As we’ve done for several years now, 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 art is an interesting element of the literary world — sometimes fixated upon, sometimes ignored — but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. And, while many of us no longer do most of our reading on physical books with physical covers, those same cover images now beckon us from their grids in the various online bookstores. From my days as a bookseller, when import titles would sometimes find their way into our store, I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another. This would seem to suggest 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 the UK are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
One thing I know after working on The Millions for all these years is that the site has some incredibly knowledgeable and avid readers, the sort of book people I loved working with back in my bookstore days and who are the lifeblood of literary culture. And so, even as we were polling our distinguished panel of writers, editors, and critics, we wondered, what do Millions readers think? We polled The Millions Facebook group to find out.
The list our readers came up with was very interesting, and deviated in noticeable ways from that of the Pros. Before I get into the details. Have a look at the two lists below (Links in our panel list go to the writeups we published throughout the week. Links in our reader list go to Amazon):
by Jonathan Franzen
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Díaz
The Known World
by Edward P. Jones
by Roberto Bolaño
by David Mitchell
by Jeffrey Eugenides
by Roberto Bolaño
by David Mitchell
by George Saunders
by Cormac McCarthy
by Cormac McCarthy
by Ian McEwan
by W.G. Sebald
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Michael Chabon
Out Stealing Horses
by Per Petterson
by Jonathan Franzen
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
by Alice Munro
by Marilynne Robinson
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
by Zadie Smith
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Díaz
Kafka on the Shore
by Haruki Murakami
Twilight of the Superheroes
by Deborah Eisenberg
The Kite Runner
by Khaled Hosseini
by Norman Rush
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
by Ian McEwan
by W.G. Sebald
Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis
by Richard Russo
by Jeffrey Eugenides
by Alice Munro
The Fortress of Solitude
by Jonathan Lethem
by Colm Tóibín
Stranger Things Happen
by Kelly Link
Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
American Genius, A Comedy
by Lynne Tillman
by Marilynne Robinson
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
by Susanna Clarke
While everyone seems to agree that The Corrections is a great book (it was the panel winner by a landslide), Millions readers put seven books ahead of it, and anointed Oscar Wao the top book of the decade. Our readers have always loved Oscar, so that wasn’t a huge surprise, but it was also interesting to see that the readers had a high opinion of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, rectifying probably the biggest snub on our panel list, (along with White Teeth). But then, the readers snubbed The Known World, so who knows.
With a massive field of potential books, snubs were inevitable. Left off both lists were both of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novels, David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion (his only fiction of the decade), and Denis Johnson’s much praised Tree of Smoke. Voters were also dying to include Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. It was ineligible because it was published in Spanish in 1998, but it makes one wonder, what books will seem like shoo-ins for this type of exercise 10 or 11 years from now but are completely under the radar (or still untranslated) today?
Moving back to the books that did make the list, I also loved that the readers included Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a book that I’ve been hearing about from our readers for years, and Half of a Yellow Sun, a book that’s always had a lot of support in the online literary community. Also intriguing is the appearance of mega-best seller The Kite Runner.
Finally, if we try to look for a consensus among the two lists, several titles appear on both, but the two with the most support across the entire spectrum of respondents are 2666 and Cloud Atlas, which, if you had to pick just two books to define the literary decade now coming to an end, would make for very interesting selections indeed.
We’ll be publishing follow-up pieces in our Millennium series over the coming weeks, so look for those. I also wanted to thank our panel and Millions readers for taking the time to participate in the series. If you enjoyed the series and value the coverage that The Millions provides, please consider supporting the site.
