On… judging a book by its cover…

Literary lunches can be strange events. You can turn up and find yourself eyed up by four people and a dog, eat a curly-edged sandwich or two, and sit plaintively, pen primed, at a table of un-bought books, as the guests slink embarrassedly away. Or you can, as I have just done today, find yourself at the kind of supremely well-organised event, with the kind of receptive, attentive audience that are a company-starved author’s dream.

Readers, I sold 100 books today. And I ate a delicious lunch of smoked salmon and new potatoes. And I spoke to an audience of 100 paying guests who asked questions and laughed in the right places. This, in Lit Lunch terms, is like winning the Premier League, Grand National and Pop Idol all in one.

Having had one of those dispiriting weeks, pitted with gloom and disaster, which ALWAYS seem to come in February, today filled my little heart with joy. While signing books (pausing only to swoon surreptitiously with pleasure at the lengthy queue) I took the opportunity to ask some of the good ladies of Hartley Wintney what they thought of the new Silver Bay jacket. (It’s the one on the right. The left-hand one is the hardback version.)

Whereas the rest of the re-jacketed backlist met with general approval, Silver Bay elicited a polarised response. Those for said it was “beautiful”, “compelling”, “intriguing”. Those against said it was “cold”, “ghostly” and “too dark”. I had loved the image, as had the publishers, but several people commented that it did not reflect the book’s contents.

In a world where bookshops are bursting with fictional offerings, and shelf-space is hard-won, these are words to strike fear into an author’s heart. Because readers *do* judge a book by its cover, and unless you are a “brand”, or one of Richard and Judy’s chosen, that one image is likely to determine thousands, or tens of thousands of sales.

So the question we face is: can you afford to risk alienating half your potential readers? Or does this approach doom us to generic, water-colour images and copycat covers for ever? Please do let me know.

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