With all that's being written about the Kindle, and the future of publishing, and books vs. electronic products, I thought I should go on record as saying I have no idea how it will all pan out. I HOPE that more options means more books sold, regardless of format, which would mean more revenue for publishers and more royalties for authors. I fear, as many do, Amazon's Microsoftian attempt at world domination in this arena, but that's another whole story not worth getting worked up about, at this time.
I use this as a starting off point to talk about a mild fetish of mine, which is that from time to time I just like to feel hardcovers published in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. First, I just love the paper. Some of my first printing Charlotte Armstrongs (Lemon in the Basket, Seven Seats to the Moon, The Protege) have paper so thick that the books could survive a nuclear holocaust. There is just something so satisfying about turning those thick pages. Ironically, the paper, while thick, feels light, which is a wonderful paradox that makes me a little giddy.*
But what I have been noticing lately is the copy on the front covers of these hardbacks. Nowadays, we are used to seeing author name, title, "An [insert sleuth name here] Mystery," and perhaps "Author of [fill in previous book title]." OK, that's all well and good--no complaints. But I see from some of my favorite books that the publishers went even further, attempting to position the book through extra verbiage on the cover. Here are a few for instances:
Margaret Millar, VANISH IN AN INSTANT (1952): The cover says, "Her best novel of murder and suspense since THE IRON GATES." Now, I find this odd because Millar wrote many terrific books after THE IRON GATES, including DO EVIL IN RETURN, THE CANNIBAL HEART, and ROSE'S LAST SUMMER. So did the casual bookstore shopper in 1952 think, "Oh, Millar's last few books stunk; I'm glad she's back in the form she was in for THE IRON GATES"? Anyway, I've gushed about Millar here before, so won't do so again. The only thing I can think of is that the editor really loved VANISH IN AN INSTANT and was looking for a way to convey that on the cover.
Norah Lofts, THE LITTLE WAX DOLL (1960): The cover says "A tale of modern witchcraft." A good call on the publisher's part, because Lofts was known for her historical novels,and the publisher probably wanted to signal to readers that they were to expect something different with this title. (This is a fabulous book, by the way.) The history here is that it was originally published under Lofts' pseudonym Peter Curtis, then re-issued to take advantage of her fame. That's all to the good, because this is a sadly overlooked classic. Doubleday did something similar with Lofts' THE CLAW (1981), saying on the cover that it is "A novel about the ultimate violation" (rape). Yes, that's truth in advertising, yet I can't say that I think it would really pull in readers and might even turn them off.
Craig Rice, THE RIGHT MURDER (1941): This one has all the basics on the cover, but the spine adds "A witty fast paced mystery," which is a good description. I wonder if this takes into account the way books were shelved on bookstores in the 40s--or if this was more done in consideration of people who walk through the library stacks in search of something interesting to read.
Margaret Millar, THE FIEND (1964): How's this for additional cover copy: "A suspense novel in which nine adult lives are enmeshed in the horrible threat to a little girl's life." Wow--an entire plot summary on the front cover of a hardback. No one does this anymore, do they?
And this, ultimately, is my question: Should we start doing this again? People are busy, and a bookstore (especially the mega-outlets) are exercises in sensory overload. We now have this tendency to make all of our covers look the same, with a strong central image and (when relevant) the author's name in type so huge that it overwhelms everything else. But the modern book requires the reader to then pick it up, read the flap copy, flip through it--and in an era where people don't even want to read newspapers any more, can we really expect them to read flap copy?
So maybe we SHOULD start doing plot summaries, or positioning statements, on our hardcovers so that people can instantaneously figure out whether or not the book is for them. That might work better than blurbs from people whom the reader may or may not have heard of; and I really have begun to think that blurbs are wasted real estate because nobody takes them seriously on a hardcover. (A paperback's a different story.)
Just think about some of the possibilities for covers:
Janet Evanovich, Super Stupid Sixteen - "A novel in which an absolute airhead who can never learn her lesson deals with continued family shenanigans while putting the bad guys out to pasture"
P.D. James, Death of a Self-Important Poet - "Inspector Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard investigates the murder of a narcissistic, sensitive poet who is increasingly getting on people's nerves"
Elizabeth George, What Fools These Mortals Be - "The two biggest snots in the world, Inspector Lynley and his wife, deal with an intricate plot while looking down their noses at that pain in the ass Barbara Havers, who acts like a complete idiot half the time"
*Interesting note about paper: Small press books, due to smaller print runs, often use better paper because we don't qualify for the cheaper paper. So, our books are often printed on better paper than mass-market paperbacks or even other trade paperbacks. Ironically, the fact that our paper is better causes some to look askance at us, and to toss out the accusation of "self publishing."