One-Minute Book Reviews

October 17, 2007

When Bad Covers Happen to Good Books: Rating the Cover of Katha Pollitt’s ‘Learning to Drive’

Royce M. BeckerWhat was Random House thinking? Katha Pollitt handed the firm a gift-wrapped successor to Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, the white-hot bestseller from its Knopf imprint, in Learning to Drive. Her book, like Ephron’s, is a stylish essay collection about being a wife, mother, girlfriend, daughter, New Yorker and writer.

Faced with this chance to strike gold again, Random House has – so far – blown it with Learning to Drive. Let’s leave aside the things the firm didn’t do for the book, such as publish a reading-group guide – Knopf didn’t at first post one for I Feel Bad About My Neck, either – and focus on what it did do: namely, give the book a cover likely to do nothing to help it gain the high bestsellerdom within its reach. Among the problems:

1. Visually the design doesn’t “pop,” industry jargon for “jump out at you.” It is way too dark and ambiguous. Except for the road sign, it looks a colorized mammogram. (Just what women want! A book that reminds subliminally them of cancer!) If you lean a few feet back from your computer, you may not even be able to read the title of the book (especially if you’re using laptop like mine, which isn’t brand-new and and has a relatively small screen). It just fades away. And that’s what it will also do at a bookstore or library where it’s surrounded by covers that do pop.

2. The gloomy cover, though a problem, might at least be defensible if reflected the tone of the book – if it appeared on, say, another paranoid Don De Lillo novel. But Learning to Drive teems with life as seen by a woman who is passionately involved with it. It is also entertaining. So where are the women, or even the people? Where is the wit? Yes, the cover shows a road, and the road is a classic symbol of life in literature. So you could argue that, theoretically, it fits the book. But marketing surveys have shown that a cover has 4-to-7 seconds to grab you. In those few seconds, how many people will make the symbolic connection?

3. Above all, the cover of Learning to Drive doesn’t suggest what is unique about the book. Its image of a road could fit anything from Richard Ford’s short stories to Claudia Emerson’s poetry. The cover of I Feel Bad About My Neck showed a jar of skin cream with the title of the book on the label and would have suited no other book. That’s part of what makes it a great cover.

I’m not asking for a copy of Ephron’s cover. And I’m certainly not asking for pink. But there’s a middle ground between stereotyping women and denying that a book has anything to do with them. The cover of Learning to Drive renders women invisible, and – oh, irony of ironies! – that is what Pollitt has spent her entire career opposing.

Cover design for Learning to Drive: Royce M. Becker

Links: Learning to Drive www.randomhouse.com and www.kathapollitt.blogspot.com. I Feel Bad About My Neck www.aaknopf.com.

Why I chose Learning to Drive for this occasional series on book covers: This is case in which the publisher clearly could have done better. Many small firms can’t afford to hire great art directors (who oversee book design) and graphic designers (who often develop or execute the cover concepts). Random House can afford it. And some books have little chance of becoming bestsellers even with great covers. Others come from authors whose books will make the New York Times list if they look like dog food. Learning to Drive doesn’t fall into either category. With this book, Pollitt had the best chance of her career to “break out” — more jargon — and find her way to many more readers. She may still do it. But it would have been easier for her if her book had a cover that helped booksellers and others understand its uniqueness and position it correctly. Finally, this was a case in which a protest by Pollitt and her literary agent might have helped. Most authors have little or no control over their covers. Often their agents don’t have much clout, either, or won’t use it for fear of offending publishers. Pollitt has a strong following and one of New York’s best agents. There’s little doubt that Random House would have tried to accommodate them if they said, “This cover is unacceptable.”

Note: A thousand thanks to Sean Lindsay, the host of the site 101 Reasons to Stop Writing, for a) noticing my comment that I didn’t know how to add images and b) e-mailing me instructions for finding and inserting images. Without Sean, you wouldn’t be looking at the image of Pollitt’s book but reading a description. If you’d like to see a blog by someone who really knows how to pull one together, visit his informative and entertaining 101 Reasons to Stop Writing www.101reasonstostopwriting.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

14 Comments »

  1. This was great, Janice – looking forward to more of the book cover series in the future. Book covers are so important, especially with children’s books (which is what I buy for my library).

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — October 17, 2007 @ 8:37 am | Reply

  2. Thanks, Amanda. Speaking of children’s books, I just picked up the new Sherman Alexie YA novel that’s a finalist for the National Book Award, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which I’m hoping to review before the ceremony in November. Would love to have your comments on that review when it appears. Bet that will be a big book at your library (actually, all over Texas). Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 17, 2007 @ 1:06 pm | Reply

  3. So the old saying; “You can’t judge a book by its cover” really does ring true?

    I think the packaging is unbelievably important. I can be drawn to a new author (or musician for that matter) if the product has an appealing, interesting design. It should draw new people in, not alienate the loyal.
    Nice article!

