Thursday, January 21, 2010

Serena Changes Her Outfit to Turn More Heads

Jackets change on books all the time. Sometimes there are old book jackets that need to be freshened up. It's like clothing--I seem to remember one year when it seemed like every major novel was navy blue with big type and a little icon on the front

Random House has updated a lot of their Vintage paperbacks in 2009. That white jacket with the inset artwork was groundbreaking in the 1980's, but most paperbacks are full bleed nowadays. It's also given them a chance to unify some of their authors' looks. I really liked the new looks for the Chinua Achebe and Albert Camus backlists. That's why we had them on display in our fiction section for quite a while. Camus sold well too in the reissue, and not just The Stranger. I'm really convinced that those new jackets got folks to go deeper into the backlist.

It's very common for a hardcover jacket to change for the paperback, particularly if the hardcover's performance was disappointing. The reprint jacket is more important for impulse sale, and less needs to convey an image to reviewers. Type jackets, for example, common on hardcovers, but less so on paperbacks.

Another area where we see changes are between the advance readers' copies that go to booksellers and the finished product. Sometimes the jackets are placeholders, but often the publishers are still arguing it out. Sometimes large accounts will balk at a jacket when it's sold in for the season. Other times the author has jacket approval and might not yet have signed off. Who knows what goes on behind the scenes? Once when I worked at Warner Books, we changed a jacket because the sales manager had a dream that about how it should be changed. The covers were already in production and were scrapped. Really.

What you don't generally see are paperback jackets that change only months after their release. But that's what we noticed a few months ago with Ron Rash's novel Serena. One of our booksellers was shelving more copies of the book, and noticed that the jackets didn't match. Our biggest fan of the book (Stacie) liked it a bit less and wondered what was up.

Serena is a big novel about a logging dynasty in Virginia, taking place at the dawn environmental movement. It's a play on Macbeth and thus features a big, bold and deliciously evil villainess in the title character. I haven't read it yet, but I knew enough booksellers who loved it to be able to use their recommendations. Right now Stacie is recommending it to lots of folks who've read A Reliable Wife (our event for Robert Goolrick is Sunday, 1/24, 2 PM, and yes, the jacket changed from hardcover to paperback).

I had some ideas on the cover change for Serena, and speculated that maybe a large account had said they'd take a large quantity for a promotion if they'd just change the jacket. I even ran my question past the agent, Marly Russoff, but no clear answer. We did, however, have a nice talk about some of her upcoming titles. If you here my talking about My Name is Mary Sutter, by Robin Oliveira (Viking, May 2010), you'll know who put the bug in my ear.

Finally my queries reached Rachel Bressler, Associate Publisher of Rash's home, Ecco. She was gracious enough to address my quick switcheroo on Serena.

"We loved the HC jacket of Serena, but felt strongly that the TP needed a new direction. I swear we went though about 100 jackets or more trying to find the right one. Once we’d settled on the original TP jacket, we were very disappointed to find initial sales were lackluster at best. We knew this book had huge potential in TP to sell like wildfire, but something was holding it back. I just had to believe it was the jacket, since we had the love of the sales force, the great HC track, and a fantastic book. It was killing me that the TP wasn’t taking off!

"Our art director, Allison Saltzman and I sat down to see if we could come up with something fresh that we felt was a better overall representation of the read. After 6+ months of looking at jackets with every combination of woman, trains, woods, etc, suddenly the new jacket just had it all fall into place. We rushed to push it through for the first reprint so that the new and improved jacket is the one being found in stores by the holiday season. Luckily for us, my gamble paid off, and we are now happily into our third reprint with close to 50,000 TP copies in print. A Christmas miracle, perhaps? Some might just say a hyper-competitive Associate Publisher who can’t take “why not wait a few years before you think about re-jacketing?” as an answer!"

Thanks, Rachel. Whatever can make this book sell is okay by us. We know it's a great book and it deserves a wide audience.

Meanwhile, keep an eye out for jacket changes. You never know when they're going to happen.

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