Check out a terrific collection of William S. Burroughs book covers. There’s 34 Junky covers including editions from Portugal and Turkey, as well as 39 editions of Naked Lunch from places like Norway and the Czech Republic. Lots of other Burroughs books, too.
Skimming through the bestsellers and new releases at Amazon, you may have spotted the “limited edition” of Michael Chabon’s new novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. “This special limited first edition is personally signed by the author and numbered. The jacketed hardcover is packaged in a handcrafted wooden slipcase which is shrinkwrapped. A must-have for collectors,” says the description. The book retails for $150, though Amazon has it for somewhat less.The phenomenon of “limited edition” books is ostensibly an odd one considering the prevailing belief that the publishing industry isn’t in great shape these days, but from an economic standpoint it makes sense as an extension of “price discrimination.” Price discrimination also explains why books (on this side of the ocean, anyway) come out in hardcover before they do in paperback. To borrow from an earlier post of mine, “The way the book publishers see it, there is a certain percentage of the population out there for whom getting a book as soon as it comes out is worth the premium of ten bucks or so. These people are willing to buy the book at this higher price, so the publishers take advantage of it. Once the demand for the higher priced edition has dried up, they put out a lower priced edition and then they can sell the same book to a second group of people for whom owning the book is worth less.”But since the limited edition typically comes out at the same time as the hardcover, there must be more to it than just paying to get the book early. With limited editions, buyers are paying for the exclusivity of the edition, for the ability to own something that very few other people have and that has a distinct look to it, setting it apart from, for example, the copies of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union that everyone else is walking around with. And while limited editions are often signed by the author and will often include some extra content – perhaps an exclusive afterward by the author or some special illustrations – these books are mostly bought as objects, as signifiers of fandom that can be bought by the uberfan. Either that or they are meant to be bought as extravagant gifts – again, paying for the uniqueness.It should come as no surprise then that limited editions are exceedingly rare in the world of books as compared to music and movies, where fans are much more willing to go to great lengths to express their devotion. As such, limited editions are most commonly put out for books by authors with cult followings, whose fans are willing to pony up the dough for the exclusivity of these special books. For example, Chuck Palahniuk’s new book Rant is available in a limited edition and the original, 3,352-page version of Rising Up, Rising Down by William T. Vollmann can be viewed as a limited edition.There are also the authors whose fan bases are so huge that publishers assume that the with all the demand for their books, the limited editions will get bought as well. John Grisham’s last effort, The Innocent Man came in a limited edition retailing for $250 and, of course, the “limited” editions of the Harry Potter books have been bestsellers in their own rights. The Deluxe Edition of the new Harry Potter book, retailing for $65, is currently the 21st most popular book at Amazon. $65 is apparently a small price to pay for “an exclusive insert featuring near-scale reproductions of Mary GrandPre’s interior art, as well as never-before-seen full-color frontispiece art on special paper.” And don’t forget that the edition’s “custom-designed slipcase is foil-stamped and contains a full-cloth case book that has been blind-stamped on front and back cover with foil stamping on the spine.”There are also limited editions that seem to exist because they would make easy, yet extravagant gifts. I can imagine that the limited edition of Bill Clinton’s memoir was a hot gift in certain powerful circles a few years back.As for me, I tend to be more interested in the words inside the books rather than the nifty packaging, though I’ll admit to having been seduced a time or two by snazzy slipcovers and exclusive illustrations, though never quite enough to shell out the extra dough.(Thanks to Brent for the idea for this post.)
The author and musician Alina Simone published her first collection of essays, You Must Go And Win, this past June. Unlike most writers who toil in obscurity before landing an agent, Simone’s editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Eric Chinski, found Simone on Pandora.com, a free, personalized Internet radio service. After Chinski listened to Simone’s songs, he contacted her to propose that she write a book. “It seemed like he already viewed music and literature as part of one continuum,” Simone says. “Certainly, the best songs out there read like the best poems or short stories.”
Of late, publishers and authors have begun to experiment more with audio as a natural step in the promotion of their books. Listening to music has always been an organic piece of literary consumption — anyone who has queued up a favorite record of sad ballads while reading a heartbreaking novel, in order to up the emotional catharsis can attest to that. But recent trends suggest that readers are looking for even more direct ways to incorporate music into the reading experience.
At readings for You Must Go And Win, Simone also performed her songs live, and since then, all of her appearances have morphed into music and literary mash-ups: She played live at benefits for the literary mentoring organization Girls Write Now, for Guernica Magazine, and at other writers’ book release parties, including Evan Hughes’ Literary Brooklyn, as well as the Brooklyn Book Festival this fall.
