Last month, my friend and library coworker, Jennifer, posted about the inaugural experiment of Book Lab, our unconventional book club. In that experiment, we blindfolded ourselves, chose a book at random from among the stacks, and then made assumptions about it based upon the cover. We were then required to read the book we’d chosen. The experiment yielded some surprising results: some of us liked books we thought we were going to hate; others were disappointed by books that had initially looked promising. We also discovered that when you post pictures of yourself on the internet wearing a blindfold, you will attract bondage enthusiasts to your blog (!).
Mostly, we concluded that book covers lie. More specifically, book covers aren’t just decoration, they’re a marketing tool. They’re designed with a specific readership in mind, and they’re artfully engineered to appeal to the aesthetic of that readership.
This is clear in the cover of the book I chose, Sherri Reynolds’ The Sweet In-Between. The cover of the book shows a young woman in an oversized green evening gown and sneakers, sitting on a stoop with her feet propped on a large suitcase. The bright colors, the sneakers/gown combo and screen doors in the background all suggest a certain flavor of Southern-fried Chick Lit, in the spirit of The Secret Life of Bees, or The Help.
Nothing against either of those books—I read and loved them both. But they were recommended, and not something I’d have picked up on my own. As I gazed with minor dismay at the cover of Reynolds’ book, I could already hear the voice of the kindly older black woman I was sure was in those pages, giving wise advice to a lost and bedraggled white girl.
To my great surprise, that isn’t what Reynolds’ book is about. Rather, it was a story about a young person grappling with gender and sexual identity in a small southern town where there’s a bit of bigotry. I enjoyed the book more than I expected to, mostly due to Reynolds’ luminous prose and her ability to vivify the inner world of the main character, Kenny. In the end, I thought that the plot and story line could have been restructured to make the story more powerful. I also thought Reynolds played it safe in the exploration of Kenny’s identity, neatly side-stepping the real-world cruelty to which Kenny would have likely been subjected.
But I digress. The point is, the cover of The Sweet In-Between has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with the story. At no point does Kenny wear a dress, there’s no mention of red sneakers, she’s not a dreamy, wistful gazer-from-porches. If the cover were going to accurately depict Kenny, it would have featured a person who looked like a young man.
And therein lies the problem: the demographic for this novel (probably determined by the publisher to be 30-60 year-old female readers of Southern Chick Lit) aren’t going to pick up a book with a boy on the cover, because Southern Chick Lit is female-oriented, and the struggles of young men just aren’t a part of that genre, and don’t jive with the snuggly-at-the-end thing that Southern Chick Lit does. (Reynolds, by the way, fulfills this particular obligation.)
I, on the other hand, would have been more inclined to select a book with an androgynous young person on its cover, if the art suggested something about the exploration of gender identity, because that subject interests me, and promises some emotional complexity, which is what gets me off in a novel.
Our conclusions, which you can read in their entirety here, inspired further curiosity about covers and marketing and aesthetics, and our next Book Lab investigation, which I’ll post here in the coming days, was born. In Part 2 of the Judging a Book By Its Cover experiment, we will select a book from the New Books display at the library, based exclusively on cover art, title, blurbs, award announcements—anything but the plot summary, which we won’t be allowed to read. (Sorry, bondage enthusiasts, no blindfolds this time. We thought about selecting our books while wearing handcuffs, just for you folks. But we couldn’t figure out how we’d get the books off the shelves that way.)