Wednesday, December 16, 2009

...a book by its cover

Sandra Parshall

Have you ever been so entranced by a book’s cover that
you bought the book on the spot? Or so revolted that you put the novel back on the shelf without so much as opening it to the first page?

Writers dream of having the first kind of cover and live in fear that they’ll end up with the second. Tales of bad covers abound – writers gnashing their teeth and sobbing to sympathetic colleagues, “I hate it! And I can’t get them to change it!”

Yes, believe it or not, those wise, all-knowing folks who run publishing houses sometimes insist on covers that anyone with functional eyesight should be able to see as awful and off-putting. If a writer is well-established, fans won’t care; they’ll buy the book regardless of the mess on the cover. If an author is a first-timer or someone still trying to break out of the midlist, he or she may worry that a bad cover will hold down sales. Seeing your beloved baby dressed in an ugly frock can take a lot of the pleasure out of promoting the book.

I’ve just been through my own nail-biting wait for a final cover for Broken Places, the third Rachel Goddard mystery that will be published in February. If you’ve already looked for the book online (bless you for that!), you probably think the cover will look like this.


But that’s a dummy cover, put forth by the distributor before I had even finished writing the novel. These days information about new books goes out long in advance, while final covers may not be available until just before the books are printed. There’s nothing wrong with the dummy cover, and I wouldn’t be embarrassed to have it on the book, but it seems too pretty and sedate for a novel that is, I promise you, intense. The book will go to the printer soon, and I learned last week that the final cover will look like this.


It still needs tweaking -- my name will be made more visible, and a review quote will be added (fortunately, it's had some nice pre-publication reviews; snippets are now posted on my web site ) -- but this is pretty much what the published cover will look like. I think it’s scary and perfectly tailored to the story. (Yes, a fire plays a vital part in the plot.)

While waiting for my own cover, I was obsessed with the whole subject of mystery covers and looked at hundreds, both on my bookshelves and online. Some are hauntingly beautiful. Some are truly awful. Some are simply bland, doing nothing to sell the story. What I find most fascinating are the differences between covers on various editions of the same book. If you go to my web site, you can see the US cover of The Heat of the Moon (which I like), along with the radically different UK cover (which I don’t like), and the Japanese cover (which I love).

Karin Slaughter’s books not only have different covers in different countries, but often the title is changed. These, for example, are covers for the same book.


Tana French’s covers are markedly similar from country to country. These two remind me of the cover of my second book, Disturbing the Dead (on the sidebar to the left).


Lee Child’s cover designs in different editions often have similar graphics, although the colors are different.


Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has had many looks in many countries, but this is the one that captured the Anthony Award this year for Best Cover Art. It's on the US hardcover edition from Knopf.


I think it's rather blah compared with some of the book’s other covers, especially the third one below.

When Laura Lippman wrote paperback originals, all her covers had a variation of this design, with the picture sandwiched between two blocks of text.


On her first few hardcovers, the designs bore little similarity to one another, but now her covers have settled into a pattern, with the title in a box overlaying the art.



Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine has published so
many books that she’s probably keeping an army of cover artists in regular work. Her covers, like Larsson’s and French’s, look strikingly different on different editions.





Some publishing imprints, primarily those that put out cozy and humorous mysteries, have distinct styles they use for all their authors’ books. An Obsidian mystery often has an uncluttered look with a woman as the focus, like this Elaine Viets cover.


Berkley Prime Crime, a Penguin imprint like Obsidian, usually puts extremely detailed and realistic art on its cozies, depicting the inviting environment of the story rather than characters. The cover of my friend Avery Aames’s first Cheese Shop Mystery, to be published next July, is a good example.

Some writers are one of a kind, and their covers often reflect that. Megan Abbott, for example, writes hardboiled mysteries set in the first half of the 20th century, and you know when you pick up an Abbott novel that you’ll be transported back to an earlier era.


Returning to my original questions: How much does a book’s cover matter to you? If you haven’t read the author before, will an enticing cover draw you in? Will an ugly cover make you put the book down without giving the story a chance? What are the elements that make a cover work for you? What’s the most striking book cover you’ve ever seen?

Writers, share your own bad cover stories!



23 comments:

Dave Chaudoir said...

Covers, for me, are one of those "I know what I like when I see it" kind of things. Some covers are iconic, like the Wendell Minor's cover for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I do kind of like a lot of Berkley Prime Crime's cover art. Does cover art influence me? Yes it really does. Have I loved books whose cover I didn't like? Yes and vice-versa of course. It's just one of those many mysteries of the reading life.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I too thought the Stieg Larsson cover was "blah," but in the Anthonys voting, it beat out David Rotstein's terrific cover for my Death Will Get You Sober, the glass that had literally been shot, which PDD readers saw here for a couple of years. This means, maybe, that a majority of Bouchercon attendees were influenced in how much they liked the cover by their positive reaction to the book itself and their sympathy for the author (who unfortunately died before receiving this award and others).

