Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Judging a Book by its Cover

As a writer, few things cause me as much angst as my books’ covers. Why? Because a book’s cover is constantly cited as one of the most important factors influencing a reader’s decision to pick it up. Yet ironically it’s the one aspect of a book in which writers have the least input.

Titles are also important, and in some genres a writer has almost no influence there either. I wrote seven romance novels and NOT ONE went to press with my original title or even one of my first half dozen alternate suggestions. I seem to have better luck with my mystery and thriller titles. So far all my Sebastian St. Cyr books have gone to press with their original titles intact. My thriller title stuck as well.

But it’s now cover conference time for THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT, which means I’m starting to fret. The decisions being made in that anonymous room up in New York could very well make a difference between this book’s success and oblivion. Sometimes art departments turn in stunning results—WHY MERMAIDS SING, for instance. And then there are the dogs. The cover of WHEN GODS DIE was a severe disappointment. But since ARCHANGEL is my first thriller, I don’t know what to expect.

We actually started down this road a few months ago, then Harper Collins bailed because they hadn’t decided yet whether they wanted to bring ARCHANGEL out in hardcover or as a paperback original (and that makes a difference, it seems, in the cover). Steve and I did “thriller cover research” and were amused to realize that thriller covers are as stereotypic as romance covers. A thriller or suspense novel typically has either a woman in a dress and heels or a man in a suit running down a shadowy street. Sometimes the man is walking, but if so, then he must be in a trench coat. If the book doesn’t take place in a city, then we have a stark, scary scene of rural menace.

There are a few book covers that break this mold, but they are rare. Why? Because publishers think readers are stupid. The woman in heels running down a dark street tells readers This Is A THRILLER, just as a shadowy historical street scene tells readers This Is a Historical Mystery. The fear is that if publishers stick a different cover on a book, readers looking for a thriller or historical mystery won’t recognize it.

Yet the Da Vinci Code had a great, different cover and I’ve no doubt it contributed much to the book’s success (that and the largest marketing push in publishing history). A recent informal survey of mystery readers revealed that most historical mystery readers actually don’t even know that dark historical street scene covers are a clue they should be looking for. Of course, everyone in the world knows that a “clinch” cover is shorthand for romance. Romance writers complained about those covers for years, but publishers clung to them because they were convinced they’d lose readers if they tried something different. Then they tried something different and, lo and behold, books with innovative covers sold better. Who’d have thunk?

The funny thing is, even though I know better, I find I still judge a book by its cover, at least initially. An eye-catching cover and an intriguing title will lure me to pick up a book. I’ll then read the blurb and, if I think it sounds interesting, I’ll read the first few pages to get a feel for a writer’s style. If that appeals to me, I’ll buy the book. But that first step—reaching out and taking the book in my hand—is provoked by the title and the cover. And that’s a scary thought.


Charles Gramlich said...

Although I will, on very rare occassions, pick up a book to look at it because of the cover, I will not look further than the cover unless it has an interesting title and/or is in one of the genres I habitually read. I personally have zero interest in the covers of any book I buy. Now, if the same book has two different covers and is the same price, I might buy the more appealing cover, but that's pretty much it. Offhand, I think I could only remember the covers of maybe the last few books I've read. I remember content, title, author, much more.

Shauna Roberts said...

Let's hope for your and other writers' sake, Candace, that few book readers are like me. At a brick-and-mortar store, I'll buy a book if the cover appeals and the back cover description sounds interesting. I don't usually open the book.

Oddly enough, I've rarely been disappointed with books I've bought for their covers. Perhaps the genre conventions the artists use sometimes supply enough information for purchasers to identify what they might like.

Or maybe I'm just easy to please.

Steve Malley said...

The comment I was writing got long-winded and had links I don't know how to work in it.

I'll put it up as a blog post over at my house...


Samantha said...

Interesting titles are what usually attract my attention, more than the cover. Once the title has gotten my attention, I tend to look at the cover and make my decision based on it and (some times) the blurb. Generally speaking, the books I've liked best were the ones I chose based on the title and cover rather than those that were recommended to me.

liz fenwick said...

If in a book store I do tend to do as Shauna says but now being lazy I buy most of my books on Amazon where the cover Doesn't have much of an impact. The blurb and maybe a reader review or two ...... Maybe it's the tactile thing when you are in a bookstore which when on Amazon is totally lost?

Chap O'Keefe said...

To the list of genres on which publishers foist cliché covers you can surely add the western. Many of them are provided through international agencies that sell the rights in the art to more than one language market. Sometimes a cover even gets used again a few years for a different book from a different publisher operating in the same market!

I suspect this might happen around the world with romances and thrillers, too.

The generic western cover has men, horses and guns -- often with no more distinction than the embraces on the romance covers. My publisher hasn't found it easy to match art from agency libraries with the Misfit Lil books. Then again, the cover for my last non-ML western, SONS AND GUNSLICKS, had a cover I couldn't recognize as belonging to the story I wrote either! And the cover for MISFIT LIL FIGHTS BACK, out shortly, is a beauty by Prieto Muriana.

I can't bring myself to complain that the horse rider looks like she might be a blonde under her hat rather than a brunette. Or that she isn't clad in fringed buckskin. Or that her horse is a black rather than a gray. Or that the rustling scene in the story took place by moonlight.

One of the series' other artists tells me his covers are all generic, fitted in between his other work. "Because of the high turnover of my work these covers have to be created very quickly, often within one day."

For books reissued in large-print, the same artist tells me he works from the blurb -- "although these are often fairly generic in appearance as there is often not a lot of detail in the blurb."

I've had to change only one western book title -- my first, because the publisher had already used the original title on another book. Alhough he was not entirely happy with THE REBEL AND THE HEIRESS or MISFIT LIL GETS EVEN, both survived and as far as I know neither book has been less well received than any other.

Blurbs are usually requested from the authors. Sometimes they are cut and rewritten -- not always for reasons apparent to the author.

You're right -- the importance of covers and titles is scary to think about too much.

cs harris said...

Chap, I suspect the recycling of covers, particularly for foreign translations, is common in all genres. I know one of my foreign rights romance publishers (Germany? Norway?) gave Night in Eden a horrid yellow and pink cover with kangaroos in the background. I've since seen other romances published here in the States with that cover.

Rebecca Benston said...

Sometimes, a cover will catch my eye, but more often than not, I read the back cover to get the best idea of whether or not I will like the book. Since I tend to read more non-fiction books than fiction, the covers really don't give much away in terms of what's inside.