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an irregular Barcelona Review Feature

by Michael Garry Smout

Bookcovers. Let's begin with the obvious: do they sell books?

Publishing houses use them to arrest our attention, to catch our eye, to make us pick up a book by an unknown author so we will read the hype and a nutshell plot and buy the thing. Simple really. They go about it in many of the usual advertising ways, using all the old cliche techniques: the lure of bright colours or familiar, safe imagery; 'uniforms' that quickly identify one particular camp; the shock of the new or garish; simple or rogue. Like a cocktail party once partners have found their common bond, the come-on continues, but in books this means quicker physical contact, even before the tantalising white lies. With album sleeves now safely condomed in plastic, bookcovers are almost unique in using touch to sell the goods.

To get us to paw the product, bookcovers and dustjackets have become over the years very 'touchy- feelie' with raised lettering, holes through the cover to the next page and incredible inks and paper that just beg to be touched, fondled and stroked. Taking it a stage too far I came across a dust jacket that folded out into a poster, great for playing with in the bookshop, but leaving me to think, because it had gone beyond its other function of protection: "Why?"

I am quite happy to openly consort with bookcovers in public but I can only think of one occasion where I can positivly identify that it was the cover that really attracted me to study the contents of a book more closely and buy it, and only one occasion where I bought a book solely for its cover.

The first occurred some years back in the Gower Street Dillons Bookstore (London)when my attention was grabbed from some distance by two grinning silver skulls. Closer inspection revealed a book oddly entitled Trainspotting.The skulls were masks on two people, in a photograph that would appear not to be posed . The mask on the left doesn't fit the wearer properly and obscures one eye; the other eye seems to be looking at something just over your left shoulder. The figure on the right is closer but out of focus, the eyes looking at something far and beyond your right shoulder. Disturbing stuff.

The word 'Trainspotting' is raised from the silver background and done in a red Helvetica font that is all too familiar to British train passengers. There is a possible reviewer's comment in white, so wonderfully over the top that it couldn't be real..could it? "The best book written by man or woman... deserves to sell more copies than the Bible" Rebel Inc . So, two weird looking guys in Hallowe'en masks, a title that invokes images of sad, sad people clutching pen and paper waiting for the next adrenalin rush in the form of a train, a terrible, but clever pun giving the sort of endorsement to a book that even an author's mother would shy from making. It simply forces you to look at the contents.

By sheer chance I opened it to a line in brummie (Birmingham accent). Close enough to my home town for my interest to be aroused. More flipping through the book reveals a hidden world, culture, language...... and Irvine Welsh makes another sale.

Obviously, it was the contents that in the end helped me to make a decision to actually buy the thing but of the elements that lured me and made me pick up the book the author's only known role was the title. Nowadays I might pick up a book of his on the strength of his name but back in those days whatever percentage of my £6.99 got to Welsh he can thank David Harrold for the photograph and the nameless backroom boys at Minerva for putting it all together and creating a successful attention grabbing, touchie-feelie cover. On that same shopping trip the cover for Pinckney Benedict's Dogs of God caught my partner's eye, excellent photo (Susan Lipper) of some very mean looking men with guns drinking...gulp...Bud lite and...double horror... Diet Pepsi. Intrestingly this was also a Minerva book.

The book I bought solely for the cover is an obvious choice once seen. It was a no-questions-asked-must-have when I saw it in a second hand bookstore. I had already owned both versions of the book, the American one having the better ending which the film followed. According to Burgess the dreadful wimp British ending to A Clockwork Orange with the 'extra' story-killing chapter was the one he wrote and intended, proving that authors can be wrong. And so can bookcover designers.

I hope the poor artist, uncredited, was just told to go with the "Terrifying shocker of teen-age gangs" headline and based the design around his experiences because this is as fine an example of someone not reading the book beyond page two before doing the cover as you'll ever see in your life. Page two gives a pretty detailed account of the clothes and in my two versions there is no mention of anything that resembles the cover. Excellent stuff, real horrorshow. "Don't bogart that moloko plus, my droog, pass it over to me." Luckily there are endorsements from William Burroughs and Roald Dahl and "Famous 20th century classic" to help lure the interested inside.

With only three covers able to seduce me and my partner, and one of them for all the wrong reasons, one would think the answer to the question at the beginning would be 'No'. Wrong. I don't know how many books I've picked up because of the cover's come-on, therefore their function to attract works. My decision not to buy would be based on my reaction to the contents; on the other hand I don't know how many album covers I've looked at but never asked to listen to nor have I ever bought an album because I liked its cover, and you can guess which is the hipper to design for. Go Figure.

©M.G.Smout/Barcelona Review
covers: Trainspotting ©Irvine Welsh 1993, Minerva UK Cover photo: David Harrold
A Clockwork Orange ©Anthony Burgess 1962
©W.W. Norton & Company, Inc 1963