No matter how much writers try to find solace in the old saying ‘never judge a book by its cover’, we all know the sneaky truth – readers do pick books by the cover. Heck, even Penguin keeps bringing out ‘pretty’ editions of old best-selling classics, just so they can get fans to buy a book they already have, because their new editions look way more gorgeous.
As a reader, I don’t care much for covers, but minimalist designs always hold more allure for me. Like Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s books, his novels are usually drenched in only two tones – black & red. It’s hard not to wonder if the striking colours and simple designs have something to do with the sales. They’ve sort of become iconic stamps to his stories.
And while it’s easier to remember designs of the novels we love, there are others that are just so stark, that it’s hard to forget them, like ‘Clockwork Orange’ and ‘Jaws’. I recently stumbled upon an old NYT article titled ‘The Making of a Bestseller’ and among several things, it talks of how the cover design of ‘Jaws’ by Peter Benchley came to be.
The cover of the first edition has an image of a shark lurking ominously at the bottom of the page, while a woman swims on the surface. But that wasn’t the original plan – the first decided to go with a plain typographical jacket, but it was Oscar Dystel who wasn’t very happy with the idea. Dystel was in-charge of Bantam, the paperback publisher of ‘Jaws’, who is considered a pioneer in mass-market paperbacks. When he had joined Bantam, the publishing house was in debt and on the verge of banruptsy, but he made a series of decisions/deals, that turned its fortune around. And needless to say, Dystel wasn’t wrong about going with a text only jacket for his future bestseller.
According to the NYT article, Dystel had said “without an image, no one would know what ‘Jaws’ meant. It could have been a book about dentistry.” So he suggested that they put a shark on. The illustrator was told if he could put a swimmer in too. And that’s how the iconic ominous cover was born. But here’s what editor Tom Congdon had to say about it – “We realized that the new version looked like a penis with teeth, but was that bad?”
Didn’t seem to turn out bad for them, it sold thousands of copies within the first weeks. But once you read what Congdon had to say it, it’s hard to unsee the image it conjures up. Now the shark just doesn’t look like a shark anymore. Despite having seen that cover numerous times throughout the years, the idea never occurred to me. But now, the iconic cover is forever ruined for me. While earlier it was only an ominous looking illustration that spells doom, now it’s gotten a whole lot disturbing.
Guess reading too much isn’t always a great thing.