Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Judging a Book by its Cover: Jeannie's take

Book Covers

First, let me say that I agree with everything Alexis said last week. Publishers will say they want "fresh" material and yet are willing to slap variations of the same cover on dozens of books. Why? The simple answer is because those covers sell. Little will change until those covers stop selling.

Let's step back for a moment and not view a book as a book or covers as art. Let's look at both for what they truly are to publishers: packaging and product.

Think of your favorite snack food. Personally, I like Cheetos--crunchy, twisted, and covered in a neon orange powdery cheese-like substance guaranteed to stain fingers for hours, if not days. I know exactly what I'm going to get when I pick up that orange bag of Cheetos with the grinning, shades-wearing cheetah. It that consistency that appeals to me as a consumer. If we take this same logic and apply it to books, then the reasons for the sameness that Alexis lamented become obvious.

Publishers like to present consistency to readers. They want to send a message that their authors are among the best. The problem is that every publisher is trying to send the same message so when a cover style strikes a chord with readers and sells books, publishers run with it. Unfortunately, this logic creates a sensory overload of sameness after a while. But, as I said, until the sales reflect a significant change in these covers' appeal to readers the Cheetos will stay orange instead of changing to red, green, or blue.

Of course there are other factors that go into the design of a cover, certain conventions based on genre. Take the urban fantasy genre for example. How many female characters (often redheaded women) have you seen wearing leather (regardless of whether or not the character actually wears leather in the book), standing or crouching in partial shadow, and holding a weapon? Probably too many to count. Another trend from a few years ago was to show a female protagonist from the back, never seeing her face, but highlighting the often tribal style tattoo inked on the small of her back. How many of these heroines actually possessed that tattoo? I don't think there were as many as the covers led readers to believe.

Curious bit of trivia... If you pick up a book and aren't sure if it's a paranormal romance or urban fantasy, remember this: if the character on the front cover is female, it's most likely UF but if the character is male and shirtless, it's most likely paranormal romance. Why? I have no idea, but spend some time checking these two genres in your local bookstore. I'm sure you'll find it an interesting experiment. But I digress...

Another reason for the gluttony of similar covers: cost. It's literally cheaper to pull a stock photo from a graphic design file, tweak it a bit, add some eye-catching font for the title and author's name, and limit the color palette to four or five colors for a book that will be printed thousands of times than it is to commission an artist to create a unique work for that same book. That's not to say that it doesn't happen. But think about it. When was the last time you saw the silhouette of a running man on the cover of the thriller and asked yourself if you hadn't seen that same image on a different book from a different author? This also illustrates my point about conventions based on genre. Thrillers have running men. Mysteries often have magnifying glasses. Fantasies will sport dragons, swords, and/or glowing magical objects. These are the Cheetos of the publishing world.

My ultimate point is that there are reasons for the blandness and sameness of covers presented to readers. Do I agree with them? Not always. Do I long for something that's truly new and different? Yes. Do I get excited when I see a cover that is different? Absolutely! Do I pass over potentially outstanding books that unfortunately suffer from an indescribable blandness or an excessive sameness of cover? Yes.

Do I think any of these is likely to change in the foreseeable future? No, and that truly saddens me but as a reader and as a author.

Tune in next week to read Michelle's take. Until then...

Peas out.


  1. Great post, Jeannie! Cheetos.... yeah, that's about right. And that UF/PR thing is pretty neat-- I'm definitely gonna have to check it out. {ps I think I know why... both audiences' target readers are women... they probably think a woman who wants PR wants escape from her mundane life and average marriage, so what better than a sexy man to fantasize about as you read? And the women who want UF are probably more headstrong, self assured-- so they want strong protagonist women. aka "see cover for inspiration" ...that's my guess on the publishers' thought process there} :)

  2. Thanks, Alexis! :) (And you're probably right about the reasons for the differences in PN and UF covers.)

  3. I would like to add my 2 cents worth from the "occasional" readers point of view.
    So here goes: My go-to books, when I'm wandering in a bookstore and don't remember any of the recommended books from family and friends, are {covers her face, turning away and whispering in shame}...Historical Romance.
    With that said, I have my favorites that I've read ALL of their books, but more often than not, I don't always remember the author or the name of the book I previously read. I rely heavily on the cover. The problem with publishers putting the same stock cover on these types of books, is that if they look vaguely familiar, I think I've already read that one...so I move on, sometimes to a whole new genre where the covers all look new and intriguing, or worse...I leave with no book at all!

  4. Hi ~K~! First, there's nothing wrong with historical romance. I've read a few myself. *gasp* *shock* *horror* Second, I also rely on covers because I don't always remember a title or author name, but I can usually remember a cover. As you pointed out, if a cover looks too similar to one I've already read, I'll often skip it in favor of something else, or leave empty handed, and I hate to leave a bookstore empty handed. :(