Paris-dwelling authors Adria J. Cimino and Vicki Lesage team up yet again, this time to explore the differences between American and French book covers.
From Adria J. Cimino, author of the novel Paris, Rue des Martyrs:
When I tell my American friends that, traditionally, French book covers look pretty much like this:
The reaction is: “Why? How can the reader possibly choose a book without a cover that sets the tone??”
Sure there are some French publishing houses and collections that feature illustrated covers similar to those found in the U.S., but they don’t represent an overwhelming majority.
As I looked at the sea of plain book covers at the recent Paris Book Fair, I knew there had to be a reason for packaging the written word in such a way. Covers in white, ecru, pale yellow or even red. Decorated only with the titles and names of authors and publishers.
So I decided to do a bit of research.
First stop: Les Editions de Minuit, a very selective publisher of literary fiction. This publisher’s novels have white covers, blue lettering and the house’s star logo as such:
“It’s a brand,” an Editions de Minuit spokeswoman said. “These covers make our novels recognizable by publishing house. Usually, a publishing house wants to set itself apart from the others.”
I immediately understood her point because I know that in many cases French readers say “I absolutely have to read the latest Editions de Minuit” as an American would say “I absolutely have to read the latest J.K. Rowling.”
Each publishing house is known for a certain type of book, such as literary fiction, general fiction or very commercial fiction. (In some cases, larger houses have many collections and each collection has covers with a specific color or bordering.) So if you are a French reader and love literary fiction, you probably would snap up books by Les Editions de Minuit. If you are a reader of general fiction, you might go for Gallimard books. Actes Sud is the publisher of Paul Auster in France… so if you’re an Auster fan, you might like other books from that publishing house.
Further clarification comes at a neighborhood bookshop on a small street near the Canal Saint-Martin. Maryline and Corinne, booksellers at Litote en Tete, explain that they rarely see French readers choosing a book by its cover.
“If they did, they probably wouldn’t be big readers,” said Maryline. “Those who read know the houses. We even teach that to small children.”
“We put our faith in the publishing houses,” said Corinne. “We recognize the writing, the authors and work of the editors behind it.”
And for those readers who want further guidance, booksellers are key, according to Les Editions de Minuit. “Their work is essential for us,” the spokeswoman said.
At Litote en Tete, Maryline said that she and her colleague do their best to read as many books as possible so they can advise readers.
“People sometimes ask us to tell them the whole story,” she said. “If they are bringing a book as a gift for someone in the hospital, they ask us to choose something with no mention of diseases, death or sad endings.”
French readers also rely on reviews in magazines or television shows featuring books and authors if they want to get a head start before they set foot in the bookshop.
But selecting a book in France is rarely a five-minute affair. It is much like everything else in the French culture: It is about taking one’s time and savoring an experience.
From Vicki Lesage, author of Confessions of a Paris Party Girl:
As an author, I always notice book covers, partly out of professional interest and partly out of curiosity. I imagine the work that went into it and guess why they made certain choices with images, font, etc. Click here to read more…
And for more on book covers, as well as our American in Paris stories: