- Philippine book publishers always complain of dismal sales of their books. Even if the authors themselves are luminaries in the field of fiction and self-help and the contents of their works are capable of churning into another Noli or Fili, the turnover for books remains slow, which makes one wonder: why? Besides the fact that many Filipinos do not read local fiction (in book form) for the sheer pleasure of it, another factor that scares away potential readers is the very ugly and uninspired covers that adorn perhaps 95% of local books.
That poses a question: Who makes these very ugly covers? High school drop-outs? Elementary graduates? Three blind mice?
Lot A showed the local fiction while B showed works by Filipino authors published in the US. Which of the two would you get? If you ask me, I’d choose the American ones for its nice and decent covers. If you are already a well known author, no matter how crappy and cheesy your covers are, people will still buy them because they know you write really well. Authors like Agatha Christie, their books sell despite the ugly covers. Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner was being passed by customers inside bookstores because of its lackluster cover, but because of word of mouth as to how well-written his story was, customers buy the book and catapulted it to Amazon’s top 10 list.
However, here in the Philippines, having a name like Lualhati Bautista or Nick Joaquin will not automatically mean ka-ching of the cash registers. They have great stories that have been made into seminal movies, but ask anyone if they have read Dekada 70 or Tropical Gothic and they’ll give you the blank stare. Compounded with such patent ignorance is the crappiness of their covers and paper quality. Toilet paper has a better consistency than some of the Philippine publications I’ve seen. I know they are trying hard to keep costs down in order to reach to the masses, but the quality of the print is really a big insult to the masses. It shows this: poor quality for the poor masses.
There are also Filipino authors who, because of their popularity, can demand high-volume sales despite the ugliness of their covers. Such example is Bob Ong’s Libro ni Hudas- its front and back covers are soot-black with no endearing design whatsoever. Instead of connoting evil, it makes one think of a septic tank. Its paper quality is like coupon bond (the cheap type) and the binding has staple wires denoting the economy of its printing. And yet, teens and tweens lap up all Ong’s books including the recent release of his Stainless Longganisa. I bought one and I find it mediocre and self-flagellating. There are lucid moments of wittiness but the whole plot fell by the second half of the book. If not for the byword of its contents, I can not imagine how to retail such cra… umm… book. One the bright side, if this helps in making Pinoys read, then I’m all for it.
As for first-time writers and struggling fictionists, having a timely and snazzy cover can entice curious customers to buy your book. People look for eye-catching fiction and publishers know this. I’m just appalled at the sheer stupidity of local printers why they cannot revamp their already crappy covers. It is an injustice and an insult to the sweat and tears of the authors who toiled for months just to type all those words. And the hack graphic artist can only come up with a half-baked second-rate cover art? Shame. So, if your book does not fly off the shelves because it looked like a survivor from Somalia, then it is the publisher’s fault. Why their fault? Consider the fact that books do not have a promodizer (just like grocery items where agents swarm you to buy their products), are not being advertised in the main broadsheets or TV commercials, and do not have a megaphone to lure customers in, these lonely pieces of literature depend only on four factors to make customers buy them: 1) price, 2) book reviews, 3) word of mouth, 4) book cover. This means that nearly all of the tricks to make us buy fall on the responsibility of the publisher.
Without these, even a book-signing event can’t pull it through. Khaled Hosseini in one of his first book signing lamented that there was only one customer who wanted to have his autograph. This was before word-of-mouth made his book the darling of the publishing industry.
Also, I can't fathom why mediocrity is the dictum of the day for our graphic artists. I know there is no dearth of Filipino talent in the realm of arts and music, but looking at the annual crop of book covers make me cringe. If you exclude the crappy printing of local publishers, the art must stand on its own. A lousy uninspired art does not make readers want to open that book. Some might argue that printers want to economize on the ink, so they use only monochrome. Yet, many local book covers are printed in FULL color which means they have little reason to curtail on the artistic expression of a graphic artist. Hence, a crappy graphic artist can only make a crappy cover.
I still cannot fathom why American artists can churn up great book covers and not us. Read on the interview of Paul Buckley to learn about cover art and see the great book covers he has done. Read it here and here.
For instance, on the left is Dean Alfar’s award-winning novel “Salamanca” while on the right is Gaiman’s “American Gods.” Both books have are mostly printed in green, yellow and black hues. Creativity wise, Alfar’s cover lacks inspiration and clarity and looks as if it was just made overnight. Gaiman’s cover looked enigmatic and eye-catching; its art sends a clear message of a coming storm.
Another great novel disgraced with an uninspired frontispiece is Rosario Lucero’s “Feast and Famine: Stories of Negros”. It looks as if the artist slept on it and rushed the work the next day. There is no come-on to open the book, and the theme does not encapsulate or even capture the rich essence of Negros life. For me, the only thing the brash of colors denote is the sweltering heat of the tropical sun. Had the author read the book, he or she may have done another concept rather than paint the whole piece as a tribute to drought and El Niño. The contents itself are masterpieces but with a cover like that, I dunno.
This is ironic because many of the books in the Anglophone nations use photos and paintings to create beautiful covers. Here, the artists are contented to post doodles of their friends and art projects done by their two-year old niece, and call it art. Many of them have “horror vacui” or the dread of leaving an empty space. It’s either that or too much minimalism that it already looks like an overnight project by a dropout. Others superimpose sour-looking ancestral photos of the authors in a bid for self-glorification of whatever bastardized family-tree the writer has. And the fonts used are either too cheesy like lightning bolt shaped vowels or too unprofessional by using passé fonts like Comic Sans and Copperplate Gothic for titles. It just shows how haphazard the job was done. And the spacing of letters is non-existent. These so-called artists use only standard spacing found in MS Word and whatever software they can get their hands on. The failure of not manipulating fonts and colors to balance your composition is indicative of the level of skill of the artist.
Can’t they think of anything else? Can’t they ask for shots from local photographers like the ones by Kieron Tan? Or at least use paintings by the current artists like Sanso or Luz. Or read up on foreign book designers like those of Chip Kidd? It’s saddening and disappointing. Why? Their mentality is parochial and insular. They live and thrive on their stupidity and ignorance which hinders their growth. Instead of looking for inspiration from the outside world or using foreign techniques, they are content to replicate their crappy covers.
I am not a graphic artist, but I can appreciate a well-made cover if I see one. And so can you. Why do you think Penguin always update new covers for old titles? Because they know people are suckers for good covers.
A caveat though. I’m not saying all book artists are like this. Some have great designs and should be applauded. The original covers of the Locsin versions of the Noli and Fili are great examples. What happened to the artist? That person should have more projects. The UP Student edition series of Pinoy literature like that of Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles is a good example how to make a simple, balanced and presentable book cover. Also, a lot of children's books have spectacular cover art, many of which are resplendent in the full spectrum of the palette. It's a wonder why they are not being hired to make good covers for adult fiction.
Many coffee-table books have great covers but sadly most of these books have been designed and published by foreigners in Hong Kong (e.g. Periplus) or Singapore. Locally, only a handful of books can compare with their foreign counterparts.
Not all local books have been mutilated by crappy book designers but a lot of fiction still have mediocre covers. If publishers want to improve their sales, at least make their covers worth buying for. Why do you think many Filipinos patronize foreign authors if not for their covers alone?