This week at The Millions, we’re attempting to gather some of our thoughts about the transformation of book coverage in the digital age. Yesterday, Garth looked at the death of the newspaper book review section. Today, Max considers the revenue problems facing literary websites… and the vices and virtues of one of the solutions. On Friday, Max will hazard some early guesses about the next possible upheaval in the economy of literary journalism: the e-book reader.I.There’s been no bigger story on the book pages in recent weeks than #Amazonfail. The furor itself hardly needs to be rehashed here (briefly: a supposed classification “glitch” caused thousands of books with gay themes to be removed from Amazon’s bestseller lists and search results, making the books very difficult for readers to find), but the episode has entered into our evolving thinking about book coverage in the digital age. As Edan touched on in her #Amazonfail roundup, some might experience cognitive dissonance reading about the Amazon “glitch” on sites like The Millions.To understand this dissonance, you have to first know something about Amazon’s stakeholders. Yesterday, in considering the fate of newspaper book sections we tried to conduct a similar stakeholder analysis of The New York Times Book Review. We argued that readers, writers, publishers, and critics all have a stake in the NYTBR. Depending on whether you agree with our analysis, you may feel that the NYTBR is overserving or underserving one or more of those parties. Luckily for those who find the NYTBR falling short of their needs, there are plenty of easily accessible alternatives.Like the Times, Amazon occupies a unique niche in the literary ecology (though its footprint is more massive than the NYTBR‘s ever was). Also like the Times, Amazon can serve as a sort of proxy for a larger set of players – in this case, for the New Economy businesses that increasingly mediate book coverage. And Amazon shares some of the Times‘ stakeholders: readers (shoppers), writers, and publishers. Critics wouldn’t seem to play a role, except that Amazon has an important “hidden” stakeholder: the thousands of websites across a spectrum of topics and categories that participate in Amazon’s Associates Program. This program pays site owners referral fees when they send readers to Amazon and those readers then make a purchase. As many of our readers know, The Millions is a participant; readers support our site when they start here before shopping at Amazon. Thus the peculiar sense of a feedback loop generated by our coverage of the #Amazonfail story.II.So, how did small, eclectic sites like The Millions become the “hidden stakeholders” in “the world’s largest bookstore?” It’s all part of a now 15-year-old story: Internet content providers looking for a business model. Particularly for smaller sites without an easily classifiable or marketable focus, Amazon’s Associates Program has proven to be a good (and sometimes the only) alternative to an advertising model that simply doesn’t pay off. (And that, lest we forget, is increasingly not paying off for the print analogs to these sites.) Book coverage has become decreasingly viable in print, and it may be that online book coverage can only avoid the same fate via “alternative” revenue sources like Amazon’s program and others like it. For a website that has a tight focus and occupies a lucrative niche, revenue opportunities are comparatively plentiful. A visitor to a photography site probably likes cameras, and cameras are expensive enough that camera companies will be willing to pay good money to advertise to those readers. In a less lucrative niche (like, say, books), there may be far fewer advertising dollars to go around. Meanwhile, for sites with a broader focus, advertisers are often worried about not getting enough bang for their buck. (Why advertise cameras on a general interest site, when you can advertise to photographers?)The advantages that accrue to the hypothetical photography site in the search for advertising dollars extends to programs like Amazon’s. Plenty of enterprising website owners have made a small fortune writing about lucrative niches and earning commissions when their readers click through to Amazon to buy those big ticket items. But an interesting consequence of the Amazon program is that it has also provided a meaningful revenue stream for a diverse array of sites that might otherwise struggle to pay the bills.To take one example: For the eclectic mega-blog Boing Boing, covering diverse subject matter and appealing to readers from all over the map, there is no obvious target demographic. Boing Boing likely can’t command the ad rates that a more focused site of similar size could. But when Boing Boing has occasion to cover books, it links to Amazon, and it picks up some revenue whenever people click through the links and shop. Boing Boing gets enough traffic that Amazon affiliation is merely one of a number of different revenue opportunities open to it. For smaller sites, the opportunities available are few. (Read Levi Asher’s “Modest Success Story” on Litkicks and the ensuing comments for a taste of what the advertising landscape is like for small culture-focused sites.) And so Amazon can provide a business model, or at least an element of one. At its simplest, the model is as follows: get a lot of traffic by writing compelling content and then throw in the occasional Amazon link when applicable. In this way, Amazon’s Associates Program has helped breathe life into thousands of websites. Eclectic, mom-and-pop publications get a shot at making some money in a fairly unobtrusive fashion. And those publications, adapting to the altered terrain, allow Amazon to expand its presence across the Internet.In theory, a variation of this model could be pursued by all manner of sites. With their broad focus and high traffic, newspaper websites are decent but not