discussions genre stuff

Book Cover Conversations Are So Very Clichéd

It’s raised its ugly head once again:

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?

It keeps cropping up. The internets hates clichéd covers and demands changes in cover art – new, shiny, original things – but change doesn’t come. Why?

Well, that’s a story in itself, really, and it goes a little something like this:

There are people who work for publishers and they have families that need feeding. Often, they need to make money in order to eat. They would like their authors to eat too. They realise to do this they need to make money, and a very good way of making money is by selling books. Selling books is good for the publisher and good for the author. Clever people are employed who spend years looking at the book industry, and how to try and make some money in it, and they spend months having meetings deciding on how to do lots of things, like spending huge amounts of marketing cash. Oh wait, no, they don’t have a lot of money to spend. In fact, they’re often deciding on how to spend tiny budgets on several titles each month, which means some books will get no money behind it at all. And some chains charge money just to have the book on the shelf. Money disappears very quickly in this industry.

Which is where cover art comes in. It is the single most important decision in selling books. The casual customer is led – nearly always, when they don’t know the author – by cover art. It’s the first thing they’ll see. And they buy the book with money, which pays the wages of lots of people. The right cover feeds lots of publishers and authors and keeps people very happy indeed.

So a publisher wants to put a piece of artwork on a book that will appeal to lots of people in order to eat. They will speak to bookchain buyers who make a fuck-ton of buying decisions every day in a competitive environment, possibly making or breaking a career with one large sweep of the hand, and publishers really ought to listen to them.

Sometimes the bookchain buyer will say, ‘That obscure arty picture on the cover of your book looks pretty, but it will kill the career of Author X in an instant. Why not put something that lots of people will actually want to buy on the front? You know, stuff that presses the right buttons with fantasy readers – make it familiar with things they might have read before, because that’s probably the best way of shifting units.’

And the publisher says to this: ‘Yes. I would like to eat, as would my family. So would my authors and their families, too. Let’s put something on the front that will encourage lots of fantasy readers pick up the book.’

So they do. And the author sells lots of books and he or she is happy because their book is being read by lots of people. But there will always be angry people – and the angry people live on the internet. They think that the people who live on the internet are right all the time, and bad covers are EVIL, because bad covers never sell books.

And that’s really all there is to it. Cover art is never quite the same as what’s in the book, because the inside is made up of words, and the outside is made up of pictures, and they each do very different things.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

49 replies on “Book Cover Conversations Are So Very Clichéd”

hahahahaa, Nice. On a less sarcastic note I think the thing we internet dwellers sometimes forget is that we are a small core of fairly obsessive fans and most people don’t spend all their free time analysing everything. Most people go “oh a hooded figure, so book y will be like books a – x and i liked most of those”. I love seeing something a little different on a cover, but I would rather the everyone ate, difficult to type a new novel if you’ve starved to death in your garrett.

“But there will always be angry people – and the angry people live on the internet.” You said it, man. If everyone would just run the world the way the angry internet people would let them, everything would be way cooler. And better.
P.S. City of Ruin looks like a badass cover. Just sayin’s all.

Sarcastic, didn’t notice that at all …. But talking about the feeding chain is always a valid argument when it concerns protecting issues, which need some explanation. But we all who buy books that a good cover can be more worth then good reviews. A cover should give you an idea about what we can aspect from the book. Sometimes a cover does that, and you can feel really pleased with the buy…. Other times ( good English?) it can be a total miss and then I am really pissed at the publisher / author. Tricking me to buy a book, on false pretence. But it is not an really serious issue. If all readers could check the reviews before they buy the book, then a good cover would just a be bonus.

I’m still waiting for some real evidence that unique, creative covers are a death sentence. Joe Abercrombie did fine. As did the US version of The Warded Man. Scott Lynch didn’t do too bad either in UK/Canada. NK Jemisin seems poised to do some damage. Brent Weeks (who seems to have spurred the recent trend of hooded figures and featured striking covers, regardless of the knockoffs to follow) is doing alright.