    Comment by kevmoore — October 17, 2007 @ 1:58 pm | Reply

  4. Kevin: A good book sometimes can find its way with bad packaging — just let Oprah choose it for her book club — but I agree with you that in most cases the cover is extremely important. And it’s getting more so all the time.

    One reason for this is that the number of books published each year is soaring. When I was the book editor of the Plain Dealer in the late 1990s, about 50,000 books were published annually. I read that the figure now is 192,000. I don’t know if I believe that. But the figure is clearly going up, owing partly to the greater ease of self-publication through places like iUniverse. So publishers have to try harder to give books every advantage, including a great cover. Thanks so much for your comment.
    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 17, 2007 @ 5:03 pm | Reply

  5. Actually, Janice, I think Sherman Alexie’s book will be even bigger in my former state of Washington, since that is where he was born and raised (and I think still lives).

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — October 17, 2007 @ 8:19 pm | Reply

  6. Great points on this less-than-great cover. I don’t think I would have picked it up in the store, but thanks to you, I might now.

    Comment by lisamm — October 18, 2007 @ 2:09 am | Reply

  7. Author Joe Konrath wrote a while back about getting the cover for his latest book changed: That About Covers It, Part 1 and (better) Part 2.

    Janice, thanks for the kind words. And you’re welcome.

    Comment by seanlindsay — October 18, 2007 @ 6:18 am | Reply

  8. Sean: Those posts are good, especially Part 1. Konrath mentions a point I’ve made on this site — that authors typically have little or control over a cover — and suggests how you can get some control. A particularly good post for authors …
    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 18, 2007 @ 8:35 am | Reply

  9. Jan: Given the all-pervasive nature of the internet, it’s heartening to know that the number of books published is soaring, though of course it makes it harder to sort the wheat from the chaff. Interesting point about Oprah – I live in Spain, but as a native Brit, I know we have a similar thing there with a talk show pair called Richard and Judy. Their recommendations have led me to some interesting reads, such as The Time Traveller’s Wife.

    Comment by kevmoore — October 18, 2007 @ 8:52 am | Reply

  10. All of you travelers who are headed for the Britain, listen to Kevin. There’s been something about Richard and Judy in the papers almost every time I’ve been to the U.K., and I’ve always wanted to catch their show but haven’t managed it. Nor have I seen the French program “Apostrophe,” which is supposed to be higher-toned than their Oprah’s or Richard and Judy’s. Would love to have comments on that one from someone who’s seen it.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 18, 2007 @ 11:40 am | Reply

  11. For the uninitiated; Richard and Judy are a husband and wife presenting team who rose to prominence on ITV’s “This Morning” and latterly Channel 4′s “Richard & Judy show” They are a fairly laid back, cozy presenting team but have recently begun to handle more contentious issues, and also set up the Richard and Judy book club, which I’m sure has introduced a great swathe of quality literature to people who would otherwise never have seen it, let alone read it. They also promoted a new writers competition, following right through to publication. Any show that promotes the reading of books and creative writing has to be a good thing!
    I will try and find out about Apostrophe, my partner is French, so I’ll quiz the relatives!

    Comment by kevmoore — October 18, 2007 @ 3:31 pm | Reply

  12. On another note…what are your views on different covers for different markets? It always surprises me when in the States that so many of my favourite books are almost unrecognisable due to them having completely different artwork to the UK versions.

    Comment by kevmoore — October 18, 2007 @ 3:35 pm | Reply

  13. They really are different, aren’t they? I actually find that interesting, because I like seeing how the tastes of readers in the U.K. and U.S. differ.

    A related trend is having different covers for the SAME book. For example, the U.S. publisher of the international bestseller “I Don’t Know How She Does It” by Allison Pearson (of the BBC’s “Newsnight”) released the novel simultaneously with a pink cover and a blue cover with the same design. I’ve always wondered if that occurred because Pearson was outraged that her U.S. publisher wanted to put a pink cover on her book — pink being the standard here but not necessarily in the U.K. for “women’s fiction” — and the publisher tried to mollify her by saying, “OK, we’ll do it in blue, too.” That’s pure speculation (Pearson may have had no problem with pink), but I’ve never read a good explanation for that marketing strategy.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 19, 2007 @ 1:39 am | Reply

  14. Hey Janice – I just found, among a bunch of review copies Little Brown sent me, Sherman Alexie’s book! I’ll try to read that next (after I finish “The Memory Keepers Daughter” for one book club next week, and before I start “Nobody’s Fool” by Richard Russo for the other book club on November 20).

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — October 19, 2007 @ 2:29 pm | Reply


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