There is no way around this – books are judged by their covers. Readers judge. Corporate bookstore chain “buyers” (not customers, but rather, the corporate bookstore chain employees whose job it is to select the specific books that their particular bookstore chain will purchase from the publisher and put up on the shelves) judge. Librarians judge. And ultimately, a cover reflects and indicates not just what a particular book is about, but how much care and effort has been put into a particular book as a physical object – and as something that is supposed to be worth a reader’s money.
The history of English-language books on Japanese animation and comics begins over thirty ago, with Frederik Schodt’s Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics – first published in 1983, and still in print today. And by my count, at least 90 books dealing with anime/manga have been published in English since. Granted, this figure includes everything from “traditional” scholarly monographs such as The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation and Cartoon Cultures: The Globalization of Japanese Popular Media and edited essay collections (Cinema Anime: Critical Engagements with Japanese Animation, Mangatopia: Essays on Manga and Anime in the Modern World) to books directed at casual readers (Anime and Philosophy: Wide Eyed Wonder, BFI Film Classics: Spirited Away, The Rough Guide to Manga), “directories” (500 Essential Anime Movies: The Ultimate Guide, Anime Classics Zettai!: 100 Must-See Japanese Animation Masterpieces) and various odds-and-ends – exhibit catalogs, revised reprints of magazine columns, first-hand accounts. But even focusing on the more “academic” books on anime and manga that have been published in English from 1983 to the present, we can learn a lot about how authors – and publishers – have approached Japanese animation and comics over the years as expressed in the covers that they selected.And, looking over these several dozen books, I think it’s possible to identify at least several specific approaches.
Perhaps the most straight-forward and maybe the easiest to explain can be seen a book like Manga’s Cultural Crossroads, where the cover image is just a meaningless shape. That is the publisher’s style, and in fact, for an essay collection that is meant to be sold almost exclusively in hardcover to only a few hundred academic libraries, and a book that most readers will only approach at the level of the individual chapter – and at that, on a screen – such a “meaningless” cover makes perfect sense.
Moving from this, several books feature a cover that, while not as minimalist, is still largely generic, using a fairly standard and easily recognizable symbol (such as an outline of the shape of Asia on a map, as in Mangatopia: Essays on Manga and Anime in the Modern World) or a relatively neutral public domain image (Manga and the Representation of Japanese History).
The flip side of these approaches is an intensely designed cover that is meant to advertise and reflect the book’s contents. So, the images on this kind of cover will be actual identifiable anime/manga characters – like in God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post-World War II Manga, The Moe Manifesto: An Insider’s Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime, and Gaming, and The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story. It is perhaps no accident that these kinds of books are directed at both libraries and at the individual reader, and are priced (and marketed) accordingly. Of course, using a cover with actual characters on it requires working to secure permissions from the relevant Japanese rights-holders, possibly at additional expense. In any case, this is something that requires a concerted effort on the part of the book’s publisher.
One more approach lies essentially in between these, and is perhaps the most common – the use of a cover that is designed to imply or suggest “anime” or “manga” (or at least “Japan”), without having to secure any permissions. Presumably, these types of covers are commissioned by editors and created by artists based on their own ideas of how to express “Japan” or “anime” (or “manga”) visually. One good example of the approach can be seen in Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime and Religion in Contemporary Japan.
Perhaps unfortunately, though, the same kind of approach can lead to results that are self-parody at best, possibly outright offensive – and, if their goal is to attract and engage a reader, probably counter-productive. There is nothing on the cover of Understanding Manga and Anime that catches a potential reader’s eye. The cover of Manga: An Anthology of Global and Cultural Perspectives appears to be first and foremost an exercise hitting as many negative stereotypes about Japanese popular visual culture as can be possible on a single book cover. The same can be said for the cover of the original 2002 edition of Anime Explosion! The What? Why? and Wow! of Japanese Animation (though in the Second Edition, published earlier this year, the cover is essentially neutral).
Having said that, commissioning an artist to design a custom cover for a new book can sometimes pay off. The cover of Straight From the Heart: Gender, Intimacy, and the Cultural Production of Shojo Manga is one such example. Another one, that just recently came to my attention, is the absolutely gorgeous – and memorable – cover for the upcoming Manga in America: Transnational Book Publishing and the Domestication of Japanese Comics – a full version of this image is available on the author’s website, caseybrienza.com.
Obviously, each one of these approaches has their reasons and explanations, their benefits, and their shortcomings or challenges. And of course, whether any of them are particular effective (or particularly ineffective) is a valid – and open – question. But the bottom line here is that just as scholarship of anime/manga can take many different forms and shapes, the end product of that scholarship can be presented and marketed in many different ways.