You can’t judge a book

Reluctantly, I am interrupting my Indian notebook (which will resume next week) because something else is about to happen. Now, what is it? Oh yes. This Thursday, the paperback edition of my novel Trading Futures is published – a year to the day after its hardback parent.  

This blog is the closest I will get to puffing it. Despite spending many of my formative years in advertising, I find overt self-promotion impossible. I am relaxed about publicising other people and other products, but not myself or my books. I am, however, happy for other people to do it for me. So my reluctance is a false modesty.

The marketing of books seems to dictate that the hard and soft editions of the same novel need to have different cover images. This was true of my first novel, The Breaking of Eggs, and is now true of Trading Futures. In the case of Eggs, this did not matter much to me, since I disliked the hardback cover. As it turned out, I didn’t like the paperback cover a great deal more.

But I adored Neil Lang’s design for the hardback edition of Trading Futures, and am sorry not to see it used again for the paperback. A tenet of successful advertising is repetition. It is hard enough to create a striking image and lodge it in the public mind. When that has been done, on however limited a scale, it would seem mad to anyone in advertising to then change it. The image should be reinforced, not abandoned.

The people who market books feel differently, and I do not know enough about book marketing to contradict them. Their approach seems to be to use an original, possibly cerebral, image for the hardback, designed to establish the author as a serious, original writer. And then to use a less original, softer image for the paperback, designed to establish the novel as emotionally accessible. This is presumably done to appeal to women, who form the great majority of book buyers.

It may come as a surprise to know that the novelist has no part in deciding the cover that will be used for his or her novel. The standard publishing contract makes all sorts of promises of author input and maximum consultation, but it also makes it clear that the final choice of cover rests exclusively with the publisher.

In vain I tried to persuade my previous publisher to use a different design for the hardback edition of Eggs. One of the worst aspects of cover design is the slavish emulation of whatever is fashionable at the time. This all too often results in a pastiche of the cover of some other novel that has recently been successful. The cover of Eggs bore a marked similarity to the cover of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian – as did the covers of several other novels at that time.

I pointed this out to the publisher, but was ignored. And I did feel aggrieved. Eggs was an original novel and it should not have had a derivative cover. My only contributions to the design (for those who have a copy of the hardback to hand) were to have an engine at each end of the train at the top, pulling in opposite directions, and to have two coffee cups on the table in the foreground, where there was only one chair. What do you mean, you didn’t notice?

If you lay the two editions of both Eggs and Trading Futures next to each other on a table, you get different, and arguably conflicting, messages as to what each novel is about, and therefore what experience you are likely to get from it as a reader. In the case of Trading Futures, there is a third representation – the one that appeared on Radio 4’s ‘Book at Bedtime’ a year ago, and of which some people may still have trace memories.

So which of the three is truest to the novel? That is hard to say. When I wrote about the Radio 4 abridgement following the broadcast of ‘Book at Bedtime’ (blog, 20 March 2016), I said: ‘There had to be casualties in this process, and the main casualty was the humour. The novel that was broadcast was more serious, more of an elegy, than the novel I thought I had written. I don’t mind that. Trading Futures is intended to be a serious and emotional novel, although also a funny one.’

The paperback cover of Trading Futures has gone down the Radio 4 route. No one looking at it would get an inkling that inside is a funny novel. To some extent this is corrected by the excerpts from the reviews on the front and back, but a strong visual image always has more impact than words. (Note to self: should have been an artist.) Put bluntly, this cover makes it look like a depressing novel.

However, it is a depressing novel. A depressing novel and a funny novel. Also, I hope, a thought-provoking novel. How does anyone convey all three things in a single cover design? Should they even try?

There is nothing unique in this. Most novels are multi-dimensional. Encapsulating any novel in a single image, or a single sentence, is a nigh impossible task. In the end, the reader will decide what the novel is, what it represents, what imagery it most conjures up. Not the author; not the publisher; not the cover designer. If a novel is remembered long enough and fondly enough to achieve multiple reprints, it may be that it is the covers of subsequent editions that best reflect what is between them.

Having said all that, I do very much like the paperback cover of Trading Futures, again designed by Neil Lang. It is not hackneyed, as so many paperback covers are. It has a bleak, desolate feeling to it, which is perfectly compatible with the novel’s destination. And it has my name in big letters. What’s not to like?