Book cover controversies have been burning up the Internet lately. A quick recap:
On her blog, Justine Larbalestier wrote what I thought was a remarkably even-handed assessment of what happened with the US cover of her novel. In Justine’s words, the protagonist is “black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short.” Which is why she and many subsequent readers were surprised to see this cover:
(The image has since been taken down)
Larbalestier relates the anecdotal experiences of other authors who have since been in touch with her, and touches on the fact that the cover choice could relate to the pernicious stereotype that “black” books don’t sell. I don’t necessarily agree with all of her conclusions, but it’s an interesting post.
Meanwhile, over in the UK, the Internet has been calling shenanigans on the cover of Simon Kernick’s novel DEADLINE. After glancing at the cover you may be surprised to know it’s not actually by Dan Brown.
And finally, the artist of that bull statue on Wall Street is suing Random House for using the image on the cover of the book A COLOSSAL FAILURE OF COMMON SENSE, which is about the Lehman Bros. debacle.
What does all this cover business mean to the authors? A whole lot. What can they do about it? Not a whole lot.
In the US especially, author approval over the cover is kind of like a 100 year old bottle of Bordeaux wine that is only bestowed upon the truly rarefied authors among us who measure their book sales in the gajillions. Everyone else has to live with the cover the publisher comes up with. No approval. Publishers decide on what goes on the cover, sometimes with input from the major chains. And sometimes but not always with the author’s input.
When it comes to covers they don’t like, authors do have one solid tool at their disposal: the Agent Freakout, a time-honored tradition whereby an agent raises hell about the proposed cover, often (but not always) effecting the necessary change. (The Agent Freakout is reason #1,782,572,081 why you should have an agent, btw).
Otherwise? An author has to trust that the publisher will see the light or just breathe and remember that a bad cover is very unlikely to destroy your career.
But honestly, while these cover horror stories are memorable they’re also somewhat rare. For the most part the art department comes up with an extremely good cover, and some authors luck out with a truly spectacular one.
So yes: you don’t have control over your cover. But don’t worry. It all turns out fine.
Eva Ulian says
As long as they have Angelina Jolie's face draped in a novice's veil splashed on the cover of my novel with John Depp lurking in the background, I don't care what else they do to it!!!
Oh, wow. This is the timeliest post I've ever read. Around the same time yesterday, I was writing this: https://www.kia-abdullah.com/blog/index.html.
It's unprofessional I know, but I couldn't help myself.
RE: Mary's Wuthering Heights comment
While I am among the uninitiated who have neither read Twilight nor seen the movie, I have read Wuthering Heights several times and nowhere in my recollection is Heathcliff a vampire. Sadistic, yes, but nothing occult. Deeply offended at hackneyed repackaging of classic BritLit.
Also, despite having been disappointed by misleading cover art in the past, I would trust the art department. I have no degree in either marketing nor design so I doubt I would be qualified to make recommendations any more than I would like the art department's opinion on my supporting characters!
Jenna – your point about market testing – could not agree more!
The cover art for your new book, Jennifer and Nathan – it's hot. When you're dealing with the YA market, hot is definitely the way to go. That cover alone will sell books. Congrats! 🙂
Best of luck with the launch!
Georgia McBride-Wohl says
I always enjoy your posts, Nathan and this one is no exception. In fact, this one was even better since there was a well place plug for your client at the end. Cheers to you and thanks again. The book, by the way, sounds great. Looking forward to reading it. Will be a nie departure from the urban fantasy worlds I normally roam in.
I'm a sucker for a good-looking cover. But it's the writing, the first page or so, that sells me or not.
Love your client's cover. My favorite colors – hooker red and hooker black.
Exactly the colors I used to design my own cover. I'm not finished with the novel quite yet but I stuck the art on my business card. I plan to be sure, if I get published to get a copy to the artist. Work on them subliminally.
I don't even care if my name's on the cover at all. Just sell the damn thing. So, even though mine is a detective mystery, I'm wondering how I can get them to put Dan Brown's name on my cover in font: Hummungo.
Of course it would have to be in hooker red.
I just reviewed a book called Blue Like Play Dough. It's about blue play dough. The cover is blue and features a gob of orange play dough.
Dana Fredsti says
One of the few benefits of having a small publisher (legit, but small) was having input and final approval on my cover.
I'm with Sex at Starbucks re: the Dan Brown cover… I'd read the story on the LIAR cover and that has to be frustrating for the author, not to mention insulting on several levels.
Congrats, Jennifer, on what sounds like a great book and a lovely cover!
