It is interesting to me how working in a bookstore can really tune you on to how the world of bookselling is very based in what I suppose I'd call 'marketable products' (and before you ask if I'm just now coming to this conclusion, the answer is 'no'). If a book can be packaged for a certain group of people, then that book will start selling wildly. The same is true of any kind of popular media, film, music, video game, even the random magazine you might pick up in the airport.
Consider a particular popular young adult series with distinctive black covers, that feature white text in the title, and a red object in the background. Notice how when you wander into a young adult fiction section now, you will see popular classics, including 'Wuthering Heights' and 'Romeo and Juliet' (and an odd couple of books that is, to market to this audience, in this bookseller's humble opinion), packaged in a similar manner - black cover, with white text and a red object in the background. Now, it doesn't really matter that these particular titles don't have much in common by way of story or subject matter, but just by repackaging Emily Bronte and Will Shakespeare in a similar fashion to a popular series, the publishers have all but ensured that there will be a resurgence of interest in those classics.
Young adult books are in an incredible place right now. Everyone reads young adult fiction - men, women, kids, their parents, their grandparents. Everyone reads it. If you read 'Harry Potter', you're reading young adult fiction; same with Erin Hunter's popular 'Warriors' series. Certain themes are so popular that older series, long out of print, are enjoying a resurgence. L.J. Smith wrote her 'Nightworld' series in the early 1990s, but due to the popularity of supernatural themes in young adult fiction, her series has been brought back, repackaged in singe volumes containing three books from her series, and are selling again. Lynn Ewing's grrl-power / fantasy series 'Daughters of the Moon', originally packaged in small hardcovers with beautifully designed covers, is being repackaged in blue-black paper with silvery-white text. Even Christopher Pike's more adult-themed 'The Last Vampire' series is enjoying similar treatment, now packaged in white covers with black text, and entitled 'Thirst'.
The popularity of young adult fiction has allowed marketers to package, and repackage and repackage, yet again, certain books. If a film is made based upon a young adult novel, that novel will receive at least two new editions, one with the original cover art and a sticker proclaiming that it is soon to be a film, or a film-art based cover, which will soon become the only edition available, even if the film is on DVD, or won't be released for several months.
I've noticed similar marketing issues in science fiction and fantasy novels, but in the case of this genre, it's how some of the best books have the worst cover art. Granted, some of these books are products of their time; in the 1980s, cover art wasn't exactly top notch, but sometimes the subject matter is just nonsensical with a capital "Huh??" Take, for instance, Simon R Green's Deathstalker series. The series is a high-energy, fun romp, with science fiction and fantasy elements; Green is a talented writer who clearly wanted to have fun, while telling a fantastic story with great characters. Why on earth the cover art for the first Deathstalker novel features a man wielding a sword while wearing white leggings under a frilly top (this has to be a fashion faux pas even in science fiction) is something I've never understood. Half the reason I never read Green's books until I was in college was because the cover art was so off-putting.
Some publishers have figured out how to market books to the science fiction and fantasy crowd properly. The abundance of urban fantasy has kept a few artists very well employed, and so long as cover art features dark tones (blacks, grays, a little bit of red, lots of blue), and a very attractive man or woman (the woman inevitably dressed in next to nothing) posing in a fashion that suggests this isn't your typical fantasy story, the book will sell. George R. R. Martin's 'Song of Ice and Fire' series, a favourite of the Haunted Bookshop's fantasy readers, was originally marketed in single coloured covers with a high-fantasy art scene at the bottom. Now the books are marketed in solid colours (gold, purple, blue, red), with a small, raised decal at the front cover the signifies the primary bent of the story. Simplifying the cover art made the books more appealing from an aesthetic standpoint, and the writing, while always good, seemed better for the art.
And when it comes down to it, perhaps aesthetics are half the reason why people pick the books that they pick. If a book is pleasing to look at, people will pick it up, read the back, and probably buy it. The Modern Library publishers learned decades ago that if you publish books in simple formats with attractive dust jackets, those books will be popular sellers. Now, the Modern Library is highly collectible. Though they still publish, Modern Library now packages its books with gold-toned paper covers, and a decorative painting that captures the overall mood of the book within the wraps. In this way, they continue to market old classics with newer designs that attract the eyes of contemporary readers (I confess that this is how they got me to read Dumas' 'The Count of Monte Cristo').
The cliche is never trust a book by its cover. The truth that I've found is that if a book has poor art, it won't sell and people who might otherwise enjoy the book won't look at it. However, with a bit of time, energy and some slick art direction, a writer who is not widely known can become a powerhouse.
A contemporary writer whose work has sold increasingly well due to slick marketing is Cormac McCarthy. Simple cover art, with a white or black border, and a stark image in the center, represents what is contained within - a literary feat of precise language, intense imagery and grand themes that appeal to every kind of reader. McCarthy, a poet by origin, enjoyed a resurgence in popularity over the past ten years, probably due in no small part to the marketing of his book 'No Country for Old Men'. The original printing, before the acclaimed film version, had a stark red cover, with a slightly off-set silhouette of a man running. The image was intriguing, and upon opening the cover, the book is revealed to be something truly special, a neo-western that revels in dark themes of greed, murder and cruelty, while still believing that there is still something good and honorable about people. Thanks to the art direction and the writer's own talents, McCarthy's novels fly off of our shelves at the bookshop, and I'm almost always hard-pressed to find them in a new store.
So. The next time you're looking for a good book to tickle your fancy, check out the cover art. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Until next week, fellow bibliophiles.