How much do we judge a book by its cover? There have been plenty of great blog posts and articles about how incredible graphic design on book jackets has become… Sue Miller’s The Arsonist, the paperback redesign of Howard Jacobson’s J, Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum (the hardcover, NOT the horrible, horrible paperback) and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen all come to mind.
But for the purpose of this post, I’m not talking about a novel’s cover design… I’m talking about the cover itself. How much do we judge the format that a book comes in?
I ask because there’s something funny going on in publishing… new literary fiction that is going straight to paperback (I say new but, while researching this topic, the first article I found was from 2006, so clearly it’s not THAT new).
The book purist in me is always a little disappointed when a new novel that I loved or that piqued my interest is released directly to paperback. Christina Baker Kline (who’s hugely popular Orphan Train was actually released only in paperback) sagely points out this “direct to paperback” phrase reminds us of a far more dire cinematic parallel: the disappointing “direct to video.” Instant classics like American Psycho 2 or Leprechaun: Back to da Hood 2 teach us that this is no compliment.
But are the comparisons merited? Are titles released directly to paperback inferior in some way?
The short answer is of course not, just like books that are not published are not necessarily worse than some of the titles that get selected. In fact, I feel guilty for subconsciously associating the absence of a hardcover with an insinuation of decreased merit. Publishers overseas have long pushed the paperback release as an easy way to reduce overhead costs and reach different markets. In the past ten years, American divisions of the big publishing houses are finally catching up.
The truth is that when new fiction comes out in paperback, it creates an ideal environment for many different types of literary fiction. A book that is perceived as a great bookclub book might be released in paperback to immediately tap into that demographic. A first time novelist might be encouraged to forgo the hardcover in order to reduce the cost-risk and increase their name notoriety. It’s far easier for someone to take a risk on an unknown author’s paperback than an unwieldy and expensive hardcover.
So, the questions remains: are these books any good?
I accidentally read three paperback originals that were released in the past year, so I thought I would hold them up for comparison. Ultimately, I want to know if their paperback release tells me anything more substantial than that my bag was a little bit lighter for a few weeks. Is a paperback release an indication of merit?
Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser
What’s it about?
Glaser tells the story of the outrageous, outspoken, and undefeatable Paulina and her complicated friendship with fellow art student, Fran. Rather than a character study, this is a study of female relationships. Paulina and Fran exercise their sex appeal like preteens while engaging in imaginative emotional warfare like jaded divorcees. The first half of the novel takes place on a small, liberal arts campus and the second half takes place as the girls try to make their way after graduation. The style bears comparison to Jenny Offill’s masterpiece, Dept. of Speculation, but the subject matter is all urbane hipster. Plus, there’s this brilliant theme about curly hair that is equal parts smart, funny, and totally sentimental.
Did I like it?
Ultimately, I liked this book. It angered me at times for being a bit too cutting and witty, too full of its own self-knowledge. Yet even through my eye rolls, I kept turning pages. Glaser is a poet turned novelist and her writing sparkles clearly, with the skill of a writer on top of their craft. Not everything about Paulina and Fran is totally believable, but that’s okay. It works within the story. It’s like a fairy tale if the brothers Grimm has grown ironic mustaches and were helping the homeless as an art project. It has moments of transcendence couched in an at times preachy tale.
While I see why a paperback release was optioned for this novel, I don’t know if I totally agree. The audience for this novel isn’t the bookclub circuit; women beyond their 20s might not find enough to grab onto in this totally contemporary love/like story. Still, its price makes reading this a pretty risk-less endeavor. It’s worth the price just to see some of the brilliant ways that Glaser uses language and to meet two of the more complicated protagonists I have met this year. This book will disappear unless it finds its audience. So if it could have gotten a bit more press as a hardcover, it might have been worth it (and I don’t count this ridiculous hair care article masquerading as a book review as legitimate press, FYI).
The Art of Crash Landing by Melissa DeCarlo
Like Glaser, DeCarlo is also a first-time novelist. But her debut couldn’t be more different. Where Glaser’s debut is speculative, philosophical, and conceptual, DeCarlo’s is about as much fun as I’ve had reading a novel in quite some time.
