Friday, February 19, 2010

Cover Stories

By Russel D McLean

I’ve talked about this before on me main blog, but again I’m thinking about covers. Following my reading recently of Barry Eisler’s “open letter” to his French publishers (and all publishers) I’ve found myself thinking about covers. And its true that covers affect the way I think about a book.

One of my favourite series of covers, as anyone whose heard me wax lyrical on the subject will know, was the sequence of covers that Serpent’s Tail did the early books of George Pelecanos. Indeed, it was the cover of the sublime King Suckerman that persuaded me to get into Pelecanos in the first place.

The immediately recognisable reminded me just a little of the old Elmore Leonard covers I used to buy my dad when I was a kid. They were two tone, simple designs, and absolutely striking. Strange as it sounds, one of my main memories is me and mum trying to decide which Leonard to buy him based on the colours of the covers (we couldn’t have told you the titles – I was too young and mum, well, she wasn’t a Leonard reader). I’ll be honest with you, much as I love Leonard’s books, the covers have never really been as striking since.

I love the idea of branding in that sense. Not every Leonard book is the same inside, but outside you knew you were getting a Leonard. Same with Pelecanos – an author who, despite some hiccups, has generally had his own branding from the brilliance of Serpent’s Tail through to the simple “crime tape” tagging of a couple of years back to the stark white and blue covers that predominate his current incarnation. And I couldn’t go without mentioning the old Richard Stark covers – the ones with the bullet hole in the front and the tagline: “A novel of violence”. Everything you need to know, believe me.

I also love the whole-series branding that is happening in the Hard Case Crime Line-up. Not every cover painting stands equal (some I like less than others), but again you are hard pressed* to mistake them for anything else.

Interesting aside note – I managed to grab an early copy of one of HCC’s first books – Allan Guthrie’s excellent Two Way Split – which was actually part of print run that was somehow damaged. The cover wore easily, cracked and peeled. But the strange thing is that given the nature of the HCC design, this really looked right and the edition now stands proud among the real old pulps that clutter my bookshelf, looking like it belongs, like it was truly part of the era it is echoing.

But I digress. And to return to covers, let’s boil it down like this: I like strong images. I like an uncluttered feel. I like something original. Something that says: this is what’s going on. So in one sense, myself and Mr Eisler agree on that: a cover should not only be strong, it should vibe what’s inside the book.

Where we disagree of course, is over his choice of cover preference. While Eisler prefers his UK covers, I find them overly busy and muddy. The French cover – while, perhaps, not capturing the mis-en-scene of an Eisler novel, is less cluttered and more clear to my eyes. Which goes to show that sometimes, cover art is in the eye of the beholder.

So how would one convey an action cover well?

I do like the cover to Sean Black’s recent thriller, Lock Down. The cover is busy and explosive, but the focus is on the title and the central explosion, unlike the Eisler covers where the eye is not drawn to any one thing in particular (other than the title, but beyond that? I just see a morass of colours).

One of the best covers I’ve seen in ages plopped its way into my inbox recently – the cover for the upcoming Busted Flush anthology, Damn Near Dead 2. It’s an absolute doozy, and conveys precisely the tone of the anthology while managing to stand out from the crowd effectively. In fact, I’d say that as BF are continuing, their covers are getting better and better. Simple, clear and effective. Not branded in an HCC sense but perfectly adapted to their authors.

And I think that’s the key – so many covers fail to create a proper sense of the book inside through sloppy design or inappropriate imagery. There is more to cover design than you might believe, even if so many houses seem to believe that copying another author’s style may be the key (step forward the Da Vinci Code Rip Offs and the Lee Child Alikes, please). Those that get it right create mini masterpieces. Does it tell you anything that I have a collection of old paperbacks collected not for the stories inside, but for the love of the covers, of the moods and ideas they represent?

And, of course, inkeeping with this week’s theme, I give unto you the cover of a book by a guy who’s a hell of a writer… oh, yes, we warned you it was McFetridge week here at DSD…

*was that a pun? It was nearly a pun.


Dana King said...

I've never bought a book because of its cover, but I have not bought books because of their covers.

I'm with you: simple covers, a few colors, and, for successful authors, a theme so you can recognize them. I know art directors get moist over some of the art work created, but it's a book. I want art, I'll by art. The cover is there to identify the book.

That being said, the LET IT RIDE cover is very cool. I particularly like how the halo effect around the letters moves as your eyes change position. Nicely done.

Chris said...

Me perspective is a little different from Dana's. I absolutely have bought a book because of its cover, and in most cases it has been a good choice. Like Dana, though, covers can and will totally put me off. All the books that get lumped in with the current trend of "paranormal romance" books, or whatever, where it seems they used the same "edgy" model on the cover in leather on a motorcycle or whatever makes those books all but impossible to read. Which makes for unfortunate circumstances when a publisher goes after that market with a cover along those lines for a book that is nothing at all like that.

When I drop my $ for a book, though, I want the art too. I want a package I like to look at. I'm like that with books, and I'm like that with music. I rue the day the big gatefold vinyl records left the shelf, and I'm ecstatic that they are making a comeback.

Good topic, Russel.

Mike Dennis said...

Great post, Russel! You can't judge a book by its cover? Ha! That's precisely what covers are for. And the best covers, while they may mask an inferior book, never, I mean NEVER harm sales, whereas a weak cover masking a superior book will invariably harm sales. I'm with you on this all the way.

My first novel is coming out this year and the cover hasn't been designed yet. But I have to say that it's causing me a great deal of anxiety. The covers of my publisher's other books are, shall we say, somewhat less than riveting. And I've also learned that the person who designs the covers has a great deal of ego invested in each one as she plays with her PhotoShop to confect these trailing-edge gems.

I'm injecting a whiff of humor here, but believe me, there's really nothing funny about it. I'm VERY apprehensive about being able to promote a book in good conscience if the cover is terrible.

Do you have any suggestions for me? Have you had similar problems? And how did you handle them?

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Hey Russel - I agree that I have passed over books because of the cover. Many of my published female friends write romance and I am more often than not roll my eyes at the cover that everyone else thinks is really HOT. Unless they are good friends with those covers, I don't buy the book.

I, like Mike, am awaiting my very first cover for my first published novel....and thankfully, Minotaur does some pretty awesome covers - Let it Ride is a good example. (Although, now that you got me thinking about it, I'll probably chew my nails off today thinking about's a girl thing!) One nice thing the art department did was ask me to give them some examples of the look and feel I thought appropriate for the book.

Mike, you might be able to send your editor a couple of covers that you think evoke the right feel as your work. And if your editor is feeling open to the idea, he or she can share those with the art department. Then again, if your editor says the cover designer is tempermental, you might want to just wait and see...sometimes saying anything makes the designer go the extra mile to create an ugly cover.