Fiction Addiction

Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: Judging a book by its covers

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The New Zealand/Australian cover of  The Beauty of Humanity Movement , by Camilla Gibb.
The New Zealand/Australian cover of The Beauty of Humanity Movement , by Camilla Gibb.

When I have a spare half hour to browse in my local independent bookshop, it's usually a combination of the cover and the title that tempts me to pick up something new.

Together they tell me (or should tell me) something of the genre, the subject matter, the setting and the target audience.

I've already written of how I was drawn to Camilla Gibb's The Beauty of Humanity Movement by the serene cover, with paperback flaps opening onto vibrant fuchsia endpapers. It's a format the Australian publisher Allen & Unwin calls "a pretty", which tells you something about the target market.

When I began researching the book online, I was surprised to discover not just one, but three alternative covers - for the Canadian, US and UK markets. See here.

The original publisher, Doubleday in Gibb's native Canada, opted for a retro poster-style image of a person in a conical Vietnamese hat, paddling upstream towards the angular cranes and buildings of the city.

For the U.S. market, Penguin took the conical hat and placed it on a boat in the middle of what appears to be Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam. It's an odd choice, given that neither boats nor Ha Long Bay seem to feature in the book.

At this point in my reading it also seems like an ironic choice. I'm just over half way through, where the young tour guide Tu visits a string of art dealers catering to the tourist market. He is dismayed to see the same stereotypes in gallery after gallery: "Girl in áo dài. Woman working in rice paddy...Bamboo bridge over river...Boat on Ha Long Bay."

Tu worries that "if this is all foreigners see, lazy rivers and poor people ploughing fields by hand, they will think Vietnam is a backward country."

For the UK version, Atlantic Books chose a graceful Vietnamese girl overlaid with a wallpaper of stylised lotus flowers. She could be a young Lan, the elegant girl Hu'ng fell in love with long ago, or perhaps Maggie, the Vietnamese-American in search of her father.

Meanwhile in Australia, Allen & Unwin's international agencies director Miranda Van Asch was reading the manuscript and "absolutely craving pho".

"I loved the book and felt strongly that it could have a wide appeal in our part of the world," says Van Asch.

But when she saw Atlantic's proposed cover image she knew it wasn't right for the Australian and New Zealand market.

"It wasn't obvious enough that it was set in Vietnam and it didn't provide any clue about the content of the book and that food was heavily featured."

So Van Asch tasked Emily O'Neill (recently named Young Designer of the Year by the Australian Publishing Association) to come up with something more suitable for Antipodean eyes.

Van Asch believes our readers "tend to be attracted to colour, warmth and a human element. British covers can seem very cool and too subtle to our eyes. They tend to be illustrative whereas our market is attracted by a photographic element."

While international designs are often tweaked for the Australia and New Zealand market, it is rare for Allen and Unwin to produce an entirely different cover. Given the costs and delays involved, they will only do so if they believe "it will achieve a markedly different sales result."

Even in this internet age, it's all about shelf appeal to the right readers.

Personally, I'm delighted the Australian cover was so perfectly pitched to my tastes, as I am (thus far) very pleased to have discovered Camilla Gibb. The Canadian cover would have interested me too, the US cover less so. Only the British image has little appeal.

Take a look at the photo gallery for more examples of books with different covers for different markets. Which one would you pick up?

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