Monday, July 27, 2009

Judging a Book By It's Cover

There has been a lot of flap lately over the cover of LIAR, by Justine Larbalestier. If you don't know about the controversy, where have you been??

Just kidding! Seriously, this plays into my hands in the fears I wrote in the previous post: what happens if you hate the cover art? More specifically - what happens if the book jacket doesn't match your book... at all?

Justine describes the main character this way: Micah is black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short.

The cover photo? A decidedly Caucasian woman with long, fine hair.

I'd comment about this at length, but better, smarter people have done that for me. So here is a great blog post about another author's view of the situation, which had me thinking about this more widely than just this book. What is the purpose of cover art?

Author John Green (of the aforementioned post) points out that publishers want to get the books into the hands of as many people as possible - to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. But he brings up a great point:

I would argue the job of a cover is not to get the book to the broadest audience but instead to get the book to its best audience.

So does a publisher (and it's marketing/cover art department along with it's partners in crime in large chain bookstores) have an obligation to make the cover as appealing to a wide-spread audience it thinks it can sell better to - or to appeal to the audience, albeit maybe a smaller one, that would actually love the book?


  1. I am nowhere near a book sale or anything, but I can honestly say that a future book cover is a big concern. There are some out on shelves that I really HATE and if I got one like that I would be heartbroken.

    Definitely keep us updated when you get to that part of your journey :)

  2. MeganRebekah - I think the cover is one of those things authors daydream about long before the book is even finished. Despite the adage to not judge a book by it's cover, WE DO!!

    There are books I've picked up because of the cover that I never otherwise would have, and books I passed even reading the blurb because I didn't like the cover.

    I think the process with a small publisher - especially mine - is very different than a larger one. It's one of the things I really love and am looking forward to.

    If you want to hear a little about it already, click on the 4 Corners link on the sidebar. My last post there talks a little about that.

    But I will definitely walk everyone through the process here as it happens... the joy and possible pain of it all! :)

  3. I think that the best cover encompasses the book - the plot, character, or theme that is central to the book. A cover should reveal the very essence of the story. Then...the right audience will find it, rather than your book reaching out to find an audience. What does yoru book say?

  4. Yo Teach - good point! Which is why, to some extent, just a photo of a person's face, with little expression, tells us nothing about the book.

    As I'm thinking about my own cover I'm thinking the same way you are... about theme and plot and essence all wrapped up together.

    Of course doing that well takes a great understanding of a book, and a great deal of talent. Which is maybe why so many book covers aren't the perfect fit for the story within them.

  5. I read about this earlier on another blog, and I think it is POSSIBLE that MAYBE this was staged. The contraversy over the cover has generated a lot of publicity. Now more people will read the book.

    (Okay, a little like a conspiracy theory, I know.) And also aliens will invade our planet in 2012.

  6. I read this last week and can definitely understand where Justine is coming from. That must be extremely frustrating.

    Just today I was in Barnes and Noble browsing books, and the covers really do have a huge effect on my. I don't know why they couldn't have made the cover of her book interesting AND indicative of the contents.

  7. Jessie -oooh! a conspiracy theory! Well, there is no bad publicity, right? And I'd never heard of the book before, so maybe it's working.

    Hmmmm... I'm rethinking my cover now. :)

    Paul -it's so true! I'm thinking of going to the bookstore just to browse and see what actually catches my eye, and figure out why I like it. Besides books that show a beach.

  8. My niece is trying to write a book and has already designed her cover when I told her that authors typically don't have a lot of say in the cover her face totally dropped.

    I find myself not even thinking of a cover or even a title for that matter so I'm not disappointed.

  9. if anything, its getting alot of press.

  10. Wow-- I blogged about this yesterday and I thought it might be kismet, but it looks like this issue is getting a LOT of attention. So I'll respond here, as well. Although I understand the writer's concern, I also think that writers are some of the first ones to be disspointed when their book tanks.
    It’s true that books with minorities on the cover don't sell as well as books with pale-skinned people on the cover. It happens even with black fiction-- a lot more light skinned blacks make it on the covers of books (ever notice?). Here's some other harsh realities:

    1. An ethnic author's name can be the kiss of death, unless it's a cookbook, say, on Thai cooking. American audiences have money, but they can be very prejudiced. If you want American money, you have to learn how to work around American buyer's peccadilloes.
    2. Male writers (generally) must use a female pseudonym if they write romance
    3. Female writers make lots more money if they choose a gender-neutral name when they write technical or scholarly books. I found this one out myself, and struggled with whether to use my real name or not. In the end, I compromised, and used my Hispanic name and first initial, effectively rendering my pen name "sexless". And I'll tell you-- readers who contact me assume I'm a man at least 75% of the time.
    4. Publishing is a business-- and buyers have lots and lots of prejudices, whether they admit them or not.

    Maybe the publisher should have just asked the writer-- are you willing to sacrifice, say, 70% of your sales for a specific cover design? Would she have accepted that? I don't know. Writing is an art, but book marketing and sales are often a much uglier business.

  11. christy - those are all excellent points. and you're right: it can be an ugly business. no one wants to admit that a cover that shows a black girl might sell less copies. But the numbers show they do.

    I guess my question is why the artists chose to deliberately mislead the readers. You don't have to have a face on a cover. They could have chose anything - a scene, an object, a location.

    patti - I sympathize with your niece! What a huge and common misconception that is!

    Funny enough, as visual as I am, I still have no concept of what I'd put on the front of mine.