Sunday, December 16, 2007

Cover Me ... I’m Going In!

Editor’s note: Last week, The Rap Sheet hosted its first-ever “Book Covers of the Year” competition, submitting a shortlist of 10 crime-novel jackets to the judgment of our readers. We received a total of 553 votes, with the winning three covers receiving more than 80 votes apiece. As one of the trio who narrowed down an original list of 25 jackets to the more manageable 10 nominees, Kevin Burton Smith--a longtime January Magazine contributor and the creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site--took a special interest in the results. Below, he shares his thoughts about the selection process and its public aftermath.

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Well, the jury has spoken. Now it’s my turn ...

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Megan Abbott’s The Song Is You, and Lee Vance’s Restitution nabbed the top three spots, respectively.

And three of my personal faves made it into the top five spots, so I can’t really kick.

Going through the Web, looking for memorable covers, is a great way to kill off a cold afternoon. Although it wasn’t quite as easy to whittle down the list as you might suspect. Ultimately, the choice--like all art--was subjective. And yet, there was a rough consensus.

So, why did we pick these (and the 15 other runner-ups that you never had a chance to see)?

Because we liked them. Sure, we probably missed a few, but not as many as you might think. And actually, compared to most of the dreck that passes itself off as cover “art” these days, I don’t think we did too poorly. If there’s a common thread among the covers we did pick, it’s that they all boast a strong sense of composition, smart use of layout and design, and-- for lack of a better word--wit. All these jackets strive for a sort of visual simplicity, instead of the hard-sell, slapdash, NASCAR-style busyness so beloved of most publishers these days. Noticeably absent is the clutter of done-to-death stock photography and overbearing typography that have sunk many a decent recent cover.

A good book jacket should be simple enough in its composition to take you in at first glance, but smart enough to draw you back for a second (or third, or fourth) look.

All our finalists, I think, accomplished this.

Also worth noting is how many of these covers (including the three top vote-getters) owe something to earlier eras, both in their use of typography and illustration.

But I think Rap Sheet editor J. “Jeff” Kingston Pierce, January editor Linda L. Richards, and I were there to do more than simply reward familiarity and nostalgia. Had that been the case, my personal list might have consisted solely of Hard Case Crime covers. Don’t get me wrong--I love those covers (hell, check out the “covers” on Thrilling Detective, if you think otherwise), and if we were awarding a publisher with the most consistently cool book fronts, Hard Case would be a shoe-in.

And while I think the popularity of something like The Song Is You is in large part due to its deliberate nostalgic cachet, I would like to think that it rests at least as much on the indisputable strength of its illustration (by Richie Fahey).

I’d also like to believe that nobody based their choices on the books themselves--that just wouldn’t be fair, guys! This was a case where, for once, we were supposed to judge a book by its cover. In fact, when I saw Jeff’s first selections, before we began whittling down the list, I realized I’d only read a handful of the titles, and hadn’t even heard of some of them. But based on their covers, I’m planning on checking at least some of them out further. Which, theoretically, is what a good cover should make you do.

No, I think we were all looking for the inexplicable something that makes expected and even overused elements fresh and interesting again, something--be it an unanticipated juxtaposition or a well-executed or evocative bit of artistry--that takes that extra step and moves beyond mere pastiche or imitation. It’s the same difference, if you will, between a really good cover band and a really good rock band playing original material.

Not that covers bands are necessarily talentless, of course; I hear the Beatles eventually did OK for themselves. But you’ll note that they had to start writing their own stuff to do it.

Overall, though, this contest was fun. I hope Jeff does it again next year, and asks me to play.

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