Classics’ artsy paperback jacket makeovers a hit

by Alex Martin

A young “idol” with paperback in hand standing in a high school classroom isn’t what one would expect to see on the cover of Natsume Soseki’s literary classic “Botchan.”

But putting a new face on old masterpieces has become a print industry trend, with both large and small publishers releasing paperbacks of well-known literature featuring creative cover designs in an attempt to expand sales and readership.

And with summer vacation prompting many students to search out books to read and review for their homework, bookstore shelves are sporting colorful cover-art offerings of the masters.

“Although the number of paperbacks published has been steadily increasing over the years, sales haven’t been faring well,” said Masaji Ogawa, an editor for publisher Bunkasha Inc., explaining the reason behind the new look for old books.

Ogawa was involved in hiring members of the pop-idol group AKB48 to pose for the cover of three classic novels the publisher chose to promote for its “summer three” campaign.

Bunkasha selected “Ningen Shikkaku” (“No Longer Human”), by Osamu Dazai — whose 100th anniversary is this year — Soseki’s “Botchan” and Tatsuo Hori’s “Kazetachinu” (“The Wind has Risen”), and although hard figures have yet to be obtained, Ogawa said sales to date have been excellent and more titles with the new look will be forthcoming.

Ogawa said featuring teenage stars on paperback “jackets,” as he calls them, of much-read works of literature is an effective way to reach out to younger consumers, who usually bypass such novels in favor of lighter fare, including “manga” comic books.

“We wanted to design jackets that would be considered fashionable, something a girl may want to use to decorate her room with when preparing to invite her boyfriend over,” Ogawa said.

The limited-edition book covers also appeal to collectors, he said. “It’s like those PEZ candy dispensers that people like to collect.”

In a similar approach, major publishing house Shueisha Inc. has been recruiting popular manga artists since 2007 to draw the covers for classic titles.

As part of its summer campaign, Shueisha hired manga artist Taito Kubo — author of popular “Bleach” — among others to draw the covers for Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “Jigokuhen” (“Hell Screen”) and Ango Sakaguchi’s “Darakuron” (“On Decadence”).

A public relations representative for the publisher said sales for the novels have increased 10-fold since the new look debuted.

In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Dazai’s birth, Kadokawa Group Publishing Co. hired award-winning book designer Shin Sobue to arrange works taken by popular photographer Kayo Ume for the covers of 10 famous Dazai titles, said PR representative Fumiyuki Kakizawa.

In stark contrast to Dazai’s often pessimistic and dark style, many of the photographs featured on the covers for this series are snapshots of elementary school kids fooling around, an eye-catcher when paired with the cover’s unconventional horizontal layout.

“Dazai’s works aren’t old-fashioned. They have a very contemporary feel that matches the times,” Kakizawa said. “So we discussed how we could appeal to the younger generation.”

According to data from the Research Institute for Publications, while sales of paperbacks remained mostly level for the past 10 years, the number of new publications increased from 5,337 in 1998 to 7,809 in 2008.

Hirokazu Egi, manager of Shinchosha Publishing Co. Ltd., said his company began seriously contemplating introducing original cover designs to its lineup of works by literary greats after hearing that sales of paperbacks published by rivals — especially those written by Dazai — increased dramatically after the cover redesign.

“You see, since the copyright of many of the classics has already expired, any publisher has the right to print them,” Egi said. This means an increase in sales of a much-read classic published by a rival publisher has a direct impact on the sales of the same title put out by other publishers.

“It started off as a means of self-defense,” Egi explained.

Shinchosha took a minimalist approach and recently introduced 10 paperbacks for its summer campaign — after first releasing four last year — coming in 10 different colors but otherwise nearly identical besides the title of the novel and name of the author printed on the glossy surface.

Egi said the new covers appear to be helping sales but cautioned this could overheat the competition and result in over-the-top cover designs that are unrelated to the original material.