March 7, 2013

Don’t like the cover? Fix it yourself


One third of a face is acceptable by normal publishing standards, but no more than that.

Griping about book jackets we dislike is a favorite past-time in this industry. It’s easy to see a jacket we think is too easy or cliched or, well, ugly, and talk about what we might have done differently. For booksellers this is an ongoing daily conversation. I’m surprised patrons can breathe in some shops, so thick is the air with clouds of cover design gripe.

It’s both heartening and hilarious, then, to see the tack the booksellers at McNally Jackson have taken with their recent Book of the Month pick, Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. The paperback cover of the current edition features a woman’s face. Or rather, it features the publishing industry equivalent of a woman’s face: looking away, half obscured, all individuality safely expunged.

If you walk into the store looking for that book, however, you see something fun and different: Every display copy of the book has a different take on the cover, designed and printed by those booksellers, carefully paperclipped over the offending jacket. These booksellers have moved beyond the typical griping and on to action. I reached out to the inspired partied behind the new jacket for comment. Matthew Wagstaffe responded.

Okay so, first, Why not the face? Do you hate women’s faces, Booksellers of McNally? Do you hate selling books? Presumably the publisher chose that cover because they thought it would help sell the book. Maybe they took a poll. A poll of three tired publishing people sitting around a table.

It is not faces in particular that we hate, it’s what those faces—men’s or women’s!—are doing. What is Mrs. Bridge’s face doing? Looking away from us. I find this to be passive aggressive and childish and I refuse to accept that from a book cover, especially if it’s glossy.

We don’t hate selling books. And I suppose it’s possible, maybe the publisher chose this cover because they thought it would sell the book. Or maybe, during your hypothetical three-tired-publishers poll, they looked at the cover, saw Mrs. Bridge looking down, imagined they’d embarrassed her in some way, blushed, looked down themselves, and, in the hopes of avoiding further conflict, signed off on the cover totally blind.

Why the car?

From Mrs. Bridge:

“The elegant Lincoln her husband had given her for her birthday was altogether too long, and she drove it as prudently as she might have driven a locomotive. People were always sounding their horns at her, or turning their heads to stare when she coasted by. Because the Lincoln had been set to idle too slowly, the engine frequently died when she pulled up at an intersection, but as her husband never used the Lincoln and she herself assumed it was just one of those things about automobiles, the idling speed was never adjusted. Often she would delay a line of cars while she pressed the starter button either too long or not long enough. Knowing she was not expert she was always quite apologetic when something unfortunate happened, and did her best to keep out of everyone’s way. She shifted into second gear at the beginning of every hill and let herself down the far side much more slowly than necessary.”

What have reactions been thus far?

Those who have read the book, and know what the Mr. Bridge first edition looks like, have thought it brilliant. (I thought it brilliant.)

Is it true that printer ink is, by weight, among the most precious fluids on the planet?

I am in a dysfunctional relationship with our office printer—the kind of relationship that carries on exclusively through the inertia of mutual loathing—and will do anything I can to cause it some sort of sleight. And, yes, that includes draining, slowly and painfully, its precious fluids.

Look at your front tables right now. How many ladies with obscured faces are on there at this exact moment?

I don’t have an eye on the front tables right now, but if I had to guess, I’d say . . . conservative estimate . . . 70-75% percent of the covers. Excluding the biographies, which all feature strong-chinned men, no obscuring of faces allowed.

Should I read this book?

Everyone should read this book.

Which book deserves the treatment next?

Nearly every other book by Evan S. Connell, but in particular, The Connoisseur.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.