Friday, July 31, 2009

Judging a Book by Its Cover

Today Nathan Bransford discusses book covers at his blog and it got me thinking. Quite often I complain about publishing in Botswana and Southern Africa but Mr. Bransford's blog reminds me yet again that some things are better here. For example, author's say in book covers. In books I've written alone published here I've had a lot of say about the covers.

The cover for The Fatal Payout, the hands with the money, was my idea. It was apparently shot in the Macmillan offices in South Africa. The cover for Murder for Profit that was initially given to me was not anything like this, it was mostly words. I suggested bloody words, and then I got another cover which I still didn't like and then I suggested yet again that we put a photo of a village. I remember at one point there was a bloody knife with a bucket, not sure where that got off to. Even for Mmele and the Magic Bones. I found the illustrator myself (something I will never do again though).

The point I'm trying to make is that in Botswana, at least in my experience, authors get much say over their covers and that is a plus.

But what makes a good cover? I've included two of my favourite covers from my bookshelf (All the Pretty Horses and Star Girl). I can't say what I like, but I know it when I see it.
According to author Justine Larbalestier, the big publishers in America, and I'm assuming that goes across the ocean too, don't have that problem. They know what makes a good cover by studying their statistics about which covers sell and which covers don't and that is how their covers are designed; sometimes having little to do with what is actually inside the book, as is the case for Larbalesier's latest book about a black girl that has a white girl on the cover. Apparently books with black people on the cover don't sell.

In her blog she discusses the difficulties she's gone through because of that cover, one she had no control over in the end. She explains the thin line authors must walk- she hates the cover but can't let anyone know, especially the publisher who can easily give her the boot. At the same time, readers are claiming they won't buy the book with a white girl on the cover and why doesn't Larbalestier explain what's going on?
As if writers don't have enough problems.


bonita delrey said...

Sorry. It maybe okay to use book-cover stix for some mass market paperbacks but a white girl on the cover of a book about a black girl is INEXCUSABLE. My guess is that this was a poorly communicated art request that was paid for before the editor read the book. No girl on cover would be preferable to race changing. I remember the first 'intercultural' textbooks. They were the first texts to show both white and colored students. I do mean colored. The people of color had caucasian features that were tinted a coffee color. That was 40 years ago.
I hope Justine can summon the nerve to write a rather pointed letter to her publisher. If her book was good enough to be published by one publisher, there's surely another that will print her work.

karen said...

how absolutely bizarre! I'm glad you have been able to have some input into your covers...

Karen said...

From what I heard at a seminar a few years ago, cover art isn't the only thing authors have little, or no, choice. According to the agent giving the lecture, the title is up in the air as well.

She said that the title given by the author may be considered, but ultimately it's the book SELLERS that have final say. If they either don't like, or don't think your title will sell, they can change it.

I've also heard the same goes for illustrated children's books. The author doesn't get to pick the artist, either. Maybe, once you've proven yourself enough times, you'd get to make those decisions yourself.

Evidently they think we use up all our creativity on writing the manuscript and there's nothing left over for artwork or titling. Neat...

Unknown said...

Yikes! I'm with Bonita and everyone else on this!!! However, there are specialists that work on book covers in colaboration with the publishers and sometimes with the author as well.

We can deny it all we want, but most of us do judge books by their covers... my only exception would be books by authors I love and respect.

Lauri said...

I think it's nice for writers to get to be part of the process, but I'm the first to admit I'm not a designer. It's good to have professionals too.

That said, things on the cover should not contradict things on the pages.

Elizabeth Bradley said...

I love the cover of my up-coming short story collection.(It's posted on my blog.) I'm so alarmed that they would put the picture of a white girl on the cover of a book about a black girl that I'm fuming mad. If somebody bought the book, thinking that it was about a white girl wouldn't they be confused upon reading the story? Our whole world revolves around WHAT SELLS, or is it what the big corporations BELIEVE will sell? Hard to tell sometimes.