I understand the idea that people see a book that looks like another book, and that makes them want to buy it. That didn’t stop Greg Keyes’s series, which had traditional, cliched covers, from selling way less than they should have. Was Daniel Abraham’s lack of sales due to his (beautiful) covers, or because Tor printed 12 copies of each volume and didn’t distribute them to any bookstores? Arguing against creativity, and saying it’ll lead to a bare dinner table, seems like a bit of a slippery slope.

If money and marketing budget are an issue, how does Pyr constantly work with some of the best artists in the business, when Tor, Bantam and Del Rey can only afford cheap photo manipulation, stock photography or bad CG art?

Adele – indeed. There is a huge book-buying silent majority out there…

Jonathan – thanks, I’m delighted with the City of Ruin cover.

Frank – tricking people: yes, that’s unforgivable really. And it makes no sense if you’re selling the book to the wrong audience.

Aidan – you speak very confidently about book performance for one who hasn’t read access to Nielsen book data… (Or have you?!) Tor, Bantam and Del Rey own HUGE, HUGE chunks of the market. I was looking at general market share only today, in fact, and it speaks volumes. I was staggered, in fact, by how much they’ve sold over the last year, utterly dwarfing some of the other publishers. Any chance you subscribe to Locus? That can give you a decent idea on some of the sales performances, but it’s not as humbling as the raw bookdata itself.

And of course, I was blogging about generalisations, in a cheeky way – you’re always going to find one or two titles that buck the trend, but that can be down to a whole load of other fuck-ups, including printing few copies, a previous bad sales performance (chains only re-order to the level of the previous title, which encourages a downward spiral), that kind of thing.

I don’t think there is a really evident connection between a nice cover and the “sales” but the cover can give the novel the extra that it sourly needs. But, usually good novels are good novels despite really dreadful covers. Just look at “wheel if time series…” hideous covers that display the characters not in best light…

No, I don’t have access to Nielsen data, and perhaps I would sing a different tune if I did. I’d love to get my hands on such data, but, as you know, it’s not released to the public. I don’t think that makes my opinions and observations about the industry any less valid, it just means that I’m coming from a different angle than those on the inside.

That said, your comments emphasize my question. If Tor/Bantam/Del Rey own such a huge market share, shouldn’t they be one-upping Pyr and Orbit in terms of quality of cover art? Would those smaller companies eat up some of that market share if they copied Tor’s traditional cover layout? Or is it because Tor/Del Rey/Bantam have a lot more clout with the bookstores and more money to spend marketing the book? If you own such a huge share of the market, can you really accurately analyze data? If the big three all have the same types of covers, then of course that trend is going to show big numbers.

I think you’re looking at it the wrong way around. You should be asking, why is it that Tor/Bantam/Del Rey have that huge market share? Years of doing the cover thing right. And of course money’s involved – you have to pay for books to go in promotions. The more cash you have, the more you can put your cover in front of people. You still need a commercial cover…

Marc and Aidian …. Are we buyers so gullible that we only buy books because of the cover ? The commercial angle is important and can be sure way to se success for authors and can be a lot harder without the heavy support from the big publishing companies. Also , please give the readers more credit. Some of us who buy books,are based on that what we read in blogs and reviews!

Thanks for that link, Talitah! Very amusing.

Frank – this is the single most common mistake readers online make. You’re a good deal more informed that the casual, buy a book every now and then reader. However, that casual reader is the huge, vast, massive mass-market community that buys the most of the books. It’s that who publishers are interested in. You guys publish reviews – and that’s how you decide what to buy.

Aidan – I think that’s steering away from a very serious point. No one at any point as said they have terrible taste – apart from you indirectly. They *must* like those covers you hate so much because they keep buying them in huge quantities.

And yes, the casual reader doesn’t dip his or her nose into genre affairs as much as we do. So their buying decisions steered by different things.

