Wednesday, September 26, 2012

That looks...sounds..familiar

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.”


Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sandra,
I have written about the importance of choosing characters' names and, in a recent interview, I mentioned that this extends to titles. Thanks for your discussion of choosing covers and titles. Both cover art and title are important in their own right, but you also reminded us of the synergism that the two must have.
I too don't mention titles until the book is done and in the editing stage. I often have a list of potential titles and choose the finalist when I send the MS off to be formatted for eBooks and to the cover artist. My requirement for a title is that it must say something about the book. The Midas Bomb, for example, says Wall Street and terrorism. Come Dance a Cumbia...with Stars in Your Hand!, my most recent and longest title, is more subtle. The exotic Cumbia is supposed to hint at the epic nature of this sci-fi thriller; and Stars, instead of a candle, is supposed to indicate sci-fi. (I might have gone over the top on that one.)
Titles also lead to unintended consequences. Full Medical, a sci-fi thriller about a cloning conspiracy, was interviewed once as a critique on medical coverage in the U.S. (there are some elements of that, but it is fiction and cloning and conspiracy are the main themes).
For cover art, I bow to artistic inspiration. I generally write a few lines about what I would like and the artist does his thing. In hindsight, that misses the synergism you spoke to, but by that time the artist knows the title. The good ones have built in that synergism.
All the best,

judyalter said...

Did you ever notice how many novels--not necessarily mysteries--had "Daughter" in the title a year or so ago?

Sandra Parshall said...

Oh, yes, I couldn't help noticing all the daughters popping up in titles. And they just keep coming, even after publishers and authors have seen the glut of them already on the market. What are they thinking??

Sandra Parshall said...

As for covers, another image that's been popular for a while is leafless trees. I've had four covers with leafless trees or branches on them, and I thought it was time for a change. I begged for a Bleeding Through cover with no trees! The artist came up with a stunning, and beautifully different, cover on his very first try. I love it. Thank you, Patrick, for my striking and original cover!

Sheila Connolly said...

Please remember that we poor authors have little control over either our titles or our cover images. Sometimes we're allowed to tweak (why did you put a Victorian house on the cover of a book where the central theme is a colonial?), but most decisions appear to be made by Marketing, whoever they are. They decide what sells. Sometimes they're wrong.

You're right about the branding that goes on. I wonder if there's an optimal distance from which you can identify the genre of any book? Black and red says suspense or thriller. Soft pastels and many small details often say cozy. I'm sure Marketing carries out studies on this sort of stuff--but they don't check in with other publishers to see what's in the pipeline.

I think it was Barry Eisler who said that one of his overseas covers consisted of a green garage door and nothing else. It didn't relate to anything at all.

I will add that for Once She Knew I requested a cover that was a combination of vintage Nancy Drew and Edward Hopper. I got exactly what I wanted.

Terry Parrish said...

For me, I really don't pay attention to titles or covers. I go for the author, and the synopsis of the book. Thats what sells me on them. If the cover is nice, thats okay. If there are people or (person) on there, thats okay, too. If the cover is blank with just the title and author, thats fine by me. Seems it would be better with just a one color cover, and authors would'nt have to worry about competing for a great design on their book. But thats just me. All I really care about is whats INSIDE the book.

Anonymous said...

For THE DARK HOUR, I submitted a couple dozen titles, words choices, actually. Marketing came up with that one. I chose one title for BLACK LIST, the book that comes out this Dec. a month after TDH. They actually liked that one, added "The" to it. Covers submitted to art department, art approved, all is good in the world. And then Brad Thor releases BLACK LIST last month. I'm just glad it's a big name. Maybe I'll get someone accidentally ordering my title. Once can only hope.

This will be the second time I've had a title the same as another author. I once showed up to a book club meeting, and the woman brought her copy of that other author's book! Sigh...

As for literary titles? I would say they put me off, unless there is a really intriguing cover that makes me pick it up, or I know the author. (Unless, of course, I'm actually looking for something literary.)

BPL Ref said...

Oh, those duplicate titles! Just this morning I had someone ask for "Presumed Guilty." Our catalog listed at least six books by that title. It gets frustrating if the person doesn't know the author or a bit of what the book's about. Equally frustrating are the "near matches" like Now You See Her, Now You See Him, Now You See Me, Now You See Them. . . .

