We're told never to judge books by their covers. One book seller, Hodges Figgis, has gone so far as to do a limited edition line of parcelled up books under a sign saying 'Don't Judge a Book by its Cover.' However, the latest international publishing row proves just how much covers still matter to both publishers and readers.
There was considerable fuss when the new cover for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was unveiled last week featuring a dolled up little girl wrapped in pink mink. The publisher, Penguin Modern Classics, said the photograph was chosen for an adult market, to convey the darker side of the book. But some Roald Dahl fans were outraged by the new cover's apparent sexualising of childhood.
"Seriously, Penguin Books. Why not just get Rolf Harris to design the next one?" tweeted author Joanne Harris. "I'm not sure why adults need a different cover anyway, but who was it who decided that 'adult' meant 'inappropriately sexualised'?"
Good designers know all about walking the line between attracting, and repulsing people. Jacket design is a dark art and designers tend to stay behind the scenes, employing certain tricks and tactics.
One of Ireland's busiest designers, Graham Thew, goes through a detailed process before giving publishers three initial designs. His approach includes interviewing the publisher.
"I try to discern the unconscious nature of the book, its tone of voice and personality, to get under the skin to the beating heart of the writer," says Thew who designed covers for new editions of Dubliners (pictured) and Strumpet City.
"I get the publisher to fill out a questionnaire. Instead of asking about plot I ask if this book were a rock band, what would it be? Or what kind of high street store would it be? Or car, or animal, or TV show?" He'll do as many as 16 revisions to satisfy editors, sales directors and - the group with usually the least say - authors. He says a great cover should be offbeat while also taking account of mass market trends.
"Eighty per cent of book covers are dull or lazy," says Thew. "In popular fiction, you'll see pictures of women's or children's feet in pretty shoes. For thrillers you'll see a shadowy figure at the end of a dark street. Science fiction books are almost universally badly designed. Dodgy, airbrushed illustrations of half-naked women in spaceships."
These books sell because most book-buying is as conditioned as a supermarket shop, adds Thew. You want to buy chick lit - keep your eyes peeled for the kooky font. Thrillers? Where's that man in the hat.
Tastes are conservative, and people know the authors and genre they like. "There is a Pavlovian reflex. If you go into a freezer section you find those cheap nasty pizzas next to the Italian ham and goat's cheese ones," says Thew.
For books aimed at the more discerning segments of the market, a good designer will consider factors such as paper feel, typography, and colour tones. That's after the picture researchers have been briefed, the image banks raided and the graphics crafted using all the tricks of the trade.
An arresting cover is a powerful marketing weapon even for quite academic titles.
One of Dublin's oldest publishing houses, the Royal Irish Academy, believes its 2007 bestseller, Judging Dev (left) sold 30,000 copies partly because of the cover.
The Academy had hired their first in-house designer, Fidelma Slattery, as part of an image makeover from antique academic publisher to a modern publisher of general interest history.
"To make scholarship accessible to the public you need to be striking and catchy, and the jacket design has to reflect that," says the RIA's Pauric Dempsey. "The cover is a marketing tool. When you walk into a bookshop you are confronted with hundreds of titles. There is a magpie instinct."
For her part, the designer of Judging Dev went for a look that was very different to the standard academic title.
Instead of a traditional studio portrait she used a natural photograph of de Valera walking down Merrion Street, and recoloured it in pale pastel shades.
With a fedora hat, trench coat and satchel, the de Valera of the cover looks like a man of action with a mysterious quality.
"People thought it was a novel," she says. "It sold 1,000 copies a week in the first three months, its first print run, and scored three Irish book awards the following year. For a footnoted history book, that's off the Richter scale."
For now, though, Penguin is standing by its new look for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
"Sometimes you want to conform to readers' expectations, sometimes you want to go against the grain," said a spokesperson.
Meanwhile, Anthony Farrell from Lilliput Press says: "Cover designs are inherently of the moment, like fashion," he says. "But good novels can survive bad covers. In the Season of the Daisies, (above) by Tom Phelan, whose scary cover was adjudged terrible went to reprint."