June 15, 2013

Book covers - to judge or not to judge that is the question ...

There's plenty of controversy to be found on the Internet over book covers. There are raves and rants and even whole blogs devoted to them.

So how many really good covers are there? And what constitutes a good one anyhow?
As both a writer and avid reader, I find the topic fascinating. 
Copyright Mark Parisi

The Goodreads Best Cover Art list seems to have way too many books to do with vampires and the paranormal – which says something about the readers who contribute to such lists – and from the responses it proves I'm not the only one baffled by the choices. Someone even calls them “mass market eyesores.”

And who isn't thoroughly sick of cut-off bodies in women's fiction? There's been a lingering epidemic of them for years in both contemporary and historical titles (especially anything to do with wives of Henry VIII).  First we had the missing head, then came the back view. Now just legs or half a face seem to be the thing. They have become so common that you can't tell one title from another any more.  Other trends have been for women with flowing hair (or headless!) running away in a flurry of skirts, or they are tiny indistinct figures wearing cloaks, etc. and lost in some dreamy or hazy landscape.

Covers that are totally wrong for the period are a particular beef of mine. I recently reviewed a book that was set mainly in late 19th/early 20th Century but had an image of women from the 1930s on the cover. I'd have been furious if I were the author. It smacks of laziness or incompetence on the part of the publisher and can trivialise the book itself.

The Managing Editor of Historical Novels Review has recently written an interesting article on the evolution of covers – read it here. And HNR's Book Editor also has an enlightening Resuable Cover Art page that shows what can happen when too many publishers use the same stock images.  I didn't know whether to laugh, cry or tear my hair out after browsing them. Don't any of these art designers bother to do even basic research and see what other books may have used the same image? 

I personally don't like the use of portraits of real people from history to illustrate novels that have nothing to do with them, even if the images are out of copyright. But it is clearly a rampant practice that isn't going to go away.

Copyright Tom Gauld
I was astounded to see how many times a portrait of Emma Hamilton by George Romney in the Tate Gallery has been used, including for a Polish princess (?!) and an edition of Wuthering Heights among others.  If this wasn't already such a famous portrait it mightn't be a problem, but any thinking reader with a modicum of history or art knowledge will recognise the image right away and be put off the book if it isn't about Emma Hamilton herself. 

And as for French society lady Juliette Recamier - she has time-travelled across several centuries and been mistress to numerous men unknown to her. Seems she's also morphed into Desiree and even been the Secret Wife of George IV.  She's been linked to Mr. Darcy and My Cousin Rachel  a story set decades after Juliette was this blushing ingenue.  And as for her being Moll Flanders, she's a century too young


So what is my idea of a good cover? Something that is distinctive and can't be easily confused with any other book and also gives a good reflection on the subject matter or story within. Original. Quirky. Anything that makes it stand apart.

Young Adult genre books often have more imagination in their covers than mainstream adult books. Much as I don't like disembodied bits, this Australian cover (left) for The Diviners by Libby Bray really works. Stylish. I love it. It has rightly just received the 2013 Australian Publishers Association Award for best Young Adult cover.  The original hardback cover (right) is also good for catching your eye - sorry for the pun!

If I feel like reading something romantic and historic, I'm a sucker for colourful original artwork and foreign settings – Indian palaces, lagoons, tropical flowers, butterflies, etc. I first discovered Julia Gregson's East of the Sun when it leaped out at me from the opposite side of a bookshop. Other titles of Julia's in her English editions also have similar beautiful covers but haven't made it to the American editions. I wonder why? To me, there is no doubting which of these I would choose every time.  Another cut-off head ... aargh!

I'm not a huge reader of crime thrillers or contemporary adventures, but when I am in the mood for something in these genres, I have a lot of trouble deciding what they are like from their covers. Just too many look the same to me. BIG LETTERS, flames, blood splatter, a knife, a gun = boring.  Lone figure running or standing far away in some kind of streetscape = more boring. Please give me something new and original that sends a chill up the spine or is compelling in some way.

This upcoming novel from Gerald Seymour has caught my attention. I hope this is a sign that people with eyes looking directly at you are making a come-back.

I don't care for crime – real or imagined – involving children so any child, pram or a child's broken toy on the cover is a big turn-off for me, but I can appreciate the impact they have.

Inspector Montalbano Mysteries have some interesting original artwork covers. Again, the Americans don't like the British version (or is it the other way around?).  Here is a link showing the American, but I think I'm going with the much quirkier UK version on this title.

Carl Hiaasen writes humorous crime for kids and adults. All his covers have an almost cheeky simplicity. The UK ones do vary from the American and the newer editions are even more streamlined than earlier ones.  Here are a couple of versions for the book Star Island.  
Just enough of a tease in both covers to draw you in. That cherry is fabulous.

New editions of old authors can be a hit and miss affair - as can be seen with the much-abused Madame Recamier - but this Vintage Classics series from Random House UK of Nevil Shute's books are just brilliant. Again simplicity is the key. I like these so much they have persuaded me to buy them and re-familiarise myself with Shute's work.

I spotted A Slow Passion the other day and thought its cover just charming.  Normally a book about snails wouldn't be high on my reading list, but the cover guaranteed I would pick it up, read the first page and then decide to buy a copy.

Speaking of snails, I could slither on forever over this topic and must conclude for the time being, although I may return later.

Meantime, here is a link to a great article from The Guardian on incongruous book covers. Just scroll down until you see what Vexin Classics have come up with!  I'd love to know what Mark Twain would have thought of this new Huckleberry Finn edition.

Words fail me ... let the covers speak for themselves!

And if you want another good chuckle on romance novel covers just follow this link.

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