Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Cover Debate

Let me start out by saying this:  I wasn't intending to write about book covers today.  I had it in mind and then nixed it, thinking, "Okay, the Book Lantern followers don't want to read about covers.  They want to read about book content, the publishing industry, authors, etc.!  Covers are really only superficial, so they really wouldn't care about me harping and ranting about covers and the visual role in publishing, would they?" I was so ready to write about hype itself in the publishing industry, but. . .

Then I happened to go to my Twitter account (note: this is rare for me since I am not a Twitterphile in the least) and saw a tweet from Hannah Moskowitz, author of Invincible Summer (which Cory reviewed last month), linking to her blog post about the cover of Invincible Summer.  Reading the post, I got back to thinking about covers and wondered: how often do we let preconceptions about a book cover, any cover, steer whether or not we will read a book and how much (or how little) we think we will like said book before we've even glanced at the inside content?

I would be a liar if I didn't say I was just as horrendously guilty of judging books by their covers. On my Goodreads account, I am notorious for adding books to read based on their covers even though I may have really only skimmed through the book descriptions themselves.  I even have a 'covers I love' shelf (made up of books I love, ones I haven't read, and even ones where I hate everything except the cover) though we all know covers have really nothing to do with a book's quality but everything to do with marketing.  But, even knowing that, I -- and others -- often go by covers first and foremost as our main judgment pre-reading.

We are a very visual society.  Just as we can likely overlook flaws in a person's character and behavior because of a pretty face and a nice body (or, vice-versa, ignore the people who aren't as attractive for that reason alone), so do we consciously and sometimes unconsciously make decisions based on the visual in other areas of our lives.  Media takes advantage of that for everything from CD covers to movie posters -- and publishing knows it too, using the visual to help guide potential book buyers in their reading choices.

I'm not saying it's a bad thing from a marketing standpoint (because obviously it isn't since that means the marketers are doing their jobs correctly), but it's still an issue from the consumer/reader standpoint if covers are so detrimental to the book finding, buying, and reading experience.  (Note: I'm not saying this is true for the majority of readers, but it is true for some.  Even many major book review blogs which I read and respect have 'Cover Love'-type posts.) People would read a lot of bad books and miss a lot of good ones if covers really have such sway! (And, yes, I realize that cover tastes must be taken into account, but that's another issue entirely. For more on that, Phoebe North actually covered the differing tastes in covers among YA readers in a post over at the Interrobangs blog.)

In Hannah Moskowitz's case, I'm with her all the way:  don't judge a book until after you've read and absorbed it for yourself.  Covers only go so far in giving an idea about the nature of a story, and the author is not responsible for the cover.  If a book cover entices or repulses you, take this into account: that story is still the same story even without the good/bad cover.

So I leave you, dear Book Lantern reader, with this challenge (if cover prejudice applies to you): look past the covers, read the descriptions, and judge only after reading.  Use less of the external vision and more of the internal.  Covers should have no bearing while the stories themselves should have every bearing when it comes to reader opinions.

Who knows?  Maybe we'll find books we never thought we could have loved.


  1. I feel a little bad that your sidebar is filled with me being a grumpster, but I'm procrastinating and you guys have been posting fascinating stuff.

    Thing is, I wonder if it's fair to place the blame entirely on readers here, or generally when a cover doesn't create the right expectations for a book. To use this situation as an example, it seems like Hannah is hearing a lot about how the cover doesn't match her contents. And that's in NO WAY her fault. But I think sometimes that marketing departments at publishers are a bit too focused on bottom-line issues. Namely, it doesn't matter if people like a book so long as they pick it up and buy it.

    The problem with that is that then the author has to deal with a lot of people kvetching about how the cover lies in reviews and stuff. And (and I said this in the comments of her blog, too), she's also had to deal with resistance from people who would probably LOVE her book and become life-long fans but who are having a knee-jerk reaction to what seems to be a fun, summery read.

    Should we blame the readers here for being close-minded? Or S&S for not marketing the book in a way that helps it find not only an audience, but the best audience for it?