ideal venues for advertisers. Were it not so likely to give their omsbudsmen coronaries, newspapers might be willing to augment their advertising revenues with “affiliation,” and dire economic times may yet force their hands. Indeed, The Times (UK) includes a link to “buy the book” with every review, and operates its very own online bookstore.III.Despite all of the above, our partnership with Amazon is an ad hoc one, and the interests of Amazon and its Associates aren’t always aligned. We’ve been doing this long enough to know that Amazon isn’t the only game in town. We’ve been asked more than a few times why we don’t link instead to big independent bookstore Powell’s or to the smaller independents now collectively represented by IndieBound – those sites having been deemed more palatable by some.There’s no reason to dismiss those options out of hand, but right now an Amazon affiliation makes the most sense for many sites offering book coverage. There are several reasons for this, and we share them here – maybe to some small degree to justify our choice, but also to offer a roadmap that current or future players might follow in order to compete with the Amazon juggernaut.For starters, viewed purely as a database, Amazon is a remarkable resource. It has innovated tremendously in this area over the years and currently offers by far the best book pages out there. To borrow an example from the previous post in this series, take a look at Amazon’s page for 2666 and find “search inside the book,” outside reviews, book recommendations, all manner of meta-data, and vibrant discussion among and opinions from readers. Powell’s offers some of these features (including, in some cases, book scans from Google Books), but not quite all. IndieBound has not much at all in the way of book information. When it is suggested that we link to an “indie” when we link to books, the implication is that The Millions is a shopping site and that we can by our linking policy direct people where to shop. But the reality is that The Millions, like many sites that affiliate with Amazon, has an editorial rather than an “advertorial” mission, and one reason we link to Amazon is because it offers the most information about the books we write about, whether we recommend them or deplore them. As long-time blogger Matthew Cheney put it recently, “I want a link to give you the most information and options with the fewest clicks.”There are several more practical factors. Amazon’s tools, reports, and ease of linking are superior to those offered by other stores, and Amazon has a long enough track record that affiliates have little concern that those links may one day stop working properly. Without delving into the boring details, let’s just say that creating the book links for The Millions is not an effortless task, and that the ecosystem of tools that has grown up around the Amazon program lets us spend more time on the stuff our readers care about – namely writing about books. More importantly, other outfits simply don’t have Amazon’s track record in providing an affiliate program. Site owners participating in such programs have to feel comfortable knowing that their links are tracking properly, that the accounting is occurring properly, and that the program won’t change or even disappear. While Amazon isn’t perfect in this regard, it is the affiliation many sites are right now most comfortable using.While indie bookstores are typically seen as being at odds with Amazon, many do business with it. In fact, your favorite used bookstore is almost guaranteed to be selling books using Amazon’s platform. Amazon’s platform, particularly since its purchase of abebooks.com last year, is an essential tool for used booksellers. Authors and publishers may not like how easy it is for Amazon shoppers to click and buy a used copy over a new one, but from the standpoint of bookstores, Amazon gives thousands of local shops a global reach. Money-conscious readers, meanwhile, nearly always have cheaper, used copies to chose from. I don’t buy books all that often from Amazon, but sometimes when I do, I’ll opt for a used copy, and it can be startling to see the book arrive with a bookmark or a card bearing the info of the far flung shop that sold me the book. It’s a tiny personal connection facilitated by the giant Amazon.Both Amazon’s affiliates and used book vendors share the customer conviction that has given Amazon its formidable market share. Over the years, for The Millions and other website projects, I’ve done a great deal of research about different online business models, and, as far as affiliate programs go, the general consensus is that Amazon “converts” at the highest rate – that is, thanks to Amazon’s brand recognition and widespread familiarity with how to use and navigate the site, readers are more likely to buy from it than from other sites. This point is a purely monetary consideration, sure, but it also addresses something else that concerns purveyors of online book coverage. We want to get more books into more peoples’ hands – wherever they buy them from – and linking to Amazon seems likely to do that.While indie bookstores might someday soon surpass Amazon on many of the above points, there is a final element of the Amazon program that will be difficult for the indies to match. When you click from an affiliate site to Amazon and buy something, the affiliate gets a commission (with a few exceptions) no matter what it is. If someone clicks on a link to 2666 and in wending his way through Amazon, ends up buying a $1,700 grill, The Millions gets a commission on that grill. As you can imagine, this doesn’t happen very often. However, the open secret of literature and culture sites that get a modest amount of traffic is that the commissions earned on books alone are not all that impressive (though for sites that earn commissions on a lot of book sales, they can add up). Instead it