Deborah Yaffe

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Judging books by their covers

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 7 2013 02:00PM

Not too long ago – OK, it was last month, but I only just noticed – New York magazine ran a feature on the runaway popularity of young-adult fiction, even among old adults. Item #5 on the list: “The Selling (Out) Of a Classic,” wherein we look at the covers of five recent editions of Pride and Prejudice and note that the youth-oriented ones sold best.


A little bit of research shows, however, that the evidence for this supposed trend is a tad skewed. Let’s take it from the left:


* 1993: Norton Critical Edition, second edition. Classic classroom text, with appropriately decorous landscape on the cover. Only 1,000 copies sold “starting in 2001,” the footnote explains. Problem is that the Norton second edition was superseded by the third edition in 2000, so it’s no big surprise that few students were still forking out $7.85 to Amazon for the older version, whatever its cover.


* 1995: Puffin Classics, a bargain at $4.74 for the paperback, with a dated illustration apparently showing Elizabeth reading Darcy’s letter while the man himself hovers in her mind’s eye. But what’s really discouraging about its 25,000 sales figure is the fact that this edition is – the horror! – abridged.


* 2002: Longman Cultural Edition, with prestigious editors and an extremely appropriate illustration of Chawton House on the cover. Only 1,000 copies sold? A travesty! Except that this version costs $15.22 in paperback.


* 2009: OK, this is the one we’re really talking about, isn’t it? This is the Harper Teen version, with moody, evocative cover art of drooping blossoms that’s straight outta Twilight. Sold 68,000 copies at a relatively pricey $14.98 apiece. Do I have to turn in my Jane Austen card if I say that I think the cover – while admittedly having little to do with the contents – is quite lovely? Go ahead: shoot me.


* 2013: Tribeca Books, with romance-novel cover art featuring a gloved arm, a glossy gown, a satin sofa. The magazine seems shocked, shocked that this sold 5,000 copies in only nine days, but at $8.99 per copy, it’s a decent bargain.


In any case, why is it “selling out” to wrap classic literature in an attractive package that will appeal to young tastes? Last I checked, we want to encourage Kids These Days to pick up Pride and Prejudice, don’t we?


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