  2. No worries! We love the comments, especially in-depth ones that lead to discussions! :)

    I guess it seemed as though I was blaming readers having preconceptions and misconceptions about cover more than the publishers because I place myself in the reader category of judging by covers. Honestly, when I first saw the Invincible Summer cover, I was not going to read it because it reminded me of a summer read in the vein of an author trying to emulate an author like Sarah Dessen. Then a few reviews started coming in about the book, and I was really surprised by what I was reading. The book sounded nothing like how I imagined it would be going from the cover alone! That in and of itself is definitely a publisher problem, always trying to market a book however they can. My post drew more on the fact that we're a society where the visual/external (such as a book cover) does matter and weigh in on our opinions and decisions at times -- and sadly, many of us walk past many books we might actually love if the covers don't somehow catch our attention.

    In the end, I would have to say that I blame both the publisher (for misrepresenting this book and alienating likely readers because of it) and the readers (for not giving the book a chance beyond its 'face value' according to them).

    (And of course there are plenty of readers who don't care about covers at all and go by summaries/descriptions and reviews alone. I applaud them since they are the ideal readership for any author -- especially the ones who have covers that don't represent their books or showcase them quite as well as others.)

  3. All I have to say is that it's really sad that sometimes publishers have to stoop down to making weird covers so that people would buy the book. Take Malinda Lo for example - Ash sold great in the US, but even better in the UK, where the cover and the description didn't even hint of the gay storyline. Some readers were surprised, even indignant, and said stuff like "Liked the book, but didn't expect the gay storyline". Sadly, people have less time to read these days, and take care to spend money on stuff they're bound to like. It gets harder and harder to step outside of the beaten path, so publishers need to do something about that.

    That is not to say that I disagree with you. It's just that if I had to pick between having a misleading cover and changing the contents of my book to match the market demand perfectly, I'd pick the misleading cover because there's a slim chance someone might enjoy reading outside the box.

    For now, anyway.

  4. Oh, definitely! A misleading cover is above and beyond the option of making a book fit the market. If the only way a publisher will publish a 'quirky' or 'out of the box' book is by giving it an ambiguous or unsuitable cover. . .well, then I guess we have to deal with the necessary evil.

    Of course, that doesn't excuse the publishers who whitewash book covers because they're afraid consumers won't pick up and buy books depicting different ethnicities on the covers. That's one instance where I definitely put my foot down and say, "Give the book a cover that suits its contents and characters, for goodness sake!!"

  5. I can honestly say that no cover turns me off - although they can catch my attention and draw me to a book. Covers in YA and adult contmps, UF and paranormal can generally capture the story - although, I've noticed a trend where covers are fluffy while the insides are deep and dark and memorable - and although sometimes are totally off, still have some relevance.
    Invincible Summer's cover is gorgeous, if not just a bit racy. But you know what? I'm sure that's what Hannah's story is. Gorgeous, but a bit racy. And the publishers did a fantastic job putting this one in it's place, if that's what the story is truly about. In the trailer, the author had written in the script, "this is a story about my family's four summers." Publishers pick up on some of the details - it's not like EVERYONE reads the book on the team - but you can't expect them to truly capture everything. If this story is about summer, then they're going to create something summery and racy, to match the plot.
    Still. I agree wholeheartedly with Hannah and you, Jillian. Although we're totally a visual society, it's not always fair, and people always end up losing. We just need to look past that and see what's "inside" the covers.
    (By the way, this totally corresponds with the post about Wings. We are waaaayyy too superficial, as humans.)
    (By the way #2, you guys have the best posts ever. Seriously.)

  6. I LOVE book covers! And I'm probably in the minority, but I kinda like the cover for Invincible Summer (on a purely aesthetic level--I haven't read the book yet). At least it isn't black and doesn't use cheesy looking fonts.

    But yeah, I understand how people would pass judgment on something due to the cover. An example of this for me is the book Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles. I went into it thinking it would be a 'guilty pleasure' kind of read and was really pleasantly surprised. Now, Perfect Chemistry is one of my favorite YA books (and a book that everyone who wants to write a well-balanced, non-codependent and creepy YA romance should read).