is the big ticket items that sometimes get bought that help make Amazon’s program more worthwhile than others from a financial standpoint. The grills pay the bills. This is another gray area in an a revenue discussion that is sometimes portrayed in black and white. Amazon sells books at prices that undercut many small players in order to draw people in who will buy big-ticket items with bigger profit margins. For many people, the discussion ends there, but the truth is that the commissions on those big ticket items help subsidize the very same literary and cultural coverage that is having so much trouble finding a workable business model in newspapers and other traditional media. Amazon in some small way, and likely not intentionally, is helping to fund small online publications like The Millions. And there are other well-respected book sites that seem to have come to the same conclusions that we have.IV.In the end, the Amazon question is not one of pricing or sourcing, but one of financial viability. If the future of book coverage is truly online, profit expectations will have to be low (were they ever anything else?), but a world in which writers and editors can be compensated for their labor is a better one for readers. There aren’t many meaningful revenue options for book sites, and some do without entirely, but Amazon offers a model that can go a long way toward supporting a small publication.That said, affiliation raises two problems. One is the potential editorial conflict inherent in affiliate programs in the first place, the notion that the presence of these links will tempt writers and editors into becoming shills rather than dispassionate critics. Despite this, participation in affiliate programs hasn’t been met with much concern. And though these programs are sometimes described as a threat to readers, in an online marketplace with thousands of places to read about books, it’s unlikely that disingenuously positive book reviews written just to sell books would garner much of a following, nor would the effort make anyone very rich.The other, bigger problem with Amazon is one of size and control. Is it a good thing for us to give more power to this behemoth link by link, post by post? This will be the focus of the final installment of this series, as we examine Amazon’s heft and how it has been able to make its own rules in an emerging market – rules that could have big implications for publishing and the future of book coverage online.Part 1: Garth looks at the death of the newspaper book review section.Part 3: Max hazards some early guesses about the next possible upheaval in the economy of literary journalism.[Image credits: Rachel Kramer Bussel, spcbrass, mccun934]
Several months ago, The New York Times published an essay about a 36-question interview devised to make strangers fall in love. The questions presented here are designed with a more modest goal: to have an interesting conversation about books. But, be warned: if you talk about literature with someone for two hours, there’s a chance you’ll become a lot closer.
1. What was your favorite book as a child?
2. What’s the last really good book you read?
3. Do you prefer fiction or nonfiction? Why?
4. Do you finish every book that you start? If you don’t, how do you decide when to stop reading?
5. List your 10 favorite books in four minutes or less. Write it down because you’ll revisit it at the end.
6. Do you reread books? Which ones?
7. Do you read poetry? Why or why not?
8. Do you remember the first “grown-up” book you read?
9. Are there any authors whose work you have read completely?
10. How often do you read books that are more than 100 years old?
11. Is there a type (or types) of book you never read?
12. How do you choose what to read?
13. What’s more important to you: the way a book is written, or what the book is about?
14. What author, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?
15. If you could hang out with a literary character for the day, who would it be?
16. If you could be a literary character, who would it be?
17. Have you ever written a fan letter to an author?
18. Is there any book that, if I professed to love it, you would be turned off? Is there any book that would impress you in particular?
19. Is there a book you feel embarrassed about liking?
20. Are there books you feel proud of liking or having finished?
21. Have you ever lied about having read a book?
22. Do you keep track of the books you read?
23. How do you form opinions about what you read?
24. What authors do you think are overrated? Underrated?
25. Do you ever read self-help books?
26. What’s a book that shocked you?
27. If you could force every person you know to read one book, what would it be?
28. What book would you recommend to me in particular?
29. What books/authors have you been meaning to read for years? Why haven’t you read them yet?
30. What kind of book do you consider “a guilty pleasure?”
31. Has a book ever changed your mind about something?
32. If you were terminally ill, what book or books would you read?
33. Do you have any passages of poetry or prose committed to memory? Can you recite something to me?
34. If you could change anything about the way you read, what would it be?
35. Was there any time in your life when you felt as if a book guided you in a profound way?
36. Return to the list you made at the beginning. What titles, if any, would you change after our conversation?
Image Credit: Flickr/schnappischnap
Shortly after I turned in my new novel, The Stager, my editor sent me a startling black and white photograph of a woman in a chair. The woman is in a state of graceful repose, with long legs extending into strappy black shoes. She is sultry, sexy, and extremely unsettling. She appears to be beautiful even though you cannot see her face because she is wearing a mask. The art director was suggesting updating this image to use as the cover of the book.