CindaChima, reading the description of your book cover made me interested enough to check it out (swords, with the possibility of roses in the corner). Looks like you write just the type of books my kids would love. On the topic of people on covers: I prefer minimalist book covers and/or those with little to no characters on them. My kids don't even consider books with covers that look stupid to them. Judging a book by a cover might not be the smartest thing to do, but it happens!
Author Guy says
The cover for my second novel, A Warrior Made, was developed by my publisher in consultation with me, even down to the font! The others, either I wasn't asked or my views were completely dismissed.
Genella deGrey says
Thank you Tamara Dever!
And Chris B., all of Dr. Rapaille's work is brilliant – Do check him out.
Jack Roberts, Annabelle's scribe says
I’m a visual person. I see my cover in my mind just like I see the scenes in my book unfolding like a movie.
It’s frustrating to hear we have no control, but I’ll do as you say and trust. After all, cover art is a long way away from my current situation.
I suppose I could send the future art department of the future publisher a sketch. Or give it to my future agent.
jinx schwartz says
I feel their pain. My protagonist (Hetta Coffey, Just Add Water series) owns a power boat and the audio people have a sailboat on the cover. Sigh.
To landlubbers, maybe no diff, but boaters are vastly divided on the subject of power vs sail, and never the twain shall meet. Except on the twack.
To Donna Hole;
I'm sorry you feel this way "But if I looked at a book with the picture of an alluring white girl on the cover, I'd be pretty upset to find it all about an ugly black girl."
As far as I can tell, the protagonist wasn't described as ugly. Just sounds like any other black woman before getting a perm.
Your comment hightlights exactly whats wrong with publishing and probably why Bloomsbury decided to pull a switch. To appease those who think and post like you.
@ Jen C and lora96
I was incredulous at the sight of it: https://tinyurl.com/ndjjkn
I think you're misunderstanding Donna. She's saying, I believe, that she doesn't like deceitful advertizing, and that the cover should represent the story. In this case, she's angry that they didn't put a black girl on the cover. I don't think she's saying that she wants to buy books with white girls on the cover, and if it's not about a white girl she'd be upset. I can see with the phrasing how you could interpret it that way, but I think she's actually suggesting the opposite.
Just my two pennies…
Donna Hole says
mythicagirl: you did misuderstand me.
Ink: Thanks, that's exactly what I meant to say.
*The agent freak-out* That's the second reason I've read today to keep me plugging in my never-ending search for an agent. Fantastic!
bridget asher & julianna baggott says
I don't sell gajillions but have always been part of the cover discussion. More for my adult novels, less so for my kid novels where artists play a larger role in general.
In fact, my husband designed my first novel cover, Girl Talk, from Simon & Schuster, and a few of my books of poems.
What's smart is to jump the gun. Send yr editor covers you admire or images from Getty Images … start to get a feel for each other's visual taste.
— Julianna Baggott
(aka Bridget Asher)
Good advice, Julianna. Thanks for sharing that.
Do you ever get to converse with the artist?
When I worked in journalism you often met the photog while covering the story. But if I had graphics to go with a story, I made it a point to stop by and chat with the artist.
You learn a lot about their problems with the publisher and editors as well.
I think it's good for a project if everyone involved knows what each other is doing.
Of course in journalism the writers are respected. I get the feeling in book publishing they're almost pariahs.
To Ink and Donna:
I appreciate the clarification.
Regarding the girl on the cover, I do agree that its an intriguing shot. And I should note, that the way the actual protag is described has led to a small debate on the author's blog about what she really looks like. Its interesting that the author has stated:
From the author’s blog – “which is why I was a bit offended by the reviewer, who in an otherwise lovely review, described Micah as ugly. She’s not!”
This whole LIAR cover debate has many layers, and I'm glad Nathan included it.
Seems to me to be a simple matter to include a clause in any contract signed by an author, that cover approval is required. Do agents lack the wherewithal? Are authors so unsure of their work? The problem is that when the circus believes it's a buyer's market, thus the circus behaves. Authors need to take more control of their property.
I have to admit that covers do sway me. I really classy cover says to me that the publishers care about the novel and think it will do well, whereas a cheap looking title makes me think the novel is not expected to do well enough that they assign a good artist / designer to it, etc. I don't like to think I'm that superficial, but some covers draw me right in and I'll buy the novel because of the mood the cover sets. Novels such as "The Meaning of Night" and "The Gargoyle" are examples of covers that sold me recently. Of course they also had good hooks and good opening pages, so three elements worked together to sell me enough to buy the hard cover.
Miss Aspirant: A Blog for Aspiring Writers
The interesting thing about the cover for Deadline is that the real author's name was the last thing I spotted, and it is probably by design. I would be upset if I was Simon Kernick OR Dan Brown.