I mean, when I worked in a bookstore I had a customer walk up to me weighing a book in each hand and opting to buy the heavier one.

Cover P0rn!! My favourite thing about a book. Seriously.

I could make you a list a mile long of covers I love but I’m not sure how many of them would be what you’d call unique.

It’s a short hand. It would probably a fun (well more a teaching) experiment to get hold off a series of covers without the text and put them up and ask people to choose which genre they belong to.

I don’t see what the issue is really – there is some coalescence but still stand out from each other and with the typography and choice of artist they are still recognisable as their own brands.

I don’t think ‘oh look it’s another hoodie’ I think ‘hmm another hoodie what’s it about? is it me?’ And that’s what I do with all my books – it’s a shorthand as I said.

I see any number of chic lit books or paranormal romance books and I immediately dismiss them. They aren’t my sort of books but at least I don’t waste time having to battle against being fooled by the cover pretending to be something it’s not.

Anyway, you all know that it’s the spines that sell books don’t you? How many full facing books do you see in bookshops?

I think the cliched covers appeal to people who don’t stalk the internets, and read reviews and attend cons and signings. They’re the guys (or gals) who stumble in a bookstore and pick something up on a whim.

And on another note. The cover is just one page out of a book of 250 or more pages. As soon as we can chill out and realise the cover is a marketing device and not an artist statement then we can get on with some good reading.

Idea: maybe authors should do high resolution PDF alternative covers that people can download and Pritt stick over the bad-cliche-marketing cover. Heh.

Mark: You should be asking, why is it that Tor/Bantam/Del Rey have that huge market share? Years of doing the cover thing right.

Oh, come on, it is a bit more complicated than that! There are lots of variable involved here (which is Aidan’s whole point).

Aidan: Also, all casual readers are uninformed, loved to be spoon fed opinions and have terrible taste.

You forgot to add “all casual genre readers” since it is only really readers of SF, romance and crime that get treated this way.

It is true that there are huge swathes of published speculative fiction that is only of interest to uninformed readers with little interest in the written word. Obviously, it makes sense to slap cheap, generic covers on these. However, as Aidan says, where the novelists aspire to more it would be nice if the publishers did too.

All this being said, I don’t think there is any reason for the blogging community not to continue to ask for more innovative design or to challenge the aspects of cover design that really are wrong, like whitewashing or completely misleading designs. Working on the people need to eat principle I don’t expect an author to cause ructions with their publisher over a cover. People were hard on the authors of Liar and Magic under glass for not taking up the fight, but this is their livelihood. It is however an opportunity for the online community to push those changes that authors can’t and that’s a good thing.

‘Never judge a book by its cover’ – my old ma used to say to me.

I took this advice to heart and have since spent 30+ years empirically testing the thesis. My research indicates that the contents of a book are approximately 1,453,650 times more important than the picture on the front.

Even this figure is too low in real terms, ignoring as it does, all those attributes which aren’t quantifiable in any sense.

I can see why the publishers care, they know more than me about how the silent majority behave. I understand why the authors take a pragmatic approach.

The bit I can’t work out, is why the blogging community gives it a moment’s thought? Despite my facetious tone, this is a genuine question. Why are we talking about the cover of a book when all the really interesting stuff is on the inside?

>>The bit I can’t work out, is why the blogging community gives it a moment’s thought? Despite my facetious tone, this is a genuine question. Why are we talking about the cover of a book when all the really interesting stuff is on the inside?<<

Because money is involved and because experiance dictates that there isn't exactly a direct relationship between how 'good' a book is on the inside and it's eventual commercial success. Cover Art is part of the picture, however much you care/don't care about it.

@Daniel – Because art, for art’s sake, is interesting. A book is the same no matter the cover (The US and UK covers of Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold are a good example), but some of us are interested in the art, the design and, ultimately, the marketing aspect of the industry.

They *must* like those covers you hate so much because they keep buying them in huge quantities.

