Maybe we shouldn’t tell a book by its cover, but publishers know we do, which is why they fret over jacket designs like astrologers with sky charts.
Some jackets are so successful that they carry the same design — or almost the same design — right along to the paperback version. Maria Semple’s delightful novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is a good example. The hardback from Little, Brown and the paperback from its imprint Back Bay look almost identical — a cartoon female face wearing large glasses. Anyone who knows the hardback would recognize the paperback instantly.
But that’s the exception. Even after spending so much time, effort and money on getting the dust jacket just right, most publishers go back to the drawing board to design the paperback version. That always seems to me like a waste of hard-won brand awareness, but I’m told most books don’t sell well enough to establish any brand awareness, and, besides, the paperback edition gives the publisher a chance to try something entirely different — whether to correct a badly executed dust jacket or reposition the book for another audience. (See this horrendous example.)
This month I’m struck by the new paperback edition of Maggie Shipstead’s novel “Astonish Me.” Inspired by the defection of Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1974, the story is about a successful young dancer who gets pregnant, leaves New York and raises her son on the West Coast.
The hardback featured crossed toe-shoe ribbons against a white background, with the title and author’s name written in black crayon. I thought it was striking and conveyed the youth and artistic energy of the central character.
This month’s paperback takes an entirely different approach: a scene of Paris on the horizon, with the title and author’s name in a yellow 1970s font. To me, it looks washed out and doesn’t convey much at all.
Kate Runde, director of publicity at Vintage, said, “As with most of our paperbacks, we wanted to take a fresh, new approach with our cover treatment for ‘Astonish Me.’ Our goal is always to reach new readers, and we all thought this was a great direction.”
I know authors aren’t always intimately involved with jacket design, but I was interested to get Shipstead’s reaction. “I loved the hardback,” she said. “I thought the use of the pink pointe shoe ribbons was such a clever graphic reference.”
But she also noted that the hardback design had its own challenges: “Lots of people I’ve talked to were drawn to the ‘Astonish Me’ hardback without actually realizing what the big pink X was supposed to be, which I think is a good thing (to a degree), especially because lots of readers assume they wouldn’t ever be interested in anything having to do with ballet.”
As Vintage began thinking about the paperback, the designers took a new look at the plot, its characters and its themes. “Yes, it’s a book about dancers,” Shipstead said, “but it’s also a book with a fairly broad scope that’s concerned with a range of settings and eras and with passion and disappointment and art and talent and these larger topics. So we wanted to go for a slightly more neutral design emphasizing a sense of time and place. . . . And we wanted to move away from pink a little bit, too.”
I’m not convinced that the paperback works effectively, but she made a good case for featuring the City of Lights on the cover: “Not a lot of chapters are set in Paris, but the city looms large for the characters as a place where things happen. I think Paris is that way for a lot of people — almost a symbol or a talisman of life’s possibilities.”
In the end, I agree with her on this: “No design works for everyone,” she said. “Each one has fans and detractors; taste is unpredictable. The same is true of books.”
But no matter what the cover, let me recommend “Astonish Me” again. It’s lovely, witty and wise.