Media Circus: Do babes sell books?

In the cutthroat publishing biz, a pretty face on the cover is worth a thousand blurbs.


Lee Smith
July 30, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

Jennifer Gould is smiling at me again. It's Thursday morning at Barnes & Noble and one of the unlettered barbarians who works here told me I'd find the "Austin Powers" screenplay in Self-Help. God, I hate the chains. So I'm just wandering around and there's this beautiful girl in Current Affairs smiling at me from the front cover of her book. And it's a great smile, a smile that encompasses all the world's good things and makes them particular. And she has lovely grayish eyes, and her mouth is beautiful, and her eyebrows, too. And what soft, dark hair falling to her shoulders. And -- do you know what a May-I is? It's a thimble of hair of someone you find really beautiful and pretty approachable that falls slightly on their face and of which you say, politely but with conviction, May I? whence you brush it back from their forehead with your fingertips. She has a swell May-I. She is smiling at me personally. Jennifer Gould is making me feel better about things this morning, even better about the chains. Someone must be singing now, because she is the song. She is old Saturday morning cartoons. She is a bright new yellow taxi on a rainy Saturday night. And now I have her phone number.

You would want it too if you had seen her picture on the front cover of her book about the new Russia, "Vodka, Tears, and Lenin's Angel." And you could have had it if you'd just called her publisher, like I did.

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"Hello, St. Martin's Press."

"Hi, can I have Jennifer Gould's phone number?"

"Yes. Let me connect you to publicity."

"Hi, can I have Jennifer Gould's phone number?"

"Yes. But first tell me why you want it."

"Because Jennifer's really, really attractive."

"Sure, that's why we thought it would be a great idea to put her picture on the front cover of her book."

"You what?!! So then other guys been calling to get her number?"

"Yes, but they're all reviewers who want to interview Jennifer. Are you a writer?"

"Nope."

"Then I'm not sure I can give you her number."

"Well, to be completely honest, I am in fact a writer who wants to interview Jennifer."

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"Who do you write for?"

"Stalk."

"Oh, one of the online publications."

"Right. Now can I have her number?"

"Her work number or home number?"

"Does she live with anyone?"

"I don't know. Why?"

"Is this your first experience with a writer who is a reporter?"

The customary position for the author photo, of course, is the back flap of the book. But if the author is good-looking -- and remember that physical comeliness is graded on a very big curve in the publishing industry -- then many an editor, trying to show off his marketing savvy, may suggest that the photo go on the front cover.

Take Elizabeth Wurtzel, who has established the definitive standard for cheesy author photos. On the cover of "Prozac Nation," Wurtzel appeared looking waifish, in a depressed but come-hithery way. Sales were good, but why not aim higher? So on the front of her forthcoming tome, "Bitch" -- it doesn't appear until January, but advance reading excerpts are flooding America now -- Wurtzel appears completely naked. Apparently cured of her depression, she is coyly smiling, a strategic lock of hair covering the nipple of her (possibly computer-retouched?) breast while she flips off the reader.

Not all author pictures are used to capitalize on their subject's good looks. Sammy Gravano's mug is there only so you know what he looks like so when you spot him in the Witnessprotectionprogramville, Neb., Wal-Mart you can drop a dime on the cheese-eater. And lots of authors, mostly men, are on their covers for no apparent reason at all, like oddsmaker Len Ragozin, or Harvard Law Professor Christopher Edley.

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Are there any guidelines for putting an author's picture on the front of the book? Rob Weisbach, editor-in-chief of his own imprint at Morrow, says, "I've put them there when they were personalities -- authors whose faces were at least as recognizable as their written work. People like Whoopi Goldberg, Paul Reiser."

"If the book is personality driven," says Jordan Pavlin, a senior editor at Knopf, "obviously it makes sense. If the book is about the writing, then it's a question. I would do it if I believed it improved a book's chance for success without cheapening the author's intentions."

Gould, a staff writer at the Village Voice and contributor to a number of major newspapers and magazines, is a first-time author of a serious book about Russia, and her face is not immediately recognizable, though it is very attractive. Is that why she's on the front cover? "No," Gould's St. Martin's editor, Ruth Gavin, told me in a real conversation. "I didn't want this to seem like another book wondering whither the Soviet Union. It's a personal account of a young woman journalist's experience in Russia. I wanted the cover to represent that fact and a picture of her does it very quickly. I would have used her picture on the cover even if she wasn't pretty -- just as long as she was young and a woman."