My response to this was going to be, “oh, come on!” until I saw that Martin had used that already upthread. But this really is tenuous. At most, you can deduce that buyers find the covers *reliable*. But “Have confidence based on the cover that new book X will be like book Y they read last month” is a long way from “actively like the covers of X and Y”.

As a teenager — as a casual genre reader! — I bought and borrowed stacks of books with terrible covers. That I knew the books would scratch my reading itch didn’t make me like the covers. This is why we have jokes about hiding the covers of our books on trains — because that embarrassment is such a widely-shared experience.

Now, you can argue that this feedback loop of expectations is so well-established that it would take a prohibitive amount of effort on the part of any individual publisher to try to change it. I have no problem with that sort of argument. But I think you’re on very dodgy ground when you extrapolate from evidence of utilitarian value to a conclusion about aesthetic preference.

Niall & Martin. Get thee one day’s work in a bookstore and all will become so painfully obvious. If the majority of people like new and what *you* consider aesthetically pleasing artwork, then they would surely pick up that book and flick through it and that book would sell lots.

Customers are faced with dozens of new titles every month, and they will guided by familiar cover art, to a large extent, but that’s all that matters! I don’t know how hard I can beat this drum, but cover art isn’t supposed to be sitting in a frame in someone’s house to be masturbated over – it’s there to sell books and build a career.

Don’t mistake scratching your own personal itch for others having the same, uh, itch to scratch. Your itch is caused by something entirely different than the casual customer.

And this general term ‘casual customer’ represents a huge, influential slice of the book-buying market whether we like that or not.

Now sure, experiments can be successful in doing ‘new stuff’. There are some publishers which I will not name here, but who have had a history of buying up a stack of cheap series (from other markets), give them all individual cover designs, and throw them at the wall to see what sticks in the UK market. That’s where new cover trends are often born – and that ain’t a pretty way of doing things to be honest.

Mark, for the record, I worked on the front lines of a major bookstore for two years.

In regards to Martin and Niall’s concerns with your argument, I don’t think it’s so much that your stance is the drum that needs to be beat harder. We understand your arguments, but unless we’re provided with hard evidence (like one would use in a critical essay on the subject), as well as considering the other factors that go into selling a novel (store placement, ad campaigns, buzz in the media, etc…), we can’t accept your points as anything more than conjecture based on your own personal opinions and experiences. Just like our opinions are based on our first-hand experience with the industry and the genre from the opposite angle.

The proof is in the pudding, as they say, but no matter how delicious you tell us it is, we need to taste it for ourselves to make up our minds.

Oh, how I’d love to be a fly on the wall in the marketing meetings where the markets are analyzed and these decisions are made.

Aidan – I might sound patronising in most of my comments, so forgive me; but I’ve worked all sides of the industry and seen the sales data (which you are not allowed to see unfortunately) and it is frustrating to keep coming across the same old arguments by people who misjudge a tiny minority to speak on behalf of the majority. It’s not rocket science. (And having worked in a bookstore you really ought to have seen this in action!)

To be honest, I find it incredible that people can sit behind their computers and criticise people who spend their entire working day – for years – trying selling books to people at the mass market level. (There’s nothing editors love then having their books fail. Oh, no wait…) Cut them a little slack – they’re publishing professionals and spend a freaking fortune in buying up books, and spending money on a whole load of other stuff to get the book in front of people.

During my bookselling days, I once had a customer buy a book because it was square. Came in and said, I’m looking for that book that’s square. Okay, that narrows it down. So many seemed overwhelmed by the choices, so yes they go for something that’s familiar and comfortable, like the last book they just finished and kinda liked.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that a lot of books (mass market paperbacks in particular) aren’t sold in bookstores at all, but in supermarkets, drug stores, and departments stores. Book covers don’t just need to compete with other book covers, but with beer and junk food too.

