Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Cover story

I finished reading a book the other day (no surprises so far). It had a cover that was a perfect illustration (sorry about that) of a discussion I had followed some weeks ago. Namely, what is the cover of a book for (apart from protecting the pages that is)? Which is a clumsy way of saying I haven’t been much impressed with book covers of late. There have been some stunning ones, but on the whole… dull.

But this is not what the discussion was about. Rather, it was about the function of the cover. Is it there to illustrate the content of the book? Is it there to make people buy? Of course, this isn’t really an either/or question. A good cover design should do both. It is, after all, the first thing you see when you pick up the book.

Yet, book buying habits are changing. And along with that, marketing strategies are changing as well. The discussion was prompted by a book that had been given a cover that illustrated the content. The book wasn’t selling well. The publishers changed to cover so that it more closely resembled those ‘chick lit’ (awful term) covers that are jaunty, pastel drawings reminiscent of the opening titles of the TV series Bewitched. It began to sell much better.

It didn’t entirely abandon an attempt to reflect the content, but one wonders what is at work and whether the book, once bought (and hooray to publisher and author for that), was actually read.

The big chain stores frequently (if not permanently) have 3 for 2 promotions. This is fine if you buy in bulk and if the titles you are interested in are included in such an offer. You can perhaps tell from the look that previous sentence exuded, that I don’t and they aren’t. But that is beside the point (I just thought I’d have a grumble). I assume the thinking behind cover design these days is to get a title shifted because the cover looks a bit like books that have been enjoyed previously. Which presupposes people are buying books as much (if not more) on the way they look. Content? Who cares if the tills are ringing and the royalty cheques are fat.

Now, as a writer, I cannot argue with that. I don’t actually make a living from my books. Not many authors do (and even that depends on your definition of ‘a living’). But I do wonder why we seem (and it is only a subjective grumble on my part, I haven’t looked at every cover produced over the last few years) to have abandoned the double approach – that is a cover that accurately reflects/interprets the content whilst also attracting the cash from readers’ pockets.

It seems (that word again) to me that covers are designed by genre rather than by individual book. Thus we have a ‘chick lit’ style, just as we have a ‘fantasy’ style or an ‘sf’ style, ‘crime’ style, and so on.

Or maybe I just don’t get out enough, these days.

Do you have any favourite covers (ancient or modern) that manage that balance of being attractive and accurately interpretive?


Pom said...

My daughter does typically choose books based on covers. Sometimes she's disappointed, other times she's not. The covers of her books tend to be more interesting than the covers of the books that I buy. Though most books I buy are non-fiction and hers are fiction. More room for interpretation in covers there.

I don't choose books based on covers, but a beautiful cover is a bonus. I've bought books before that are re-released with a nicer cover than the one I got and I do get a little twinge of regret that I don't have the prettier covered copy. I'm big on asthetics (pardon my American spelling).

Content is obviously the most important part about buying a book, but as you said, a cover can inspire someone to check out a book they might not otherwise bother with.

liz fenwick said...

I can't say that I do but I do know that when you look at a table full of books covers matter - there is so much choice. If I go into a store to just browse with no set book buying agenda then a cover can make a difference but what it is that attracts me to one cover over another I don't know. I suppose if I did I would be marketing book covers and not trying to write books!

Lane said...

Firstly Happy Birthday!

The publishers really do seem to latch onto a cover design and whack it onto anything don't they. There are an awful lot of covers with the backs of women's heads or their legs(?) I've also noticed a ton of books recently with covers done by (or in the style of) the artist who does the laser cuts - Rob Ryan I think. They're great but on so many covers?

Favourites? I love the Penguin Classic covers and the Virago green spines.

Enjoy your day:-)

Ali said...

I was wondering a similar thing about covers when reading Bren's book Other Side of Virtue. The cover is some young male wearing a gray t-shirt and a leather headband or something. ...I still don't get it. I've only ever had one book (well, chapbook) published, and the cover was a very simple piece of art done by someone else and then chosen by the publisher. It doesn't precisely reflect the contents of the poems in the chapbook, but I think it gets the kind of emotional atmosphere about right (a literal depiction might have been too boring or even distracting). But I've always liked books with very plain covers, just a title, maybe a very simple, artistic photograph... But then, I hardly ever buy current best-sellers. It's Penguin classics for me. ;)

Graeme K Talboys said...

Pom: I suspect the younger the intended audience, the better the cover. I confess to spending more time in the children's/young adult section than the rest of the shop when I go in.

Liz: Good point. I read a series of articles on book cover design once, fascinating stuff and I wish I had kept them. And books are selling, so the covers must still be doing the trick. I am probably indulging in a bit of nostalgia (a bit?).

Lane: Thanks for the birthday wishes. It was a good day. Too much food. Too much chocolate. Penguin Classics are good. I also have a soft spot for their covers from the thirties, and the crime reprints of Margery Allingham (green banded with silhouettes). And I suppose I have to say it at some time, but I was very impressed with the Gollancz covers for Mike Moorcock's Eternal Champion omnibuses, especially the Yoshitaka Amano cover for Count Brass. That was love at first sight.

Ali: Oh yes, what a dreadful cover. That's the people who did 'Way of the Druid' and you should have seen some of the awful ones that tried to get me to accept for that. In the end I threw a tantrum and made them take my own design. Not perfect, but a picture of a young oak tree says it a lot better than a gothic graveyard (oh yes) or a Scottish piper (really). I like the cover of The Rosary Poems. Striking and atmospheric, which is in accord with the content. The notion of a very simple cover reminds of those wonderful Editions de Minuit volumes, always a pleasure to hold (even if I needed the French dictionary in the other hand).