What’s it about?
When we meet Mattie, she is 30, broke (and I really mean broke), homeless after unceremoniously leaving her jerk of a musician boyfriend, and, oh yeah, pretty confident she’s pregnant. From there, the story melts like ice cream, one event believably following the one before in a seamless flow that leads her back to her mother’s home town. Mattie is all guts and bad language as she fights to qualify for some money she might have inherited from a deceased grandmother she never met, but the story is a bittersweet eulogy to the mother she never really knew. Mattie is determined to discover what transformed her mother from a sparkling musical prodigy into the alcoholic, promiscuous part-time photographer she knew and, possibly, loved.
Did I like it?
Good God, yes. I had such a blast reading this novel! I was laughing out loud like Mattie and I were old friends. The mystery kept me ripping through pages as quickly as I could manage. However, DeCarlo is also a pretty darn good writer, so I kept having to turn back to read pages that I found myself accidentally skimming for developments in the mother’s story. There are times where things get a bit cheesy, but I really mean that in the best way possible. Maybe I just haven’t read enough fiction where good things actually happen to likeable characters! Plus, this novel has the honor of literally causing my jaw to drop when I discovered some dark histories that the town was hiding. I was going to quote a passage I liked from the book, but I accidentally sold all of them from the store. This is the book you get yourself after a long week of work. Trust me!
I assume this novel was pitched as paperback because DeCarlo is a first time writer and it’s certainly got a “ladies afternoon bookclub” option. But I think it works in paperback for so many more reasons! It’s light enough for travel. It’s a low risk to reward yourself with those cheesy highs. Plus, you’re going to read it in 48 hours so it’s not a wise hardcover investment. Overall, bravo Harper Collins, for a wise publishing choice! And congrats to DeCarlo for a fabulously enjoyable first novel!
Sister Golden Hair by Darcey Steinke
Darcey Steinke is absolutely NOT a debut novelist. With five novels already under her belt, her paperback release is a bit surprising. Steinke’s novel also has French flaps and deckle edging, which really just mean it’s a bit fancier!
What’s it about?
Steinke’s sixth novel centers on 12-year-old Jesse whose father has recently abandoned his ministry to pursue far groovier options becoming popular in the early 1970s like Zen Buddhism and Lucid Dreaming. The novel is split into six chapters that are each headed with a different character’s name, primarily women. Through Jesse’s interactions with these very different types of women (and one teenage boy), we see a girl grow through all the pain of getting older, both personal and adopted.
Did I like it?
I absolutely loved this novel. I had wanted to read it for quite some time just because it’s so in my wheelhouse (70s culture, adolescent girlhood, a dreamy sense of place… like Virgin Suicides without all the, well, suicide). But it far exceeded my expectations. Jesse is a believable, well-crafted character who is the right amounts of impervious and porous, just like every teenage girl. The novel reads like a series of vignettes that are all blanketed within distinct relationships of a young girl’s life. And isn’t that how we decide who to love? Through a seemingly random series of events and shared experiences? Steinke’s characters are superb, but Jesse’s wise perspective on girlhood left me floored.
Steinke was with Grove Press under Perseus for a while, where it seems like she was published hardcover. Now with her switch to Tin House Books under W.W.Norton, she’s been paperbacked. Steinke’s paperback publication underscores a lot of my overarching issues with direct to paperback. I probably got my hands on this book faster than I would have had it been hardcover simply because of the price difference. That being said, I think Steinke is an incredible writer and had I been introduced to her earlier, I certainly would purchase anything she did in hardcover. She deserved way more press for this book, which possibly she could have gotten with a hardcover publication.
Overall, it seems that we’re in the Wild West of the paperback world. While it makes so much sense to publish debut novelists without the difficult and costly hardcover print run, I worry that some really spectacular books aren’t getting the attention they deserve. But maybe not. After all, Elena Ferrante’s fourth novel in the Neapolitan Series which was published paperback in the US is doing pretty great.
Maybe the moral is to spend a few more minutes cruising the new in paperback section of your local bookstore. You might find some real gems that deserve a second look.