One important piece of the puzzle that people seem to be (largely) ignoring is the role that booksellers play, and I’m thinking here about the hugely powerful buyers for large chains more than I am the guys who stack the shelves and work the tills. Their tastes are just as (if not considerably more) important than those of readers, for it is often they that choose how much of a book to stock, how prominently to shelve it, or indeed whether to stock it at all. Don’t matter how eyecatching your cover is if it never gets on a shelf. A “nah, don’t like it,” from them in a sales meeting can nix a whole concept not only for one book but pretty much for ever. These type of people (and I’m by no means dissing them here, it’s their job) are even less likely to be influenced by artistic concerns vs. commercial ones than are editors and marketers at a publisher, and more interested in the notion of, “make it look like that book that sold well for me last time, then I’ll know I’m not wasting shelf space.” In some cases they may not know much about, or care much about, fantasy or any other particular genre except in so far as how much of it they can sell. So the gravity is always going to be towards the familiar and successful. For sure, sometimes a book, especially if it develops that vital element of good word of mouth, will do better by standing out than by fitting in, but these examples are rare, and if you’re a debut author, do you want it to be your book (and therefore your career) that everyone decides to take a big chance with?

Fair points, Mark.

I suppose a final comment on the situation is that we, of the vocal minority, are representing ourselves and the changes we want to see in the industry, not the mass market. I’m not trying to belittle the work done by the professionals, just miffed that I’m my crowd isn’t of greater importance in the grand scheme of things. I know the artists and designers would lover to ignore the ledgers and work on original concepts just as much as I’d like them to.

Thanks, Joe – very wise stuff. Yes, the chain buyers are powerful folk indeed, and you kind of need to have their backing for a book if they’re ordering in for 300 book stores. These are powerful gatekeepers, and I’m sure that can be frustrating if publishers did want to try something a little different.

(In fact, Aidan, that’s what’s happening for my US cover – a chain have advised for something different, and Bantam are looking at that now).

(Sorry about the double post. Joe posted while I wrote my previous response!)

Very good point, Joe. The bookstore I worked at had a pitiful SF&F section, mainly because the woman who did the ordering for our particular store had no interest in the genre. It then, obviously, extends further up the ladder of buyers within the company. To shoot myself in the foot a little, Pyr books are almost impossible to find in Chapters bookstore (Canada’s largest chain of bookstores).

I’m curious, though. Your debut novel had a pretty ballsy cover. Were you worried about that? Did you fight to have a cover that looked like Robert Jordan, Raymond Feist or Terry Brooks?

Aidan: “and the changes we want to see in the industry, not the mass market.”

Possibly misinterpreting this, but do you mean they’re separate? The mass market is the industry to the most people – or rather, it bankrolls it.

But you know, bloggers, possibly, won’t really influence changes cover art. The influence of the blogosphere is in discussing what books are liked or not (and I benefited this with a massive market share of my hardcover being to online retail venues, so it does work). Cover art will be steered by general sales successes. It’s a commercial thing. It sells the book to people in shops. Reviews can do that grunt work online.

Yeah, I know we have little real impact on the industry as a whole, and likely affect only a percentage of a percentage of sales for most novels. Still, I like to think that we have a bit of an ear on the industry, and hopefully our input is helpful in some manner to the professionals. Folk like Lauren Panepinto at Orbit and Lou Anders at Pyr certainly seem to keep a close eye on the going-ons in the blogosphere.

As per the quoted text, I suppose what I meant by ‘industry’ is the individuals behind the decisions, those caught between innovating for the sake of interesting covers and sticking to the familiar for the sake of appealing to the mass market. From the selfish standpoint of a passionate fan, I’d love to see them taking more risks, because it would please me, mass market be damned. But that ignores the truer nature of the business.

You do, collectively, have an impact. And yes of course, people like to use you as a sample for opinion – to gauge some reaction, because you’re there, with easy access so to speak. It’s a great marketing tool for publishers to spread the word about their books, so there’s a good reason authors and publishers actively court you lot. And quite right, too, because we need as many people as possible talking about books.

