The Semiotics of Covers

The Semiotics of Covers

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The Semiotics of Covers


I'm going to buy a book today - but not a school book, a real book - a bestseller. I walk past the harmonica man standing outside of the Brown Office Building, clamping my ears shut against the discordant melodies he's spewing out at me. I enter the Brown Bookstore - my Mecca, my Graceland. I strut past the tables near the door and walk toward the bestseller wall, my being allthewhile bombarded by hardcovers seeking my wandering eyes. Howard Stern in drag screams out at me from the left, something about Colin Powell and a journey crys out from the right. Wishing not to be manipulated into buying an expensive book, I squint my eyes and keep on walking, eventually reaching the ordering counter. I pause, close my eyes and turn around.

As my eyes slowly open, my field of vision becomes filled with paperbacks. Hundreds of them, displayed out before me like some crude mosaic, each one lined up and facing me on tiny little shelves. They're all roughly the same size, all the same shape - the only thing that differs is their covers. Each book is showing me a different picture, a different color, a different font. Each book juxtaposes its elements in a different way, highlighting certain objects while de-emphasizing others. Each book is telling me something, trying to appeal to my gaze. What are they saying? Will it work?

The study of these elements of the cover - each book's signs and the images/ideas they signify- is particularly appropriate in the case of bestsellers. This is not to say that the covers of bestsellers hold a monopoly on sign/signifier possibilities - nothing could be farther from the truth - its just that in the case of bestsellers, the effect these signs and signifiers have on the aura of a book are just more interesting. Proof of this all but surrounds us. Take a look at almost any other section in the brown bookstore: almost all books, with the exception of bestsellers and the very new releases, are presented on shelves with their binding pointing out. The only thing one can really ascertain when gazing upon these books is the title and color on the cover. Such elements are important, but don't grab the eye. Unless you're looking for a specific title or author, what you see on these shelves doesn't really effect one's eyes.

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If you're looking for Voltaire's Candide, how it's cover presents itself probably won't matter. And if you're not looking for Candide, you probably won't notice it.

This does not mean, however, that books such as Candide don't have particular signs and signifiers. To see that almost all books aim to attract the attention of its readers with particular words and images one could visit any other section of the bookstore. Take the philosophy shelves as an example. The covers of the books under the philosophy heading usually are more austere, more blunt, more analytical. In trying to convey an air of sophistication and intellectualism, philosophy texts about revolution don't smear images of blood on its covers, nor do philosophy texts about the best human love use phallic imagery. Those who publish these books know that an aura of seriousness will prove advantageous in selling. Such a specific motive isn't solely endemic to the philosophy shelves. Eastern Religion books tend to be colorful with ornate fonts and whimsical drawings. Science Fiction books usually depict a scene of action on its cover, and write the title and author's name in clever, unusual fonts. Romance novels highlight lusty looks, enormous pectorals and my-god-what-happened-to-gravity breasts. All books aim to achieve a certain goal with its physical presentation, and bestsellers are no exception. What's different in the case of bestsellers is specifically this aim. It would seem that bestsellers, more than any other type of book, want to grab the eyes of the reader who might not be looking for it.

We can perhaps assume that most people involved in the writing and production of a given bestseller think that their particular book could become successful if given the proper chance. Each book presents a story that its producers think could and would be read if the audience was given proper reason to. This is where the cover of the bestseller attains particular importance. With so many choices to decide from, the individual who purchases a bestseller often works on fairly little fore-knowledge. In the grand scheme of things, bestsellers come and go fairly quickly, their popularity quickly rising and then quickly falling. One has less opportunity to know much about a potential bestseller's story than another book aimed for more longevity. Although there are of course some notable exceptions, The Bridges of Madison County comes to mind, much of the information one eventually comes to possess about a bestseller one gleans from the cover. How then does someone involved in production make this cover an extension of the story while at the same time drawing the onlooker in? How are the signs of these covers manipulated to give us the core of the novel while appealing to our visual interests? What does the bestseller's semiotics say about the text?

The ambitions and results of such semiotics vary of course from text to text, from bestseller to bestseller. The semiotics of the cover usually attempt to appeal to the aspect of the novel that will be most alluring to the reader, make them most inclined to pick it up and purchase it. Which elements a particular novel chooses to highlight says much about the reader's potential avenue into the subject matter.

It is perhaps easiest to talk about such methods of cover representation if we categorize bestsellers according to this visual aspect. Of course not all bestsellers can be easily categorized - all books are different - but certain types of bestsellers clearly do follow common semiotic plans in their presentation. In the interests of making discussion easier, I am sectioning off the bestsellers we have read into three categories - serial bestsellers, literary bestsellers, and filmic bestsellers. By no means authoritative, these categories only seek to make the discussion of semiotic plans in a few of the different types of bestsellers we have read more tangible, and thus, perhaps, more illuminating.

The first category - serial bestsellers - is perhaps the easiest to spot, and the most obviously marketed. Bestsellers of this genre appeal to the reader via recognition, usually recognition of the authors name. Examples of such novels include Vanished by Danielle Steele, Comeback by Dick Francis, and The Body Farm by Patricia Cornwell, with Steele and Francis being the best examples.

