Not The Book You’re Looking For…

Penguin 75I’ve got to admit I didn’t expect to be laughing at myself while reading Penguin 75, but then again, but I guess that’s what you get for doing something by halves (I almost wrote ‘half-assed’, but then told myself this was a family-friendly blog).

I’d vaguely heard there was a book about the history of Penguin’s covers and, as I’m fascinated by the company’s origins and iconic penguin and orange covers, figured it was a must-have. Of course, I didn’t know the title so crowdsourced its title via Facebook.

Fellow writer, part-time bookseller, and full-time friend and Christopher Currie (I’ve blogged about his first novel, The Ottoman Hotel) suggested I might be thinking of Penguin 75; one he knew to be a bestseller. I immediately ordered it from Boomerang Books and rubbed my hands together in anticipation of its arrival.

Those of us in the industry obsess about what goes into a good cover, and what works and doesn’t from both the author’s and booksellers’ points of view. We each have our pet hates.

For me, they’re generally dust covers and specifically dust covers in light colour. If they don’t arrive in store torn, battered, and generally looking shabby, within about five seconds flat of being on the shelf and handled by potential buyers, they will be.

That said, I have no idea what my idea of a perfect cover is and would go into a complete tailspin were I to have to articulate what I would do for my own book should it ever be published. Hence my keen-ness to learn from the best…

It turns out that it wasn’t quite the book I thought I was ordering, although I’m not sure the book I thought I was ordering actually exists. Instead of tracing the company’s history and the arrival at those distinctive orange Popular Penguin covers, Penguin 75 looks at other covers the company has put together and contains a commentary from the authors whose books those covers graced and the designers who came up with them.

It took me a while to work out what was going on and I chuckled at myself and my confusion when I finally worked it out. And although I don’t (ironically) like its cover, I was amused at and impressed by the cleverness of the book and the wit with which it’s executed.

Paul Buckley is the Executive Vice President Creative Director at Penguin, which is a fancy way of saying Art Director, AKA the guy who is in charge of the designers who design the covers. The book is him documenting the behind-the-scenes tales of just how some covers came into being. And by goodness it’s a cack.

Take, for example, his introduction:

Publishers and editors are used to hearing art directors and designers moan endlessly about their best work being passed over by the philistines that surround them on all sides. They’re also used to hearing from the authors about how there is no way the designer read the material and this lousy cover will surely bury the author’s career.

Then these poor editors and publisher have to gently navigate us through, hopefully to a good conclusion for all. Beautiful designs flourish. And massive book sales soon follow. Probably. Not really. Okay, sometimes. But never as often as we’d all like.

Eat, Pray, LoveHe goes on to explain the book’s premise:

This being the case, design blogs are constantly asking, ‘Why does this cover look this way?’ Often the designer appears online and diplomatically attempts to answer. But in all my years, I’ve only seen an author chime in once. So with this book, I thought it would be fun to get both sides on one page talking about one cover.

And what I’ve learned is that when faced with putting their thoughts on the printed page, authors are far more polite than designers. But I’ve seen the emails. I’ve heard the responses. An author who dislikes his or her cover is often very not polite, and sometimes understandably so.

They spend years crafting something that is immensely important to them, then we come along and in a matter of weeks, an editor sends an email that is usually along the lines of ‘We are so excited to be showing you this cover! We hope you love it as much as we do!!! XOXO’ (really, I see the XOXO thing A LOT)…and then major author panic ensues.

There are some brilliant admissions and one-liners in this book, including some that are cleverly previewed on the inside of the cover and that then point to the particular page in the book on which they occur. Some of my favourites include:

  • He read the book brief and immediately came up with a bear shagging a doll. Bingo. Cover approved.
  • This one is going to be very very very difficult to nail.’ Translation: I’ll need to see a hundred cover comps, and I’m not picking on till UPS is banging on the door.
  • What if I said it was awful? Would [my editor] still take me out to lunch?
  • Sketches were submitted and came back with mixed results. The horse would have to be castrated, but the nipple stays.

The Ottoman MotelI actually laughed out loud (at myself) when I read about how the designer, who didn’t realise just how big the book was going to be (although in truth, no one did, really) put together the Eat, Pray, Love cover. See, the ‘eat’ is crafted from real, three-dimensional pasta, the ‘pray’ from prayer beads, and the ‘love’ from flowers. It was painstakingly completed and photographed twice because the first images didn’t turn out quite so well. Me? I never realised what they were! Er, like, duh!

The tale of how a 16-year-old intern broke the rules and came up with the perfect cover acts as a reminder that the best ideas can come from the unlikeliest (and less experienced) of places. Its inception will go down in Penguin history.

I also loved how one author created his own cover by photographing prostitutes and then obtaining a handwritten release form, which is pictured in the book). His rather, er, detailed invoice (also pictured), is brilliant too.

But I don’t wish to ruin the surprise so won’t say anything further. Instead I’ll say it wasn’t the book I expected and that I didn’t have the reaction to it that I’d anticipated, but that I’d highly recommend. Kind of like it’s not the book you’re looking for, but it’s one that you should find.

The Value of Edtiors

The advent of ebooks and online writing often brings to light an old argument about the value of editorial. The cost of printing and distributing a book, while hardly insignificant, is generally not as large as many people think. Nonetheless, ebook prices are set far lower than print books (compare the $AU14.99 average on the Kindle store to the $AU34.99 average RRP for a new release book). And this seems to be a persistent trend for digital content in general. People expect to get digital products for free or for a reduced price relative to the old analog version – irrespective of whether it is the same or better than the original. Nonetheless, the non-physical costs of producing a book are rarely seen as valuable. At their most powerful, editors are portrayed as dictatorial gatekeepers, controlling what the public gets to see and stopping true gems from seeing the light of day. At worst they are seen as insignificant – costs to be cut from the bottom line.

I’ve spoken about the value a publisher adds to books, but a blog post this week on Digital Book World has made me hone in more specifically on the value an editor adds to book publishing. The DBW post is specifically about the role of editorial in internet writing – a role that can be measured in a number of ways, as they detail in the post. The value of editing when it comes to trade publishing, however, is far harder to measure. You can’t, for example, release two versions of a book – one edited and the other not – just to see which one will sell better. (Would anyone choose the unedited version? Would any author allow their unedited manuscript to be printed?). The editor’s role in trade publishing, in almost all cases, is to remain invisible – to support the author and the author’s brand, to create the illusion that the books that authors write spring from their minds fully formed and are never touched again. Some books, of course, do spring fully formed from authors minds and require no editing. Some books are entirely re-written. The secret to editing is not being able to tell the difference.

Non-editor friends have often confided in me that this or that book was badly edited. However, the fact of the matter is, it’s impossible to tell from the quality of the book alone how good a job the editor has done. They may not have had much time to work on it or they may have had an obstinate author with a love of inconsistent spelling. Reading the book in a vacuum – as it should be read – is not conducive to understanding that process.

My question is: in a world where, increasingly, views, clickthroughs and even eyeball tracking can be used to measure the efficacy of different marketing, sales and writing techniques, how does one measure the value of an invisible job like editing? Can it be done? Should it be done? And if not, how can it be preserved? Should it be preserved at all?

NOTE: Hopefully by now you will have spotted my massive intentional typo. If not, read it again.