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!