  7. I am with Phoebe on this one.

    I hate it myself when covers and blurbs are misleading. You probably know it for yourself, Jillian, in the case of "Dark Water" for example. Like Phoebe said, dumbing down and sexifying covers will probably get more people to pick up a book, but at the same time it will alienate the target audience because of misleading marketing.

    I am glad that in this case the author got more exposure, but I personally find this practice unsavory.

  8. OMG, I have severe cover prejudice. I am so swayed by a cover, its sickening. I love covers and will many times chose a book soley on its cover. Ugh! Is there a cure?

  9. Here is one of my favourite book blogs, about covers.

  10. My favourite book as a teenager was initially released with the worst cover in the history of humankind. Seriously. It looked like a dream inspired by a dream powered by illicit substances and a surplus of blue and red paint. I bypassed it a hundred times based on its cover and then a further dozen times once I'd given in and read the generic and uninspiring blurb.

    Eventually, I read it and it became my favourite book for a while, so it was definitely worth overlooking its physical deficits.

  11. I lost track of the dreams in there, but it ends up making as much sense as the cover did.

  12. Did you read "How to Say Good-bye in Robot?" They had a put a pink cover on that one! (It's odd to think, but there's always a big market for "pink books," though it's not generally the same people who would read "Robot") If that had been mine, I'd be pretty miffed. But you often have to trick people into reading anything quirky these days. The flip side of that, though, is when those people think a book is going to follow the formula they want based on the cover, then find that it doesn't, they are known to get upset. And, at the same time, the RIGHT audience for the book might not pick it up at all.

    I know one person who had Barnes and Noble tell their publisher that they'd order 5x as many copies of their book if they changed the cover to just have a girl's face on it. I hear rumors that it's changing now, but as of about 6 months ago their guidelines was the YA covers should all be either a single iconic object or a girl's face (unless it's high fantasy or there's enough marketing money that they don't have to rely on the cover alone). It's easy and fun for me to complain about jerks BN are for this, but the fact is that those are the covers that sell these days.

  13. I actually liked the cover for "How to Say Good-bye in Robot". It's visually
    appealing, and even though it's a darker story, I think it works because the
    title is kind of light too. It didn't look very chick-lit, or traditional
    pink to me because of the blurb and the title. The biggest problem with the
    marketing for Invincible Summer was that the cover and the blurb were both

    I hate being tricked into reading 'quirky' because I look for quirky books.
    So when they all look the same, what's the point? I understand trying to
    market to a wider audience. But that often fails too. Look at The Last
    Airbender. If they had just marketed towards the actual fanbase instead of
    trying to market to little kids -- in the process of that, they ticked off
    the fans -- the movie might have been a success. Same with Bandslam. Summit
    was highly critized for mis-marketing the movie, and as a result, it was a
    box-office failure in the US. Sometimes a wider audience isn't necessarily
    better. Movies are different, but I think it's an apt comparison.

    Of course, Scott Pilgrim failed with it's fanbase marketing technique. But
    so did Heathers. Yet that's become a cult classic. Originally, Catcher in
    the Rye was marketed to adults, but it's become big with teens. I think the
    right audience will always find something eventually, but right now, we're
    unwilling to wait for anything. We're a big, money in your face RIGHT NOW,
    society. And for real art, that's not exactly good.

    On another note, I wouldn't have been interested in reading, I Kissed a
    Zombie and I Liked It, until I read a few reviews and realized that you were
    going for more of a parody and less of a PNR, Twilight style. And I think if
    it had been marketed truthfully, I'd have been interested in reading it a
    whole lot sooner.

  14. "Zombie" is a perfect example, actually. I wrote it with the anti-twilight kids in mind, but they marketed it mainly to the twi-hard, and getting the right audience to read it was like pulling teeth. Practically every bad review I got was from a person who was mad that I didn't follow the Twilight formula, like they thought I was going to. Most of the response from the anti-twilight crowd wound up being "Can you believe some hack has actually written a book like Twilight, but with zombies?" One week I got chewed out on Twitter in four languages, all by people who probably would have LIKED the book. I tried making anti-vampire PSAs and stuff, but that didn't help any. I see what the publisher was going for - the "i never liked to read before Twilight" group is what's driving the market today. I sort of underestimated just how much that was the case.

