Friday, October 16, 2009

The Invisible Author

Russel D McLean

I read something fairly radical (well, as radical as things can get in publishing – sometimes its just thinking about things in a way that goes against tradition) the other day that got me thinking. It was a throwaway comment on the blog of John Rickards. John is about to start a new phase of his career under the name Sean Cregan; it’s a reinvention, a whole new angle on his writing (from what I understand – I haven’t read the book yet).

But when he posted his cover – marvellous looking as it was (if the book’s half as fine it will be worthwhile, I reckon) – I was intrigued by the comment below from Kevin Wignall (another writer you should seek out immediately):

I think there’s an argument for not having the author on the cover at all. Why? People looking for the book will spot “The Levels”. Casual browsers will see a cool cover and wonder who it’s by. They’ll have to pick it up to find out and getting them to pick it up is half the battle.

Extrapolating* from this, I could see the argument for having (for example) “A Rebus novel” in big print but still not having Rankin’s name so prominent. And it would also take the onus of the current “author as celebrity” thing and allow readers to select books based on whether or not they believe it would entertain them. And yes, as an author, I can see that it’s a blow to the ego not to have your name on there, but what I’m saying is that there is often far too much attention paid to the author as brand when, we should always remember: its about the story, stupid. People joke about Dan Brown just copying down the phone book and it would sell, but the way that we have set up the current system that could possibly happen because the focus has gone off the book and onto the author. And maybe I’m naive or just remarkably ego free, but I would rather people just enjoyed the damn books.

I imagine it might also free up many authors creatively – allow writers to spread their wings more often rather than try and further their “brand”. And perhaps it would free up the reader, too. Rather than relying on branding, they would be reliant on genuinely considering the book based on synopsis, perhaps even the first few pages.

Now I’m not proposing that we take the author’s name away entirely. That would be stupid. They have, after all, put the bulk of the work into the novel. But is the author’s name really so important as we think? Does it need to be so prominent?** After all, so many readers read one book by an author that doesn’t appeal to them and say, “Well, I’m never reading them again”*** whereas by taking the focus off the author and on the title and the book itself, we are inviting those readers to return when the author writes a different book that might appeal more. The branding in this case could be working against the author rather than for them. And I’m sorry, but even my writing heroes have written one or two books I didn’t quite get

Looking at my shelves, I see movies with simply the title on the sleeve (occasionally the star or the director, too, but only the most bankable names and very rarely). On book spines, I see DEAVER is huge capitals and the title in tiny lettering. Same with BATEMAN, BILLNGHAM, MACBRIDE, KING etc etc. The brand of the author overwhelms the autonomy of the book as an entertainment entity in and of its own right. Why would I pick up movies just from the title and cover art, and books because of the author? They are both doing the same job: storytelling. The medium, yes, is different, but ultimately there is not so much difference as some people are keen to make out. It’s all narrative storytelling. Like visual artists arguing over oil paintings and sculptures as the “purer” medium in which to work.

I don’t claim to have all the answers – in fact I suspect there are probably a number of reasons why I’m wrong – but I wonder what would happen if we took the ludicrously large author brands off books, focussed on titles and plot hooks and arranged books by title and not author. In particular, I wonder if it might help newer authors establish themselves (and their books) rather than the patently silly practice that is currently ongoing where, if we put a debut author’s name large enough on the cover we might fool people into thinking they’ve been around for years and are therefore very important.

I don’t know that it would work, but I think its something worth discussing, and it strikes me there might be a number of arguments in favour of detracting from the author and focussing on the book itself when it comes to packaging and covers. It would probably mean an overhaul of the way bookshops work – could you imagine searching by title and/or series? – which means that I doubt it will happen or become practical, but its food for thought in an age where we really want people to start picking up books and thinking of them as equal to other forms of entertainment that occasionally seem to take consumer’s cash with far greater ease.

*See, I learned a couple of big words doing philosophy after all!
** I like that on the cover of THE LOST SISTER, while my name as author is clear, it really is the title that grabs your attention.
***And yes, it happens. I’m sorry. But readers are fickle creatures.


Declan Burke said...

" ... if we put a debut author’s name large enough on the cover we might fool people into thinking they’ve been around for years and are therefore very important."

Hah! Nice idea, I like it ...

Good post, and I agree in principle with reducing the size of type when it comes to an author's name. A movie or DVD, though, isn't a singular piece of work in the way a book is - the lazy cult of the auteur has people labeling movies as being 'by' a particular director, say, but I wouldn't fancy trying to direct a movie without any script, actors, sound engineers or cameramen. Or someone to make the coffee.

Back to book covers - what's the deal with strap-lines? A tacit admission that the book's title is crap? And why only on genre novels, and not literary novels?

Cheers, Dec

John R said...

Taglines/straplines/whatever the hell they're called don't bother me much, cheesy as they are, in part because movies generally have them too and I'm enough of a kid to think that makes it "right" for a storytelling medium. (Never get them in comics, though. Hmm...)

At least we only have those in these parts and haven't yet adopted the peculiar American tendency to put "A NOVEL" in text beneath the title, presumably in case the prospective customer might think it's "A SLAB OF CHEESE" or "A BRONTOSAURUS". That bugs me more than it has any right to.

Scott D. Parker said...

Here's what gets me: the idea that I want to publish a book just to see my name on the cover. I don't care. Sure, it'd be nice but I want the career. If I have to have a writing career with a pen name, so be it. If people buy my books without my name on the cover, good enough for me.