Posted in: Culture

Judging a Book by its Cover

By | September 19, 2016
The Barnes & Noble at the Grove in Los Angeles.

The Barnes & Noble at the Grove in Los Angeles.

I walk into the Barnes & Noble store at the Grove in Los Angeles, escaping the summer heat for the solace of air conditioning, and am immediately greeted by a round table tastefully set with a tower of books. Perched on the tower is a banner that reads “The Biggest Books of This Summer.” I scour the books on the table, noticing titles like I Do It with the Lights On, The Island House, The Apartment, Eligible, and The 14th Colony.  Aside from the daunting intellect of The Gene by physician Siddhartha Mukherjee, the books on the table seem like quick reads without much to offer in terms of heavy prose or deep thematic conundrums.

I Do It With the Lights On by Whitney Way Thore, a star of TLC’s My Big Fat Fabulous Life, is a memoir about the obese dancer’s struggle with body image. It’s a short book, coming in at 256 pages and containing generally simple language.  The 14th Colony by Steve Berry evokes a Daniel Silva or James Patterson page-turner adventure novel, with its KGB agents, plot to overtake a country, and race against time. Eligible, a modernized Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld, updates the tale by featuring texts, a dating show, and web programmers galore. Critic Ron Charles argues that the novel “moves along so breezily” that it forfeits the true joy of the original novel. In a modern market that offers works like these a place at the front of bookstores, it is easy to wonder why many of today’s readers have forsaken Austen’s heft, depth, and elegance for a text-and-emoji imitation.

Perhaps it has something to do with the escapist appeal of many featured summer books. The Island House by Nancy Thayer, set in Nantucket, is described by Kirkus Reviews as “a pleasant escape to a state of mind in which rebuilding a life is as simple as pitching an umbrella and spreading out a towel.” This is a draw of which companies like Barnes & Noble are well aware, conspicuously marketing products alongside their beach reads that aim to conjure the fantasy of summer. I spy a series of large tote bags embellished with images of flip-flops under the table. It’s as if the bookseller is encouraging readers to take the bag, throw a book in it, and travel to the beach, where they can read fast-paced novels in an afternoon spent lounging. Indeed, the popularity of beach reads comes from their advertisement—from pitches by agents to the banners in bookstores that distinguish them.

What is a Beach Read, Anyways?

One of the biggest issues with discussing the popularity of beach reads is that there’s no concrete definition of the category, making any conclusions about the market difficult to solidify.

The Guardian’s Michelle Dean outlines this dilemma. To some readers, beach reads can often be distinguished by genre—romance novels and thrillers are usual suspects. Others define beach reads as those that incorporate summer vacation in the plot. Yet another definition identifies a beach read as whatever has recently been climbing the New York Times bestseller list. Dean argues that the essence of a beach read is that “the book shouldn’t have any really weighty themes or social significance. It should be enjoyable and easy, with brisk pace and simple diction.” The sprawling displays of books I found at Barnes & Noble confirms this definition.

Nancie Schrier, trade manager for the Harvard COOP, offered another definition in an interview with the HPR. She says a beach read is “something that I can sink my teeth into and have the leisure and time to get absorbed in.”

But for the publishing industry, simplicity is key. Katherine Flynn, a partner and agent at the Kneerim & Williams Literary Agency, told the HPR that a book flagged by agents as a potential beach read is “a book straightforwardly written that often follows a single protagonist or a couple of characters, and the structure is very simple … It’s something that you can literally read on the beach—that you can nap in between, that you can gaze up from, but can also be absorbing.” But there is one other crucial qualification—the potential for commercial success.

Marketing the Novel

With such a vast range of consumer interests and definitions, the marketing of a beach read, which starts with literary agents, is critical to ensuring monetary success. The books generate so much profit that they require their own marketing model.

Kneerim & Williams agents sort their manuscripts into two piles. Flynn explained:

There’s the commercial fiction on one end and literary fiction on the other—those are the set of terms the publishing industry uses. Things fall along the way of the spectrum: like something you see in market is the paperback thriller airport novel, which is on the very commercial end of that spectrum. Then a novel that wins the Pulitzers and a lot of prizes for its language and its inventive structure—like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas—would be on the literary end.”

Assigning manuscripts to the literary fiction category, however, doesn’t bar them from having commercial success. Cloud Atlas ended up having huge market success despite its dense plot. Likewise, beach reads can come from other genres besides fiction: one of Barnes & Noble’s “Biggest Books of the Summer” was The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a nonfiction book about scientific history.

However, agents like Flynn who pitch novels to publishers typically lean toward commercial novels, which usually have greater potential for success. When trying to convince publishers, she positions her proposed novel alongside similar successful novels. She might advertise a gritty mystery as the new Gone Girl—because “everyone wants a book like the last great beach read pick.” According to Flynn, the key to early advertising is linking the book to commercial fiction that has had high sales already.

Looks Matter

After the agent’s pitch, it’s up to the publishers to package the book in such a way that it comes across as a beach read. While this method doesn’t pay much respect to the classic idiom, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” design plays a huge role in sales.

Flynn noted that the publisher might place “a person in a bathing suit … [or try] a gauzy sunset approach to the cover.” For the thriller novels, a “dark and grim looking cover” has beach read appeal. These covers evoke associations to other hit books, with gritty covers evoking The Girl on the Train and summery covers bringing to mind the likes of Nicholas Sparks. Just as agents position manuscripts alongside previous successes, publishers model covers after similar books to hit target audiences.

These marketing techniques were on display at the Barnes & Noble I visited at the Grove. The cover of The Island House shows a woman lounging on a deck before an oceanscape, catering to consumers who are themselves looking for something to read while lounging beside the water. The front of the 14th Colony depicts a faded map covered by a fractured presidential seal and large, blood red text. It bears a remarkable resemblance to James Patterson’s bold covers and the adventurous intrigue of Dan Brown’s Inferno. This similarity to other commercially successful authors encourages thriller aficionados to pick up what is likely to be another hit summer adventure book. By drawing these subconscious connections, the book industry vies to cash in on the literary and monetary success that previous beach reads have enjoyed.

Location, Location, Location

Once a beach read comes to market, it’s the bookstores themselves that propel the marketing. While good covers do draw a reader in, there are other advertising mechanisms that compel readers to look at certain novels. At the Harvard COOP, which is affiliated with Barnes & Noble, Schrier places her summer readings “right in the front of the store.” This method is consistent from Harvard to the Los Angeles store I visited, where the first displays that greet visitors are beach read assortments. These displays command attention, and the first books readers pick up are the first they see.

Schrier says that signs like “Biggest Books of the Summer” also help. “It’s how you’re identifying [the books] for your customer. Things like ‘dive into summer reading’ or ‘compelling reads’ or ‘make time for books you’ve always wanted to read,’ those type of suggestive things.”

While the arrays at Barnes & Noble are teeming with seemingly mindless novels, the fact is that commercial fiction generates a huge amount of sales for the bookstore. The effort that goes into ensuring financial success is anything but light and breezy, as publishers and agents alike frame and shape the bookstore environment to draw readers into the shallows instead of allowing them to get lost in literary depth.

Image source: Wikimedia/Geographer

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