Cover Matters is a new monthly feature in which we examine the medium that is first contact between a reader and a book: the cover. This feature will dedicate more separate space to a topic that has always intrigued, irked, and befuddled us. We will be talking about issues such as whitewashing practices, covers in poor taste, misleading or completely inaccurate covers, clichéd covers and, of course, covers that manage to get it right. We plan on having guests (bloggers, authors, cover artists, and publishers if possible) join us for these monthly pieces, with the following question in mind: Do covers matter?
In this second issue of our Cover Matters feature, we will be talking about Clichéd Covers in Fantasy. Inspired by Aidan Moher (a blogger whose take on Fantasy covers are infamous for their keen assessment and criticism) and his post “I ask you: Clichés – A Double Standard” over at A Dribble of Ink, we will be addressing some of the questions he asked (Why are clichés shunned in the text of novels, but often embraced on the cover? Should publishers look for the same originality in their art departments that they seek in their authors?), as well as examining examples of both clichéd and original covers. We will discuss the rationale behind creating clichéd covers, and the idea of consumer familiarity. And finally, later in the day, we will have a guest article from Aidan himself.
Introduction: The Problem of Clichéd Covers
Aidan Moher from A Dribble of Ink is a prolific Fantasy blogger that consistently posts about and critically examines cover art. In one of his recent articles (the one that inspired this issue of Cover Matters ), he examines the irony of covers in fantasy – as publishers and agents are constantly on the lookout for fresh and original novels, and yet once these groundbreaking new tales are published, they invariably end up with a ridiculously bland, clichéd cover.
He proceeds to ask the questions: Why are clichés shunned in the text of novels, but often embraced on the cover? Should publishers look for the same originality in their art departments that they seek in their authors?
The ensuing discussion included opinions from readers and authors alike (including Mark Charan Newton and Peter V. Brett) , and this all points to a diverse melange of opinions and reasonings: one must take into consideration budget, marketing, the fact that the cover has a specific purpose (i.e. that of selling the book).
In 2009, Orbit – one of the major Fantasy publishers in the UK – conducted a survey examining cover art for Fantasy novels published in 2008 by all the big publishers in the genre. As you can see, the results point to a staggering over-use of certain elements: see the prevalence of “swords” and “glowing magic.”
Or, in a more visual approach, behold – examples:
EXHIBIT 1: The Sword
EXHIBIT 2: The Hood (even though not part of the survey, the hood seems to be an up-and-coming favorite)
EXHIBIT 3: The Hooded Figure PLUS The Sword
The evidence does seem to point towards a certain sense of… homogeneity. What exactly does this trend mean?
Familiarity versus Originality: The Debate
To the causal consumer (the silent mass that, despite what we internet dwellers may think, comprises the majority of readers), covers are often the strongest, most influential selling point for a book. In this sense, the commercial aspect of covers must be taken into consideration by publishers, since covers are a reader’s first introduction to a book. While the back summary, author blurbs, reviews, and general popularity DO matter, the cover is the first impression a book makes with a potential consumer. As such, covers must DRAW a customer in; they must give detailed hints about the style, genre and subject matter of the book.
This is where “familiarity” comes into play – because the casual consumer is more likely to pick up a book based on the cover (as opposed to us angry internetz peepul that read reviews, spark up impassioned arguments with other internet-cave-dwellers, stalk authors, and hound publishers for review copies), the marketing strategy often is boiled down to the following:
This is not only backed by the examples shown above, but also by Mark Charan Newton, who, in the aftermath of Aidan’s post wrote an article of his own, entitled Book Cover Conversations are so Very Cliched.In this article, MCN voices his opinion not only as an author of Fantasy novels but also based on his past experience as bookseller and as an industry professional (editor). He agrees that covers are “the single most important decision in selling books,” and proceeds to give his writerly/publisher point of view – namely that artists, book marketers, authors need to eat and familiarity sells. Hence, Mr. Newton puts a whole lot more emphasis on the marketing and commercial aspect of the fantasy book cover. (His post also hosts interesting comments from readers, bloggers and authors and it is well worth a read.)
