning: when the author’s name is bigger than the title of the book, the publisher is counting on the author as a name brand to sell the book regardless of the quality of the content inside.)

What’s the publisher? Does it have a good track record?

Then, finally, another look at the cover–is it appropriate to the presumed content? A size-color scheme-font-content mismatch indicates the publisher is confused about what the book is, and results in no sale.

All this happens before you even look at the blurbs, back jacket, flaps or inside back cover, flip through the pages, scan review excerpts, or read a random passage!

I didn’t realize I was prejudiced against true crimes that did not sport red and black covers until one afternoon John showed me a volume with an orange and blue jacket he pulled from my favorite section. Pffffft. How could it be a valid true crime book? I thought. (Where’s the blood?) I took a look anyway. It was Never Let Them See You Cry by Edna Buchanan, a compilation of stories from her days as a crime beat reporter in Miami. It turned out to be a terrific read. (And the orange and blue colors on the cover are very appropriate for a book about Miami, as any fan of “CSI: Miami” can attest.)

Just as sneaking a peek at the ending of Cujo before I was halfway through cured me of that practice, I no longer dismiss a book out of hand because the cover “feels” inappropriate. (If I did, I would have missed Buchanan’s next book, Nobody Lives Forever, with its purple and green cover—another good read.)

Publishers are very aware of what resonates with you as a reader even before you discover what a book is about. Next time you’re browsing, notice your own reactions to what influences you to consider one book and not another. You may have to set them aside to find a gem.