Thanks for another interesting post!

Sandra Parshall said...

Duplicate titles are a much worse problem than similar covers, for the reasons Jeanne mentions. How on earth can readers find your book if all they know is the title and zillions of other books have the same title?

Robin: You have my sympathy. :-(

Maybe it's time for writers to work on changing this situation by coming up with better titles, perfectly suited to our books -- fresh rather than utilitarian, and so good that our publishers will love them too. (I chose the titles of all my books, and my editor never mentioned changing them.)

Leslie Budewitz said...

Another trend, about the same time as the "Daughter" titles, was the cover with the headless woman in an elegant dress, often a historic style.

What covers feature the woman in the red coat besides Hank Phillippi Ryan's The Other Woman? (In which a woman really does wear a red coat ... .)

Sandra Parshall said...

I was hoping to avoid mentioning names, Leslie. :-) I don't want the writers to think I'm trying to embarrass them.

Anonymous said...

Actually had to laugh at the mention of the same woman in the same coat. She's on the cover of my next two books, only the coat is black. In fact, the covers are so close to each other, when my daughter saw them, she wanted to know why both books had the same cover. They're coming out back to back, this Dec/Jan. Different titles, of course, and different colored lettering. I thought the covers were great, from a branding stance--until my kid opened her mouth. (I still think they're great, but now I'm worried that others might look at the latter book and dismiss it as having already read it, perhaps missing the title? I'd be curious to know what others think.)

Sandra Parshall said...

I started worrying about the leafless trees on my covers when Ellen Byerrum casually asked me, "Do you think your covers are too similar?" (Thanks, Ellen.) There's definitely a downside.

Patg said...

I have to admit to looking at covers as I scroll down a list of suggestions. If something catches my eye, I look at title then the blurb. Neither influence me until I read the blurb.
Those redundant words don't bother me, but your comments on them made me laugh.
My book title was used before, however it was about a different kind of downsizing.
There was a post about a panel at Bouchercon coming up concerning bad covers. I will say I am turned off by, and rarely read, covers with human faces. One, the character's image has already been decided for the reader. Second, it worries me that the book will be full of filler descriptions.
My book was assigned an artist whose covers I didn't like. They all had drawn humans and they all looked odd. So I did the rapid fire thing you learn when working for large corporations, and was assigned to one who understood what I wanted. The pink slip wasn't exactly what I wanted, but I liked the overall design.

Sandra Parshall said...

Pat, I guess you'll be skipping my new book because of its cover. :-) I promise, though, that it's not full of filler descriptions!

Patg said...

Sandy, the whole other side of this story is when I am dealing with established writers I like. If I see the name, cover, title and blurb don't matter.

Sandra Parshall said...

Whew. Assuming, of course, that I'm in that category! :-)

Anonymous said...

Which is fine if someone knows your name. But it's a bear if they do not!

There is no doubt in my mind that if a cover is intriguing, I will pick it up. If not, I won't.

A title works the same, but honestly I think a cover is more important. (This is beyond the author's name. Obviously if one is familiar with the author, all bets are off.)

The point is to get someone to pick up the book to begin with. It's why we see so many familiar covers after a big hit. Cover draws them in, author (if known), and title.

Readers gravitate toward what they like, what they're familiar with, etc. But every now and then a new type of cover pops up, and it's intriguing enough for someone to pick it up, because it is so different. To me, therein lies the key. You Want that book in someone's hand, because then they'll read the blurb.

To me, a cover is far more important than the title. Thoughts?

Sharon Hopkins said...

I have definitely noticed an abundance of similar covers and titles. When looking at books to buy, if I don't know the author, I study the cover first, then turn to the snyopsis and to any blurbs, then oftentimes I read the first page. So for me, a cover is extremely important. I feel I have original covers that reflect the story on both my books, Killerwatt, and Killerfind. The titles are also original since I "made up" those words.

Sandra Parshall said...

Some of my favorite authors have had covers that I thought were hideous, but I knew the writers so the covers didn't deter me. Covers are certainly more important than titles when all the titles sound alike.

Ellen Byerrum said...

