Sunday, January 31, 2010

Book Covers: Incongruous Images

Ever been shocked by a book cover? Me, too. Most recently by the cover of the new paperback edition of Philipp Meyer’s American Rust, released earlier this month. My husband alerted me to it after he saw it, sending me an e-mail saying he was he was “shocked at the cover, a young girl and boy walking through what looks like a ghost town on the western plains.” After looking at the new cover on the Random House website, I’m scratching my head too.

We both read the book last year, which I wrote about here. It was the image on the original hardback cover that drew our attention to it when browsing in a bookstore one afternoon. The simple image of a rusty railroad spike against a stark white background made it stand out from the other titles on display around it. That cover lured me to reach for the book, take it from the shelf and read the jacket copy, flip through the pages and read a few sentences. Sold.

If the new paperback image had been on display that day last year in the bookstore, I’d have walked past without giving it a second glance. Marketing is no doubt trying for an even wider audience now – possibly trying to lure romance readers. I suppose a book with a young couple walking side by side through golden fields on the cover has been shown to sell more copies in a certain demographic. Except that the image is misleading. It is not the landscape of the book, nor is the story a love story (although there is a subplot about a romantic liaison). American Rust is a book about an industrial region in decline, the towns along the Monongahela River just south of Pittsburgh in particular. While Buell is a fictional town, it is rooted in a very real place known as the Mon Valley – and it sure doesn’t look like what’s on that new paperback cover.

Other book covers which were even more inappropriate have been written about recently by Tayari Jones at her blog and Kate Harding at Salon after the publishing house Bloomsbury USA used images of white women on books about characters who were African American. Because this has happened twice over the past year at Bloomsbury, it appears they believe a book with a dark skinned heroine on the cover would not sell as well – even if the book is about African American characters.

Authors are often unhappy with the covers that adorn their books. Even if their contract gives them input into the design, as Christina Baker Kline wrote about in a post “Anatomy of a Book Cover: Bird in Hand” at her blog about the progression of cover designs for her latest novel, it is usually the publisher who has the final decision.

The image that comes to mind when I think about American Rust will always be that rusty railroad spike on the original cover and the industrial decay of the mill towns of southwestern Pennsylvania as depicted in the book. The essence of that story (at least for me) will always be the friendship between two young men, and their plan to leave a place where they have no future and how that plan goes awry. It’s about a place where the American dream has corroded, but where people still try to hang on and do what they can to survive because it’s their home. It shows what happens to hardworking people when factories close and jobs disappear. American Rust is a gritty and dark novel, a story which deserves a more fitting image on the cover.

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