I had a horrible nightmare last week. I dreamed that my novel was released with a cover featuring a blonde bimbo with fake tits sandwiched between two rambo clones. I could see it so clearly, in all its revoltingly literal, misleading, exploitative glory. The scrolled, wedding-invite font was the last straw. I broke through into consciousness in a pool of sweat, fighting for air, heart racing, with that nauseating sense of incipient doom. And if you think I’m being neurotic, lemme tell ya – it wasn’t fantasy, it was a flashback.
There are very few publishers who will even entertain the notion of including an author’s approval of the cover in a publishing contract. I say ‘very few’ because I don’t know of any, but I’m sure some do exist. But unless you are a massive best-selling author, chances are, it’s not going to happen.
Maybe, because I was a graphic designer at one point, I am more bothered by this than most people. I should just be grateful to get published at all. And yet, I’ve designed my fair share of book covers for other authors, and I know that I’m not the only writer who dreads having the spirit of their work utterly misrepresented by an image that encapsulates nothing but the most literal scene in their story.
Personally, I am a proponent of metaphor and mood when it comes to covers. What I mean by this is that the cover should NOT interpret the work, or close off the meaning of the work for the reader. I have been terribly put off from buying a book because the heroine on the front cover is physically someone I can’t relate to. I just won’t buy the book. And it’s silly, isn’t it? Because the actual novel might be magnificent, but the cover has already solidified the character for me, and I can’t move past it.
Covers should catch the prevailing overall mood of a book. They should trigger questions in the reader, which the text answers. Let me give you an example of three really spectacular book covers:
|I don’t care what you think of the book, this is a brilliant cover. It doesn’t visualize the story, it visualizes the theme in metaphor. It utilizes a tremendously powerful semiotic image of the apple. We are offered the invitation to taste the fruit of knowledge, dangerous knowledge that will imperil innocence. Also, note the trouble taken on the typography – it went on to identify the whole brand.||All Water’s books have great covers. This one is no different. It situates the story in the past. And it tells us it is a story of women. There is the implication of hard times and struggle. Again, it doesn’t tell you about the story at all. It simply visualizes theme and a mood that prevails through the novel. The choice of font on the title is perfect for the time in which the story is set. As readers, this is an invitation, not a synopsis.||Put your feelings of this book aside. The cover is brilliant.The chill of the blue is in direct contrast to the content of the novel. It sets up an immediate dichotomy. It invites the reader to wonder who the tie belongs to. It uses the image of the tie as a metaphor for economic success, but also social constraint and hints, very subtly, at other, more sexual forms of constraint.|
You’ll notice that all these books have objects as their dominant focus, not people. Even the Twilight cover, which has a set of hands cupping the apple, uses the line of the arms as ‘continuance‘ to draw the eye to the apple nestled in the palms. These are effective covers because they DON’T attempt to TELL the story, but to invite the reader into the storyspace. There are no humans for you to either feel you can relate to, or worse, feel alienated from. And this is one of the major problems with a great number of erotic romance covers. Perfect, pretty girls. Fuck, I hate them. And sadly, this has become so much the ubiquitous format for erotic romance, that you only have to glance very quickly at the cover to receive the message of what the book probably contains. Another formulaic story. The sad thing is, many of the stories may NOT be formulaic. They may be brilliant novels, but their cover typifies and calls to mind the very worst assumptions about the genre.
Here’s another set of three, from very successful novels. Just in case you thought I only liked black backgrounds.
|Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is not really about endings but the process of them. And the cover is a beautifully metaphoric visualization of this. Dandelions lose themselves in a last hopeful gust before their own ends. The seeds scatter chaotically. The type is tentative and eroded, and the the right hand side appears to be curling into darkness, into the past. It captures the mood of the novel perfectly. Yet gives away nothing.||Cronin’s cover works both as metaphor and as setting. It is the story of a journey through an imagined world. The colours and imagery invite the reader into this new, post-apocalyptic landscape. But it also illustrates the ‘forest from the trees’ adage, which is very relevant to the story’s theme.||We have a fire-red cover to accord with the title. The strands of long blonde hair imply a woman in the story, but also the tangles and twists of the plot.Again, the typography is a homage to post-modernist designers like David Carson and Neville Brody, who believed that slightly illegible text did a better job at engaging the reader, who invests time with the image to decipher it.|
I think it is time to stop treating readers like 5-year olds, who need to see exactly what is in the box. A cover should be eye-catching, engaging, and prompt questions, not give answers.
It’s a fucking book cover, not a spoiler.
Now, let’s see how much of a hissy fit I can pull to get something decent for my novel.