Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dumbed-Down Book Covers

The other day, when I was making my weekly post for the Villette Read-A-Long, I was searching the internet for an attractive cover so the post wouldn't look so boring.   I loved the cover I chose, which is one of a series for Vintage Classics:



Elegant and classy, I thought.  So I began to look for more.  Here are some more of the covers in the same series, which I find so beautiful that when I see them in the bookstore that I am tempted to buy them (despite the fact that I have multiple copies of some of these books, like Pride and Prejudice).  I particularly like the Jane Austen covers, especially Persuasion













I'm no expert on art or graphics or whatnot, but I think they're simply stunning.   But when I was searching the internet, here's what I kept finding: 



I'm not sure but it looks like Vintage has abandoned the beautiful and classy covers for something more cartoony.  In fact, these covers look suspiciously like they're meant to attract lovers of chick-lit.  Seriously, does the world NEED more book covers with stylized illustrations of young women and their fashion accessories??  

And after my recent review of Barbara Pym's Excellent Women I found these new paperback British editions of her books, which confirms my suspicions:






Apparently, Barbara Pym's works are now 1950s chick-lit, either about housewives having trouble with their husbands or career girls looking for husbands.  Or perhaps this is a nod to the popularity of Mad Men, one of my favorite television shows -- the woman in the top cover reminds me of Betty Draper and the girl in the bottom looks just like Peggy Olson! These are from Virago Books, once known for their eye-catching and distinctive green covers with lovely artwork.   I find this trend so disappointing.  It's good literature, must publishers dress it up like lousy chick?  I admit I'm a bit of a book snob, but why do I get the feeling they're trying to dumb these books down to attract more readers?  Or am I just reading too much into this?  

25 comments:

  1. I am with you on the Viragos, although I guess if they get them on the stands with the chick lit (which they did with the Pyms in Waterstones in England when they came out) then that is A Good Thing. Some of their modern covers (Daphne Du Maurier) for example are better than the others but I do wish they still pbulished in green!

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  2. I do love the first series you posted. Every time I see those covers I WANT them. I just love how gorgeous they are!

    I do agree with all the cartoony covers. I just don't like them and I think they make the stories look cheap...and unappealing.

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  3. I'm with you on this one, Karen! I'll be searching for Pym titles in London soon, but am afraid I'll only find the covers shown above. Didn't realize Vintage a collection of Cather's stories... adding it to my wishlist.

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  4. I agree - I quite like the Vintage Austen covers (they're for the UK market) but the Virago chick lit ones really annoy me. I know they are trying to expand their readership but the covers don't reflect the content and I feel like they're bowing down to the dictates of today's market that says 'women only read chick lit'. This isn't true and it would be nice to see Virago of all people not perpetuating this myth.

    I love the Willa Cather cover - I'll have to try and get that!

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  5. Beautiful! I especially love the black and white Jane Eyre cover.

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  6. It is a sad trend that's been going on for a few years now. There was even a 'Wuthering Heights' that was reissued with a cover very similar to the Twilight books. Not chick-litty, I know but it shows how the publishers/marketers try to mirror the covers of more 'modern' books in order to sell more classics/literature.
    Seems crazy to put Pym in with chicklit!
    But I might be the only one to disagree about the current Pym covers... I quite like them! They don't give out a chicklit vibe to me (like the Austens you showed do)... they seem to reflect the 50s to me and they're bright and cheery so I personally don't have a problem with them. I still love the green Viragos though!

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  7. I don't think it's dumbing down the books, just trying to sell them to a different market. I know purists get irritated by that, but frankly I think it's a good thing. If booksellers and publishers can get people who normally read chick lit and YA only to read classics, I'm happy about that expansion. I couldn't care less about the cover, and I'm glad it drew those people to the book. Perhaps those covers don't appeal to me, but I'm not the target audience for them either.

    I've seen people complain a lot about the twilight-like editions of Wuthering Heights, Pride & Prejudice, etc, but imo, it's a wonderful thing that publishers are capitalizing on the popularity of a book series to press classics into teens' hands.

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  8. You make a good point, Amanda. I've never thought of it that way before...

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  9. I agree with you. I don't care for the cartoonish covers. Are they trying to make them look like graphic novels?

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  10. I love the old green Virago books and can't understand why they felt the need to change them. I think the Pym covers are supposed to be stylish and redolent of the 50s but to me they look quite amateurish. Not even good cartoonish, like something done by a kid.

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  11. Verity -- I agree, there are some really nice Vintage covers. The Dickens covers are really attractive, I might have to switch from collecting the Dickens Penguins to the Vintage editions.

    Allie -- I want all the Jane Austens, and I already have FOUR different copies of P&P. Though one was really a mistake. . . kind of a funny story, I'll save it for another posting.

    JoAnn -- I'm really jealous you're able to go book shopping in London -- I was born on the wrong continent! Here in the U.S. the most widely available Pyms are from Moyer Bell and I find them quite attractive. They're all flowery art noveau patterns, a little like William Morris. I may have to start collecting these too. . .

    Bookssnob - that was my reaction exactly. Amanda makes a great point, but I think they could come up with something both clever and classy. I love the Cather also and I want to search the bookstore shelves for more of these covers. I have no business buying any more books!

    Brenna -- I agree, and I love the Wuthering Heights as well -- I'm tempted to buy it even though I disliked the book!

    Cristina-- I meant to comment about the Twilighted covers but I forgot! I'll have to update my post. A hilarious blog called Smart Women, Trashy Books had a hilarious contest in which people Twilighted covers like the Bible and a dictionary. I'll have to add a link to my posting.

