Contents, Covers & Judgements

Nevil ShuteThe other day I received an email survey about book covers.  A publisher, trying to discover what makes me want to buy a book put together some images and a few tick-boxes.

There were attractive pictures, plain covers, abstract designs, portraits of the author…need I say more?  All I had to do was indicate which I thought was most appealing.

Really, that’s all?  But how do I do that honestly?  Is the cover the thing that draws us in?

When I scan a row of bookshelves I’m reading the spines, and I think I’m mostly concentrating on the authors.  But that’s because I tend to look out for books I’ve heard of or read about, so I’m not really browsing, so much as seeking.

Fine, but what about the times when I’ve no specific title or writer in mind and find myself, with time to spare, at the book-shop?

Faced with a room’s length of floor to ceiling bookshelves I do not really ‘read the spines’, so what do I do when I scan?  I take in colours, font shapes and, let’s be honest, publisher.  Yes, there are imprints that tend to be more likely to produce the style of fiction I like, and I gravitate first to their logos, even though I know that by dismissing the rest I’m likely to miss something worthwhile.

I’ve certainly passed by A Town Like Alice often enough.  I did read it, years ago, and thought I’d remembered the gist of it, until came my way again this week.

‘I thought you might like these,’ said my mother, passing me four old paperbacks historical accuracypublished in the 1960s.  They were soft with age.  Their browned pages and worn covers carried the kind of stains that came from getting read in the bath, on the bus, or in the canteen at lunch-hour.  They were the kinds of books whose fates I wonder about when I give them to charity shops.  You just don’t see them on the shelves any more.

Presumably, that’s because we won’t buy them.  I’m as guilty as the next person.  What is it about old books that puts us off?  Personally, it’s not hygiene.  I’ve never heard of anyone catching diseases from books, but I’m willing to learn if anyone else has.  pan book

It’s not the cover design either.  I’m sorry, but I don’t see much difference between the four here and the selection I was asked to decide between earlier this week, except of course, they were shinier.  The thing is, three of these copies have been re-released in the past few years.  They contain the same text, but the covers are all different.

I now have three copies of Tom Jones, one of which is a hardback which has lost its dust-jacket, the other two each have very different cover illustrations.  I bought them because I wanted the content, not because there was a picture of a gartered leg, or a rather attractive young Albert Finney.

I do pick up interesting book covers, but then I read a little, from the beginning or middle of the text.  Only if I like that, do I buy.  In my experience, the illustrations chosen all too often bear little relevance to the writing.  Besides, I much prefer to picture things in my own way.

old favouritesSo I’m wondering how publishers measure their survey answers.  Presumably they see some benefit, since I get one every two months or so.  I can’t be the only respondent who ticks as a fantasy reader, just because I’m going in a draw to win some book tokens, can I?

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