When her book came out, Simone also contributed an author playlist to Largehearted Boy, a books and music blog run by David Gutowski. Since 2005, Largehearted Boy has run a beloved feature called Book Notes, for which recently published writers are asked to create a playlist for their novels; their song selections are explained in the context of both the writing experience as well as the characters in the story. Gutowski recently posted the 900th entry in the series, and has also started a Largehearted Lit series at WORD bookstore in Greenpoint, dedicated to authors who participated in Book Notes, plus musical guests.
“There has definitely been a rise in author soundtracks as promotional items in a variety of formats,” says Gutowski. “From my experience, music is a great way to create a unique bond between writer and reader.” A number of authors have told Gutowski that writing the playlist essays are one of the most enjoyable pieces of promotion attached to their book tour.
New Yorker editor Ben Greenman contributed two playlists to Largehearted Boy, timed to the release of his books. In the essay that accompanied the playlist for his short story collection A Circle Is A Balloon and Compass Both, Greenman wrote, “When I write, I don’t really listen to words with lyrics — too distracting — but many songs are in my mind, and as soon as I’m done writing, I run off and listen to them.” Greenman says that for him, the playlists are a way to amplify some of the themes in his books. “There were songs about romantic confusion or betrayal that were on a loop in my head as I wrote: Graham Parker songs, in particular, or Lou Reed songs,” he said of Circle. “It’s not that those songs helped me make the stories, but they helped me isolate the emotions that in turn helped me make the stories.”
The novelist and essayist Corinna Clendenen is familiar with that line of thinking; it’s part of what led to her decision to write Double Time, a love story following a Dani and Dylan, twin sisters who are obsessed with music and choose to make it a powerful agent of change in their lives. Double Time came out on Audible.com in September as an audio book — it has no printed form as of now. Songs punctuate the book’s 44 chapters, and Clendenen selected each track to underscore the unfolding events of the novel. Among them are Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma,” Matt Costa’s “Vienna” and “Not Your Lover Anymore” by Blitzen Trapper. “The blending of story and song was something that developed organically as I was writing the book,” says Clenenden. “Early in the writing process, I started hearing songs in my head and putting their lyrics into chapter openings.”
What began as a curiosity morphed into the notion that the songs she was listening to and connecting to the character of Dylan, a rising indie musician, could actually be incorporated in the book itself. Acquiring the copyrights involved clearing permissions with the artists involved, as well as the recording studios and occasionally the publisher. Clendenen also established an annual grant to an indie musician after Double Time has been available for sale for a year; the funds will be awarded to a band or artist in the form of five percent of the net proceeds from the novel.
While Audible.com senior editor Matthew Thornton notes that audio is becoming a bigger part of literary consumption for readers thanks to audiobooks, he explains that books like Double Time are still a rarity. “We think it’s wonderful that authors are experimenting with creative ways to enhance listeners’ experiences of their audiobooks, not only with music but with different kinds of narration,” Thornton says. “But the weaving together of music and text is still relatively unusual.”
By contrast, Richard Nash is the vice president of content and community at Small Demons (and formerly the publisher of Soft Skull Press), a site that catalogs endless cultural references found in books, from music and movies to people and objects. He sees incorporating audio and other cultural reference points as a way to allow readers to truly live inside a novel. “David Gutowski made it interesting and fun and gratifying,” Nash says of how Largehearted Boy weaves music and literature together via the Book Notes playlists. “But music is but one piece of a larger puzzle,” Nash says. “That being, how do we connect books to the daily elements of everyone’s cultural lives, to music, yes, but also to movies, to restaurants, to landmarks, to drinks.” As the Small Demons database expands, authors will be able to add greater context to the details pulled out by the site, and users will be able to find links between the references in their favorite books. Nash says readers will also be able to listen to the music that the author heard while writing. “You might choose to listen as you’re reading, or as you traverse a path taken by the protagonist as she listens to that music. Or you might stop reading, and close your eyes,” he says.
Another service, Booktrack, demands that the reader listen to a preselected soundtrack while they read something on an iPad or tablet: As you work your way through the story, the app matches music to various plot points to create what vice president of publishing Brooke Geahan calls an “immersive” experience that audio playlists don’t necessarily take far enough, particularly “when the music and mood do not match up.”
But on Spotify, a new digital music service that offers access to an enormous library of songs available both on PC and smart phones, both casual users and publishing companies have began to crank out playlists for books and authors. Mediabistro’s GalleyCat blog created a playlist in homage to Haruki Murakami, it offers a compilation of songs mentioned in his novels South of the Border, West of the Sun, Norwegian Wood and 1Q84. And publishers like Knopf are working directly with their authors to create custom playlists that readers can spin while they read; Jennifer Egan and Colson Whitehead are among the participating writers. If you’re reading (or re-reading) the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad with Egan’s Spotify mix, you’ll be listening to Death Cab for Cutie, Massive Attack and The Who. In the U.K., Spotify has worked directly with publishers to support forthcoming book launches, including James Corden’s autobiography and a book based on the television series The Inbetweeners.
