How to tell a travel book by its cover

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The Independent Online

Have you ever been present at a publishing conference, when they are trying to decide what picture to put on the front of a travel book?

Have you ever been present at a publishing conference, when they are trying to decide what picture to put on the front of a travel book?

No, nor have I. But it undoubtedly goes something like this ...

"Right, we've got this great new book on Tuscany and Umbria, and now we've got to decide what to put on the cover. Anyone got any ideas?"

From everywhere, there comes a deafening chorus.

"A cypress tree!"

"Small church!"


"Right," says the man. "A church by a lone tall cypress tree on a sunny hilltop. Just like our last book on Tuscany, in fact. And the one before that. You don't think we should try something different this time?"

At which point, there is a huge roar of laughter, because of course you can't put out a book on Tuscany or Umbria without having a photo on the front showing hilltop/church/lone cypress. That's how the reader knows what it's about. That's how the bookseller knows where to put it, the potential customer knows how to spot it, and the jumble sale organiser knows where to chuck it.

Don't believe it?

All right, here's another discussion about a travel book cover.

"Right, we've got this great new travel guide lined up on the south of France. So, of course, it's got to be a picture of lavender fields on the front. Any objection?"

Once in a blue moon, you might get a brave young publisher objecting ...

"Surely, sir, there are other places that grow lavender. I mean, Norfolk grows a lot of lavender. What happens if people see lavender fields on the cover and mistake it for a guide book on Norfolk?"

General hilarity.

"Josquin, please join the real world. In the real world, people do not know there are lavender fields in Norfolk. In the real world, people do not buy guides about Norfolk. And in the real world, if we did do a guide book to Norfolk, we would not put lavender fields on the front. We would put windmills."

"But sir, I don't think there are that many windmills in Norfolk ..."

Yes, poor old Josquin doesn't have a great future in publishing. What he doesn't realise is that if you do a book on Spain, you have to have lemons on the cover, and for Greece you have white buildings, and for Ireland you have to have bars/donkeys/bicycles/ green fields, and for Holland you have to have tulips/canals/windmills and for Germany ...

Actually, I don't know what you have to have for Germany. It hasn't been arranged yet. Good old Germany. A refusal to be stereotyped.

But I have recently added a new motif to this collection. I was sent, by the publishers, a copy of A Land Of Two Halves, a new book about New Zealand. It was written by Joe Bennett, an English expat journalist in New Zealand, who decided to hitchhike round both islands and describe his experiences and encounters.

I don't know why they sent it to me, but I am glad they did because I have enjoyed it hugely - it's an observant, funny, cool, wise and witty book from cover to cover.

Ah, but what do you suppose is pictured on both covers?

No, not kiwi fruit. No, not a rugby match. No, not Maori carvings. No, not The Lord of the Rings.

It's sheep!

Masses and masses of sheep, with a mountain in the background and Mr Bennett himself standing in the middle of this massive flock of sheep.

It makes sense, I suppose.

But you can't help wondering, if sheep have now been reserved for books on New Zealand, what on earth they are going to put on the covers of travel books about Wales?