The conservative tastes of over-mighty retailers have resulted in generic jackets that say nothing about their contents

My first experience of Dan Rhodes’s fiction was a tatty collection of A4 pages held together by a bulldog clip. Without a book jacket there were no visual clues for me to judge the book, which in itself was a sort of liberation. When his latest arrived a few months back, on the other hand, all I could think about was the jacket.

Bruise-purple, etched with a spider web and featuring an illustration of a forbidding gentleman, it shouts the book’s influences loudly and boorishly. Love Tim Burton? Neil Gaiman? Roald Dahl? You’ll love this!

Thankfully the deft prose and mordant humour of Little Hands Clapping more than overshadows the proscriptive cover design. But I found the very specific positioning off-putting, especially as it gave an impression of the book (teenage, cartoonish) that, for me, coloured the reading experience. While this particular example is, of course, a matter of personal taste, it raises the question of reader expectation.

When browsing, we rely on a jacket’s visual clues to tell us what kind of book we’re looking at, and whether we are likely to enjoy it. The importance of this was debated at the Vintage Classics Day at Foyles bookshop last month, and the discussion, though lively and informative, described a depressingly familiar tale of sales over substance. Jonathan Ruppin, a bookseller at Foyles, put the problem in stark relief: on average, book buyers spend just 0.8 seconds looking at a jacket – a phenomenally short sales pitch. Getting it right is vital. The question is, who knows best?

The test case was the paperback of Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass. The initial design, with which editorial was happy, depicted a man’s checked shirt hanging next to a boy’s top on a washing line. It was a visual image that chimed perfectly with the book. But Vintage publisher Rachel Cugnoni flashed up a series of redesigns based on sales and marketing reaction, ultimately resulting in a jacket that, with an unmemorable, slightly twee image, made it look like any one of a thousand other books. “What is it with legs?” asked one audience member. “Every book seems to have someone’s legs on it these days.”

With such a small pool of national booksellers, retailers now wield excessive control over how books appear. Books long ago became product, and the say-so of just one or two buyers can change a jacket from one that an author and publisher loves, to a generic design for a mass-market appeal. Trezza Azzopardi’s Booker-shortlisted The Hiding Place, to give just one example, had two different jackets. One was exclusively designed for WH Smith to make it seem a rather whimsical tale of childhood, rather than the dark-hearted story it really is.

While one can understand the more commercial retailers wishing to stick to a tried and tested formula, I don’t believe this is helping writers or consumers. By packaging everything in the same colours, fonts and images, we lose differentiation. The message is that all these writers are pretty much interchangeable – even those that clearly aren’t.

Towards the end of the discussion, the Vintage creative director, Suzanne Dean, presented a slide showing the work of cover designers who had influenced her. The difference between the jackets we’d seen and those of Paul Rand and Alvin Lustig was striking. She pointed out one example in particular, a Georges Simenon novel designed by Dick Bruna of Miffy fame. It was nothing more than a yellow window on a black background but it managed to convey the menace and suspense of Simenon’s fictional world. “I’d never get away with that these days,” she said ruefully.

There are some superb designers and jackets out there, covers that need even less than 0.8 seconds for a book buyer to pick them up. But retailers’ natural conservatism will mean they always err on the side of the generic and there will never be any other answer to “We’ll take 20,000 copies but only if you change the cover” than yes. As book buyers, however, I think we want more than just reheated versions of past glories. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds