Judging a cover by its book – reprise

August 20, 2007

Judging by the page views on my previous cover art post, it’s a topic of interest. Here is my 9780778326175_fireside_fc. My friend Karen posted a question about cover art on my web site message board.

“Why doesn’t an author have more input? ….it’s YOUR work and I would think…the author would know best. “I’ve passed over books that had terrible covers on them before…only to have them sent by a book review club that I belong to. Authors and books that I NEVER would have read because of a cover…were GREAT! So? What’s the mindset?”

I gave a talk at a library recently, and we touched on this in the Q&A. Covers matter to readers. We writers might wish that it’s all about story and voice and our unique view of the world, but readers are quick to say that reading a book is about more than words on a page. And so often, the writer’s preference isn’t the best choice for the book. One case in point is the Lakeshore Chronicles covers. I favored a really contemporary, more graphic look for the books, but my publisher kept coming back with this peaceful, nostalgic retro scene. And they were right. The look fits the books, and it draws the eye of the reader most likely to enjoy this type of story.

Sometimes the writer isn’t always the best judge of what her book should look like. I’m not saying she shouldn’t get to voice her opinion, but ultimately, it’s a packaging and marketing issue. I’m not a marketer. There are things I understand about marketing, but I feel better knowing it’s being handled by professionals.

On the other hand, authors can be really influential–and boy, can Hummingbirdthey ever be right. A famous example is the great LaVyrle Spencer, so hugely popular in her time that she was able to influence her cover designs. She wanted to be rid of the embracing-couple look on her books, because she knew that what went on in the bedroom between her characters was not the most important element of the story. It rarely is in romance novels, despite what critics (most of whom have never read one) like to think. [Note: My own books average around 400 printed pages. The sex scenes take up maybe five pages of that. ]

You could see LaVyrle’s covers change Hummingbird reprintas her popularity grew. She went from a classic bodice-ripper look to covers completely dominated by her name, which was the main selling point, anyway. Ultimately, Hummingbird reprintLaVyrle’s publisher found a great look by giving her a bouquet of flowers, with the illustration of the couple on the inside. These were among the first “step-back” covers and readers loved them–a romantic outer cover on the outside and a picture of the characters on the inside. LaVyrle has always been one of the smartest authors in the business.

The degree to which the author is involved in her cover design process varies a lot. Some of us have “cover consultation” specified in our contracts. However, “consultation” can mean anything from major input to simply receiving a picture in e-mail and being asked, “How do you like this?”

An author might be granted the right of “cover approval” in her contract. This might sound desirable, but do you really want to take ultimate responsibility for book design? In my case, no, not anymore than I want an art director telling me how to write my book.

I can think of one writer who would probably disagree with that–James Bernard Frost, a first-time novelist, who caused a bit of a kerfluffle when he publicly and vociferously objected to his cover art. It so happens that his publisher, in my opinion, creates some of the best artwork in the business. According to his blog, he was so hugely unhappy with the art that he took matters into his own hands.

original artre-designed coverauthor's version

The original version (above, left) was beautiful and evocative. I might have picked it up, but according to the author’s blog, he didn’t care for it. I understand that every author has a vision in his or her head of what the finished book will look like. In my case (and apparently in this author’s as well), it’s a collage of images from the story. Well, guess what? These images don’t always add up to the perfect cover. Sometimes, you have to allow that, in a crowded market, a single, stark image will make your book stand out. If that image doesn’t literally nail the book’s content, so what? That is not the goal. The goal is to get the book into the hands of the reader most likely to enjoy your book.

The second version of the Frost book, created in response to the author’s objections to the first, didn’t appeal to me, but I might not be the reader for this kind of book. Finally, the clearly frustrated author had an illustrator create a sticker to cover up the publisher’s art. I wonder how that’s working for him. The tagline of his blog says “The life and opinions of an agentless novelist.” Agentless? Maybe that’s a clue. My literary agent has extremely good judgment when it comes to things like cover art.

On the other hand, this author’s blog post about the whole kerfluffle shows passion and commitment on his part. In the hopes that this dramatic flair will come through in his fiction, I submitted a patron purchase request for his book to my local library.

To read a series of articles with in-depth information about book covers, please visit author Laura Resnick’s web site and click on the link to “A book by its cover.”

[COMING UP: How does a good book wind up with a bad cover? Check back for more in a future post.]

  • I don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

    While the cover of a book may “grab my attention” I don’t feel it’s
    fair to soley judge a book by it’s cover. The story should count as
    well as the cover.

    However, since we live in such a visual society getting that stand out “gotcha cover” will get us readers to pick up the book.

    At the same time, a cover should also give us a glimpse into the
    promise of what is to come. It should not only grab our attention
    but, wet our appetitie for more and make us want to take that
    book home with us.

    In other words, a COVER should enhance as well as compliment
    the story that is written in between the pages of the book.

  • First time here, but I kinda agree with you, good books these days are ending up with the worst covers. Authors should be allowed more input on design. As for the images in the post, I kinda like the original one more than the one the author requested, it’s simplicity is really touching.

  • Thanks to James for commenting! (His book is in the blog entry above). I don’t disagree with his statement at all — the cover needs to grab the audience. But then there’s this huge divergence of opinion. See, I get “alienation” from the publisher’s original cover, but that’s just me and I might not be the target reader. To me, the sticker cover says “graphic novel” but then again, that could just be me.

    Market studies have shown that a browsing reader in the bookstore gives less than a second per book as he’s shopping. So you have less than a second to shout, “Pick me up! I’m your kind of book!” In that sense, the stark black-and-white of the sticker is the most striking.

    I have four or five book covers that never made it to the final. I’m going to do a blog entry posting them so we can discuss further.

    Best of luck to James and congrats on your debut.

  • Hi Susan,

    Always entertaining to see what other people have to say about my sticker cover.

    IMHO, a cover is all about audience… who is your audience and what would draw them to your book. My book is about a group of twenty-to-thirty somethings who, for various reasons, feel alienated from modern day life, and who take to online gaming as a means of escape. I wanted a cover for my book that was in and of itself an “escape,” and that appealed to a wide swath of people who share this feeling of alienation. In short, I wanted something different and edgy.

    For reasons that I go into into detail about on my blog this didn’t happen (not the least of which being that my agent had left the business by the time by book went to print), but in some ways the home-grown look of the sticker cover–and the symbolic nature of sticking a sticker over the original cover of the book–seemed more appropriate to the book in the end then if the publisher had nailed the cover.

    Anyway, thanks for mentioning me on your blog, and I hope you enjoy the book. (And by all means, visit my site and order a sticker 😉 )

  • I adore LaVyrle Spencer!
    Honestly, I rarely use he cover to influence what I buy. Usually I read the first few pages, and if it engages me, I’ll get it. Then I’ll read everything I can find by that author. That’s how I discovered you. You’re one of my favourites. Thanks for all those hours of enjoyment!

  • I’m with Pat, I always judge a book by it’s cover! I read what the book is about and then the first page. if it grabs me then I buy it! I also read what others say about the book.

  • I think, too, that I would actually trust the commerical judgment and expertise of someone who does this (develop book covers for manuscripts) for a living. What the hell do I know about book covers and how customers react to them? I just write.

  • I may initially pick a book off a shelf because of the cover picture, but I base my final decision on 1) the blurb and 2) A quick scan of the first couple pages. Those two criteria, especiall the second, inform my decision on whether to purchase it. It’s sort of like picking a dress out of the display in a store window. The way it looks on the mannequin may appeal to me, but my reflection in the fitting room mirror and the way the material feels on my body are the factors that decide the yeah or nay for me.

    For my favorite writers, their name on the cover is sufficient. They’re one of my brand names, just like i always check out Eileen Fisher clothes first when I’m clothes shopping.

  • Surprising, even to me, I will be buy a book 90% of the time because of the cover picture. I read the cover synopsis, but rarely read the first paragraph. I know, in life experience, that it is BAD practice to judge people by their covers…so who knows why I judge a book by it’s cover!
    Truly a “kerfluffle”!

  • When I peruse the bookstores for potential new authors to read; I do sort of “sweep”….whichever book covers look pleasing and interesting, which can be unfair, because I could be missing out on a great story. But I have to admit, a bookcover like you have posted as an example, I will pass it up. My impression is that is all the book is about–“ripping off the bodice-type”, and deep down I know that may not be the case. Another truth that I may not want to admit to is that I read my books everywhere and I think there is a perception that if you are seen reading those types of books, you are reading “racy material”?? This definitely is an interesting subject! I would like to know others opinions on this.

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