Book Covers

I saw a tweet the other day by Gillian Redfearn who is the editorial director at Gollanzc. She put a link up to some new artwork for a couple of Joe Abercrombie’s previous books (He’s one of the most popular fantasy writers at the moment in case you hadn’t come across him).

His covers so far have been broadly similar, usually featuring an old map splattered with blood and perhaps an axe or sword. Not exactly high art, but variations on a theme that had become synonymous with his name. The new covers were more illustrative, heading towards photo-realistic; a muscled/heroic arm wielding a sword etc etc. Personally, I prefer the originals.

Three questions rise from this:

  1. How much involvement and influence does an author have on their covers?
  2. Why does the publishing industry constantly tinker with a cover, or have different ones for different markets and territories?
  3. Why are book covers so bad?

So I responded to Gillian’s tweet with the first question, and surprisingly and to her credit, she answered.

I think I heard an expression once that you can always judge a book by its cover… no, wait…

Why do so many authors, having sweated blood on to the page and polished it word by word by word, sometimes over many years, allow such an agony of creativity to be wrapped up in the equivalent of a dirty old rag? And what’s more, different rags over time or territory?

a)      The publishers (contractually) sideline him in the process?

b)      He doesn’t care?

c)       He has no artistic abilities and cedes the decision to the business?

d)      Publisher persuades him their professional marketing team know better?

It’s not unreasonable to look for parallels in other creative media, and the music business is a good place to go. In terms of artwork, they couldn’t be further apart.

I challenge you to name more than one iconic book cover. Er… Clockwork Orange? Er…

I challenge you to name more than one iconic album cover. Bowie, Pink Floyd, Joy Division, The Beatles, The Clash, Nirvana, Sex Pistols, Yes, etcetera, etc.

We recognise these albums and the artists that made them even without seeing the name or title on the front – often an image is so strong, the band don’t even bother including them. And the other thing about this is that they almost never change. The American cover for Dark Side of The Moon is exactly the same as the UK cover, and the French cover, and the Australian cover. For forty years!

An iconic cover is an incredibly powerful image. How many times have you seen Abbey Road mimicked? How many tourists and fans have been to see the zebra crossing. How much revenue generated? How many T-shirts and posters sold?

Yet the American edition of a novel almost always has a different cover to the UK edition, I assume because marketing people believe we have different tastes and they want to maximize sales by catering to that taste. But when you think about it, this is nonsensical, because then the novel itself should by that logic have corresponding differences in tone, style and content. Put that to an author, and see how it goes down. Authors know a lot of words. You’d probably also find they know a few expletives as well.


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