My A-Z of Reading: J is for Jacket

November 25, 2016

Don’t judge a book by its cover…

Books didn’t use to have illustrated covers, or dust-jackets; in the early days they often didn’t have covers of any kind – you bought a block of pages sewn into book form, but had the binding done yourself, to match your library style and the size of your wallet. Then came the relatively utilitarian cloth cover; it took the revolutions in printing and binding technology of the early twentieth century to allow paperbacks to become a possibility.

The dust-jacket was originally very plain and utilitarian: it existed to keep the cloth binding of a book clean while it was on sale. You might keep it on the book once you’d bought it and got it home, or you might remove and dispose of it. The earliest paperbacks had dust-jackets, too – occasionally you come across very early Penguins secondhand with the dust jacket identical to the cover. But how to make your book stand out in the growing numbers of books on sale in the shop?

You can still see the basic style of book cover and jacket in French bookshops, where hardbacks rarely appear, and many – not all – newly-published novels appear in the same kind of plain, single coloured paper cover with title and author, just as they did half a century or a century ago. And people buy the books, devoid of picture, or colour on the cover. And German and French paperbacks look a good deal more sober than the garish piles stacked up in our booksellers.

Does any of this matter? Probably not. It’s good to have books that are attractive objects in themselves, a pleasure to look at and hold, as well as read. I wouldn’t say that a cover would attract me to buy a book I didn’t want to read, but, given the choice between two different editions of a classic text, say, or the UK and the US printing of a new novel, then the cover might sway my choice. But it is all about marketing, and it all adds, perhaps unnecessarily to the cost of a book.

Let’s use the Mars Bar test: when I was young, a Mars cost sixpence, and a standard paperback was either five or seven times the price of a Mars. With most new paperbacks in the UK heading for a tenner, how does that square up? And while I’m on, why are our paperbacks relatively more expensive than French or German ones, where they have to pay VAT on them as well? Once you start looking at the difference between A and B format paperbacks you start to get the impression we are being fleeced over here…

I’d settle for a bit of old-fashioned simplicity: what I buy a book for are the words it contains between its covers.


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