Judging a book by its cover

Forget the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy when it comes to enticing book covers.

A necktie? Come on.

Handcuffs? Cli-shaaaaay!

Some Italianate mask last seen in “Eyes Wide Shut”? Really?

If you want a cover that will sell books, you have to look back to the paperbacks of the 1950s and ’60s.

Those pulps of fiction oozed sleaze out of their covers.

“Grey” pales to “Slum Virgin” by Richard Geis, whose cover of a voluptuous, dark-haired beauty in a Brigitte Bardot bikini looking longingly at a shirtless hunk tells us, “Another man to Gail was like slipping on another pair of shoes. She had decided from the beginning that Eddie’s fears would only make him an easier conquest.”

Shoes, indeed. Make that a size 12, she has big feet.

It was “The Baby-Sitter” by Vin Fields that said “buy this book” by presenting a bobbed-blonde in a knotted shirt exposing her ample nurse-maiden skills and short-shorts showing off her tanned lithe legs. Holding a couple of textbooks in her right hand is a nice touch, gives it that bad schoolgirl quality. (Think Britney Spears in her “…Baby One More Time” video.) And in case you didn’t get the picture as to the extracurricular pursuits of this bedroom-eyed babe, then read the type just below her hip: “She was jailbait … a teenage man-trap with a talent for trouble and a weakness for married men twice her age!!”

The ellipsis and double exclamation point said it all.

“Amateur Night” by Peggy Swenson gave us “The love story of a confirmed lesbian and a blonde nympho.” She was no run-of-the-mill lesbian, she was confirmed! (Unsure who handled such confirmations.)

Judging by the two women’s lack of attire, the cover appears to be the dressing room of a strip club. It must be break time because the brunette is sipping from a martini glass and the blonde is taking a draw on a cigarette. Protecting the blonde’s left nipple is a pastie that appears to be made out of medieval armor. Good luck getting through airport security with that, babe.

Sheba was the girl who would “sell anything if the price was right.”

Taking a page from “The Merchant of Venice,” author Orrie Hitt told us Sheba was “the candid story of a seductive salesgirl who traded on her charms – then had to pay her pound of flesh!”

On this cover, Sheba is a portrayed as a fiery redhead with cigarette in hand sitting on the railing of her brownstone casting a demure look at a man in a suit with a fedora fixing his necktie. Could this be her Shylock looking for his pound of flesh or two?

OK, I’ve been told by a female of the species looking over my shoulder that my coverage of book covers shouldn’t be so lascivious. Are there no other book covers from years past that are memorable? More memorable than the aforementioned?

My immediate answer is no.

Upon further reflection, my answer is … no.

I’m standing up for the salacious cover, not necessarily the best drawn or creative. These are the covers that sold books, marketing aiming at the basest of human behavior.

Today’s authors, and I use the term loosely to include the grammatically and language-challenged who populate e-books and self-published mélange une terrible, compete with millions of other storytellers. For point-of-purchase advantages you have to separate yourself.

In an apparent attempt to help the self-published to separate themselves from the rest, the British newspaper The Guardian posted a story in August 2012 titled, “Scent of a kitten: the 20 irrefutable theories of book cover design.”

Designers Jon Gray and Jamie Keenan offered up their thoughts on how to create a killer book cover. From “Turd theory” – more artsy fartsy than excremental as one might infer – to “Textual plasticity” – which just means dropping letters from the title and letting the readers fill in the blanks – Gray and Keenan just overthought the whole process.

As one who used to work in a bookstore, the books that sold well were either science fiction titles (Philip K. Dick, Philip José Farmer, Ray Bradbury) or the bodice rippers that cleaved to the cleavage canon and came with titles such as “Savage Surrender,” “Sweet Savage Love” or “Savage Ecstasy.” Colorful and bold always won out over just a typographical presentation, the one exception being perennial book leader, The Bible.

So if EL James wishes to continue her “Grey” stories and increase sales, she could learn from these covers and perhaps mix metaphors as well as in “Deadly Desire”: “She was only a bus stop pickup, but passion is a fickle flame.”

Indeed.

 

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