Still, despite the ease with which music and literature has intersected for her book, Simone suggests that the crossover often gives readers more insight into the author rather than the text, which is still a bonus for obsessive fans. “The key is keeping the quality high,” she says. She and Greenman, as authors, both worry about the promotional static diluting the value and impact of the book. “In the end, books are books, and albums are albums,” Greenman says. “They’re cooked differently, served different, and eaten differently.”
Image credit: Flickr/Michael Casey
When I worked at the bookstore in Los Angeles,we would occasionally get customers who would by books based not on their subject matter or on who wrote them, but by the color of their spines. Somebody would come in looking for light covered spines. Another would peak behind dusk jackets looking for books that conveyed a “vintage look.” More often than not these shoppers were Hollywood set designers, trying to fill the bookshelves that would provide the backdrop for the action in a movie or television show. Ever wonder why movies cost tens of millions of dollars to make? It’s because these guys were paying full price for these books and not picking them up cheap at a Goodwill store. But other people shopped like this to fill their homes because full bookcases look nicer than wallpaper. One celebrity would routinely buy multiple copies of dozens of books, so that his bookshelves would be equally full in each of his multiple homes.According to a Knight-Ridder article, this book decor trend is filtering down to the masses:Perhaps the ultimate signal that books are decor came when a recent Pottery Barn catalog showed an entire bookcase with the books turned backward, annoying mismatched spines facing inward, all in an attempt to achieve a neutral, uniform look.Luckily the article is mostly skeptical of this trend, but it goes on to mention Book Decor, “a California company that sells foreign books by the foot for the express purpose of looking at them rather than reading them. Danish books cost $100 a foot, German are $150 a foot and French are $200.”In a way they’re right. Books look great on the walls, elegant and inviting. A well-stocked library makes an impressive statement about one’s taste, but of course, lest we forget, each of the books is filled with stories. Walking into such a room, one can almost see all the words and characters peaking out from behind the book covers and floating through the ether. It strikes me as insane that anyone would fill shelves with books that they would never be able to read. After all, books are multitaskers of home decor. They look great, but you can read them and share them with friends, too. Try to do that with wallpaper.
Like we did last year, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover design never seems to garner much discussion in the literary world, but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. Even in the age of the Kindle, we are clicking through the images as we impulsively download this book or that one. I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another, suggesting that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a page where you can get a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
The American cover is especially striking, with the bird and skeleton looking like something out of an old illustrated encyclopedia. And the wide black band suggests something important is hidden within. The British version feels generic, with the beach-front watercolor looking like a perhaps slightly more menacing version of the art you’d have hanging in your room at a seaside motel.
I’ve really been enjoying Scott Esposito’s blog Conversational Reading lately. Recently he’s put up a couple of posts that speak to how our love for books goes beyond just the words themselves. But before I get to his posts I had a few thoughts about this as well. One of the reasons the we love books as objects, I think, is because they are all so different from one another in appearance. Whenever a new book comes out, part of the anticipation comes from wanting to see what the book will look like. One of my typical diversions when I worked at the bookstore was to read the “briefly noted” reviews in the New Yorker and then go find the books reviewed, just to see what they looked like. On other occasions my fellow booksellers and I would stand in front of the fiction display table and discuss which book looked the best, rather than which book would be the best to read. Mrs. Millions, who occasionally makes books, got me into the habit of peeking under the dustjackets of hardcover books to see what they look like underneath, and ever since I have been fascinated by the little details — usually stylized monograms — in the canvas hardcovers that most folks never see. There is a reason why we display our books on open shelves. They are a treat for the eye. Which brings me back to Conversational Reading, where Scott posted some images from the amazing experiment at Adobe Bookshop in San Francisco where they rearranged all their books by color. (here’s some more photos). We also treat our books differently than we treat other objects. After a while each book carries with it two stories, the one printed on its pages and the one about the journey the book has taken before it gets to you sometimes through many hands and emblazoned with many jottings and markings. In another post Esposito writes about marking books up as he reads them. He mentions that second hand bookstores often turn these marked up books away, but I, for one, happen to love finding the mysterious notes of a book’s former owners.On a related note, in keeping with the stories as fetish objects theme, I came upon an interesting project via Pia Z. Ehrhardt’s blog today. It’s called The World’s Smallest Magazine. You send them a book of stamps, and they send you a postcard with a 250 word story on it every month.