Vicki Lane said...

I really like the latest version of the cover for BROKEN PLACES. Very nice!

And yes, I can think of several books I've bought because of the covers -- Gaiman's ANANZI BOYS, for one, and MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL for another -- though the title probably had me hooked too.

There are any number of covers that would deter me from buying the book -- but that's mainly in the case of genres that aren't my particular cup of tea.

I really dislike the cover of my second book ART'S BLOOD -- for some reason it always makes me think of a familiar cookbook.

Sheila Connolly said...

Someone recently published a survey (it may have been RWA) indicating that the cover is the single largest factor in book selection.

I've always loved my One Bad Apple cover, because it makes people want to reach out and grab a shiny red apple. However, I sometimes wonder if Berkley is handling things right: their book covers, as you note, are richly detailed and do give hints of what lies inside, but step away a couple of feet and they blur into obscurity. They don't catch your eye from a distance and entice people to pick them up.

I love the covers from the Twilight series (not that I've ever read any) because they are simple, elegant, and immediately recognizable from a distance.

Lorraine_Bartlett said...

Before my first novel, Murder On The Mind, was published, my agent was horrified by the cover (I wasn't much happier). She said, "It stinks. It'll never sell books." Boy, talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. The book sank like the Titanic. I sold the paperback rights and while that cover was nice (a cold fireplace, a leather chair with a book open on it), it had NOTHING to do with the story. Likewise, when the audio version of the book came out, they did a (worse) variation of the fireplace/chair cover.

I did a dummy cover for Dead In Red, and thankfully this time the designer took my idea and ran with it, because it's a dynamite cover. Still, the sales have been less than stellar. Coming out in hardcover is extremely difficult in these challenging economic times.

shirley said...

Not a writer, but I liked the Stieg Larsson cover. I bought the book because I had heard good things about it, but I may have picked it up for a look anyhow because it is different enough to stand out.

Sandra Parshall said...

Sheila, it's hard to tell what the cover of any paperback is from a few feet away. But browsers are most likely plucking your books off the shelf to look at, not seeing them from a distance. The Berkley covers are effective because the reader knows exactly what she's getting: a cozy set in familiar, comforting surroundings. That's what cozy readers are drawn to, and the Berkley covers tell those readers, "This is your kind of book. You won't get any nasty surprises." I can't even imagine how long it takes to create one though!

My books -- nasty surprises galore! :-) Readers should know that going in.

Kris Neri said...

Sandy, what a great cover analysis you've done here! My first book, REVENGE OF THE GYPSY QUEEN, had a horrible cover, and I was so new, I didn't realize I could express an opinion. Amazingly, booksellers, librarians and fans really took to that book, and sales were good. But I'm also a bookseller now, and from watching my customers, I really see the value of a great cover. Increasingly, book buyers are looking for name brand, bestselling authors, so it takes an intriguing, appealing cover to get them to pick up a book by someone they don't know. I'm glad you're getting a better cover than the original idea.

Sharon Wildwind said...

I love the cover for "Broken Places." Congratulations.

Carol said...

Beyond the obvious -- I see a book by a writer I love (in which case, I'm buying it and the cover be damned) -- I'll pick up a book based on the cover art and/or the title. As for Broken Places, I'd pick it up for both reasons. I particularly love the cover because it's artistic, it's intriguing, it speaks of dark deeds.

As for Larsson's cover, it's dramatic and eye-catching, but it doesn't really convey an idea, as I think the best of them do. Liz may be right that it won on emotional grounds.

Mike Dennis said...

Sandra, I like the second "Broken Places" cover, too, for the reasons you mentioned, and also because the dummy cover looked like an outtake from the "Disturbing The Dead" cover design sessions.

My first novel is coming out in 2010, and I'm extremely apprehensive about the cover. I've seen the other covers that my publisher has done and I'm not wild about any of them, to put it mildly.

Another great cover was Megan Abbott's "Die A Little", and of course, just about all of the Hard Case Crime covers.

Lynn said...

As I librarian, I need the covers to be just different enough so that I can recognize it. One author has pretty much identical covers -- same color themes, same pictures and it is most disconcerting. I almost always say, "But we have this already!" and one staff member will say no actually this is the NEW one. It is fine to have a simialr style in covers -- but they also need to have a uniqueness. If the cover is the same ... that might lead you to believe that the story is also the same

writergrrrl said...

