Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The cover art contract

This past week, I participated in a crime writers event in Picton, Ontario. Part of it was to announce this year’s finalists for Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis literary prizes in various categories. But’s that besides the point to what this entry is about. The real “meat” of the evening was a free-ranging discussion on various facets of our art by the assembled authors: Type M’s Vicki Delany, Michael Blair, Mary Jane Maffini, J.D. Carpenter, Violette Malan, myself and the organizer Janet Kellough. Believe me when I say, we covered the waterfront that night!

I also came away with one really profound thought that dovetails perfectly into some of the recent postings and discussion on Type M. It was uttered by MJ, who’s been in the business for a long time. I don’t remember how it came up, but I sat back at my end of the stage and mentally said, “Whoa.”

What MJ said (more or less) was this: “A book’s cover is a contract between the author and the reader — and you break it at your peril”. What she meant was that the cover art cannot sell something to the reader that isn’t a reflection of what’s in the book. As a cover designer I wholeheartedly believe this, and as an author, I know sales rely on it.

This was brought into clear focus by a writer/friend who is incredibly upset by the cover of her forthcoming novel. To say the least, the image used doesn’t even begin to reflect what’s on the book’s pages. Not only that, I suspect the image will be offensive to nearly all of the people who might otherwise enjoy this story, and those who don’t find the cover objectionable will be very unhappy with the story. That's a pretty good description of a publishing lose/lose situation, in my humble opinion. Additionally, the publisher told the writer that this is the final cover. Period. To my mind, the publisher has a death wish for this novel. If the book doesn't fail because of this very bad decision, it will be a miracle.

The bottom line is that this publisher clearly doesn’t understand Mary Jane’s concept of the unspoken “cover art contract” with the reader. That’s sort of frightening, isn’t it? I mean, it seems to me that this is Book Marketing 101 stuff. And they’re not a particularly small publisher, either.

As Peter pointed out recently, he often buys books because of the author. He makes a good point. We all do that. But what if you don’t know the author? What if you’re just walking through a bookstore to kill time and see a good cover? Isn’t your first urge to pick it up and see what the book is about? Conversely, you probably tend to walk right by a cover that’s a big turn off. Now what if neither of these covers fairly represents what the book is about? Publishers run the risk of doubly disappointing readers when that happens. Why? Because they paid for something they didn’t get.

And it’s so unnecessary. If you’re paying for a cover design, why get the image wrong, still pay the same amount of money, and then just watch helplessly as readers walk right on by?


Vicki Delany said...

I can understand when a publisher doesn't want the author to interfere with the cover design. Way too many people out there think they know it all - and don't. But for a publisher to inisist on a cover that the author has very strong objectios to, seems to me to be creating an unnecessarily poisonous relationship.

Maribeth said...

Probably didn't even read the book!
Two days ago I got a book by an author I don't know simply because of the cover. It was done by Robin Bilardello for Val McDermid's novel Beneath the Bleeding. The footballer in the stadium tunnel intrigued me and the book did not disappoint.
Giggles and Guns

Vicki Delany said...

Exactly, Maribeth. Covers are so important. In this case, because I know to whom Rick is refering, the publisher thought - sex, violence -gonna sell. Nope, not gonna sell to the type of reader who might choose to read the books this author has actually penned.

Rick Blechta said...

I have definitely bought books because of the cover. Sometimes they hit a home run, sometimes they strike out. But for the life of me, I cannot remember buying a single book that had a truly horrible cover, unless I knew damn well that the story in the interior of the book was very superior.

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

I'd have to be convinced of the author's track record to buy a book with a bad cover. I really feel for your friend, Rick.

Rick Blechta said...

So do I. It's a bad place to be.