I love this discussion, Sandy, it's really thought provoking. And while I don't specifically remember asking about your covers, it sounds like something I'd been wondering about with my own covers. I love my Crime of Fashion covers but after the third blue cover, I started begging for a different background color. I think people might say, "I already have the blue one."

Sheila Connolly said...

On the first page of Once She Knew, I wrote, "Cover art: The people on the cover had no heads, and their clothes seemed to be falling off, assisted by various male and female hands." When I was entering that in various romance contests a while back, it ticked off a lot of the romance writers. But it's true! t certainly sends a message: it's the body that counts!

Leslie Budewitz said...

So I'll be scouring the shelves at the next bookstore I visit, looking for women in red coats!

Whether the title or cover hooks me first depends on whether I hear about the book first or see it first. If it sounds intriguing from a conversation, live or online, then the cover doesn't matter -- esp if I order it from the library and only see a thumbnail. But browsing in a bookstore or online, that cover can make a big difference. I suspect they mean more to "ordinary" (e.g., non-writer) readers, because writers choose many of the books we read for reasons other than "that sounds good," e.g., we met the author and liked her, we've been hearing great things and want to know what she's up to, we're moderating a panel and want to be prepared, etc.

Sandra Parshall said...

Yeah, Sheila, all romance readers care about is the body. We mystery lovers will take the head, thank you very much. LOL

Donis Casey said...

I think that occasionally the stars just align in a weird way. In '08 I had a book come out called "The Drop Edge of Yonder", which is an archaic (to say the least) Western saying that means 'the brink of death'. I had done a Worldcat search and of course found no such title, until just 2 months after my book release, Randy Wurlitzer, a well-known author of Westerns,came out with a book with EXACTLY THE SAME TITLE! Since they were released in different genres so close together, there is no way anyone copied anyone else. I guess we are both just old Westerners, because who else would have even heard such a saying?

Donis Casey said...

p.s. I noticed that a few years ago there were an inordinate number of titles with the word 'Bee" in them.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reminding everyone the title isn't necessarily the author's choice, same with the cover. I'd just die if I got the cover I saw on one nonfiction book. Plain ugly green. The topic encompassed areas of great beauty that could have been photographed. All of the publisher in question's other books had covers worth buying for the cover alone.

Re similar titles: I have wondered why, I have found it annoying, I have especially felt bad for the authors and wondered what happened. Glad you raised the topic.

I haven't even told the cousin who inspired one of my future titles what (I hope) it will be. (What I want it to be will be in the intro so regardless.)

My biggest problem with the same title issue is we live in an era when people don't LISTEN what you are ordering so unless you are ordering online where you punch in the order you are at risk of getting one of the others. This may create annoyance toward a perfectly good book I would fear.

I was deeply annoyed at those who named the Sean Penn movie "We're No Angels" in an era when people don't listen to what you are ordering. And then sure enough: I stressed over and over to the order person at Camelot (this was back in the '90s they already weren't listening) that I was ordering the 1954 Bogart & co. one, NOT the Sean Penn "We're No Angels" but guess what arrived. The newer Sean Penn one. (It stood out because of how carefully and lengthily I had to stress which one it was.) Finally after insisting on it, I got the one I wanted -- well worth owning multiple copies of -- but because of the annoyance I never bought the other one which looks from bits I have seen of it on t.v. like it too was worth seeing.

I fear this for those authors whose books were not first choice but might otherwise be second or third.

FWIW, I love leafless trees in photographs and in life. I photograph so many of them my husband teases me about them, can't get enough of photographing them or looking at them, but I am not a cover artist.

The unintended consequences that Steven M. Moore mentioned re "Full Medical" was good in the sense of you see how carelessly thrown together & idiotic some who pass for "journalists" are. For real journalists, I see a story: how did that one get the job. In my town, the children of the oligarchs get the jobs first, leftovers to others. Was that the case in the example he lists?

Dru said...

If I discount the authors that I know, I'm a cover person. It's the visual image that will cause me to pick up the book. The title and the blurb will make the difference if this book because a purchased book or a leave on the shelf book.

With near-named titles among us, we have to know the author name or we'll either wind up with a new-to-use author or a book that is not read.

GED ONLINE said...

Nice look into the world of thriller writing! Excellent job :)*

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