Judging a Book by it’s Cover(s)


Among my peers in the bookselling and publishing world, a popular topic of discussion has been pushing sales and recognition of backlist titles.

[Quick and dirty primer for non-booksellers – frontlist is the term used for new titles arriving from publishers and authors each year, and backlist is the term for older or reprinted stock. ]

Having a strong backlist at a bookstore is great for customers and booksellers – customers have a wider range of choices which are less expensive than the newest releases, and booksellers have more favorites they can stock and suggest. While name recognition, shelf displays and critical blurbs are important in getting people to pick up older titles, one factor that can’t be ignored is the cover design for a book. When it comes to books for someone who is browsing rather than looking for something specific, the cover becomes probably the most important factor. Laura Resnick perhaps put it best in an article written for Ninc magazine;

Having picked up the book, of course, there’s no guarantee the reader will buy it. He may well read the cover copy and put it straight back on the racks. However, unless he’s moved to pick it up in the first place, he definitely won’t buy it.

With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to look at the covers a single classic backlist book – Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five – has worn in the 40 years since it was first published.  Some work, some don’t, and some…

Well, see for yourself.

First, we see the original cover for the book, published in 1969.  Perhaps hoping to rely on name recognition from Vonnegut’s success years earlier with Cat’s Cradle, there isn’t a whole lot going on here. Title in an arch, Vonnegut’s name in big print. Can’t say I’d give it a second glance on the shelf.

One edition later, things are already looking exciting for Billy Pilgrim. Colorful little mass-market edition, with an eye-catching sillouette behind the title, and soldiers and a bomber at the bottom foreshadowing the bombing early in the book.

Now we’re getting somewhere.  Great –  bright, bold text and an intriguing image.  I’ll usually be turned off by book covers that use an image from the movie version, but I can’t deny it makes people notice a book.  I might be a bit biased since this is the edition I first read, but I’d definitely pick this up off a shelf and check out the blurbs.

A Paladin edition from the 80s, right around the 20th anniversary of Slaughterhouse-Five‘s publication.  Surprisingly, the first one that really uses a visual representation of “5.”  Nice and colorful, and an appropriately sci-fi cover for a story that is, after all, about time travel.  For one reason or another, definitely makes me think “eighties.”

I really, really dig this edition – probably my favorite US cover for the book.  Some of my favorite cover art for backlist titles is done by Random House’s Vintage imprint.  Unlike classics from Penguin and other pubs (which make covers with art from the period the book was published) Vintage titles use contemporary and stylish designs.  Great idea, great cover.

The cover from a French edition of the book (what, did you think I’d just show US covers?) is in the same mode as the earlier mass-market edition – an image focused on the firebombing of Dresden while Billy was a Nazi captive.  The image of a single survivor is pretty chilling, and  gets across Vonnegut’s (and Slaughterhouse-Five‘s) anti-war sentiments well.

Uh… terrible.  Really.  Is that supposed to be the main character on the cover?  Does anyone know if this was a tie-in with a Slaughterhouse-Five movie?  Unless it was, I can’t understand why the image was used – the gray border and odd font choice for the title don’t help this cover too much.

Another Vintage edition, another great cover.  All my praise for the earlier edition from the publisher applies to this cover from around the book’s 35th anniversary.  Really stunning design.

Probably a love-it-or-hate-it edition.  Personally, I think would look great on a shelf, but only really attract the attention of someone looking for the book already.  Awesome use of high contrast black and white with red (think Sin City), and Vonnegut’s name and title only on the spine.  The Folio Society knows how to make a pretty, expensive book.

This Iranian (I think) edition easily has the most shocking cover; a reversed US flag with swastikas in the place of stars and a body hanging from a noose.  I take back anything I said about the earlier covers being chilling – they look like LOLCat pictures compared to this.  However, shock certainly attracts attention.  Even though I’d be unable to read any of the text, I’d still pick up this book if I saw it.

Finally, we arrive at the current cover, published by Dell.  Not the most attractive of the versions, in my opinion.  But it does offer some uniformity with all the other Dell versions of Vonnegut’s library.  The strong lines and complementary colors work well, and the edition looks good when paired with all the other Vonnegut books with similar covers.

So there you are – a look at how a cover can change over four decades and across cultural lines.  While I realize my comments weren’t the most insightful, they are simply my opinions as a bookseller who never studied a great deal of graphic design.  I invite you to include your thoughts and shots of any other covers in the comments.

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