Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Can you bear more thoughts on the topic of book covers?*

Aline’s post yesterday got me thinking. At the moment, I happen to be working on a rather long and involved book interior for a client, and being in the thick of that, there is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with design explanations going from my end and responses coming from the editors’ end.

With my author’s hat firmly on, I would say that it would be great to have some real input into what goes on the covers of my books. Actually, up until the current two, I did. I designed them. While I got the cover I wanted, it left me lacking one big thing: I had nothing to complain about to other authors, booksellers, reviewers and readers.

[Any time authors get together (usually in a bar at conferences), someone eventually brings up the topic of bad covers. The only thing I could ever do is bask in the adulation I received from my fellow ink-stained wretches that I got to have nearly everything to do with the covers on my books. But I also felt really isolated in that I couldn’t do much complaining. One time, someone said (and I really liked this guy up until that point), “Oh, you’re one of those,” meaning one of those designers who ruins a writer’s dreams by shoving a dog of a cover onto their book.]

Sorry for the personal digression. What I wanted to talk about is why an author really shouldn’t have much to say about the covers of their books.

In a nutshell, most don’t know squat about what makes a good cover – not that a lot of marketing people and editors know all that much more. I can see why Aline would be unhappy about the small details of her books’ covers (the stripe on the lighthouse or the fireplace poker murder weapon). These are important things to a writer. Trouble is, marketing doesn’t think it’s any sort of issue that should concern them. First thing a writer should be aware of: probably no one outside of their editor has read their latest deathless prose. Marketing doesn’t have time to read every book. Cover designers only get the barest of marching orders. Quite often it’s just the back cover or flap copy or maybe the copy that’s going into the publisher’s catalog.

I’ll use the cover of my next novel, The Fallen One, as an example. It’s the story of an opera singer who’s searching for the truth about her dead husband. The cover has one of those fancy masks that are part of the yearly Biennale in Venice. I’m here to tell you that the image has absolutely nothing to do with the story. Why was this image chosen? I have no idea. Now if I were just another author with no design experience or credentials, I probably would have gone ballistic. How dare they! This will give everyone a completely wrong impression of my novel!! Are they stupid?! It’s set in Paris for Cripe Pete, not Venice!

Instead, I look at it and say, “Hey, nice image, very arresting,” as I imagine how it will look faced on a shelf in a store or onscreen at Amazon. (The dog of a spine is another matter altogether.)

What’s happening here is that the marketing department of my publisher is selling the “sizzle” and not the “steak”. The cover should garner attention (Aline’s “shop window”) and that’s all it needs to do. As a cover, it works perfectly – and I’m very happy about that. Hey, operas have elegant things like masked balls in them, don’t they? (Actually, only a minority do, but I’d be shocked if any of the people responsible for the cover have been within a mile of an opera house.) It doesn’t matter. Shoppers will notice this cover.

So it’s all a matter of expediency for authors to be involved as little as necessary in the design of their books’ covers. It only slows things down, can lead to bad confrontations – and bad decisions. Is it right to leave them out of the loop? Yes, considering how the publishing process works. Does it make sense? I have to say yes again – except when someone in marketing makes some really dumb choices – and that does happen.

We poor authors just have to suck it up and move on. The sad thing is when vision fails the marketing/design departments and your book winds up with an awful cover (whether you know it’s awful or not). Then, sales can be hurt and the book can even fail because of it. I know of one very famous author who had a terrible cover for the US edition of one of his novels (I think it’s his finest), and sales in the US were miserable. Funny thing was, the Canadian and British covers were both quite good and sales of those editions were brisk. The book even got better reviews in those countries.

So much for marketing savvy, eh?

*I hadn’t meant to post about this today…honest!


Charlotte Hinger said...

Rick, years ago, a lot of my friends who wrote western historical sagas were furious when the books were marketed as romances. The covers deceived the readers who were looking for more steam and less history. Worse, the covers turned off potential readers who were looking for more serious fare.

Rick Blechta said...

Oh, boy, this can happen – in spades! And this is where marketing departments can really blow it. Believe me, it's not by accident that it happens, either. They know full well what they're doing. But if we authors object too much, they just fall back on "It's a marketing decision," which is very akin to saying "Because," as an answer.

There is a fine line that needs to be walking sometimes between what I might label “benign deception” in sales, as opposed to “blatant deception”. The case you describe is definitely the latter – and would upset any buyer. It’s also very bad marketing. Publishers who allow this to happen should be taken out and forced to watch The Shopping Channel 24/7 for at least 3 to 5 years.

My point was more concerning the former. I don’t think that anyone who reads The Fallen One will do much more than scratch their head and wonder why the publisher used that image for the cover shot. And I’ll bet you that those readers will be in the very small minority. That’s effective marketing.

Irene Bennett Brown said...

Charlotte, you may remember this one. The art department of a publisher of westerns took an illustration, a group of three men on horseback, and airbrushed out all but one horse and rider. But they missed a leg on one of the horses they got rid of. That cover, with a five-legged horse, made it all the way to booksellers' shelves.

Rick Blechta said...

Irene, I have a friend, Leslie Watts, who is an extremely talented writer and fine artist/illustrator. She was hired to illustrate a Sheree Fitch children's book published by Doubleday Canada. On the book's title page, her name was spelled "Eslie Watts", a really egregious error that no one caught – not even the editor and proofreader, both of whom were named...Leslie!

It's mistakes like yours and mine that make people want to point and laugh. A five-legged horse indeed! Cringeworthy!!

Thiru said...
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