It’s a bit embarrassing when the bus thinks you are a man reading the latest breathless wonder for young women
There seems to be something of a trend among book-cover designers in recent years towards glittery little packages that make everything seem like chick lit, and could, if the sun was strong, as on today’s glorious spring day, blind your fellow passengers on the bus with a little accidental angling.
The most recent example I’ve seen is Sarah Winman’s debut book When God Was a Rabbit. Two things about this book bothered me: the title (yes it’s about childhood and innocence and there is a certain deity-like leporidae in there); the other is the cover design. Shiny, metallic turquoise on brown and black paper with little twinkly stars. Now this might seem attractive in concept, but between the two it does make the whole package appear to come from some horrific genre I’ve yet to wander into – chick lit for teens, maybe.
Despite these two warning signs, I read the book – and it’s terrific. Winman (an actor that you may have seen on television) has written a brother and sister story that shifts from childhood to adulthood, and has deftly captured the innocence and humour of the former, with the unreliability of the latter. The characters are drawn with vigour, and the story veers between the minor and major chords of family life. It’s all handled smartly, sensitively and succinctly (without any ham-fisted alliteration). Winman has already been compared to the likes of John Irving and Mark Haddon, so expect this one to sell by the bookshelf load, which it fully deserves to – saccharine cover or not.
My eyes, my eyes!
The fact that a book as smart and sharp as this has been put in the little empress’s clothes seems a mistake. Now, the design is pleasant enough, but it seems inappropriate. No doubt there are book marketeers who will happily point out that this form of design will definitely help Winman ship units – but it feels like the publisher is trying to glibly wrap a package that is charming on its own merits.
There are hundreds of examples of this sort of thing – and plenty of authors have gone on the record as being unhappy with how their books are being marketed and packaged, especially when it comes to re-issues. For example, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights recently got a Twilight-style makeover to fool teenagers into thinking that the house of Heathcliff was stuffed with the undead. On the one hand, you can’t really blame publishers for trying to get younger readers chewing through a few classics. But on the other hand, it’s a bit embarrassing when you blind a fellow bus passenger and they think you are a 30-something man reading the latest breathless wonder for young women.
Next time I’m wrapping the Economist around it. Or maybe I’ll set up a business selling slip covers in a variety of sizes for embarrassing books – Dostoyevsky for Dan Brown, and that sort of thing. Sometimes I amaze myself. Venture capitalists – you know where to find me.