Wednesday, October 1, 2014

What is it with Whitish Covers, Plain Typeface, and Little Icons? Is Everyone Now Malcolm Gladwell, Even Novelists?

Several weeks ago I mentioned this longstanding cover trend where you have a plain white jacket with a small icon on it. The typeface is generally clean and points to serious personal development, often with business applications. Examples were Malcolm Gladwell's titles, Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, and most recently Daniel Levitin's The Organized Mind. Sticklers will note this book is actually cream, not white.

What is so fascinating about this is that both bookstores and websites are driven crazy by white covers. They get dirty. They blend into the background. They smudge. They get lost in my blog, because I use a clean white background. And when everybody does them (and everybody does), they don't pop off the shelf either.

But apparently publishers must feel that their siren song is so powerful that it's worth the returns, or maybe the mass merchants like them. We noted that it's not just business and psychology books that hone to this popular design. A bookseller pointed out the new William Davis book, Wheat Belly Total Health, the Milwaukee diet phenom, and no, I still haven't met him. WebMD reviewed the book, and it's interesting to note that Dr. Davis likes many of the trendy grains, such as flax, chia, and quinoa. He likes flax the best of the three. note that Grain Brain, another book chasing this trend, has a similar look. A mix of black and red type is the only distinguishing mark.

But then another bookseller noticed that it's hard to spot the difference between a self-help book and Paulo Coehlo's Adultery. Now some might argue that Coehlo is a novelist whose books are read like self-help, and that might be the reason why Knopf is doing pretty well with the new releases, hitting high on the national bestseller lists. Normally you'd try to distinguish a white-with-icon book by doing a stylized typeface, perhaps a script, which nobody would ever mistake for nonfiction. But Coehlo's book gives no indicators that it's fiction at all. Were this self-help, is it arguing for or against adultery? I think "for", but it might suggest you be open about the relationships. So much for attempting to judge a book by its cover.

The Knopf/Doubleday group of Random House seems to be particularly fascinated by this design concept. The recently released Before, During, After could easily be mistaken for a white jacket, though in fact it has what is either a shadow or an ombre effect in the coloration. Hombre's been pretty hot in fashion for the last few years; I'm hoping that the publishers will jump on another trend and start doing jackets with fringe.  The author of Peace (a novel a number of Schwartz booksellers got behind and sold very well in hardcover) has written the story of an artist and Episcopal priest who fall in love, despite age differences, but the relationship is shaken by both world and personal events, and well, the "after" part does not go very well.

Similarly, Ian McEwan's The Children Act is another variation in cream (which honestly, reads white in a lot of our materials), while Dear Committee Members would completely fit the bill if the type wasn't partially mustard type. Mustard! That's crazy talk; the recommended color is black, and only red is an acceptable variation. And I know you're all thinking, what about B.J. Novak's One More Thing? Yes, it follows the white trend, but it uses a handwriting font (or handwriting, who knows the difference?) and has no icon.

And then, everywhere I looked, I saw white covers with little icons and self-helpy type. Did Stephen King's Mr. Mercedes qualify? Why was this book white and not black or red? And what of Christos Tsiolkas's Barracuda? I suppose the little wave lines disqualify it, but why did Crown work in white instead of the blue and blue-green of the British and Australian publishers?

Somebody is pushing publishers towards white covers, but I have no idea who it is? If not a retailer, is it a paid consultant? A secret organization? Let me know if you have any inside info.

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