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That's one way to illustrate a personal account. Knopf Canada, Gould's publisher north of the border, went the collage route. On the cover of the Canadian edition of "Vodka, Tears, and Lenin's Angels," there's a map of the former USSR with various images overlaid, including a picture -- a very small picture -- of Gould. "We wanted to convey a sense of the place," says Knopf Canada editor Susan Burns. "It's about Jennifer's travels, sure, but we wanted to get across the movement, and the experiences in this particular place." Maybe Canadian readers just don't like pretty women.

In an informal marketing survey, it seems that the American approach -- larger pictures of attractive women -- is probably more successful than the Canadian. When a colleague was dispatched to look for a copy of "Vodka, Tears, and Lenin's Angel" at a local chain, the clerk told him, "Oh yeah, I remember that cover." Maybe that meant, "Yes, that personal account-type book countering the hegemonic male discourse of Slavophiles Remnick and Cohen, et al., with a younger, female voice," but probably meant, "Right, cute gal."

"You can't take an unyielding position," says U.S. Knopf's Pavlin. "Jackets are clearly very important, and ultimately we have to decide what is going to help us get the book out to the most readers. The only problem is when there's some sort of misrepresentation."

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There are certainly a number of writers who vigorously misrepresent themselves as authors only as a path to celebrity, which in the end is fine. Gould's not advertising herself as a journalist-heartthrob, and neither is her publisher. In political reporting, a field dominated by men, it's dangerous to play the face card. "There were many male writers who said that I got that Playboy interview with Zhirinovsky only because I was a woman," Gould told me. "They said, 'If I looked like you, I would have gotten it.'"

Gould points out she just worked a lot harder for it than they did, and it was rarely to her advantage to be an attractive young woman. In one of the book's more harrowing chapters, she interviews the former nationalist candidate for eight consecutive days on his campaign boat on the Volga. Zhirinovsky is characteristically appalling, inveighing against Jews, homosexuals, world leaders, the wives of world leaders and women generally. But then with several of his young bodyguards in the room he starts to sound like one of the sexual puppeteers in the Marquis de Sade. "Jennifer ... You have already ripened. Two males are sitting here. They are not able to do anything but sexual things, nothing else." And later: "She'll write that we raped her and then she'll get more money for this article," Zhirinovsky says. "Oh, Jennifer, look, you're flushed."

"I'm nervous," Gould says.

Zhirinovsky again, "Don't you want your naked body ... For you not to be nervous you have to lie down. Then these young hands will caress your body."

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Maybe Zhirinovsky was less willing to toss Gould into the Volga than a rumpled hack in seersucker, but it's hard to imagine Vladimir Volfovich trying to engineer an orgy featuring Johnny Apple. In spite of some of her male colleagues' condescension, "Vodka, Tears, and Lenin's Angel" has been very favorably received by many others. So does putting her face on the cover of a book acclaimed for its content compromise the work? "I don't see how," says literary agent Chris Calhoun. So there's no threat to her career as a serious journalist? "You don't think Christiane Amanpour's face is going to be on the cover of her first book?"

Of course Amanpour's not a print journalist, and her reputation as a first-rate, courageous -- and good-looking -- foreign correspondent precedes her future publications. Which reminds me -- there has always been an aura of romance surrounding the foreign correspondent, an erotic myth sold to book buyers and movie viewers that's almost exclusively associated with male correspondents. Danger, foreign women, deadlines, foreign women, trench coats, foreign women. Shouldn't there be room for female correspondents to articulate their own erotic myths publicly without fear they're just selling themselves as pretty faces? Rob Weisbach wonders. "Well, if this story you're working on is any sort of indication," he told me, in high media-critique-of-media-critique mode, "I'm not sure this is the kind of attention an author wants."

OK, I get it. Jennifer Gould is on the cover of her book not because she's really pretty, and even if she were it would probably be fine -- unless I started writing about it.


Lee Smith

Lee Smith writes frequently about art and literature.

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