It was apparently an iconic Bauhaus photograph. I could toss the word Bauhaus around as well as the next person, but to be honest, I didn’t really know what it meant, apart from having something to do with Germany and a slim treatise on architecture by Tom Wolfe. That Bauhaus might also involve Jungian images of women in chairs was surprising; more puzzling was what this had to do with my novel — a dark comedy about home staging set in suburban Maryland. But to be honest, I didn’t really care. I loved this photograph in all its weirdness and, more to the point, I was just relieved that no one was proposing slapping on my novel the image of a woman holding a briefcase, a baby, or a mop.
The updated image that was created for the book jacket hewed closely to the original, but now that it was infused with color and light, not to mention the comical silhouette of the belligerent rabbit who plays a central role in the book, the cover seemed more playful than spooky — or so I thought. Not everyone I showed it to agreed; my agent reported that the British publishers thought the cover was “too S&M,” for example.
Still, the more I studied it, the more I could see a perfect symmetry with the narrative. At the center of the novel is a home stager whose job involves coming into a house to strip it of personality, to depersonalize it so that others can see themselves living there — to mask the interior. The home stager, as it happens, is masked, herself. She’s incognito in the home of her former best friend, about whom she knows secrets. And the home is full of symbolic totems from their past. Masks and more masks.
While I was in high gear connecting the dots on all the mask symbolism, a friend looked at the photograph and became nearly apoplectic when he saw the chair the woman was sitting in. It’s a Wassily, he explained. “The most disturbing chair in the world, next to the electric.” With its black leather straps in place of cushions, not only is its appearance formidable, but it is evidently quite uncomfortable. Sitting in it feels like having a broomstick shoved up a certain part of the anatomy, or so I was informed.
I had never heard of a Wassily chair. I take pride in my house and I care about my surroundings, but my own sensibility leans decidedly toward the Anthropologie catalogue with a little Pottery Barn mixed in, which is to say that there is no rigorous intellectual underpinning to the way I have put together my home. Also, modern furniture has no place in my design lexicon, so the chair on the cover barely caught my eye.
A little research turned up the following: made of tubular steel and inspired by the construct of a bicycle, the chair was originally called the model B3. It was designed by Marcel Breuer in the mid-1920s, when he was the head of the cabinet-making workshop at the Bauhaus. The painter Wassily Kandinsky evidently admired it, and Breuer made a copy for his quarters. Years later, when it was reproduced in mass quantities, it was named the Wassily.
The chair needed to go in the book, my friend said. But I was unconvinced; the Wassily does not belong in the shabby chic faux Tudor mansion where the story is set. Besides, by this point I had already been sent the copy-edited proofs. Adding the chair was going to require a fair amount of work on a project I had psychologically declared finished. But my friend persisted; the chair was on the cover for a reason, he said, and the next thing I knew I had a stack of furniture books on my desk and was reading From Bauhaus to Our House and a doorstop called 1,000 Chairs.
The chair inserted itself rather easily, despite my resistance. One of my characters is a Swedish tennis pro who, now that he is no longer on the circuit, has developed a shopping addiction. It turns out that he acquired this chair on eBay, and that it had once been owned by three-time Wimbledon champ Boris Yablonsky. This felt like one of the most natural sentences I’d written in my life. The chair was out of place in this house, facing the wall in the living room like a forlorn child sent to the corner for misbehaving. The owner of the chair did not belong in this house, either, as it happened. He was going quietly insane, strung out on an alphabet soup of prescription drugs which were causing even crazier side-effects. By the time I finished the final page proofs, the chair had wormed its way not only into the final scene, but was referenced on page one.
The more I bonded with this chair, the more I wanted to know about both Bauhaus and the original photograph. A little research turned up the fact that the woman behind the mask is either Ise Gropius, wife of Walter Gropius, founder and leader of the Bauhaus school of modern architectural design, (who later served as chairman of the Harvard Graduate School of design) or Lis Beyer, a Bauhaus student. The fact that no one — not even, evidently, the curator of an exhibit at MOMA, where this photograph appeared in 2009 — could definitively identify this woman was its own form of intrigue, and a puzzle I might explore further, perhaps even with an eye toward my next book.
Life inspires art and art inspires life and truth is stranger than fiction. Add to this: art inspires fiction, and fiction inspires art. And let’s raise a glass to art directors whose visions inform the books, themselves.