    Amanda -- I absolutely see your point but it still annoys me.

    JoAnn -- I know I should agree with Amanda but those Twilighted covers make me crazy!

    Susan -- I seriously think they're trying to appeal to the chick-lit reader. I do have a bunch of the Penguin classics with the graphic novels, but graphic novels can be quite complex. I was wondering about that earlier.

    Katrina -- I agree about the classic green Viragos, I want to buy them just for the covers.

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  12. I think selling the books definitely does have something to do with it. I'm not sure I mind though - if the covers attract people who would not otherwise have noticed them, that's probably a good thing.

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  13. I have to giggle a little. I mentioned the issue to Jason, and he said it's no different from classics being marketed as "smart literary books" with pictures of old paintings on the covers. :D Cracked me up. So true! At the same time, I'd still rather have a painting cover than a Twilight cover, but I'm glad the teens can have the Twilight cover if that gets them reading the books! There's room enough for all our aesthetics. :D

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  14. My biggest problem is just when the images on the cover don't match up with the time periods of the books. It drives me crazy! Better a nice stylish cover like the Vintage classics.

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  15. Actually, just as a side note, all those Jane Austrn covers are just old fashion plates - sort of the early 19th century equivalent of a supermarket counter magazine. So essentially they're just being marketed as 200 year old chick lit? I'm not complaining - my favorite artists include Alphonse Mucha, whose most famous works are beer and cigarette ads and kitchen calendars. And at some level, the illustrated book cover is an idea pioneered by the "shilling shocker" and the advertising industry - all those old books were just blank with a title on the spine, right? So at some level, there is no real "high artistic" tradition in cover design - just aretroactive one to make classics "look like classics". The paperback covers of some of Amandas Nabokov books, for instance, for those published close to when they came out look almost tawdry in retrospect. Just a thought. I love book covers - but they're billboards, so to draw on old commercial art traditions (60's minimalism like you mention in Mad Men for instance seems almost appropriate to me? Not that i don't think some covers are more appealing to me than others :)

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  16. Motheretc. -- Hey, I'm definitely for people trying new things. If it grabs a new reader, I guess I shouldn't complain.

    Amanda -- Maybe I'm just a snob. Sigh. Those Twilighted covers make me crazy though -- did I ever send you the link to the contest on Smart Women, Trashy Books? Hilarious.

    Kristen -- I think you've summed up my feelings exactly. I think that's why the first set of Austen covers seems more appropriate to me than the updated set.

    Jason -- I will have to search for some of those Nabokov covers. I do agree, covers are just another form of advertising. I'm a big fan of retro-styled ads also, maybe that's one reason I love Mad Men. I had a Mad Men avatar of myself for awhile, I was pretending to be a hipster.

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  17. Karen, what a great post. Some of Vintage's new covers (like for Nevil Shute) are really cool, but I agree the Austen ones are not very interesting. And the Pyms are an atrocity. But, if it gets more people to read Pym then I won't get too upset. But I sure don't want to own any of them. I think they did similiar bad things to Muriel Spark.

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  18. For someone who has no desire to own printed books, I adore those covers. I even found myself buying a few of those Jane Austen covers a few years ago. I didn't realize how extensive the series was. Thanks!

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  19. Hello there,

    Love that first series. I'm all for differing designgs, especially if it brings new readers to the classics. Doesn't change the text.

    I'm buying a few Penguin clothbound series books. They're gorgeous. I have Wuthering Heights and am trying to convince myself that another edition of P&P is justifiable.

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  20. Thomas -- I agree, I'd love to see Barbara Pym get more attention, but I still don't like them either.

    Carrie -- It's very tempting to own multiple copies because of special editions. I just won a drawing for a beautiful Folio edition of Cold Comfort Farm which I had no business entering -- it was so nice I couldn't resist.

    Monica -- good point, it's not as if they're dumbing down the books themselves (just don't get me started on all the JA remakes/prequels/sequels which are just not my thing). And I LOVE all those new Penguin hardbacks, very tempting! I have resisted so far.

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  21. So interesting to see all the variations! I'm sure the last few are because of marketing reasons. Though I'm for anything that gets people to read more so I'm on the fence about it.

    Amazing how attached we can get to book covers though huh?

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  22. The bottom vintage ones are the British Vintage. The top ones are the American Vintage ones. I tend to love the British Vintage covers -- they do great things with silhouettes. But I'm with you in preferring the American Vintage for Austen.

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  23. Ooh I love a post about book covers! I do like the strong reds in the first Austen covers you posted. I like the look of that Willa Cather, too. Not keen on the Pym covers, but then, I'm not keen on Pym at all!

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  24. Love all those white Vintage Classic covers. Even though I previously owned copies of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights already and half of the Austens, I purchased all the Brontes and Austens in this edition ha ha. In fact, I posted about those Austens not too long ago. Villette is the only one of them I haven't read. I was seeing your Villette readalong posts and as I have a copy on hand am thinking of joining but late. Or if there's still time. The Willa Cather I hadn't seen before though, that is lovely. Do they have My Antonia in that edition too? I hope.

    The more colourful and graphic Vintage Classic covers of Austen are okay with me. I don't love them particularly but I don't think they're bad. The patterns and design make them artistic, despite of the cartoony style. The font of the titles, too, make them still design-worthy while appealing to a younger set. The Pyms, however, there is no excuse. Lol. The fonts alone..

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  25. The covers with the almost cartoon-like look make my skin crawl. I like how the women on the covers above them look like ambitious, coming-of age women. However, the former look like "woe is me," women that just like to look in the mirror and fan themselves. Dull and boring, and not a good representation of some of Jane Austen's characters.

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