Wednesday, September 26, 2012
by Sandra Parshall
After seeing three current suspense novels with covers featuring what appears to be the same woman – wearing a red coat and boots, running away, dark hair flying – I began thinking about how hard it is to come up with original covers and, even more so, titles.
A few years ago, two books appeared simultaneously with identical covers, except for the titles and author names, of course. How does that happen?
Lines like Obsidian and Berkley Prime Crime cozies have custom-painted covers, but they all have a similar style so they look very much alike. That’s deliberate branding of an entire line, rather than individual authors.
Many other publishers have covers built around images licensed from stock photo services. While the aim is originality, the probability is high that more than one designer will eventually use the same image. I suppose they’re more likely to do so simultaneously if the picture is new and striking. Still, it’s not common for the covers to be identical in every respect, because designers combine images, imbedding one picture in another to get the desired effect. The covers with the running woman in the red coat all place her in different backgrounds.
Duplicate titles, on the other hand, are plentiful. The title Gone is a good example. A few years ago, Lisa Gardner and Jonathan Kellerman both had novels titled Gone on the bestseller lists at the same time. This year alone we’ve seen books called Gone by Mo Hayder, Cathi Hanauer, Randy Wayne White, and Jennifer Mills, along with books whose titles include the word: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Gone Missing by Linda Castillo, Gone Tomorrow by Lee Child, Long Gone by Alastair Burke, Miss Me When I’m Gone by Emily Arsenault, Gone, Gone, Gone by Hannah Moskowitz, Little Girl Gone by Drusilla Campbell, Gone West by Carola Dunn, Tuesday’s Gone by Nicci French, and no doubt others I haven’t seen.
You might conclude, correctly, that Gone is a favorite of authors and publishers. But a handful of other words also appear over and over in mystery/thriller/suspense titles. Search Amazon for titles containing murder, dead, deadly, death, kill, secret/secrets, hidden, dangerous/danger, and you’ll get thousands of results in the crime fiction category alone. Murder is the most commonly used, but death and dead are included in a multitude of titles.
We choose these words, of course, to clue in readers: This book is a crime novel. But is it any wonder that they have trouble recalling titles of specific books? I have this problem myself, and it’s not always during a senior moment. I can recall the plot and author, but the title may be so generic that it doesn’t stick in my mind. When I look at my notebook of books I’ve read (or listened to), I frequently can’t connect those similar-sounding titles to the stories they represent.
When I come up with what I believe is a great title, I don’t broadcast it until I’m getting close to actual production of the book. I don’t want to see it on another published book before I’ve had a chance to use it. The Heat of the Moon hasn’t been duplicated on a crime novel as far as I know, probably because it wouldn’t fit many books. I was amazed when I checked on Disturbing the Dead and discovered it hadn’t been used on a mystery before. Broken Places and variations on it have been used, though, and the same year my book was published Karin Slaughter published her international bestseller Broken. Although I didn’t like the title Under the Dog Star much (and still don’t), and it had appeared on a couple of other books some time ago, it was unique as a mystery title and I couldn’t come up with anything I liked better. Bleeding Through is similarly uncommon (although I keep getting Google alerts about a rock band with that name). The title of the book I’m writing now? I’m not telling, not yet.
I’m curious about how others view titles and cover design. Will you take a minute to answer a short poll?
Does the duplication of titles annoy you, or do you feel it doesn’t matter?
Are you attracted to books with words like dead, deadly, gone, secret, dangerous, etc., in the titles?
Are you attracted to crime novels with “literary” titles that don't sound like mysteries?
Are you attracted to novels with place names as titles?
Further reading: In this 2011 blog, six writers talk about covers they’ve loved and hated.
A quote from Kate Christensen: “The cover for the hardback of Trouble made me unhappy, but no one would budge on it, so there it stayed. My mother thought it was a picture of me; I thought it was flat-out weird. I still dislike it.”