Cover-rage: Why Writers Need to Care about Covers #bookcovers

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.

  11 comments for “Cover-rage: Why Writers Need to Care about Covers #bookcovers

  1. July 28, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    Having spent the last few years actually working as a cover artist all I can add is a hearty ‘amen’. Unfortunately, trying to convince the person paying for my expertise that they do not need to tell the story on the cover almost always lands on deaf ears! Perhaps this is the real disadvantage of self-publishing. . .the refusal to admit that just writing a book doesn’t make you an expert on SELLING a book.

    • July 28, 2012 at 3:38 pm

      Well, I think this can be a real issue. Writers are usually visually literal. They make movies of their stories in their minds, and they are conscious of all the details. Those details take on tremendous proportions for them. I think that coaxing them into talking about overall mood and theme is helpful. Explaining that visual images mostly communicate emotionally, not intellectually, is important. But ultimately, I just show them my examples of best-seller covers. When they say ‘but’, I just show them again. But nothing. There’s a reason why good covers are powerful, simple, and not literal.

      Save the literal for the text. The cover is about immediate impressions that grab the eye and the cultural encyclopedia of the reader NOW, in single moment.

  2. July 29, 2012 at 12:03 am

    Brava! Thank you. And yes yes yes. I won’t reiterate… I can only say thank you. So damn important.

    And your last point really plays on something I’ve been considering for a while; simply that I have so much respect for writers and artists and filmakers and musicians who don’t treat me like an idiot. I really do appreciate those who give me some credit in terms of my ability to understand without having something spelled out for me.

  3. Snarkyxanf
    July 29, 2012 at 2:20 am

    Everyone seems to like old Penguin/Pelican covers, but as a collection, I think they reflect your argument well.

    The covers tend towards the abstract and metaphorical. People are rarely depicted realistically. Literal covers are rare, mostly for histories or other non-fiction.

    All the covers are recognizably from Penguin/Pelican, but the style is broad enough to show all sorts of moods. Erotic romance novels are in the opposite position—every press has a similar style, but the covers are cliched. The Penguin covers can intrigue a potential reader while reminding them that they come from a publisher who tries not to waste their time.

    (One online collection: http://www.flickr.com/photos/joekral/sets/72157594264351021/with/231485182/ )

    • July 29, 2012 at 2:26 am

      I have to admit to a real partiality for these covers. Some very famous graphic designers of the time were employed by the major publishing houses to create covers. I love the intrigue they offer, and sometimes a sly irony in the design. But you have to open the book and read the damn thing to know what it’s about. Yeah, when reading was an adventure. Remember those days?

      • Snarkyxanf
        July 29, 2012 at 12:59 pm

        The problem isn’t so much that literal covers obviate the need to open up the book to see what’s inside (they do it so badly, they’re scarcely much help), as that they get in the way once you try to do.

        • July 29, 2012 at 1:52 pm

          Agreed, and if I suggested that a cover, no matter how literal, does that, I apologize. What I was trying to say was that it ‘closes’ the text off in certain ways.

          A good example is illustrations of the aliens on the cover of a sci-fi novel. I fucking HATE it when they do that. I want to be the one to visualize what that alien looks like for myself. I want to create my own mental images – that’s why I read.

          And I feel the same way about the characters in erotic fiction. I cannot stand images of buff men or perfect adolescent females on the covers of erotica. The minute I see it, I don’t want to read the book. Because now they’ve robbed me of the priviledge, as a reader, of imagining how that male protagonist looks (and I find buff men physically off-putting) and I really have no interest in trying to put myself in the shoes of a 20-something blonde with perfect tits.

  4. July 29, 2012 at 7:35 am

    If you’ve seen my reply to RG’s Facebook post linking this blog, you’ve seen that my reaction wasn’t quite the same as those above. Darker Pleasures publishes (and I write) material that differs considerably from the books being discussed here, so perhaps I shouldn’t even be applying her thoughts to our work. Her points were so well made, however, I couldn’t help but wonder.

    I refer to our short stories as being “quick and dirty.” Our primary audience is male, our stories are short, and they get to the point (as it were) rather quickly. I have tended to think that a cover that does everything Remittance Girl considers problematic for longer, less pornographic (for lack of a better term), work is exactly what we need.

    She makes her argument so well, however, I’m forced to re-examine, if for no other reason than to make certain I’m certain. In any case, excellent post and replies.

    • July 29, 2012 at 10:41 am

      Hi Matt,
      I haven’t read your work, and so I don’t know how to interpret ‘quick and dirty’. If it’s descriptions of sexual acts without plot or character or conflict, then it’s porn. (Who in their right mind wants conflict in their porn?) And good porn that gets you off successfully is a wonderful thing to behold and a challenge to write well.

      I might be making a generalization here, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if your audience is mostly men and your content is textual pornography, then I think it would be counterproductive to go with non-explicit covers. But there that still gives you a lot of scope. I have nothing against explicit covers, as long as they don’t try and illustrate details in a story.

  5. July 30, 2012 at 12:51 am

    I love the Twilight cover, it is stark and wonderful. I’m not fond of people on the cover though, more so with fantasy and sci-fi titles. I also love the abstract ones (text or illustrations).

    The first time I saw my first novel’s cover is when they mailed me the author’s copies. I was so excited… until I actually opened the box. I know the title is Mummy’s Girl, but seeing an Egyptian statue on the front was disheartening. It looked like a National Geographic picture. Not to mention, there was no deserts in the novel. The only statues were of a dog-headed god and a wolf, not a pharaoh.

    Years later, the rights reverted back to me and I redid the cover. It fits the story (everything on the cover is in there) but I’ll admit it fits my sensibility and aesthetic style more than a typical romance story. But, I like it a lot more than the cover the publisher came up with.

  6. DD Starr
    August 8, 2012 at 7:48 am

    Great post, thank you. Designing covers for my books was almost as fun as writing them and I definitely wrestled with wanting to put people on the cover to get more eye catching results in the erotica search.. but I also hate people on the cover too. in the end I settled for artistic and erotic photography, shadowed and black and white/aged sepia without showing their faces. It was a tough one. I will defintely spend more time examining my choices next time around.

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