Thursday, October 30, 2014

We Mull Over Book Jacket Changes; Why We Like Some ("Bark") and are Disappointed by Others.

It started with Carly mentioning how much she likes the new Lorrie Moore paperback jacket for Bark. Thre are so few books that can play off of a pun, but leave it to Lorrie Moore to carry this through, even in jacket design. So this led me to ask around about other recent releases where the booksellers either found improvement or disappointment.

Here's a rec for Bark from Jannis: "A new collection of short stories by Lorrie Moore is always worth celebrating and her book Bark does not disappoint. Her humor is razor sharp, hilarious and spot on. In one of these eight stories, we are witness to a newly divorced man blundering his way through the dating world, while watching the bombing of Iraq on television. In the story 'Paper Losses,' a women tries desperately to hold on to her failing marriage by tagging along on an ill-fated trip with her husband and child. I've missed reading Lorrie Moore's stories and while the new volume may be slim, I am glad to have Moore back in my life."

One book whose cover treatment Carly found a bit disappointing was Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill. Here's her rec from the hardcover: "Offill portrays the nuanced realities of marriage and human relations in a series of vignettes, the majority told in the first-person voice of the unnamed female protagonist. Similar to Valeria Luiselli's Faces in the Crowd, the fragmented narration allows the reader to experience changes in the protagonist's psyche, changes in the relationship she has with her husband, and changes in perspective: the story flows between the woman's stream of consciousness and a more distanced, macro telling of events. Charged with bits of humor, dialogue, and emotional insight, Dept. of Speculation offers a beautifully written account of love on both its good and bad days."

Why didn't Carly like it? She thought it didn't capture the essence of the book as much. I suppose the faux die-cut circles are supposed to be windows into the book which represents the psyche. All Amie and I could think was that it could have been worse; the publisher might have used actual die-cuts, which of course drives most retailers crazy, especially on paperbacks.

Why paperbacks? Paperbacks warp, hardcovers do not. So that die-cut jacket is ready to catch on just about anything and tear. But honestly, the die-cut hardcovers can also be difficult. But in terms of design, my concern  was that the paperback jacket for Dept. of Speculation implied a speculative element, a bit Kevin Brockmeier-ish.

Mel had several suggestions for me. One was Matthew Guinn's The Resurrectionist. She thought that the cover treatment, from dark to light, worked well for the paperback. You'll see the trend here. We pay more attention to cover changes when we're invested in the book.

Here's her rec for The Resurrectionist: "The president of the newly founded Carolina College of Medicine and Physic buys a Senegalese slave and presses him into the service of the new university: he must procure and prepare cadavers from the slave graveyard in town for the medical students' anatomy classes. Despite this gruesome position, Nemo Johnston acquires a medical education, which includes the reading and writing of English and Latin, and enjoys many freedoms and a steady income as the College's man. A hundred years later, the College's dirty secret is unearthed and frustrated medical student Jacob is pressed by the Dean to produce an elaborate cover-up. This fine southern gothic novel is singular. With tones of The Fire in the Flint and The Marrow of Tradition, Guinn's debut takes on old-boy networks in the deep south, their roots deep and their reach threatening. This book is sure to be the first of many contemporary critiques of white supremacy as it stretches through time in the antebellum south to the tense modern moment."

In the case of The Rathbones, Mel still prefers the hardcover, but thinks that the paperback might be an easier sell.

Here's her rec: "Hold this book to your ear and hear the sea. In Janice Clark's The Rathbones, exquisite prose unfolds with the ebb and flow of the ocean. Each detail rendered therein is as delicate and precise as the thinnest line in a scrimshaw design. You discover the story of the Rathbone family as the youngest Rathbone child does: in fits and starts, in hearsay, in rumor, in gut instinct. Nothing is as it seems: this family has secrets deeper than the ocean. Clark has carved a sharp narrative, elevated with splendidly rendered nautical diction, and will spear you through the heart with it in one stroke. This is a book you'll pine for long after you've returned from its far shores, six-generations wiser, and completely in love with Mercy and the sea."

I don't know if I mentioned this but I was really disappointed with The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells paperback jacket. I know that the time travel element of the hardcover was played down for an image of 1940s Greta, but whatever they did to the book, I had trouble selling it, even with the rec card. I think there was a bit of a disconnect

Here's my very long rec. "Greta Wells is a woman living in the West Village in 1985. Her twin brother Felix has died of AIDS, and his lover Alan is also ill with the disease. Her long-term partner Nathan tried to be supportive through this long crisis, but wound up first taking another lover, and then leaving her. It’s gotten so her only companion left is her Aunt Ruth. She seeks various forms of counseling and medication, but nothing seems to work. Finally her doctor suggests electroconvulsive therapy. She agrees, but then next morning, she winds up as another Greta in 1918. After the next treatment, she becomes a Greta in 1941, all in the same Greenwich Village apartment. And no, there’s been no AIDS crisis and so she hasn’t lost her dear brother Felix, and she’s not only still with Nathan but married to him, but it turns out each other world has its own set of problems. With all the time shifting novels out there, you’d think I’d grow tired of the genre, but I actually get more excited with each variation, with this one more akin to 'Sliders' than anything else. And of course at its heart, the novel isn’t at all about hocus pocus—it’s about the chances we take, the things we take for granted, and the relationships at the heart of our lives, all wrapped up in a story that makes your head spin, not because of the plot, but for the emotion, beauty, and wisdom at the heart of the story."

I admit this was a tough one to get right, and I always have to take into account that there are different kinds of retailers out there and sometimes you just have to catch the eye of a major retailer with the right jacket in order to get the big buy-in. I wonder if taking a play from that Jennifer Haigh novel, Mrs. Kimble  (follow the link for the image), would have been a good move. It's a look I haven't seen copied much, and boy did that book work in paperback, or so I remember.

Here's the reverse, where the hardcover ignored the unique nature of the book but the paperback celebrated it, and that is so much the better, according to our buyer Jason, a fan of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North. From Jason's rec card: "Harry relives his life over and over. There are others like him, scattered over time. There is one universal rule: do not change any major events or cause new ones. Harry gets a message from the future; time is ending early and humanity is being wiped out, because somebody has broken the rules." The cover indeed really captures the set-up.

Sometimes you know that there's no way a cover will make the transition and type covers written by women rarely make the grade. Sometimes when a cover is particularly distinctive , like Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, you'll see it kept, though we've noted before that Little, Brown will stick with a jacket for a paperback when a book is successful, whereas Knopf/Vintage will switch it up, even when the hardcover is a hit.

So I'm sure nobody would have ever dreamed that Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O'Farrell would have stayed with an orange jacket with key icon. No way. Instead we have a dining table that implies domestic drama, right? This is a perfectly good paperback jacket, though I  think Jane could have handsold this with a black type on a white field, B.J. Novak style. She likes the book that much.

By the way, here's her rec: "What happens to one Irish family living in London during the oppressive 1976 summer heatwave when patriarch Richard Riordan mysteriously disappears when on a seemingly simple walk to buy the morning newspaper? As his three adult children return home to support their mother, Gretta, past resentments and longstanding secrets emerge in this insightful portrait of a family in crisis. I was immediately engaged with all of the characters, who are not only vulnerable, but also endearing. Subtle, graceful writing at its best!"

It's rare that you get the perfect hardcover and the perfect paperback, but I have to say, in the case of Lorrie Moore's Bark, I like them both and each seems appropriate for the format. If only they could all be like that.

On a final note, I'm hoping to build email distribution of this blog. If you know somebody who might enjoy our regular posts, why not suggest they subscribe?

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