25 May 2010


I attended a conference session in which the presenter used the tech expression WYSIWYG (pronounced wizzywig). What You See Is What You Get. It is a term that means that what you see on the screen is essentially what you will see when a document or project is printed or published. How relevant that idea is in the world of books! Remember (of course you do) the old saying, "You can't judge a book by its cover?" We most often use it when speaking of people, and in this it may be as true as ever. But in books? Not so fast.

Think about it: how did you choose your last book? We've talked about this - you received a recommendation from a friend; you read a book review; or you walked around a room full of books, either the library or a bookstore, and chose the one that caught your interest. Caught it how? Usually one of three ways: you were browsing in a specialized section such as architecture or mystery. Or, you liked the snappy title: Captain Underpants and the attack of the Talking Toilets. Or you were intrigued by the cover. (Romance readers out there, who do you think you're kidding?)

How important is cover illustration? Think about a recent purchase, the one where the cover caught your eye. Do you feel the cover represented a promise of what was inside? If so, was that promise fulfilled or disappointed? If you bought a book because the cover suggested a compelling or exciting story, and the story was a dreadful loss, do you feel cheated? Along this same line, is it possible for a cover to over sell its book? Do you think that the cover predisposes you to interpret a book a certain way? It is best to remember that covers can lie.

I recently attended a workshop by a successful children's author. She was absolutely delightful, with a witty humor and a real sense of what kids enjoy. I felt bad that many of her early books were (in my opinion) so poorly illustrated. Her most recent effort was being illustrated by an excellent and proven illustrator whose name you would likely recognize if you have much acquaintance with "kid lit." This author has won awards for her writing, apparently in spite of weak illustration, so my thesis may be faulty, but I still can't help but think that this newest book will be a bigger commercial success.

Remember library edition books - the ones with those boring (but sturdy) green, black, brown or burgundy plain cover bindings. They were called "library bindings" and were meant to serve as the rough equivalent of the dreaded orthopedic shoe. They were not attractive, but were able to take a lot of wear and tear. You don't see those bindings very often nowadays, and you can bet it was a market decision. Don't believe me? What company's illustration are you apt to see on your volume of Cinderella? In our modern hyper-visual society, books with flat, boring, unillustrated covers do not circulate or sell.

This being the case, you can be assured that a great deal of effort and expense has gone into the visual signature of successful books. These days, an ambitious books does not rely solely on a marketing drive, or a book-signing tour, or a series of author talks to make it's way in the world. It advertises itself: flashy, picturesque, iconic, graphic. Each cover is a seduction. Se-ducere - to lead aside (or astray). Cover art, like other temptations, is meant to be enticing.

So cruise the stacks. Be tempted. After all, the cover art is half the fun. But remember to keep a cool head: you can't always judge a book by its cover.

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