In Part 1 of this series, I talked about the transition the publishing industry (traditional and self-) has adopted, going from painted to Photoshopped covers. I think we can all agree, they don’t make them like they used to. Painted covers still exist, of course, and when looking at a list of the 50 most iconic covers of all time, most of them are extremely minimalist, proving that concept in cover art evolved long before the computers that made it so easy to create.
So, has this prevailing trend changed what the consumer wants in a cover? There are probably tons of market studies about this (OK, I didn’t find one in a quick Bing search, but what I DID find is that the cover for Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” is rated as the second best cover overall, in a survey involving thousands of Goodreads members. It was followed closely by the others in that series. So I wasn’t nuts in Part 1 by saying that the cover works for readers.), but I know what I want… and since this is my blog, that’s what I’m going to talk about.
First, an aside masquerading as a point. I buy most of my books as eBooks. Many of them are purchased as pre-orders, often before the cover is even finalized. And the others are usually recommendations. The book I’m going to be using as an example in this post – Ben Aaronovitch’s “Rivers of London” a.k.a. “Midnight Riot” – was bought as a recommendation from one of my favorite authors, Lois McMaster Bujold. She’s the author I want to be when I grow up, and I believe her when she says a book is good. In this case, she was soooo right!
But back to the point: Because of the advent of the eBook, for the first time since books were first given cover art a reader will probably not judge a book by it’s cover. We judge it by the synopsis, by the free sample, by the reviews. Unless you’re in a brick-and-mortar story, buying a paper book, the cover is merely something to catch the eye and not something to dwell on.
But I when I do get a paper book, my favorite thing is when I reach a point in a book, flip to the cover and go “OOOOOOOHHHHHHHhhhhhhhhh.” That moment when the cover adds something to the story, and the story deciphers the art; it’s then that the cover becomes a “great” cover for me. So to boil it down – I want it to represent the characters or the story, or preferably both, in some way, by the time the story is done. Not unreasonable I think.
To the example – wait, first the disclaimer. I do NOT own the following photographs and am using them in accordance with fair use – as an illustration for the purposes of discussion. They were all retrieved off of Amazon, where they were associated with the respective versions of the book. OK – now on to the example:
As I said, I was introduced to Ben Aaronovitch in Lois McMaster Bujold‘s Goodreads blog. [and for a bonus, here she is briefly talking about the horrible cover of the 4th book]. She, and many others I’ve read reviews from, had the “Rivers of London” recommended to them and failed to read for a long time because of the cover. Specifically, this cover:
Visually, and to people not intimately familiar with London, this is a mess. It’s not surprising that it failed to win over Americans. The book’s title makes it sound like a travel guide or history, and at first glance the cover confirms that. At second glance there is still no real clue as to what the book is about. Still, when you read the book, this cover would eventually make sense. It acts as a visual guidebook to the regions of London mentioned. But this was not the cover I got because they’d already changed it by the time I was clued into this author’s existence.
Either in response to this failure in sales or in anticipation of it, the book sold in the U.S. and a few other markets as “Midnight Riot”, with a new contemporary cover. I will show you that in a second, but first I’m going to show you the audiobook cover. Because even though I bought this book on my Nook, eInk was not made to best display covers. So I read the book without whatever prejudice that would confer and I LOVED IT. I loved it so much, I wanted to read it again and again, and because I do SQL coding as my day-job, that means buying it as an audiobook.
Which came with this cover:
I loved the voice talent for the audiobook, so I also recommend that. However, this cover annoys and angers me on so many levels. First, no matter how much I squint, the stockphoto man seems to be middle-aged and white. Whitewashing is a topic for another day, but suffice it to say that the main character of the book is young and half-black, and identifies most strongly with his black heritage. So this is cover failure #1. Second, there is a gun held prominently in the right hand. Guns are not standard issue to police constables in the U.K., especially not those still under probation, and the character never uses one in this book. Cover failure #2. And finally, if you look VERY closely and kind of squint, you can come to the conclusion that the left hand is glowing and there are swirly things that might possibly be magic, if you’re already in a suggestible mood because it’s lost in the rest of the cover’s background distortions. I get that compromises must be made to fit the confines of the Audible app’s display. But this is such a poor job that I’m calling it failure #3. Then there is the font choice… *waves hands and mouths inaudibly*. Yah… failure #4. The only thing this cover does succeed in is conveying that this is a crime/thriller. Close enough.
I was going to use this book as an overall example of cover failure. It wasn’t until I saw the official U.S. paper and eBook cover, that I felt that thrill of a great book meeting a representative cover. And here it is:
Ok, ok, the figure is entirely in silhouette. But I have seen lighter versions of this stockphoto and it is actually a photo of young black man. Which brings us back to why we can’t have nice things in the U.S., but again… another day. In the right hand there IS a gun, but it’s nearly out of the photo and takes a certain amount of imagination to see. Because all your attention should be on the GLORIOUS fireball in the figure’s left hand, perfectly framed by the title’s font.
Overall, it matches the real genre of the story, which is a paranormal police procedural/thriller/mystery. I know that sounds complicated, but trust me, it’s awesome.
OK, so we had one representation of a cover that confused and deterred readers, even though it eventually matched with the book. We had a representation of a cover that nearly completely failed me as a reader. And we have a representation of a cover that should work well for American audiences in this genre.
In part 3, I will talk about how to design your own amateur covers – the pitfalls and best tools. So until then!