Monday, July 20, 2009

Better Late Than Never

First, RIP, Frank McCourt. You'll be missed.

Remember our discussion on book covers? Well, looks like Bantam changed it up this time around:

Your Heart Belongs to Me

(The cover for the mass market edition.)

Many of you mentioned in your comments on the original post (see link, above) that your books (or books you had heard of) had terrible covers for the original hardcover that were rectified in the later trade paper/mass market incarnations. Looks like this happens to everyone—even Dean Koontz.

So I suggest the following: first, check out Sonya Chung's recent post on what jacket design is like from an author's point of view, and then (to borrow from Nathan), you tell me: Why do you think publishers (occasionally severely) misjudge their cover art? Why do they suffer the same pitfalls over and over?


  1. Part of the problem is that the cover often must denote the genre: the romantic clinch, a swastika for WWII, a long pair of skinny legs or a cocktail glass for chicklit, a woman in leather pants or a close-up of nakedness for female-protagonist urban fantasy. So there're already some fairly severe limitations on many covert.

    And then, as an author, I suspect office politics.

    I know the cover is awful. Anyone who is not visually-challenged knows the cover is awful. But the Art Department already paid the publisher's son's roommate $500 for it, and by God they're not gonna write that off.

    So my editor (who inevitably says, "When we showed the cover to Marketing, they loved it. I agree it's not perfect, but they think it'll really sell." Every time. Every editor.) has to decide between pissing off the Art Department, with whom she's got 19 books in the pipeline, and with whom she'll be working for another 10 years, and pissing off some midlist author whose latest book sold 28 copies. That's the easiest decision of her day.

    So I don't think they really 'misjudge' the covers. I think that some people in the Art Department are bad at their jobs, and it's easier for everyone concerned to simply ignore the problem.

  2. I think a lot about covers. I want one of three things (if not all) from a cover:
    -something that illustrates the story or main characters (that brings me into the novel or book)
    -something provocative that makes me think STRONGLY about the theme
    -or beautiful original art that I just WANT for beauty's sake (for example, this works especially well and is good with poetry and literary fiction at times)

    What I see that seems (IMHO) to fail with covers is most often:
    -following tired ideas or "trends" in cover art
    -going with cheap on cheap (just fonts or just a single bland color cover)
    -cover so offensive that people do not want to touch it, pick it up or be assoiciated with handling it.

  3. Some of the best covers I've seen in my hoard of books have been in the YA section. Maybe the real conspiracy is: Marketing is keeping the better conception artists in hiding for the fickle younger audiences.

  4. I've often pondered this issue. I see many covers that make me cringe! I've even said, quite loudly in some bookstores, if my book ended up with a cover like that I'd cry. And I would. Not that it would do any good.

    I have to agree with SM Schmidt: some of the best cover art I've seen is in the YA section. And with Anonymous who said "the cover often must denote the genre". It's sad, really, because I know many people (myself included) who are turned off by bad cover art.

  5. Publishers, agents, sometimes even authors can judge a book cover based on what we already know about the book. Ms. Chung expected to see an Asian woman, and she did. This is why focus groups are so important.
    Also, isn't it possible that we, the craftsmen of the written word, are less visually oriented?

  6. I've worked as a designer (for newspapers not books, but it's kind of relevant ... maybe) and one of the things I and my fellow designers ran into all the time are higher-ups who want something because "it worked before."

    In that way, Anon 10:29 has the right idea. A good friend of mine designed an awesome front-page one edition with art that would really grab the reader's attention. And the paper's editor nixed it because it was too "radical."

    I guess my main point is that publishers fall victim to the same tired old cover art because of that "well this worked well before" mentality.

    My two cents.

    P.S. word ver: rexual -- umm ... not sure I want to go there.

  7. Hi Matt--

    You definitely have a point. In my experience, the converse is also true: if a book tanked in hardcover, the trade paper/mass market cover is always "something different," even if (in my opinion) that something different looks worse.

  8. In our town, we have a monthly that always has the same boring and tired amateurish style of watercolor illustrated covers.
    It could really be improved but the editor is convinced that this is a tried and true consistent "look." It's like dressing mom up as Donna Reed because "that worked."

  9. We could have a contest called:

    "Save this cover!"

  10. Eric,

    What do you think that stems from? A "go-for-broke" thought process or something more like "we don't know if this will work either but we'll try it anyway"?

    @Anon 1:08

    I'd enter that contest hands down. There's LOADS of covers I'd want to redesign.

  11. Semi-related side note: Eric, I just noticed your link to Nathan's blog in today's post isn't working right. If you mouse over it, it shows a blend of the two URLs.

  12. Hi Matt--

    Basically, houses don't want to try to pitch a cover to consumers in trade/mass market form if they didn't go for it in hardcover. This is because 1.) they figure if the cover didn't get consumers to pick up the book the first time, it won't be any different the second time around, and 2.) sales/marketing/art want to show the publishers upstairs that they're doing something to "fix" the book, and altering cover design is one of the easier and more obvious fixes.

    Thanks for the tip, by the way--all should be fixed now.

  13. Just subscribed to your blog and discovered this great discussion of covers. A guest blogger on my blog, Your Shelf Life, wrote an insightful article on covers. You can see it here: You and your readers may get a kick out of the blog: It's devoted to writers/authors achieving sanity AND success. I cover everything from how to run an Amazon bestseller day (don't) and throw book promotion contests to outwitting writer's block. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

  14. Books are largely judged by their covers. I think an ugly or plain cover shows a lack of confidence in the novel. Like the publisher cheaped out.

    What bothered me most about Chung's post was this quote:

    As Farrar, Straus & Giroux Publisher Jonathan Galassi put it in his recent interview for Poets & Writers, "We're selling authors, not books. We're selling people the illusion of an experience with an author... They want the full experience."

    An experience with an author? Is he kidding? I read books to enjoy them. I don't want to suck the author's vital organ. I just want a good read. Who are these neurotics? And do we really have to cater to them?

    I should never have left art school...

  15. Not being any kind of an insider, I think sometimes they are just being cheap (witness a friend's book whose protagonist, something resembling a black panther with bat wings, ended up as a little fairy-winged fox doing a dance step in mid-air), hiring an artist who is given only a paragraph-long description of the book. And other times they get obsessed with their own expertise and out of touch with their target audience. This is a common failing in corporate America. Just think of New Coke and most of the car industry. They're so intent on reading tea leaves that they go cross-eyed.

    Matt's comment on "it's worked before" makes a whole lot of sense.

  16. working illustratorJuly 21, 2009 at 11:13 PM

    Lack of creativity, lack of time, lack of interest.

    And way, way too many cooks.