Thursday, July 28, 2011

Judging By the Cover: Chris Cleave's LITTLE BEE

The cover of Chris Cleave's novel Little Bee is an excellent example of successful, targeted book marketing. I picked this book up at the airport a few months ago, on my way home from an incredible, but very exhausting trip in California. I was pretty sure I would zone out and watch an in-flight movie--in fact, I was looking forward to letting my brain slow down and melt into a media-engorged puddle.

I wasn't in the mood to read. Responsible budgeting dictated that I did not have enough funds to support another book purchase.

But there it was. Bright and coyly insistent, this tangerine cover and its whimsical silhouette smiled me a welcome hello!
It was magnetic--I couldn't help but pick it up.

The contrast of the silhouette, its curling strands of hair whirling against a citrus background is striking; the loose, calligraphic font carries a whimsical note, but has a melancholic quality that evokes some of the unsettling thematic elements of the novel. The superimposed negative (white) silhouette on the eye is charming but strangely abrupt. It's a Laura Secord white chocolate sweetly creating a void, a deadening of the human gaze.

The two silhouettes are at play, but the interplay is tension wrought and uncomfortably stirring; it's a play on the typical cameo pin that features an aristocratic head--a lovely Englishwoman with a long sloping neck, hair piled in wispy curls. Here, the dominating cameo is of a little Nigerian girl, her upturned chin evoking a steady, unrelenting focus, a restrained elegance and confidence that gives her weight and purpose. What's more, this cover image/design carries the weight of the story itself: a Nigerian refugee girl lands in the UK with nothing and collides with a white, British woman who seems to have everything. They share a life-threatening secret that binds them together in ways they did not imagine.

Astutely, the cover image connects with the first line of the book, invoking the cameo of the Queen on British currency: "Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming." Like a scientist observing his human experiment, the book marketer knows what we do when we're testing out a book, when we're weighing whether or not we should actually purchase it. We flip it over, read the back, then if our interest is piqued, we read the first page. Everything connects.

The back cover of my US paperback version of the book features one of the strangest, infuriating, and ultimately successful book summaries I've come across. The back cover acts as a pitch to the reader, expressing in 250 words or less, why you should throw down your money, and then invest your time to read this book.

I wouldn't even call what appears on the back cover of Little Bee a summary--it's marketing kitsch and I'll admit rather begrudgingly that it works:

"We don't want to tell you what happens in this book.
It is a truly Special Story and we don't want to spoil it.
Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it, so we will just say this:

This is a story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face. Two years later, they meet again--and the story starts there...

Once you have read it, you'll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds."

Okay, seriously, I know. You don't have to say it. It's overkill. It's cheesy. It plays like a melodramatic voice-over prying at our dormant human emotions. It's so blatant in its attempt to get you interested, that it can be off putting. It's purposely vague, hideously peppered with cliches, yet it appeals to this basic desire in all of us to feel something, anything. In fact, it promises to deliver exactly what we want: a guaranteed good read.

This back cover gives me little to no information on what the story is about--all I know is that there's two women (two women!!! Automatic tension!), there's some sort of terrible choice (what could it possibly be???), and that when these two women meet, an amazing story unfolds. So amazing, that the book cover is written in second person--it speaks directly to me. It orders me not to reveal what happens in the book to my friends. The book is so amazing that I'll want to run out and tell everyone everything about it, plot details and all--but I shouldn't. Why? Because it's just too amazing. It would be like forcing your friend to watch the final Harry Potter movie when they haven't read/watched any of the previous books/movies.* Don't ruin it. We're in this together.

Chris Cleave's own description of his book is far better than the one they slapped on the back of the paperback, but would it have been as effective?

His narration is compelling, informative, more in tune with the themes in the book; I actually know what to expect. I'm interested and willing.

But I also consider the reach of this book--it's a #1 New York Times Bestseller--and I think part of what contributes to that success is the buzz that surrounds the book (the part of us that nudges, 'bestseller? it must be good!') and the way in which people are invited to read it. Tell someone you read a book about refugees and immigration issues and you're not going to garner interest across a wide demographic spectrum. People who already have a specific interest in the topic might ask you for more, but the reach is very limited.

It's not that people don't care about immigration issues and refugees, it's that their interest has to be accessed through a platform they understand. If you tell someone you read a book about two women who are bound together by a terrible choice, you're appealing to a curiosity that exists across boundaries and borders.
People are connected by the same hopes, fears, and desires, regardless of what demographic they fit into. Appeal to those seemingly generic themes and you make powerful connections that sell a lot of books.

And just like that, I've got another book in my suitcase.

Look for my reflection on Little Bee in the coming weeks.

Cover design: Jill Putorti

Image sources: Little Bee cover from Chris Cleave's website; cameo from Timpsonwiki.

* I only read the first HP book....and then, of my own volition, went with a friend to watch the very last installment of the films.

1 comment:

  1. From Meredith via Facebook:

    Interesting analysis of the book cover, Shoilee! And I always appreciate extra pictures of cameos (you must have a very good memory!). I think you're right that the blurb on the back of the cover represents excellent, if slightly, marketing--after all, the suggestion of a "secret" shared between two women is rather vaguely suggestive of both the mystery and sensationalist genres--both kinds that readers are well-equipped to deal with (also, the chick lit semi-serious memoir genre, which is what a cover like this recalls to me--its starkness and large title is reminiscient of the kind of covers one sees on, say, "Eat Pray Love"). Where the marketing department succeeds, by avoiding the mention of immigrant or refugee on the back cover, is that both those experiences are pretty alien to the majority of the English-speaking generation...or perhaps "alien" isn't the right word: while everyone either knows or is an immigrant or refugee, there are a limited number of ways our society teaches us to react to them: you're supposed to praise (and sometimes help) hardworkers/people with tough backgrounds, which can induce an awkward case of survivor's guilt in many denizens of the first world (or alternatively, a la Fox news, you're supposed to figure out/resent immigrants--I don't think that's at play in how you've represented this book, though). Either way, reacting to a story of immigration more often creates a mode of sympathy, rather than the empathy one needs to be a successful reader. The back-cover blurb successfully avoids either reaction by re-casting the story as mystery (memoir-iffic cover art notwithstanding), thus making the book appear approachable while the stark cover image foreshadows a "serious" memoire-type tale.