Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Creating a New Narrative

An It's Complicated! — Book Covers guest post by Joseph Monti, a once bookstore buyer, editor, and now prominent literary agent at Barry Goldblatt Literary.

I'm writing today, discussing middle grade and young adult book covers, as a former children's fiction buyer at Barnes and Noble, Inc., and thus this is not wholly my opinion, but also fact based upon sales numbers at the largest bookstore chain in the world. That said, I am not speaking for the company in any capacity, just my personal experience.

The simplified truth to the quandary about book covers is that good covers sell books, and bad covers hurt book sales. A good book with a bad cover may overcome it, but it will not reach the sales potential it could have had with a good cover. A mediocre book with a good cover will increase sales. The marriage of a good cover and a good book is what I am going to showcase.

Now, publishing likes to create its own narrative, and then believe that narrative as if it is law. One of the narratives in publishing is that boys don't read, especially in young adult, so putting a boy on the cover of a book is likely a sales hurdle. Then Angela Johnson's The First Part Last was presented to me from Simon and Schuster. That, gentle reader, is a great cover! The guy, let's face it, is hot. And he's tenderly holding a baby?! On the surface, this cover has lots of sales blockers: YA with a brown boy holding a baby will not appeal to the romance reader nor the reluctant boy reader. What happened? It sold very strongly right out of the gate, of course. Then Johnson, oh so deservedly won both the Michael L. Printz Award and the Coretta Scott King Award, and it sold even more.

Going along with this theme, there was this great historical novel about feudal Japan titled The Samurai's Tale by Erik Christian Haugaard. It's one of those classic middle grade novels that could now be marketed for teens. It's about a boy named Taro who's family is killed, but he is adopted into a Lord's household, and trains to become a samurai and redeem his family name. Steeped in political and social constraints amidst the action and intrigue this book is great. It also languished with a old fashioned cover, but when repackaged to look like a cross between classic Japanese water colors and some manga influence, it sold more in two months than it had in years. That same month, because a trick in book selling is to have a promotional theme to group titles around, and this month's theme was fiction in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (May). 

Kinda lame, but in addition to Haugaard's novels, I also promoted Year of the Dog by Grace Lin. A terrific young middle grade or chapter book novel about two friends who share a Taiwanese background, but the novel rests on the pleasure of getting to know Grace and Melody better. That cover featured no faces, and often a cover with a central iconic image is the best choice, and it looked like a Chinese Red Envelope, and it was gorgeous, and it sold, in a market that didn't sell stand alone chapter books.

Another example of how a repackage helped a book find it's audience is Nnedi Okorafor's first young adult novel, Zahrah the Windseeker. Originally packaged in quiet art in hardcover, in paperback it has the typical pretty girl with a butterfly photographic cover, but as this is an African-infused fantasy novel, the pretty girl on the cover reflects that. Shall we count the number of YA fantasy novels with brown people, on one hand? The narrative will tell you this is a small audience, and you're splitting it further with genre. But it sold well, and Nnedi has continued to write wonderful fantasy fiction for children.

These are just some spotlights, some facts, to counter the myths that too often perpetuate in sales and marketing. Go enjoy them, and authors, write some more.


  1. Interesting! A famous librarian once blogged that kids hate brown covers. (This was just around the time my book came out with a brown cover.) Do you think that's true? Are certain colors less popular?

  2. Oh, dang. Putting a boy on a cover is potentially a "sales hurdle" Um!?!? Maybe we can take another look at that narrative and rethink it, because WOW, do boys need to see themselves on books, as involved in books, etc. All of YA publishing needs to stop with the the Pink Cover Trap and stop marketing solely to girls, or boys never WILL read...

    Yeah, okay. Preaching to the choir, here. But that just kills me - boys are a problem, add ethnicity to that, and surely the book would tank... except once again, reality proves narrative incorrect. Thanks for sharing this.