Friday, April 23, 2010

Cover Story

I’m afraid I can’t avoid it.

I feel compelled to add my two cents' worth to the debate on book covers, and confess that I am a little ambivalent about their possible future demise.

On the one hand, it was never the book cover that drew me to the book. It was always the author. I remember, as a teenager, reading all the self-revised works of Graham Greene in a library edition with dull green covers and only the author name and book title. I didn’t care about the cover. Only about the content (as an aspiring young writer I was fascinated by his notes on why he had cut or revised passages in later editions).

On the other hand, when I later bought those same books in paperback edition to read again, I was very much drawn by the covers - watercolors painted by the artist Paul Hogarth who, over 20 years, had travelled to all the major locations in Greene’s books to paint them and capture their atmosphere.

And that he most certainly did. Those covers actually added something to the books. So much so that when Hogarth published a collection of his watercolors of 'Greeneland', entitled “Graham Greene Country”, I rushed out to buy it and spent many hours savoring them. Sadly, I loaned the book to my daughter and never saw it again (a salutory lesson about lending books, even to the people you love)!

Although I was interested to read Evelyn Waugh because of his reputation, the artwork on the covers of the famous Penguin collection, by design group Bentley/Farrell/Burnett, was a real add. The pastel art deco imagery somehow caught the era perfectly, and opened the door for the reader into an age gone by. Take a look at them here.

But I can’t help thinking that the new media offers new, and possibly better, opportunities. We should look at how the next generation musicians have adapted to the post LP era. I recently downloaded “Battle Studies”, the latest album by John Mayer (a towering talent in music and lyrics), to discover an electronic package that went well beyond the music alone. There was, of course, the cover art - the signature image for the album, used on all the websites. There was a video of one of the tracks, a video on the making of the video, one with the behind-the-scenes story of the album, and an interview with Mayer himself. There was access to all the lyrics, and notes on some of the songs, along, of course, with a full list of participating musicians. There were also four demo tracks. Much more than you would ever have got from an LP cover.

Why can’t we do the same with books? You will still always need a cover - the image that will be associated with the book on all the sites where it can be downloaded, an image that will still attract readers to take a look, or not.

Along with downloading a preview chapter for free, why not include a book trailer? And when the book is purchased in full, why not talk to your readers personally in a video, discussing the ideas and thoughts behind the book, the research that went into it, future plans. You could either deliver this to camera, or in the form of an interview.

You could also include music and images that you feel provide the reader with a sense of the book. Some of the five-minute videos I assembled of my research in China, set to appropriate music, attracted a lot of people to buying books from my China series. Take a look at one here...

Any, or all of these things, can be accessed by readers either before or after they read the book - as a teaser, or as an aftertaste.

So let’s not mourn the passing of an era too much. Let us celebrate the successes of the past, but grab the opportunities of the future.

1 comment:

Nancy J. Parra said...

Great post. Thanks~