When the fall W.W. Norton catalog arrived a few months ago, we were intrigued enough by the cover art for Hammer: A Novel of the Victorian Underground to peruse the description and decide we wanted to see what sort of story Sara Stockbridge had come up with for her debut. Who was this woman with all the jewelry and trinkets? What was that man whispering in her ear? Why were those children standing in the background? So we put in a request, and when the ARC came, there was a note attached saying the cover would change, which we didn’t think about any further until a finished copy showed up last week—and not only had Norton replaced the illustration with a photo montage, they’d gone and changed the name of the book to Grace Hammer.
What we had seen in the catalog was the cover used for the original British edition, published last year by Chatto & Windus, Jill Bialosky explained to us yesterday afternoon. Bialosky had seen that cover shortly after she acquired the book for Norton; “I was intrigued by it,” she said. “It was a very different approach than what we had been considering.” The character of Grace Hammer and the group of young pickpockets she’d gathered around her in 1880s London was one of the primary attractions of the novel for Bialosky and her colleagues, and they were drawn (no pun intended) to the way the British cover art brought those elements forward.
The initial reactions from American booksellers, however, were not enthusiastic, and Norton began to reconsider whether the original art was best suited to reach the readership they were after. Bialosky thought back to another of her authors, the late Michael Cox, and the way the covers for The Meaning of Night and The Glass of Time had used visual elements to convey an aura of Victorian-era mystery and suspense; after designer Greg Mollica combined images of a street and a woman in 19th-century clothing, Norton took another look at the title—”it seemed to us that we should soften the title,” Bialosky concluded, “that Hammer seemed a little too severe.”
And thus Grace Hammer was sent out into the world.
Personally, we preferred the UK cover for the directness and specificity of its imagery; here was a novel that was practically staring us down, daring us to read it. The new American art, in contrast, struck us as too ambiguous, perhaps even generic. But, we reflected, this was the second time this week we’d been charmed by British book design; maybe we were simply living in the wrong marketplace? At any rate, it was worth remembering that the American book industry didn’t revolve around our tastes, and that what we see as “generic” might strike others as “comfortably familiar.”
“We really do think about covers quite a bit, especially for fiction,” Bialosky told us. “It often turns out to be one of our best advertising tools.” So, yes, we thought, if one is trying to advertise the unknown, such as a debut novel, it may very well make more sense to underscore the similarities to the recognizable: You like Michael Cox; this novel looks like the Michael Cox novel; ergo, you might like this book. The cover that struck as bold and provocative might, in turn, turn out to be too original for its own good.
So what do you think?