In which The Author doesn’t judge a book by its cover
Geoff E. and I have had an exchange of silly emails this afternoon (not for the first time) with regards to our Street Names Project. I’ve already suggested a title, which I modestly think is catchy and quite clever, being constructed around a pun on a well-known phrase.
Last night I also dreamt up a subtitle, giving a little more information as to what the book involves. I think they work nicely together, and most people I’ve talked to agree with me. I think, after two decades in the business, I’ve got an eye and an ear for a snappy title, after all.
I decided to run the subtitle past Geoff this afternoon. He emailed me back, suggesting ‘Right Up Your Street’ as a possible alternative. Now I could be wrong, but I’ve got a feeling that particular phrase has been done to death by publishers over the years, especially when it comes to local history books like ours.
It’s only when you’ve experienced the joys of microfiche data storage that you realise how important titles become in the book industry. When you’re faced with literally several dozen textbooks called Calculus With Analytic Geometry, Principles of Marketing or Introduction to Anatomy and Physiology, you have no idea how refreshing it is when a publisher manages to come up with something different and memorable.
It doesn’t happen very often, mind you. I still remember a textbook on maths for science students with the marvellous title Consider a Spherical Cow. That was one of the few which really stuck in people’s minds. On the whole, though, the titles were as pedestrian and dry as the subject matter seemed to be.
That’s where the jackets came into their own. One of the classic imaginative covers was on the back of Molecular Biology of the Cell, by Bruce Alberts, Dennis Bray, Julian Lewis, Martin Raff, Keith Roberts and James D. Watson (3rd edn., Garland Press, 1994.) The first time I saw this book I really couldn’t believe my eyes. The front cover, a stylised picture of a cell, wasn’t anything special. Then I turned it over and saw this…
I think I’m right in saying that the guy in the hat is James D. Watson himself. Yes – that James D. Watson, he who shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins for elucidating the structure of DNA. Having read The Double Helix, his own account of their breakthrough in 1953, I wouldn’t mind betting the cover shot was his idea.
In the subsequent editions, and also with the cooked-down version called Essential Cell Biology, Alberts et al continued to explore this theme. The back covers display a pleasing joie de vivre which seems to characterise the current generation of scientists. Try these for size:
I have to confess that I totally missed the point of this last one – until I found a web forum pointing out the meaning of the semaphore. Apparently the top row spells out GTCA, and the bottom row is the complementary sequence CAGT. It’s a nice in-joke referring to the four nucleic acid bases (Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine and Thymine) which, when paired up like this, make up the DNA double helix.
Even if you’re not interested in science, you have to admit that this is extremely witty and clever stuff. It’s the biological equivalent of the sort of nonsense which goes on at Caltech, as I revealed in The Big Bang Theory and Practice
At around the same time, Cavendish, the law publishers founded by my old pal Sonny Leong, were famous for their inventive covers (as well as their spectacular summer parties, one of which Sam H. and I attended many years ago!) One of the photos sticks in my mind even now: their criminal law textbook showed a woman’s handcuffed hands in close-up. For some unknown reason, the girls in work used to refer to that as my ‘favourite cover.’ Shortly afterwards, a textbook on criminology featured a woman’s arm handcuffed to some bars.
I mentioned those covers to Sonny when he called in one day. He told me that the design department and their resident photographer were entirely responsible for what went on the covers. Yeah, right…
Perhaps as an unconscious precursor to this post, Geoff himself sent me a famous old photo last weekend:
I emailed him straight back, to tell him that very picture once appeared on the cover of a US textbook called something like ‘Error Measurement and Analysis’. In fact, I borrowed the Advance Information sheet from Paul Richards, the International Thomson rep, so that I could photocopy it. I’ve still got it at home somewhere.
As well as the various editions of Alberts, and the disturbingly kinky images which periodically emanated from Sonny’s offices near Kings Cross, there were a few other books with memorable covers. One edition of Weiss’s statistics textbook, from the same stable as the error analysis book, featured (for no apparent reason) a large photograph of a purple lobster.
Another maths book, this time aimed at the 14-16 school market, had a collage of zebras and pencils on the cover. Because it was one of hundreds of books with a similar title (‘Modular Mathematics’, volume whatever!), we used to just call it ‘Zebras and Pencils’, and kept the ISBN on a handy piece of paper by the till in case anyone wanted a copy.
In conclusion, let’s return to the issue of books with similar titles.
Lisa S., who’d started working in Dillons at the same time as me, used to look after our Women’s Studies section. One of the perennial strong sellers was Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, a no-holds-barred exploration of women’s sexual fantasies. Lisa always made sure that we had a healthy stock of that title and its companions.
Unfortunately, at one point during her time there, she took a week off work. During that same week, a new book hit the shelves. It was a gardening book by the British actress Susan Hampshire. There are no prizes for guessing what the title was.
Lisa and I were at the desk upstairs when a very pleasant middle-aged lady came and asked Lisa for My Secret Garden. Without a second thought, Lisa dashed off to the Women’s Studies section and returned with Ms Friday’s book.
There was an understandable misunderstanding at the till for a minute. Eventually I realised what had happened. In a gap between customers I dashed over to the Gardening section, grabbed a copy of Ms Hampshire’s book, and said, ‘Excuse me, both, but I think this might actually be the one you’re after.’