This argument makes two key assumptions. One is explicit:
But this argument also makes a much more interesting IMPLICIT assumption:
It is this second point that is far more interesting to us – because, as MCN implies in his post publishing/marketing professionals “won’t be able to eat” if the decision is made to put up covers that don’t feature a hooded figure, or a sword, or glowy magic, or whatever.
To us, this seems to be a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Clichéd covers are supposed to work because they engender a sense of familiarity with readers; because some prior cover was successful, this very similar new cover will also be successful. But isn’t it possible that the majority of these repetitive covers are successful because they comprise the majority of the market? What other choice does the buyer truly have?
We are not industry professionals. Nor can we back our opinion with sales numbers (since we don’t have the thousands of dollars required to access Nielsen data). BUT, we feel that there is tangible evidence that runs contrary to these two assumptions. First, we assert that:
People DO buy different covers!
Macmillan’s (one of the “Big Six” publishing houses in the US) “Top Sellers” at this precise moment for SF/F contain a number of titles with distinct, original covers:
Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson books with their gorgeous US covers designed by artist Dan dos Santos are immensely successful New York Times, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble Best Sellers (and yes, we’ve been trying to keep Urban Fantasy out of the discussion as that is fodder for an entirely different post, but we thought it was worth a mention)
At this moment in the top 50 SF/F Hardcover Bestsellers at B&N:
Granted, we don’t have the actual sales figures for any of these titles above. But provided that Macmillan, Amazon, B&N, et al are not pulling a fast one on us and lying about which titles are selling the best, there seems to be at least enough soft, third-party evidence that points to the contrary of this idea that originality is a death sentence for a fantasy title.
We’d also like to emphasize the main problem we have with this multitude of bland sea of homogeneity in terms of covers: these covers make the books inside indistinguishable from one another. They are nondescript and look like “just another Fantasy novel” without any zest or originality whatsoever. Doesn’t familiarity breed exhaustion?
Plus, no one seems to be asking the question that matters most to us:
At the end of the day, we understand that sales matter, and that artists and publicists and authors, etc have to eat. But this argument seems to forget that there are two sides to this relationship. Isn’t the reader’s money just as important as the publisher’s/author’s/artist’s? Doesn’t the publisher have an obligation to provide the reader with his money’s worth? Is it really ok for publishers to put out a slew of mediocre (ranging from bland to utterly hideous) cover art, so long as it sells? The reader also has to spent his hard-earned money and wouldn’t a better cover, a more artistic cover, or a cover that fits the book a little more closely be a better investment?
Other Problems with Cover Clichés
Another argument we’ve seen for homogeneous covers is the “Cost Defense.” There just isn’t really that much money available to publishers to put together lavish photoshoots or commission top artists to create something entirely original for every book. To this, we draw on a point Aidan has made before us – significantly smaller publishers such as Pyr and Night Shade Books, or imprints like Angry Robot are able to come up with drop-dead AWESOME covers for their titles – and we have to imagine that budgets for these smaller publishers are much lower than for the behemoths of the Fantasy landscape.
Is the true deciding factor that huge fantasy publishers (such as Tor/Forge, Bantam, Del Rey, and Ace) do not have the money to spend on their cover art? Or, rather, is their strategy “domination by inundation” – that is pumping out as many of the same looking books as possible?
We agree with the basic precept that a Fantasy cover should necessarily signify consumers that it is a Fantasy novel – but there are better ways of accomplishing that without being stale and repetitious. There are effective ways to integrate familiarity with originality – just take a look at Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings:
Nostalgic, but gorgeously rendered at the same time, The Way of Kings speaks to old and new fantasy readers alike.
