Flaps over jackets

What’s behind the various covers of Indian books? ♦

beautyfullOn the US edition of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a girl squats in a swamp, surrounded by a slum. Her face, tilted towards a pale, yellow sky, could reflect grief or devotion. The UK and India edition’s cover is the polar opposite – saturated with shades of cerulean, yellow, and pink, its subject is the figure of a boy in motion, running up a flight of stairs: a symbolically hopeful image that recalls the kitsch aesthetic of Slumdog Millionaire.

Are American readers so wracked by guilty privilege that they’re more likely to pay money for an image of abject poverty? Do Indian readers respond better to stylized, uplifting images of the poor than confront them as stark, hopeless reality? In their role as packaging, book covers are beholden to market tastes, which vary from place to place. It’s often tempting to spin sociological theories from the differences between them around the world. But drawing conclusions about cultural differences based on cover designs is a complicated exercise.

A complaint we’ve heard often among editors, designers, authors and intellectuals in the Indian publishing scene is that books by Indians or about India often get the exotic treatment by cover designers abroad. Freelance book cover designer Pinaki De said he thinks the typical Western design reflects a “pigeonholing, [a] very claustrophobic idea of India”. HarperCollins India’s publisher VK Karthika listed “mehndi, the Taj Mahal, bindis, even a sort of Sanskritised looking font” as the recurring stereotypical motifs she sees cross her desk from abroad.

Some authors actively try to ensure that their books avoid orientalist treatment. Sonia Faleiro recalled her ground rules about the international covers of Beautiful Thing: “Firstly, no stereotypes. So, no henna, no precious fonts. Second, if you put a woman on the cover she must have brown skin.” With a dozen editions in print or in the pipeline, there are almost as many covers of Beautiful Thing – variations on a portrait, a crop of a woman’s torso, and even a painting.

The book cover of Open magazine editor Manu Joseph’s Serious Men has as many variations. Joseph, who aired a similar opinion about the American edition’s Shiva cover in the Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time blog last year, was quick to qualify the thought when we spoke to him. “India is a selling point,” he said, with “a set of visual images which work – it could be a sari, it could be a bindi, it could be any of the gods. The Italian cover of Serious Men has Akbar holding a broken rose.” These stock stereotypes exist for a reason, Joseph said, “as long as people are thinking so deeply about your book, or how to sell your book, I think as an author you feel a bit secure.”

Typically, authors do tend to come around to a cover, especially if it enjoys commercial success. Siddhartha Deb, whose The Beautiful and the Damned ran with a techie pastiche in its American hardcover edition, said, “I initially really disliked the pink cover for the UK paperback/India edition and gave a very grudging yes to it, but people do love it… I’ve grown pretty fond of it myself.”

Traditionally, the use of different covers in different markets stems from a split in US and UK cover design (conventionally perceived as a divide between commercial American covers and artistic British ones). In both these big markets, publishers’ representatives take books to major sellers, who can veto covers if they believe they won’t catch on. Here, as Karthika explained, “we present [the book] as a finished product to the trade.” Of course, every country has its own self-exoticising tendencies as well, and a need to differentiate each product. “There may be a Mughal romance,” Karthika said, by way of example, “you want it to look like a Mughal romance, and play the stereotype up, but you also want the book to look different from any other romance out there.”

However, as the internet plays a bigger role in how books are sold, there’s a new tension between the old wisdom of tailoring covers to particular audiences, and standardising them. There’s a move towards using very slight or no variations. “Because of Google and the way searches work, you really want one look for the book,” Karthika said.

Joseph agreed, “It would be nice if there were only one cover. You want a single visual branding where a person looks at a cover and knows that this is that book, without having to read the text.” He added that “for most publishers, Amazon is the biggest client now, so they are looking at covers which would stand out as… a very small thumbnail on your screen.”

Several people pointed to Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger as an iconic example of a typographical cover that was used successfully internationally. As the Indian market grows, and eventually surpasses, foreign markets in size, we’ll likely see more Indian edition covers being picked up abroad. Pinaki De, who has had his designs used internationally, thinks this is already happening. “Increasingly, covers from India are being taken internationally, so that’s good news,” he said. Perhaps Indian designers have their own clichés about the West, he said. “But I personally feel a lot of designers in India are actually doing a lot better than foreign designers.”

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, June 2012.