Buy the Books

Article excerpt

Dressed-Up Dross

In the centuries before Johannes Gutenberg designed his printing press, book marketing was as for eign a concept as high-speed Internet access. Texts were exceedingly rare commodities--monks and scribes often took years to write out and embellish each copy by hand--but because few people could read and even fewer were willing to spend as much on a parchment Bible as they would for a plot of land, demand was all but nonexistent.

As printing became mechanized, literacy rates soared, and people began clamoring for histories, novels, and reference books, drumming up competition among booksellers. By the late nineteenth century, publishers realized that commissioning eye-catching cover art was one of the surest ways to gain a sales edge over their rivals. Staid leather bindings embossed with simple fonts gave way to multicolored cloth covers designed by artistic luminaries. The 1910 reprint of Richard Harding Davis' novel Soldiers of Fortune, for instance, boasted a cover montage of lanky girls and dashing young men by Charles Dana Gibson, already famous for his "Gibson Girl" drawings of fashionable turn-of-the-century women.

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More sophisticated packaging, however, did not indicate heightened quality of the prose under the cover. Though expertly rendered, full-color book jackets were a hallmark of dime-store novels in the early 1900s, the books were often packed with literary howlers. "The body, a mass of bruises and sickening cuts, lay near the old blockhouse," read one. "Our young hero knelt beside it and found that besides being dead the man was also internally injured." Whereas books had once become popular through word of mouth, evaluated on the quality or usefulness of the content, buyers could now use the same mind-set they applied to browsing department store displays when shopping for additions to their personal libraries.

Getting Authors Across

When she showed up in the studio for the book-jacket photo session for her second novel, The Year Nick McGowan Came to Stay, the photographer hovered over Australian writer Rebecca Sparrow as though she were an actress or supermodel. She fretted over every aspect of Sparrow's appearance: her necklace, her glasses, her tank top. …