One of the great joys of a bookshop, as opposed to buying books on t'internet, is that you can have a bit of a trial flick before you commit. Obviously I'm talking about brand-new, un-road-tested, speculative buying, rather than re-acquiring old loves that you lent foolishly to a friend, and which promptly went out of print shortly after the friend went off round the world with no mobile phone. I know, I know, a certain online book site allows you to "see inside!!" but when you buy a book there are many factors that affect your choice. Everybody in the book trade will tell you most people do judge a book by its cover - as anyone knows who has bought a copy of "Pride and Prejudice" with a nice 19th century watercolour on the jacket as opposed to a BBC publicity shot of Colin Firth in a wet shirt. I personally never buy the film tie-in edition of anything - do you really want people to think you're reading a novel by Hugh Grant? Some people like a nice high gloss finish on a paperback cover, some like that rather subtle buffed matt finish we're seeing more and more of these days (and is a right sod, because it's actually almost frictionless and if you pick up a pile of 5 or 6 of them, they fly in all directions like a school of bars of soap). Hardbacks are generally considered a treat, or for presents, or for the diehard nailbiting author-junkie who can't wait for the paperback - I personally hate them because they cost at least three times as much as a paperback for the same amount of print, and when you're reading in bed they leave a nasty red three-cornered dent in your knee.
HOWEVER to my main point. When you're considering buying a book, the "see inside!!" feature is near enough useless, as it doesn't tell you anything about size of print, or more importantly font - I went through a phase in my late teens of only reading Picador books because after reading two or three that I loved, I found I had a Pavlovian response to the font they habitually used and would have read the Yellow Pages if they'd been printed in it. And most important of all - the sample paragraph. I like a cursory flick through a book. Nothing so crass as reading the last page; after all a book is a journey to another world, and would you start a holiday by already anticipating your sweaty return trek through Heathrow baggage claim at 7am? A quick glance will tell you a lot about a book, however, in much the same way as a travel guide will whet your appetite for your eventual destination. A friend lent me a novel the other day that I had heard nothing but good reviews of, and I was quite looking forward to giving it a go. It was an American import, and I have to say the Americans are streets ahead of us in cover design, and the cover was that lovely soft matt finish I hate at work but love in my hands (although interestingly American paperback covers tend to curl really badly - excellent cover design but cheaper laminate?).
I opened it, I had a flick, and the phrase "angry red whelks ran across his back" sprang out at me. What can I say? There's no way I can read it now. What should have been a nailbitingly dramatic scene about priestly abuse became a positive fiesta of grumpy seafood.