The other day, Jim C. Hines cracked up a portion of the Internet with his attempt to assume some of the female poses on cover art. A few of those poses seem only possible if said female’s spine has been lengthened an extra half a foot, or if she can dislocate major limbs at will.
That got me to thinking about covers. We’ve all heard the yadda about how marketing is about catching the eye, and that sex sells. Many have complained bitterly that the sexy appeal of said covers is aimed exclusively at young het males roughly between the ages of eighteen and forty . . . the very demographic that, in another corner of the Netverse, is decried as the demographic least likely to buy books.
For several years now, the women at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, have run posts about the staggeringly awful cover art that has been stuck on romances for years and years. Women pretty much uniformly hate those clinch covers, and the pair at the website crack up readers by making fun of especially egregious examples. So . . . why were those covers used? I’ve heard (can’t corroborate) that the covers were solely to catch the eye of the (mostly male) sales reps, who otherwise would not have bothered to place romances in bookstores.
Dunno how true that is, I only know that readers buy the books in spite of the covers—and that, too, is well-trod ground.
I’d like to come at the question of cover art from another angle.
Back to Jim’s first book in the Stepsisters arc. The cover art features three attractive young women, who give off all the signals that they are feisty warriors as well as pretty princesses. The detail is quite complicated, but the central elements say fantasy (the castle silhouette), action (sword) the poses of the women (hips cocked, come hither glance from the left one, an attack pose from the one on the right).
What would happen if we took those elements and put them into words simple enough to catch the eye?
Yeah. Not so hot.
Even complicated imagery still hits us faster, and with more power, than the written word.
Cover art has a vexing history. Since someone got the idea of putting art on covers, writers have complained that the cover was utterly wrong for their book. The details are wrong, it’s ugly, it’s too dark, it’s too bright, it’s too silly, it’s too serious, it doesn’t stand out. Unless a cover is deliberately misleading (and many writers, and readers, are disturbed by whitewashing cover art), discussion of what is going to appeal to any readership, much less a specific one, can be so subjective!
Back in the sixties, a great noise was made about the authorized Ballantine editions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, when they were issued in paperback over here in the States. I remember looking at the cover of The Hobbit, and wondering why Tolkien authorized that.
Well, years later, when his letters were published, we find this in a letter to Raynor Unwin (his UK publisher) in 1965:
I wrote . . . expressing (with moderation) my dislike of the cover. It was a short hasty note by hand, without a copy, but it was to this effect: I think the cover ugly; but I recognize that a main object of a paperback cover is to attract purchasers, and I suppose that you are better judges of what is attractive in USA than I am. I therefore will not enter into debate about taste—(meaning though I did not say so: horrible colours and foul lettering)—but I must ask this about the vignette: what has it got to do with the story? Where is this place? Why a lion and emus? And what is the thing in the foreground with pink bulbs?
Back in those days paperbacks were often matched with art already on hand. Maybe that happened here. However, the trilogy’s cover art was in the same style, and it does sort of represent some story elements, in a very sixties way.
On the other hand, sometimes art and story can be such a gorgeous match that the art will sell a book instantly.
I’m thinking of the original cover to Ellen Kushner’s award-winning Thomas the Rhymer, with its fabulous Thomas Canty art.
For a while, those Canty covers were much cherished by writers as well as readers. A friend of mine was at a con when the second of a particular series was just out. She was at a dealer’s table when a pair of women walked up, and one made a noise of delight and snatched up the book. Her friend said, “Have you read that? The first one was awful!”
“I buy them for the art,” replied her friend. “I’m collecting Canty covers.”
Well, fashions evolve. Thomas the Rhymer has had several cover changes in various editions.
But what style is going to appeal to the eye—get people to reach for books—is so difficult to predict. The piece of art that your neighbor displays proudly in their living room can look so hideous to you that you always sit with your back to it. Cover art can be the same, which is why the old saw still gets quoted, with intent, “Don’t judge a book by its cover!”
Anyway, I got to thinking about what sorts of cover art gets me to pick up a book. Almost always it’s paintings that evoke the old masters, or period art. But not always.
Period art usually doesn’t have the elements to catch my eye when I’m in the mood for science fiction, say. Another cover that I thought perfect for the book?
The Price of the Stars, one of my favorite space operas of all times.
The way the lettering both evokes the old magic of the Star Wars crawl, yet forms a triangle pointing down to the androgynous figure leaning so casually against the command pod of a space ship. He? She? Definitely looks dangerous, but in a stylish way. All the angles point inward, drawing the eye inexorably to that level gaze, half-masked by the eyepatch. Which matches the main character perfectly.
What are some covers that complement the book for you? Did the cover lead you to the book, or did you already know about the book, and found the cover a perfect match after the reading experience?