There are some fabulous books we have a hard time selling because their covers are either dated or just don’t appeal to customers.
One of my favorite books as a child was a delightful novel about a shy and fearful little girl, Betsy, who has to leave her loving but extremely overprotective aunts (one of them takes ill and must recover sans child) to stay with the dreaded, unknown Putney relatives on a Vermont farm. The plain-spoken, hard-working, wholesome aunt, uncle, and fun cousins Betsy meets help her blossom into an adventurous and playful kid. Understood Betsy has the timeless charm of a slightly younger Anne of Green Gables. Kids still love this book! And we would love a cover that would help us sell it to them by the boatload.
We’ve sold 141 copies of Understood Betsy over the years – in five different editions from various publishers -and could have sold so many more if a paperback with a great cover existed. Henry Holt did a lovely hardcover version (image at left), and we sold 45 of that $18.95 edition before it went OP. Imagine how many we could have sold in paperback with that cover. One of the versions of Understood Betsy that’s been around longest is a perfectly serviceable paperback from Hardscrabble Books (cover image above right). Honestly, though, the only reason we’ve been able to sell 73 copies of this one is that we’re handselling it not to kids but to their parents, who are more willing to overlook a less-than-stellar cover. The Hardscrabble cover isn’t terrible; it’s just a little fussy. Kids don’t get a true sense of the story from that cover, and turn away from the book.
Another classic I’d love to see with new cover art is E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle. This was also a childhood favorite of mine. I read it several times, continuing to relive the adventures of children who discover a tunnel in a hedge and find a mysterious castle — with a sleeping princess their own age! — on the other side. There were images that delighted (velvet-lined drawers or trays full of sparkling jewelry) and encounters that haunted wonderfully (marble statues come to life by moonlight). All in all, it was a satisfying magical romp in the vein of the Edward Eager books (Eager was inspired by Nesbit), and I would love to hand it to children.
The problem is, this is the cover I’ve had to work with since opening the bookstore in 1996:
Show me an eight-, nine-, or ten-year-old excited by remote orange castles. (Don’t hate, Puffin; you do a bang-up amazing job with so many covers! This one just isn’t my cup of tea.) I just can’t sell this cover, except to the rare grownup who comes in specifically for the story and will accept any edition available.
At the NEIBA trade show, I did see a cover from Wordsworth Classics that at least looked younger and brighter:
I do like this cover, but wish it had some people on it, or some action hinted at. Because this book is now in the public domain, there are several versions out there from various publishers, but all of the covers show only a bare castle.There’s no STORY in those covers, and most of the images don’t invite one to explore within. Where are the children? Where is the sense of adventure and fun, sparkle and twilight and moonlight spookiness? The story is so full of intriguing magical events and items that a great cover shouldn’t be hard to design.
Those are two of my top re-design wishes. Booksellers, teachers, and librarians, what books do you love but find to be a hard “handsell” to children because of their covers?
I recently re-read UNDERSTOOD BETSY after I saw it on Anita Silvey’s Almanac. The cover was the same one as the one you show on the left. I thought about what a hard sale it would be to a young child today, which is really a shame, because it’s a great story about a timid girl coming into her own with the help of some no-nonsense Yankee relatives. Kids would love it.
NB: Happy memory department…THANKS! for recalling “Understood Betsy” to mind! I *loved* that book when I was a kid! It was a perfect companion piece to other ‘vintage’ reading (in addition to “Anne of Green Gables”) such as “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” and “Pollyanna”. Anent covers: my ‘horror’ story came when I tried to find a copy of L.M. Montgomery’s “The Blue Castle” to include in a package of books-I-love! as a gift for my niece. What I found was a TPB with a cover straight out of a ‘dated’ Gothic Romance of the 80’s: a stormy blue background with a vague outline of a castle and a shadowed heroine in a trailing gown cowering against it. ARRRRGH! I promptly dug through my graphics files for a more appropriate image and REcovered the book before sending it on.
Dear Ms. Bluemle. You want too much from this world. You want imagination, color, drama, beauty knowing full well this gray, lock-step culture seems determined to kill off those very creatures. What chutzpa. You want narrative voices in children’s books to eschew the same droning sound, the sniggery Uber Voice that can cause house plants to wither, relationships to crumble, cakes to fall. What snobbery. Now it’s covers. Instead of embracing the dime-a-dozen, uninspired nibs and norts we see today, you want “adventure and fun.” You want “story.” Good gravy, what’s next?
I want plot AND character development, of course. Sheesh.
I just knew it. Now it’s plot and character. And of course I agree. I hope my earlier, heavy-handed satire (in which I tried to show that I absoltootly, wholeheartedly supported your position on covers and narrative voice) was not lost in translation. As I re-read my comment this morning, it seemed a shade muddy. And hey, no one likes a muddy comment.
No, no, it was crystal clear, and very funny! And I was responding in kind, tongue-in-cheek. : )
Great article Elizabeth!!
Ah, my hardest handsell and my nomination for the best book with the worst cover is THE SEARCH FOR DELICIOUS. The original cover with its provincial French blue and cream cover was lovely. The paperback (and yes, I’ve complained to Square Fish more than once) is the a realistic and darkish pallette of the back view of an adult mermaid giving the book and creepy and slightly sexual look.
When I booktalk it I have to say, “Let me tell you about this before you look at the cover.” sigh.
Tithe by Holly Black very briefly had a terrible cover. It killed me… and my sales on the book (they dropped about 80% with the cover change). Happily the bad cover was short lived and the old cover is back, but slightly revised.
Seriously! Looks at that!
Isn’t it frustrating when a good cover is re-designed in such a way that you can no longer sell the book easily?
You know what would totally sell The Enchanted Castle? A cover with the mobile dinosaur statues! Or maybe the Ugly-Wuglies, though those are scary as heck. Nesbit scared her ownself with those.
Peni, I agree! I think the scene with the gods and goddesses and dinosaurs at the pool in the evening would be sooooo cool! Not the Ugly-Wuglies, because even though they fascinated me, they were just too scary! I love knowing that Nesbit scared herself with them.
As much as we’d like to believe “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a grand life philosophy, of course books are judged by their covers. People aren’t going to grab books that don’t appeal to them visually, even to check the appealing cover copy. There are a lot of books I’d love to see move in the library, but they don’t, because someone has really mishandled the design. So, yes, the orange fuzzy castle is not going to move a children’s book. I’d guess that’s a public domain picture of some sort to save money, but there’s got to be a better PD picture.
Other points to consider: Legible fonts for the title and enough contrast that you can see the title. A twisty, ornate font in a low contrast against a complex cover isn’t going to appeal to anyone. Also, art that’s geared toward your primary audience. The fuzzy orange castle looks like an adult book (if I didn’t know who E. Nesbit was, I’d probably assume it was some kind of classic travelogue for adults). I’ve also seen books that are trying to sell to teenagers with very childish art on them (and not in an ironic way), and books trying to sell to younger kids that have clearly teen-oriented art. The latter might move. The former will not.
Anyway, thoughts for the day.
I was so glad when they redid the cover for A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park and The Teacher’s Funeral by Richard Peck. Both orange covers and unappealing. I’d love to see all new illustrations for May I Bring a Friend by Beatrice de Regniers, not just the cover. The story is fun and I’d love to read it for storytime, but the illustrations are unappealing for today’s full color kids.
Great topic for discussion. The cover can make or break circulation of a book in the school library too.
The personal memory that came to mind was a 1970s box set of the Narnia books I received as a child. How nice would it be to be able to buy it again sans the glossy movie images.