Another question we find ourselves facing as we explore clichéd covers in fantasy and the arguments on both sides is the actual role that covers play in the complete package that is a published book. Covers are indeed a commercial entity, a marketing tool, intended to pique a customer’s interest – but it’s also a representation of the book, and, at its most basic level, a work of art. Art – meant to intrigue, to entertain, to provoke, to convey a message. A book itself is a tactile object and a work of art in itself. Books represent the dispersion of knowledge, the written enthrallment of storytelling – they are not just commodities meant to be sold.
Really Awesome Cover Art In Fantasy
There are a number of truly original, awesome covers out on the market today, and we’d like to share some of these with you, dear readers. N.K. Jemison’s breakout 2010 debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has a gorgeous, unique cover, and the Australian covers for Celine Kiernan’s Moorehawk trilogy are another example of big titles with lovely covers that sell. J.G. Lamplighter’s Prospero Lost is another striking one worth a mention:
Then, there are the amazing French covers for Brent Weeks’ Night Angel Trilogy, and Fiona McIntosh’s Valisar trilogy (both courtesy of Dark Wolf’s Fantasy Reviews):
Then, there’s this amazing article from SciFiMeld, featuring artists and authors talking about covers that they think just work brilliantly.
We understand that covers are a marketing tool and serve a very important purpose as the commercial representation for a book. Yet, we think that clearly, covers can be both artistic and commercially potent – one does not preclude the other.
Make sure to stick around as later today, we give the floor to Aidan, from A Dribble of Ink. Since he’s the guy that got us talking about the problem of clichéd covers in fantasy novels, we decided to pose the question to Aidan: Do Covers Matter?
So, Ana and Thea want me to talk about cliches in cover art. That’s great. It’s something I’ve talked about before, and have a particular interest in. I was all ready to go on about self-fulfilling prophecies and publishing companies relying on flash-in-the-pan marketing trends (like those listed my my wonderful hosts) and shitty but familiar art (I dare you to look me in the eye and tell me that the art on The Gathering Storm isn’t of objectively poor quality) over wonderfully creative and interesting covers… but then I ran into this quote by artist John Picacio on twitter:
And, well… that basically sums up my thoughts about the matter. Diehard fans of the genre (like those passionate enough to blog, or wile away the day reading blogs) see so many book covers that they’re always pining for something new and exciting. Book Publishers (and, just as importantly, Book Sellers in major bookstore chains) want something that is going to immediately present itself as familiar and comfortable to their customers. No matter how long a marketing department spends on a project, if it looks like it was slapped together to please everyone (like the US Hardback cover of Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold), it’s going to fail as art; similarly, you could put the most amazing piece of art on a cover, but if it doesn’t resonate with the target audience, it fails as a marketing device. The key, however, lies in taking those familiar elements and teaming them up with an artist who has creative license.
My hope, for any cover, is that it can succeed both as a lovely piece of art, and a powerful tool to get the book into the hands of readers. It’s just that that tricky middle-ground can be very hard to hit.
Trends and familiarity need not be mutually exclusive with striking art. One need look no further than Pyr Books, who take familiar ideas (like Jon Sprunk’s Shadow’s Son) and pair them up with amazing artists. If more publishers took this approach, I like to think we’d see happier fans and a lot more pretty books on our bookshelves.
But, hey, what do I know? I’m just a blogger.
Links for Further Reading:
The Book Design Review (Unfortunately, on indefinite hiatus – but still worth looking through the archives)
Lit Mob’s Weekly “Judging By The Cover” Feature provides analysis of covers, interviews with artists, and other opinion pieces
Book By Its Cover – an aesthetically appealing site that (though light on actual commentary) takes a look at children’s book art and comic book art
Total Cardboard’s Retro Book Cover Design Gallery, featuring beauties from classic SF/F/H and pulp novels
Judge A Book…By Its Cover – another awesome collection of covers of the SF/H/pulp variety