Friday, May 29, 2009

Of Heaven and Hell

Once upon a time, a historical mystery writer penned a rather ghoulish tale set in a dark, ancient crypt and strewn with dead priests and mummified corpses and all manner of nasty secrets. She called her tale What Hell Marks, after a favorite Shakespearian quote. She sent if off to her publishing house, along with what she thought was a great suggestion for a cover, including a menacing arch, a worn staircase, a glimpse of the skirt of a woman running away, and a skull.

Her publishing house said, “You know how we talked about doing something to make this series attract more female readers?”

To which our writer nervously replied, “Yes….”

“Well, we think women would be put off by a book with ‘hell’ in the title. So we’re changing it to What Remains of Heaven.”

Our writer attempted to demur, but The Powers That Be prevailed. (Unless your name is Grisham or King, The Powers That Be nearly always prevail.) Our writer was unhappy, but she’s been in this business long enough to know that she needs to roll with the punches. Then the cover arrived. (Cue screams of horror.)

Unfortunately, our writer is prevented by The Powers That Be from showing you this original version. But let me describe it for you: Drift back in time to the 1960s, when Gothics were all the rage. Got that mindset? Good. Now, picture a woman, barefoot, wearing only a white corset and a petticoat (complete with bare shoulders, heaving bosom, and bare back showing through the lacings of the corset) running up dark castle-like steps wrapped in an ethereal light. Think Sarah Jessica Parker in a corset and torn petticoat being chased by a ghost. You may suspect I am exaggerating. Believe me, I wish I were.

Our author takes one look at this cover and nearly swoons. She frantically calls her agent. She emails her publishing house. She is reminded, not so subtly, that her name is not Grisham or King. She is told, “The marketing department LIKES the cover. We said we wanted to do something to make this series appeal more to female readers, remember?” (Cue death knell in the distance.)

Our author weeps. She pleads. She says, “But it looks like a romance! And it is NOT. Don’t you think this cover sends a false message? This book is strewn with dead bodies.” She is told a new cover would be prohibitively EXPENSIVE. She says, “Can you maybe cut the woman off at the waist so all we see is her skirts?” No. “Then at least photoshop it to make the corset and petticoat a color, and get rid of the bareback seen through the lacing and add sleeves so that it looks like a dress? And put shoes on her feet? And get rid of the paranormal-like lighting effects? And maybe add a skull at the base of stairs? And, and…”

After much grumbling, she receives a new version, and a warning: This is it. Like it or lump it. Alas, our author is lumping it (whatever that means), and crossing her fingers that this cover won’t put off every male reader (and non-romance reading female reader) that her series has.

The cover just went up on Amazon, and already our author has received this comment from a reader named Chen: “Is that really the cover? Or is that a "stand-in" until a cover is finalized? 
I'm hoping it's the latter. Otherwise it gives it too much of a "romance novel" feel. I am really enjoying this series and I guess I'd like to see the book have just the right look… I hope that's not the final cover.”

Alas, Chen; that’s the final cover. Believe me, I feel your pain. Times a million. I try to console myself with the thought that at least it's no longer Sarah Jessica Parker in a corset being chased by a ghost.

So, without further ado, here it is:


laughingwolf said...

gad... that's disgusting, to put it mildly, candy :(

hopefully the cover will be ignored by those familiar with your name and series...

Chap O'Keefe said...

If it's any consolation, I would not be put off by the cover you have been given.

However, I do sympathize sincerely, and I know exactly how you must be feeling. Just recently I had a western published, Blast to Oblivion, that was based (very loosely) on Conan Doyle's Valley of Fear. It featured an ex-Pinkerton detective as its hero. Much of it was set in Denver, Colorado. The cover showed a cowboy in range garb on a bucking bronc. It was not that kind of western at all, of course, but as you say, one rolls with the punches.

Chen said...

Wow, I've never been quoted before! Pretty cool!

I know at this point, it is what it is. But speaking from a business perspective, ThePowersThatBe sort of checked their business sense at the door on this one and allowed the mktg dept to get lazy using dated marketing generalization w/regards to the female readers demographic.

I think we need to introduce the mktg dept to the copyeditors and see if some of the copyeditors' "zeal to minutiae" will rub off.

Chen said...

Oh!! I forgot to say I enjoy your work very much and can't wait until Oct/Nov, when I can purchase The Solomon Effect and What Remains of Heaven.

Charles Gramlich said...

Well, if I didn't know you, I might well simply bypass this book after a glimpse of the cover. If I read the blurbs and the first page or so the cover wouldn't matter but just seeing the cover doesn't convey any cool dead bodies or stuff to me.

Steve Malley said...


Now me, I'm a big fan of that old Gothic cover art-- I paint a fair bit of it myself, for fun. But I wouldn't want to find it on the cover of, say, the latest James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly or Lee Child.

And Sebastian St. Cyr has more in common with Dave Robicheaux, Harry Bosch and (to a lesser extent) Jack Reacher than he does with the sort of floppy-haired fellah you'd expect to find in that book.

Pity your US publisher didn't talk to their Australasian counterparts: your covers here do a much better job...

Ashley McConnell said...

Oh, dear heaven. I commiserate most sincerely on the dreadful cover.

I'm buying the book anyway, of course, but the marketing folks HAVE NO CLUE that this will turn off the intended audience. (Not that they care; after all, more romances sell than mysteries, right? Sheesh.)

Anonymous said...

This is just a guess: Perhaps the recent RITA nomination for WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP has something to do with it?

