Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Judging Books by Their Covers

Every week I place 40 to 50 advance reader's copies in the staff lounge here at the Boulder Book Store. Advance reader's copies are basically paperback versions of hardback books that will be published in the next few months. The distribution of these reader's copies are a critical component to the publishers' strategy for selling their new titles to booksellers.

The idea is that while our booksellers are noshing on the freshly baked bagels that are delivered to the store, they will pick up a reader's copy and become hooked. Once the booksellers are sold on a title, they will recommend it to customers. That's especially how the publishers are hoping it will work for unknown authors and titles they have paid a lot of money for, like Brunonia Barry's The Lace Reader.

Rarely, however, does it really goes as planned. Our 45 staff members pick up an average of 10 to 15 reader's copies a week, leaving 25-40 untouched. The rest end up being used to reward customers, as perks for local school teachers, or in boxes that get hauled off to the Goodwill. Over the years, I have tried to bribe or cajole the staff into taking more copies. I write up a sheet highlighting what I consider (based on conversations with the publisher reps, my own reading experience, and Publisher Weekly Reviews) to be the best titles of the week.

I've learned to put the books out about a month or two before their release date. If I put out the October copies now, there is a distinct possibility that the staff member who grabs a reader's copy won't be working by the time the fall rolls around. In months like May and June, when tons of new titles get released, I often start falling behind and sometimes I'm putting the reader's copies out on the eve of their hardback release dates.

Currently, I am frantically trying to clear out the June titles, but I am being foiled by the publishers at every turn. In today's mail there were May reader's copies still coming in, including our 5th copy of A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif, a great new comic novel that is already out in hardback.

We have one main rule at the Boulder Book Store regarding reader's copies: once a staff member takes one, it can never, ever come back. A few old books found their way onto the reader's copy shelf yesterday, much to my chagrin. After an intense investigation, the culprit--a wonderful young bookseller--was discovered. She explained to me that she was about to move and had way too many books and so she thought her January reader's copies would just blend back in.

I told her and a few other employees in the lounge that as soon as their hands touched a reader's copy, they couldn't put it back on the shelf. It was theirs. I knew I was in trouble when one of our most creative staff members began searching for barbecue tongs in order to look through the reader's copies while avoiding actually touching them.

This week, I tried a new tactic in an effort to get more people to take reader's copies. Instead of describing what the books were about and the merits of the various authors, I featured the beauty of the covers. I know, I know--that sounds shallow. But if you were faced with as many rejected titles as we are (1500 or more per year), you'd get a bit desperate as well.

The publishers spend a fortune in an attempt to make these books visual appealing. Some come in boxes, others have ribbons wrapped around them. It costs more to produce a reader's copy than a hardback. Maybe the staff will appreciate the production value over the content. After all, it works for the movies. Below is the note that accompanied the 45 reader's copies that I put in the staff lounge this morning:

Reader's Copy Highlights 5/21/08

When I first started working at the bookstore in 1992, we got about 10 reader's copies a week from the publishers. They came in plain yellow or blue covers with the title and author's name in unadorned black script. Nowadays we get 50 or more every week and many of them are truly beautiful. Liesl (one of our long-time buyers) noted that the reader's copy covers are often nicer than the finished book's. The advance cover of Derek Landy's Skulduggery Pleasant was far superior to the jacket on the hardback. In this week's highlights, I'm featuring books as art objects. These are the most beautifully designed reader's copies of the week (without regard to content).

  • The Size of the World by Joan Silber. The cover features three photos, the middle one tinted in a sumptuous orange, evoking the feel of a Vietnamese film. It's a novel set in wartime Vietnam.

  • The Montefeltro Conspiracy by Marcello Simonetta. A reproduction of a Renaissance Italian painting graces the jacket of this historical look at the attempted assassination of the Medici brothers.

  • The Other by David Guterson. The author of Snow Falling on Cedars is given the stark black and white treatment featuring a photo of a mysterious snow field with one set of footprints running through it.

  • The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman. A gorgeous wraparound cover of an 1892 harem painting by Frank Disksee lets the reader know of the delights that will surely be found in this novel set in the 16th century Ottoman Empire.

  • Midnight Never Come by Marie Brennan. A luscious dark blue cover features a swirling jacquard (a fabric of intricate variegated weave or pattern named after Joseph Marie Jacquard, a French silk weaver in the late 1700s.)

  • Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen. I admit that the cover isn't great, but the line drawings are interesting at least. The author photo on the back cover is what really makes this reader's copy. Rivka is quite alluring.

  • The Island of Eternal Love by Daina Chaviano. A spiral staircase with an intricate wrought-iron railing is the centerpiece of this cover, which also features a ghostly image of a woman in period costume (I'm not sure which period). The author's photo on the back cover is absurdly posed, but Daina is beautiful enough to get away with it.

  • The World Before Her by Deborah Weisgall. The cover photo of Venice's St. Mark's Square and the Doge Palace as seen from across the water with two gondolas in the foreground just makes you want to leave work immediately and head for that enchanted city.

  • Promise of the Wolves by Dorothy Hearst. An orange-hued jacket featuring the silhouettes of a couple of crows along with a wolf. What makes this cover stand out is the embossed title. The series name--The Wolf Chronicles--and the author's name are also embossed in gold lettering that is prettier than a shiny wedding ring.


Cara said...

The World Before Her is a gorgeous jacket! Check out Bill Folman's THE SCANDAL PLAN (a hilarious political satire) for another great jacket.

Tavia said...

Kash, thank you SO much for continuing to bail water out of your leaky, galley-ridden boat. It warms this marketing director's heart to know you do you best to have as many of our gold-plated galleys read as possible by your team of booksellers. -- Tavia.

lady t said...

You actually have to make people keep those ARC?! Man,I so wish that I worked for you:) At my former bookstore job, we were encouraged to pass a good Advance Copy around but certain ones never seemed to make the rounds.

Also,your method of giving away the extras is great-when our ARC piles overflowed,we would box them up and stack them in the backroom. We did donate them to a few local charities but after awhile,we had trouble getting someone to pick them up.

I do agree that Advance Copy covers can be quite beautiful(I have The Lace Reader and Midnight Never Come in my current ARC pile)and very different from the hardcover edition. For example,The Dive From Clausen's Pier had a sepia toned photo of a suitcase that perfectly suited the style of the story.

I also remember the ARC for Paulette Jiles' Enemy Women arriving wrapped in a piece of muslin(wonderful book;I wound up giving the muslin to my mom). Keep up the good work,Kash,in getting those galleys out into the reading world:)

My Journey Through Reading... said...

Makes me wish I lived in CO so I could work for you. I can't believe you have a hard time giving them away. I will be in CO next month and am always looking for new bookstores.

UB's Michael said...

I can't believe publishers are starting to make hardcover ARCs. Phillipa Gregory & Jennifer Weiner both have them and I can't imagien why. Why increase the printing and shipping costs? Why increase the value of a black-market good?