Guest Post: Author and Publisher Adria Cimino Talks Book Cover Design—Or Lack Thereof

In the United States authors and readers clamor to see book covers, we ooh and aah, we hang large versions on our walls (yes we do). We pick up books with covers that catch our eye. But, what if books had plan covers, distinguished only by color and font? Well, I know they wouldn’t look as pretty on my book shelves, but would that eliminate some prejudice? Would it lower the cost of publication? Would people read books because of the inside and not the outside?  Today, Adria Cimino shares her experience as a writer, publisher, and ex-pat in France!  Share your thoughts about what draws YOU to a WF book cover (Adria is a publisher, after all) in the comments and please welcome Adria to WFW!  Amy xo

The French Don’t Choose a Book by Its Cover By Adria J. Cimino GallimardAs an author and a publisher, I’ve spent hours, days and weeks agonizing over book covers. This very first impression the reader will have of the book had better be the right one. Every detail becomes an obsession. That is why, when I first wandered the bookshops of Paris many years ago, I was bewildered by the fact that, most often, book covers look something like this: OK, without the cover as the first “clue,” maybe we can dedicate a bit more time to our afternoon in the bookshop and read the back covers. Nope. Most of the books don’t have blurbs as we know them. In many cases, especially in literary fiction, the back cover has a very short excerpt. For an American, choosing a book in France is a whole new ball game. Surrounded by white book covers, I had two questions. First of all, “Why are covers so simple?” My second question, “How does one choose a book without spending hours in a bookshop?” My curious self wouldn’t let these questions go unanswered. I spoke with booksellers, a publisher and even some readers, and learned that the plain cover is part of a whole reading culture quite different from mine. Here’s how book buying goes in France: A reader will walk into a shop looking for the latest release from a particular publishing house. Each publishing house has a reputation for a certain style and quality, and readers are loyal to that. For instance, Les Editions de Minuit publishes literary fiction in its truest sense, while Gallimard publishes contemporary fiction. The houses each have a certain cover style. Minuit is white with a blue border and a little blue star logo. That way, the reader who loves books by Minuit can recognize them right away. Editions de MinuitSo the answer to my question “Why?” is that here in France, publishing houses know that readers often look at publishing house first and author name second. For them, the cover is not a marketing tool for the author who wrote the book—but for the publishing house as a whole! (Of course, France also has a few famous authors who draw the readers in more than the name of the publishing house. But even in those cases, the author’s book cover follows the rule of the publishing house.) This partially explains how one would choose a book. But what if the reader decides to explore the books of another publishing house? Where does one even start? That’s where the bookshop staff comes in. They have read just about everything in the shop and are very skilled at offering recommendations. And the French reader also heavily relies on televised literary programs for the latest find. Finally, where does all of this leave self-published or indie authors and new publishing houses? Well, the road seems a bit bumpy! Since readers tend to demand titles from the established houses, it is difficult for independent writers and publishers to secure a spot for their books in many bookshops. And since most of the book buying in France happens in bookshops rather than online, this is a challenge! Still, there might be a hint of change in the air. At this year’s Paris Book Fair, there was a seminar about how to start a publishing house and a stand featuring independent publishers. I noticed a few more publishing houses have started featuring cover art on their books. Often much simpler than our American best sellers, but cover art all the same. And, to my astonishment, Les Editions de Minuit, had printed up blurbs on bright gold paper and stuck them onto the book display table. I’m happy to see some of the old rules relaxing, making room for new authors and publishers, but, strangely enough, I hope change doesn’t come too quickly. I’ve grown used to the look of a French bookshelf, with a sea of pristine white binders marked only by words. Adria J. Cimino-author photo 01 (2)Adria J. Cimino is the author of novels “Paris, Rue des Martyrs” and “Close to Destiny” and is co-founder of indie publishing house Velvet Morning Press (http://www.velvetmorningpress.com). She also is a contributor to short story anthology “That’s Paris.” Prior to jumping into the publishing world full time, she spent more than a decade as a journalist at news organizations including The AP and Bloomberg News. Adria is a member of Tall Poppy Writers (http://tallpoppies.org/) a community of writing professionals committed to connecting authors with each other and with readers. In addition to writing fiction and discovering new authors, Adria writes about her real-life adventures in her blog “Adria in Paris.” (http://adriainparis.blogspot.com/). You also may learn more about Adria and her work by visiting her website at http://ajcimino.com/ or following her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Adria_in_Paris.

23 thoughts on “Guest Post: Author and Publisher Adria Cimino Talks Book Cover Design—Or Lack Thereof

  1. This post was so interesting—thanks, Adria and Amy! Adria do you know if the situation is the same in other European countries? (I figured if you traveled a bit you probably stopped in bookstores.) And I often see authors who have sold translation rights sporting their new covers on Facebook—do French translations have plain covers too, or would those be designed? Are there separate sections in the store for books with cover designs vs those with publisher brand designs, and if so, how are the books with designed covers arranged? I realize you may not know the answers to all of these, but you really have me wondering.