I don't read her books myself, but just look at the new covers of Lady Julia Something-or-other mysteries by Deanna Raybourn. If I'm not mistaken, Raybourn won a RITA award for SILENT IN THE GRAVE and then came the new covers.


Susan/DC said...

Actually, I think the cover is beautiful. The problem is, I don't think it's the right cover for this book because it's totally misleading. As Candy says, it makes the book look like a woman-in-peril Gothic. I loved some of the old Gothics (some early Mary Stewarts sit firmly on my keeper shelf), but the St Cyr books definitely don't fit into the genre. People who would have loved it may pass it by, and people who want a Gothic may buy it and then get annoyed because it wasn't what they'd thought.

Must admit to annoyance at the words of wisdom that come down from on high in Marketing departments. If they knew how often I bought a book in spite of the cover rather than because of the cover, they might not be so quick to make generalizations about what covers appeal to women.

Misti said...

I agree it isn't a terrible cover...for a different book. But I'll buy it and read it anyway because I already love the series, no matter what the book looks like. However, I must say I really love the looks of the other books in the series. Those covers are one of the reasons I picked up the books in the first place.
And I'm female and I'd definitely read a book with "Hell" in the title. :)

liz fenwick said...

I definately don't like the cover having read and loved the other books. So as a reader I will buy the book despite the cover as I'm sure will most. But as for new??? And I am the market they are targeting.... There was and interesting post on the blog of Snow Books, an independent publisher in the UK. Here's the link.

BTW i picked up the book and its on my tbr pile -so it will be interesting to see how I feel about book verus cover

PeggyP said...

Candy, I learned a really, really long time ago not to judge books by the covers...or I'd have missed out on some great books over the years. I don't hate this cover but I see what you mean as to it being deceiving...but is your publisher trying to suck in more romance buyers...and would that be a bad thing for you?

Anyway, I'm always looking forward to your next book - no matter what the covers portray!

cs harris said...

laughingwolf, you're right, the people who like the series would probably pick up the book anyway. It's the new readers that are going to be either turned off, or buy the book looking for something it's not.

Chap, sorry to hear your Blast to Oblivion (great title, by the way!) cover sends the wrong message, too. And you're right, it happens to us all, and all we can do is sigh and keep going.

Chen, of course I quoted you--you inspired the blog post! And in my experience, marketing departments give new meaning to the word slothful. And I'm glad to hear you're going to be purchasing the book despite its cover!

Charles, my worry is that with a cover like that, a lot of readers won't bother to pick it up and read the blurb. That the cover's job--to entice a reader who would like the book to pick it up and investigate more.

cs harris said...

Steve, the original version of the cover was really pretty--much prettier than this muddied, altered version. It was just so wrong.

Ashley, thanks. And you're right, those guys are clueless.

Zinnuraain, you're right about the influence of the Deanna Raybourn books. Of course, Mira gave DR's first book a whopping $100,000 promotion budget, which is what blasted her out there. The thing is, her books are light costume pieces with a huge romantic element, rather than being darker historical mysteries with a small romantic subplot. I think DR's first covers were wrong for her books and they've now found the right look for her. But that look is wrong, wrong, wrong, for the Sebastian series.

Susan, I was a huge fan of the old Mary Stewart Gothics! It's just so frustrating when covers send a false message like this.

Misti, I thought that business about "hell" was just plain weird.

Liz, an interesting article. I especially liked the bit about, "Covers are a filter...a visual clue." Which pretty neatly explains where these guys went wrong.

PeggyP, glad to hear you're not put off by the cover!

Faith said...

ok. So the cover doesn't really fit the series. But I still think that as long as it says a "Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery" on it, your readers will pick it up. And you never know you might end up with some new readers too. Maybe as a signing giveaway you could give out book covers for all the guys who think it looks like a romance-y cover. :-)

Anonymous said...

Poor you!
Despite the cover I already preodered the book...

cs harris said...

Faith, you may be right, that the cover could entice readers who wouldn't otherwise have picked up the book but discover they like it.

Anonymous, thank you!

orannia said...

HI! *waves*

I'm a new reader to your books - I just finished When Gods Die and I've been raving to all and sundry about it...and informing my local library that they need more copies of What Angels Fear!

I feel your pain over the cover of What Remains of Heaven (and the title change). Sometimes I wonder if the various marketing departments don't sit in their big glass offices and assume a lot of things based on 'what should be'. Regardless of the cover, I will definitely be reading your latest book (my library is purchasing it)...I just have to read the third and fourth books first...such a hardship :)

cs harris said...

Hi Orannia, and glad to hear you like the series!

Brianna said...

First and foremost, I love your novels (Sebastian and your earlier stand alone romances), and I can't wait to get my hands on the next installment.

I really hate it when covers change style mid-way through the series. I love the first 4 covers, but this new one just doesn't cut it.

What bull about it 'appealing to female readers' - I'm female, and the other covers appealed to me. And do these marketing morons not read sites like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books - bodice ripping/man-titty covers do not appeal to women.

Anonymous said...

I love the covers of the other books....this one doesn't really blend. I recommend these books to alot of people. I LOVED "Where serpents sleep"

Anonymous said...

ok, cool... i just made lots of different emo backgrounds 4 my blog

Anonymous said...

Good points…I would note that as someone who really doesn’t write on blogs much (in fact, this may be my first post), I don’t think the term “lurker” is very becoming to a non-posting reader. It’s not your fault really , but perhaps the blogosphere could come up with a better, non-creepy name for the 90% of us that enjoy reading the posts.

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