To immediately recognize how the semiotics of such a serial novel works, one must look not only at the novel itself, but at others by the author. If just taken alone, neither novel offers much in the way of polysemic visual opportunities. Both books feature its respective author's name in large raised print at the top of the cover, and the title in somewhat smaller raised print at the bottom. In the center of both is a small picture, relevant to the story, but not eye catching. Both covers are unexceptional if taken by themselves, but if compared to others by author, their semiotic plans shine through.

All of Steele's paperbacks, and all of Francis's paperbacks - with few exceptions - look exactly the same. The arrangement of author's name, title, and picture is the same on each book from both writers - the author's name is always biggest and on top, the title and picture placed on the lower half of the cover. Steele's novels shimmer in gold like a piece of white trash costume jewelry; Francis's novels are bathed in black and read, usually featuring horses or something manly like sports cars or playing cards. Every book by Steele looks like the one that came before it: Accident looks like Wings, Wings looks like Vanished. The same goes for Francis - the books of his that the Brown Bookstore carries - Decider, Driving Force, High Streets, Smokescreen, and Comeback - all look essential the same. There is a definite look and feel that connects each book to others by the author. The publishers of these books use this look and feel of cover to appeal to those who have already read one of the author's books, or just those who might recognize the name.

The second category (just randomly ordered) is the literary bestseller. Books that we have read that might fall into this category include A Room With A View by E. M. Forester, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx and The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. Although the semiotics of such covers are more difficult to place within a marketing perspective, they are perhaps most interesting in the cover content's relation to the actual story. Stories such as these that were perhaps "accidental bestsellers" seem to follow no clear cut selling scheme within their cover's semiotics, using its title and presentation as a way into the story itself, as a metaphor for a key image in the novel.

Of the four novels mentioned that might fit into this category, the Forester book is perhaps the most unusual for such analysis. The source of this peculiarity comes not as a result of the concrete visual elements of its cover, but by the kind of book that it is. A Room With A View has, unfortunately, become a Vintage book. Vintage is a publishing company that produces overpriced paperback versions of "high literature". If the book you seek is available in Vintage format, it probably means its a pretty respected book and that you're going to pay more than you should for it. The covers of such books are usually sparse, a testament to the style of the company rather than any key image of the novel. But enough of my polemic against Vintage - on to the other literary bestsellers!

The Stone Diaries uses its cover to reinforce the key image that circulates through the story - the presence of stone. The image of stone refers to many things within the context of the story: her mother's name, the monument her father built, the stones in the soup, the fact that her father was a stone cutter, the last name given to bastard children, and so on. The picture on the cover of a woman half stone, half flesh, with a rough piece of rock laying nearby, helps to symbolize the metaphoric importance of the idea of stone in the tale.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Shipping News takes different routes in their covers, deciding instead to depict scenes that ironically, don't have a huge amount to do with the general flow of the novel. On Kundera's book, the image of female hands tossing a bowler hat into the air is spread across the cover. This scene in the actual book - the use of the bowler hat in sexual situations - was one celebrating the idea of something being completely out of place. Sabrina loved using her father's starchy hat in her erotic endeavors because it was such an unerotic item, so inappropriate. The cover of the novel ironically reinforces this idea, giving an insignificant idea significant focus.

The Shipping News uses such irony in a similar way in both the cover's picture and in the title itself. The image that graces the cover is an etching of a scene in the book only alluded to - the Quoyle family moving their house across frozen bay from their island to the mainland. The title refers to the paper that Quoyle eventually found work at when he moved up to his ancestral home. Neither the act of moving the house nor the name of the newspaper constituted a key element of the story. Like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the stuff on the cover seems more ironic than expository.

We have seen that bestsellers that seek an audience attracted by name recognition use a serial style on their covers. We have also seen that more literary, less serial, bestsellers often break from this mold, using the cover to highlight a particular aspect of the novel with the cover. These two methods are well established ways of composing covers, and have been used for some time now. The third method that we will explore, the filmic bestseller, is a relatively recent phenomenon. The rising number of filmic adaptations of popular books has lead to a new form of cover art - the movie still.

The list goes on and on: Jurassic Park, Rising Sun, Congo, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Hunt For Red October, The Bridges Of Madison County. All these movies started as successful books and were adapted as even more successful movies. Publishers of the paperback versions of these bestsellers have not failed to capitalize on this success. The paperback of The Firm is available in two versions: one cover has a drawing of the character of Mitch suspended on puppet strings, and the other has a sexy picture of Tom Cruise plastered over the cover. The latter movie still cover has become the more common for obvious reasons. When looking at bestsellers, not only does the title strike name recognition, but the picture on the cover seems familiar. Tom Cruise invariably attracts more attention than a cartoon puppet (whether or not he should I won't say). The cover, once again, is employed to attract the reader, showing not only what the book may be about, but also making metonymic connections with images that the reader can recognize.

Its been said that you can't read a book by its cover, but whoever said such a thing obviously never went browsing for bestsellers. The semiotics of a bestsellers cover - its size, brand, style, title, design, picture, and overall juxtaposition - lend a certain aura to the content of a book, and often factor into whether one will want to read it. The text of a book does not stand alone - presentation counts.
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