Judging a Book by its Cover, one more time!

In my last post, I wrote about how publishers control your first impression of a book with very intentional cover design tropes that signal what sort of book it is.

This time, I’d like to write about two recent books for which I think the publishers got it completely wrong.

Last year, I read and greatly enjoyed Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. It’s a charming and well-written story about a quirky character named Elizabeth Zott who has a degree in chemistry. It’s the 1950s, and Zott is trying to get the fellow scientists with whom she works to take her seriously as a chemist, instead of relegating her to note-taking and coffee-fetching. The book has charm but also weight, along with a feminist overlay that’s very appealing.

Here’s what the cover looks like:

What does that cover say to you? To me it says chick lit. It says beach read. It goes out of its way to say: this is a light read. Btw, even The New York Times mentioned this. Their review of the book is entitled: “Beneath Its Pink Cover, ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ Offers a Story About Power.” And that review also quotes our B&N CEO, who says:

“Aiming the novel at a female readership is “a bit pigeonholing,” said James Daunt, the chief executive of Barnes & Noble. But ultimately, he added, “the book has dominated the cover.”

Had Barnes & Noble not chosen this as our book of the year, had I not read good reviews, I would not have chosen to read it. What this cover says to me is: Lynn, don’t pick this up. This is not a book you will enjoy.

Why did publisher Knopf get it so wrong? I dunno, but they did. And they are usually so on the mark, especially since they publish so much excellent literary fiction. I hope that when the book eventually comes out in paperback, they will have a new cover design. This one is pretty and bright and appealing, but wrong, wrong, wrong. I have had to talk so many customers into buying this book because the cover turns them off. I plead with them: please, disregard the cover! I promise it really is a good book!

Another book that I also think is a terrific read is the new book by Cathleen Schine called Künstlers in Paradise.

The cover looks like this:

What does that say to you? Period costume, bathing beauty on the boardwalk. Maybe old-timey Hollywood? I think that is what they’re going for. And there is a real-life 30s/40s movie star who features in the book. Maybe someone mentioned that theme to the designer and that’s what they glommed onto.

But, while that plot thread is significant, it’s not what the book is about. Yes, it’s about LA and beaches and sunshine. But it’s about being an exile in a strange land, about history, about family relationships, about the Holocaust and about the COVID pandemic. This cover does not say any of that. To my mind, it’s an unfortunate choice. I picked up the book because I know of the author and like her work. If I were just judging by the cover (which, we’ve all agreed by now, we all do), I would have passed it by.

And by the way… Künstlers? Do you even know how to pronounce that? Ok, sure, there’s an umlaut so it’s probably KOONstler. But what an awkward, off putting title. Trips on the tongue, not rolls off of it.

New cover, new title, and this book is a winner. My advice? Ignore the outside and dive in. It’s terrific.

Author: Lynn Rosen

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