We judge by appearances more than we care to admit. People, places, companies, books. The images associated with something influence us – whether subconsciously or otherwise – and inform our judgements. It’s why companies spend thousands on their brand image, why dating profiles encourage a profile picture, and why books go through a severe vetting process for the perfect cover.
I’m pretty scrutinous when it comes to buying books. I read the blurb several times over, and read a lot of Goodreads reviews before I decide whether something is right for me. I like to tell myself the way the cover looks doesn’t make a difference, but it does. I was out bookshopping a while back and as I was scanning the shelves, I stumbled across a book on display with a dark cover showing a haunted-looking tree. It was all dark and promised spook and mystery. I didn’t pick it up to read the blurb, I just walked straight past it. I wasn’t really interested in mystery After I’d donned my left hand with a few books (that’s my “maybe” hand), I found another book. The cover was a soft blue with a golden tree. It looked a little bit magical and I like magic and trees, so I picked it up. I read the blurb and, without even consulting the rest of my book-buying checklist, I purchased it. It wasn’t until I noticed the first book on my way out that I realised they were one and the same: The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge.
We repeat to ourselves the old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” but we never actually listen. My recent book-buying escapades are a testament to that but so is the fact that, every now and again, a book cover will cause a stir in the literary world. The most obvious one that comes to mind is a little 50th anniversary redesign that happened a few years ago.
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar has been a gripping ride since it was first published under pseudonym Victoria Lucas in 1963. The off-centre, concentric circle design promising a downward spiral into despair had been the first cover released under Plath’s name in 1966 and has been synonymous with the novel ever since. That is, until 2013, when Faber released a new cover to celebrate the book’s 50th anniversary.
Chaos ensued. The new book cover, featuring a woman applying makeup in a compact mirror was criticised on social media for marking Plath’s only novel as “chick-lit” and undermining the issues of mental health that run through it. Everything from the “superficial woman” to the non-authentic font on the title was criticised and was generally regarded by the warriors of Social Media as a disaster.
Here’s the thing, though:
I like it.
Classics can be, to the modern day reader, a bit of a chore. As witty and gritty as The Bell Jar may be, the “Classic” genre it remains under can put off new readers. Anything that might be seen as in the same ball park as the books they were forced to study in secondary school are often disregarded as they conjure up awful memories of secondary school teachers forcing you to analyse why the sky is blue and how that obviously holds a sexual connotation (but the topic of why that isn’t a bad thing is a post saved for another time). The new cover wasn’t intended to be a self-gratuitous nod to The Bell Jar’s successful history in the way that Doctor Who celebrated its own 50th anniversary, it was a marketing strategy aimed at attracting new readers. Specifically, the modern woman. Faber was showing how timeless The Bell Jar truly is by showing how it can still appeal to today’s audiences with nothing more than a modernisation of the cover.
Faber hasn’t been the only publishing company to come under fire in recent years for updating a classic book cover to appeal to a new audience. Not 12 months later, Penguin had its own issues with the new cover for Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
In an attempt to attract a more adult audience, Penguin decide to redesign the famous book for its Modern Classics to depict a… err… well a doll-like sexualised young girl. According to Penguin, this cover was to make it more adult-friendly by highlighting the creepier, darker undertones of the beloved children’s book and just generally updating the child-friendly illustrations from the cover on the left.
Apparently nothing says “adult” like creepily sexualised children.
Penguin, much like Faber, refused to back down to the backlash of the “pretentious” and “distasteful” cover by claiming it was used to highlight the “twisted” parent-child relationships of the other ticket-winners. It was definitely twisted; I’ll give them that.
The question is, why do we care? If all that matters is what’s inside the book, why does controversy surround what publishers slap on the front of the book?
Because covers matter.
First impressions matter. It was my first impression of one cover for The Lie Tree that caused me to walk right past it, and my first impression of the new cover that made me pick it up. Not only that, but the cover is a symbol, intended to represent what’s inside.
That’s why Bloomsbury was forced to back down and redesign the cover of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar when the original cover (below left) used a white girl to depict the novel’s black female protagonist.
Writers and editors put a lot of hard work into every novel that’s published. And there are a lot of novels published. That work needs to stand out on crowded bookshelves, attract the right reader, and represent what’s inside. It’s not an easy business, and not everyone’s going to agree with the choice, but you can’t please everyone.