    That said, most of what they did seemed like a good idea at the time (that the title/cover were meant as a joke probably would have been obvious any other year). The title got us a lot of press, but I still wish they'd gone with the title I wanted to use, which was "Dead Guys Have No Reason to Live."

    But the general idea was probably that the best audience for the book was the best audience for the book as people who don't like twilight (boys and the smart, left-of-center sort of girls, mostly). But it seems like those groups make up a pretty tiny sliver of the YA-buying market at large these days.

    If you google around, you can find the French cover, which is pretty neat. From what I can translate of the reviews, people seem to be more apt to figure out that it's a parody than they were here. Then again, you always hear people complain that Americans never understand satire...

  15. I have read (and loved) How to Say Goodbye in Robot, actually -- and I thought the cover was quirky enough to fit the quirkiness of the story itself. (It's actually rather ironic since the heroine, Beatrice, is one of those girls you could never imagine in pink.) Now, if that cover had been geared more towards the contents -- let's say an emo-ish cover of a boy and girl walking together -- then the cover might have alienated other readers who are tired of seeing 'same old, same old' (girls on the covers, couples on the covers, etc.). As it is, I don't know if 'Robot' ever really found its audience because of its cover (and that's a shame since it's a brilliant, heart wrenching book), but I can understand how it's difficult to find appropriate images to represent certain stories. From a publishing perspective on design and marketing, I get how choosing a cover to represent a story requires a precarious balance that not everyone will be satisfied with -- but I think publishers can try a little harder to have covers that 'match' stories (and not just plastering faces and bodies on the covers to represent characters in the said stories).

    Of course, it doesn't help when bookstores (as you mentioned) are becoming a (negative) part of this sordid mess of marketing. :/

  16. Oh, yes, Dark Water was very misleading in every which way! I thought I was going to get a dark angsty read (judging by the cover) about forbidden romance between an illegal immigrant and a white girl (judging from the blurb), but that's not what I got at all. It was a book more about family and discovery to me. Though DW was definitely not a bad read, the marketing for it gave a completely different impression than the story itself.

    isn't it strange how, in this case, the misleading cover gave the book *more* attention? I have to wonder if that's what the publisher's design team had in mind with this book. . .

  17. Thanks for the link! I looked through and read some of the posts, and I love how it's not about just 'cover lovin'' (since that would get boring very fast).

  18. Jillian, I'm so glad you decided that posting about covers wasn't superficial and decided to flesh your thoughts out about cover art and its role in attracting (and repelling) readership. I've been reading TBL for several weeks now, and I've enjoyed the content that's been posted. And while I run a blog that's dedicated to YA cover design and the people who create the artwork, I can see how the comparison between a cover's face and its heart underneath can be frustrating for both readers and writers.

    And as someone who can speak from the marketing side (and plays the role of visual-medium-maker), it can be hard to find that balance. There are so many voices that play into the decision of how a cover's design turns out, even before it leaves the publisher.

    There are some wonderful books I've read that have had some not-so-wonderful covers. And like you've said (and other commenters on this post), we easily judge cover art. Subconsciously, even. And this will never go away. I'm not one to skip over a book because its cover isn't drop-dead gorgeous, but we can't expect all readers to feel the same way. My hope is that cover designers, illustrators, and art directors will keep pushing to create striking cover art that remains relevant (whether stylistically in tone or just portrayal of plot) to a novel's story and characters.

    Because I only interview authors of books with covers I love, it's not surprising that the author loves them too. But one time I posted a Cover Love piece for artwork and immediately received a response from the author -- telling me how she HATED her previous comp/cover and was glad that it had been changed. I still find it surprising that anyone would assume that authors have a huge say in their covers. Then again, my perspective is a little skewed. ;)

  19. Thanks for checking out the blog. =)