    I happen to love my covers, and believe they help draw the right reader to the book, but I’m sure there are many less satisfied authors who would have been happy enough to let their words do the talking! But I also believe collaboration between the arts can elevate all. Book cover design is truly an art.

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    • Hi Kathryn, I haven’t traveled recently to other European countries so I’m not sure if they do the same as France, but I can answer your other questions! Usually French translations do have cover designs but they aren’t as complex as the ones you would see in the U.S. You won’t find a lot of textured or sparkly covers here. You’re lucky if you get a simple photograph! In most cases, translated books are part of special “foreign books” collections at the pub houses so they are sort of set apart, and part of this is the fact that they often have cover art. (They are arranged under “English books” or “Spanish books” etc.) As for French book arrangement, if you go into a small French bookshop, the books will be arranged according to publishing house. Certain houses have one or two collections with designed covers — but even when this is the case, this collection would be on its own shelf, or section on the shelf, rather than mixed in with the main collection of plain-covered books. On the tables at the front of the shop with the latest releases, you might find a mix of designed and plain, but even on the table, they try to keep all of the books from the same pub house together. So it really is all organized around publishing house.

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  2. Fascinating post, Amy and Adria. The last time I was in France was when I was in my 20s, and I confess that I was more into castles than books at that point. So this is such surprising/interesting to see how differently books are marketed – especially when the cover is so integral here in the US.

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  3. This is one of THE most interesting and new and different posts I’ve ever read. My book was published a couple of days ago and I’m already looking into book translation for foreign markets. Your post told me something I never would have known. Wow! I heard through EBUK about 2 companies – Bookbabel and Fiberead – that couple a translator and an author who share the sales of the author’s book, with no fee for anyone. I’ve yet to hear back so I don’t know much.
    Thank you, Adria.

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    • Hi Patricia, I’m delighted that you enjoyed my post! It is so interesting to compare publishing in various countries and see how things are done differently. And thanks for sharing the information about Bookbabel and Fiberead. I’ll have to have a look…

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  4. Fascinating article, Adria. Last summer you would have found me searching through the bookstores in Paris (as surveillance for my to be published historical novel based in France, A Cup of Redemption). And because it is in English, I was in Shakespeare & Company and WHSmith. Since it launched in October, I know it is being sold in France, but I thought one of the draws was the bright yellow cover with the Eiffel Tower. Who knew? Thanks for enlighening me. http://www.carolebumpus.com

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    • Hi Carole, My novels are also at Shakespeare and WHSmith! Great shops. For English-language books, the French are used to seeing our designed covers. I think they would be surprised to see a plain cover from us. 🙂

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  5. Merci Adria, for this fascinating post. When I was in Paris I did not visit a book store, but if I am privileged to ever visit again, that experience will be on the top of my list. Certainly we learn from one another and in the book business with the internet changing things, it’s wonderful to know that book stores still exist whether they have bright-colored covers or not. I wish you the best with your endeavors. Beth

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    • Thank you, Beth! And yes, on your next trip to Paris, check out one of the small neighborhood bookshops. It’s always interesting to see how the books are arranged and what really “sells.”

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  6. Very Interesting. We’re about to leave for Europe for the summer and are continually fascinated by bookstores. All the clues and cues we’re used to are never there and we have to think carefully before purchases.

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  7. Adria, after all of the back-and-forth on whether women’s fiction is relegated to a pink ghetto partly because of our book covers, I find this post fascinating. I wonder if more men would read women’s fiction, if the books didn’t have all of those backs-of-women’s-bodies or Country Living magazine spreads on the covers, with flowers and wooden rocking chairs?

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    • Hi Holly, That’s a good point… I know that here in France, most general fiction is read by men and women. It’s rare when someone will say “Oh that’s a woman’s book.” There are exceptions. For instance, we have chick lit and romance over here and they do have designed covers. But general fiction is absolutely marketed to both women and men.

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  8. Fascinating topic! I live in France and have often wondered the same thing, especially since one of the things I love about books is their covers! Yeah, sure, the inside counts too (of course) but I love pretty covers on my shelves! But I can see why the French do it their way, too.

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  9. When I came to France 25 years ago,this was one of the first things that surprised me about publishing. The French publish books the way they educate their students, all doctors in one school, all teachers in one school, all architects in one school, etc. It’s boring to say the least. Because the field of publishing is so elitist, like most intellectual things here, it’s selective. So what counts is the publishing house and then the author. I’m not surprised more people aren’t reading books in this country. Adina your article was well written and very informative!

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  10. Pingback: Weekly Roundup of History, Archaeology and Writing Wisdom June 7-13 | Judith Starkston

  11. Pingback: Adria Cimino Talks Book Cover Design—Or Lack Thereof | Tall Poppy Writers

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