Ralph Ellison, Ernest Hemingway, Lorrie Moore, Wayne Johnston, Philip Roth, Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Munro, Ferdinand Mount, Bruce Robinson, Tom Wolfe, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Salman Rushdie, Allegra Goodman, Pat Barker: Although this list of literary heavyweights contain a few names that may seem a bit unfamiliar, all of the aforementioned writers (including the two dead ones) have published works of fiction in the past year that have been featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. While the Book Review’s editor in chief, Charles “Chip” McGrath, would like to see less of what he calls “the tyranny of the cover,” this prized placement inevitably leads to a boost in sales. When a review of Robinson’s “The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman” made the cover of the Book Review in February, the comic novel — otherwise relatively uncelebrated — immediately sold out at, for example, New York’s Barnes and Noble at Union Square; would-be buyers were asked to add their names to a lengthy waiting list.
Robinson’s book, however, is the seasonal exception. A dark-horse candidate for the Book Review’s cover is more likely to come up a winner in publishing’s dog days — the months of July and August, when the torrent of review copies flowing into editors’ offices slows to a trickle.
“It’s true — the first thing you think is, Oh my God, what are we going to do?” McGrath replies when asked about each year’s diminutive stack of August books. “But the second thing you think is that this is a chance to do something different.” This summer, “something different” has meant featuring “Jem (and Sam),” Mount’s historical novel about a colleague of Samuel Pepys, and “The Colony of Unrequited Dreams,” Johnston’s Dickensian tale of a Newfoundland politician, on the cover. While the two novels are by all accounts solid pieces of work, neither author is a household name (even in literary houses), and the Times did not cover either writer’s previous novels (though Mount’s “The Subversive Family: An Alternative History of Love and Marriage” was reviewed in 1993).
Nonfiction books that aren’t weighty biographies of mid-century statesmen or magisterial treatments of important historical or political topics also stand a better chance of landing a cover review in the summer months. Last year, Richard Ellis’ “Imagining Atlantis,” a compendium of lore about the mythical island, got the cover on July 12, a decision no doubt made easier by the ravishing color illustration commissioned for the piece. McGrath says he relishes the chance to be more inventive in selecting which titles get the most play. But has he ever wished that the featured book were stronger? “Yes,” he admits. “I won’t name names. There are some times when you go with the best thing you’ve got.”
Does that mean that publishers should schedule their potential sleepers for release during the summer? McGrath goes so far as to advise it: “Books do indeed get more of a chance then, even in the space devoted to them inside. Books get a chance to rise that might not otherwise.” (He’s particularly proud of having spotlighted David and Daniel Hayes’ “My Old Man and the Sea: A Father and Son Sail Around Cape Horn” in 1995. Enterprising publicists might also keep in mind the Book Review’s fondness for tales of manly adventure.) Of course, such rescheduling would require book publishers, who practically shut down their operations in August, to break one of the profession’s most deeply ingrained habits. So while that might be smart business and it might lead to great press, don’t expect to see it happen any time soon.