I'm a pretty visual person in general, and also work as a copywriter, so I'm around a lot of graphic design. My own personal taste leans toward simple and clean.

So while I think Berkley's covers definitely communicate "cozy," my eye tends to bypass them on the shelves. I do love Laura Lippman's stand-alone covers. And Megan Abbotts' covers rock my world. The Twilight series covers are breathtaking. My favorite Larsson cover is the first one. I think showing the back of the girl with a dragon tattoo is too expected. (What we call "see/say" in advertising--not that book covers are like ad concepts, but I think the best covers avoid a literal interpretation of the title.)

I haven't been a fan of PPP's covers in the past, I'm sorry to say. In general, I think they've lacked some sophistication and their font choices often look dated to me. But Sandy, the cover of BROKEN PLACES looks terrific. Does PPP have a new cover artist? (I hope I haven't hurt anyone's feelings! Just my opinion, of course.)

Sandra Parshall said...

I'm happy (and relieved!) to see the favorable comments about the BP cover. Some readers won't go for a dark, moody cover -- but they probably won't go for the book between the covers either, and that's simply a matter of taste. I try not to take it personally!

wrtergrrrl, PPP has several cover artists. Some of their most recent covers have been striking.

I like two kinds of covers: the moody, atmospheric sort, and the stark, ultra-simple kind, which can also convey a mood. A number of Ruth Rendell's US editions in recent years have been plain white with a small, simple image. Some of those do a better job of capturing the essence of the books than the rather "busy" British covers.

I suppose if you don't read cozies you won't be drawn to Berkley's covers, but they are immensely appealing to fans of traditional mysteries that include crafts, food, or other special interests. For the audience Berkley wants to reach, they work superbly well.

Sheila Lowe said...

This is a topic near and dear to my heart right now as I'm waiting for the cover of my next book. I'm told this cover is going to be "more cozy." Since I don't write cozies (my books are psychological suspense), this prospect terrifies me. When I signed on with NAL I walked around the Malice Domestic book room with my editor and showed her which covers I liked and which I hated. So far they've done a great job, but now...it remains to be seen. Some of you have heard me loudly complaining about being forced to change my perfect title. As a reader, the cover has a great deal to do with whether I actually pick up a book and look inside.

Mike Dennis said...

And for all of you cover fans, go to the Rap Sheet, where you will find a discussion and dissection of the top 12 covers of the year. What covers they are!

Dave Chaudoir said...

Sandra, I'm going to read BROKEN PLACES now because the more you talk about the nasty surprises, the more I'm intrigued, cover be damned!

Sheila Connolly: I love the covers of your books, especially ROTTEN TO THE CORE. I really like the Orchard Series because, well, first of all I love apples, but secondly it's a strong series.

Ultimately no matter how intriguing a cover, the book's merit still rests on what's inside.

signlady217 said...

I don't "judge a book by its cover." If I did, then there would have been a lot of books to skip over because they have no cover art at all! (I'm talking about older stuff, back in the seventies or further.) Titles seem to grab my attention more, especially the ones that play on words/phrases, like Tamar Myers' Nightmare in Shining Armor or Donna Andrews' No Rest for the Wicket. Things like that just kill me! (No pun intended, it just happened!)

Joyce said...

Sandy, I love your new cover!

G.M. Malliet said...

You don't really want to get me started on this topic, do you Sandra?

The second book in my series (Death and the Lit Chick) has an ultra-feminine cover that I am certain makes male readers run for cover. So to speak.

With the third book in the series, the publisher reverted to the more stately and somber look of the frist book, and I am very happy about that. However the second book now looks even more like a tart in church. Should there be a reprint, there is talk of bringing Lit Chick more in line with its brethren.

I really like your cover, by the way.

Patg said...

Gosh, I rarely care what the cover looks like. Yes, some art work in and for itself is interesting, but never is the reason I'd buy a book. But I very rarely go through the stacks hoping to find something. I always have my 'major' list of authors with me, and if I'm just browsing I'm looking at author names, and then blurbs. I think it's because artists rarely get it right, or if they depict characters I've learned that that isn't right once you start reading.
Honestly, the more I think about it, the cover never means anything.
Sorry.
Patg

Avery Aames said...

Sandy, sorry to chime in late. Nice in-depth study. And thanks for including The Long Quiche Goodbye cover. I'm wondering whether the different cover in another country might actually be a ploy so a reader would purchase a book twice. I know when I see a new cover of a book I've read, I actually have to think twice to make sure I've read it. And how about when the publisher changes the title altogether? Very interesting!

Ann Parker said...

Love your cover, Sandy! Very evocative...