They say don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t judge a reader by book cover, either
Sometimes it feels like we’re all boxed off into horribly homogenous categories. We’re segmented into target markets for fashion, food, cars, and even umbrellas. When it comes to books, it’s worse. We’re either into crime, sports autobiographies, romance, or hamburger history, but never all four. Everything must be packaged according to its genre, and there are labelling rules.
Crime covers must be on a background of black and white, and feature a forest, a road, a shadow, a red thing, or at least one body part belonging to an indeterminate female victim (dead or alive). Chick-lit novels use zany typefaces, and have pastel caricatures of big hair, bling, and shoes on their covers. Literary fiction covers feature bold primary colours and very, very big letters to make the most of the sheer wordiness of their titles – and you just know, somehow, that those letters are damnably sad on a deep, metaphysical level (that is, when they take a short break from the ennui).
Genre covers have to look the same, you see, because readers are stupid. There is a clear and present danger that a reader won’t recognise the correct genre of a book within two seconds of approaching a bookshelf, because they might be distracted by hunger, tight trousers, or a bright and shiny thing. And that would be terrible.
When reading in public we become defined by what publishers decide for us, whether we agree with it or not. Books are as much an item of fashion – intellectual fashion, if you like – as jewellery or shoes. People make judgements of other people based on appearance, and whatever book is in our hands can contribute greatly to that judgement.
I remember reading Harry Potter before it was cool. (Yeah. I said that.) Prior to it becoming the first real crossover blockbuster of our time, I was reading it on the bus, flat open down on my lap, because I didn’t want people to see me reading a kid’s book. In my defence, I was in my early 20s, and permanently preoccupied with what random strangers weren’t thinking about me. Although I never got over my love of children’s books, I wasn’t old enough at the time to read them with impunity.
But even today, I still don’t want a lot of what I’m reading to be advertised. Just like a fashionista might not want to be seen in last year’s eyebrows, or a hipster mightn’t want to be seen sniffing around the freezer aisle in M&S, I don’t want to be defined merely as a consumer of whatever I happen to be reading on one particular day, because I am a book snob. I don’t like that I am. But I am.
Employing A Multi-Book Strategy
I might tell myself that I’d defend someone’s right to read predictable forbidden love romance to the death, yet I’d be mortified to meet someone for the first time with one in my hot little hands. So I employ the multi-book strategy.
My current Bus and Handbag Book is fabulously impressive-looking. It is a translation of a novel written in a foreign language by an actual foreigner, and several people have never heard of it. It also sports a witty, unusual title, and cover art which positively screams out how smart I think I am. I am enjoying it, but I’m also finding it no wrench at all to put it down whenever I need to.
But on my bedside table, hidden from the world (except my husband who, incidentally, cannot be bribed), lies a book which keeps me up until stupid o’clock; a torrid mind-game between people who are witty and absolutely made for each other, yet kept apart by forces unfantastical, insurmountable, and tragic in so many heart-stopping ways. Sounds good? It is. The prose is damn good too. But the cover is dire. The cover says I am a silly woman who likes silly woman things. I do not consider myself to be a silly woman. Therefore this book remains hidden.
Just like underwear and turbo-gloop acne destroyer, both books are essential for me to get through the day, but only one is ever allowed to be on my person when I leave the house.
What Readers Want, Part 378,499
Further to notions of snobbery and one-upmanship, I regret that someone in a publishing company somewhere decided that the book with the brain-grabbing story and heart-crumpling characters is exactly the same as another badly-written, badly-plotted, formulaic piece of genre spittle. Not all genre fiction deserves the same packaging, but that’s marketing for you.
After all, people once hid risqué books under different dust jackets. And when the industry bigwigs discovered who was really reading the Harry Potter books, they were re-released with a choice of so-called ‘adult’ covers.
I might wish I could change the cover of my book, rather than its content, according to which persona I feel like projecting today. But until I transfer to 100% e-Reader usage – which is about as likely as me telling anyone which book is hiding on my bedside table right now – I’m stuck with juggling my two reading personas: the public one, and the private one. The trouble is, only one of them is the real me. And as social media has taught us all by now, reality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.