However, the nature of online reviews means that people who hang about online will make their buying decisions based on what people say, and what the content sounds like, more than the cover art.

And then again, people still are led by the familiar. Look at this:

Then look at “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought”.

No one wants to destroy what’s worked. Take your Robert Jordan covers. So cool in 1990. But 2009 rolls around, and you’ve got a new Jordan book. Do you give it a contemporary cover and gamble, or make it fit in with the rest? The fact is, you want people who can’t even remember Jordan’s NAME to be able to find his book by the art alone. That cover did.
In smaller or new markets, you can try something new–like Jordan’s ebook covers. Similarly, if you have a new author, especially one whose book doesn’t fit squarely in a traditional mold, you _can_ gamble with the cover, hoping it will become the next big thing. See The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.
And let’s face it, Pyr and Orbit US are the new kids on the block, so they have more to gain by gambling. They also have more new authors–so they aren’t screwing up an author’s “brand” when they innovate. (It doesn’t hurt that they have brilliant people, of course.)
Oh, and Aidan, you CAN see the Nielsen Bookscan data. It’s not illegal or anything. You just have to buy your own subscription. I think it’s like $80,000/year, but hey, it’s a business expense, right?

Get thee one day’s work in a bookstore and all will become so painfully obvious.

Like Aidan, I have worked in a bookshop — though only for nine months — and no, what you say is not painfully obvious. I was on the receiving end of that conversation about hiding book covers while reading on a train — people grinning apologetically while buying a book and me having to say that no, it’s OK, I get it — many, many times.

I never said covers had to be high art. I was disagreeing with your assertion that people buy books with generic covers because they like generic covers. I think I agree with one of your core points — that what readers like is being able to identify books they’re going to like, and that a familiar style of cover is one way of achieving that — but you keep extrapolating to unsupported conclusions.

I note that in your Amazon link, the most significant common factor in “also bought” appears to be the author, not the cover.

Niall – oh forgive me, you heard a conversation on a train. I stand entirely corrected – what evidence you give to support your argument! 🙂

But you’re a man who thrives on evidence, yeah? Then step away from your computer screen and walk into WH Smiths – right now – and look at the massive bay dedicated to Twilight and teen vampire fiction. Go on – there is an entire fucking bay of books with the same kind of covers, where publishers are trying to capture those sales of Twilight. Ask yourself these same searching questions, but look at the bay. Look at it. That is the kind of thing that is repeated across hundreds of stores.

I’m afraid I really can’t give you hard sales data because you don’t have access to Nielsen bookdata. That’s all you need – and for you in particular I think it would be worth looking at for the UK. Suffice to say that when I worked for a certain publisher the books where we consciously put on a commercial cover vastly outperformed some other titles, irrespective of online coverage or reviews. It was humbling.

And of course that link shows that for an established author, but look beyond the obvious and at the other covers! Do they also have similar themes? (And I hope you’re clicking through them?)

I see I marginally veered from your point whilst ranting and drunk on my own typing.

So are you asking if it’s possible to ask every single person who buys a book whether or not they like the cover? Probably not, I’m afraid. But back to your train point – there are also a lot of people who don’t like the cover because they don’t like to be seen reading fantasy. You can’t build a genre industry on those kind of people now.

Of course people might not like what’s on the cover of what they buy. A lot of them do. For a lot of them, it helps them. A lot of those people might not tell you that though, they might be the silent majority. All you have to go on is what sells, I’m afraid, and that – selling books – matters to publishers and authors.

oh forgive me, you heard a conversation on a train.

No. I had a conversation about being embarrassed to be seen on a train reading sf/fantasy books with customers who came into the bookshop where I worked. I had this conversation many times, instigated by customers who were embarrassed by the covers on the books they were buying, not instigated by me. Apologies for the unclear wording. I couldn’t tell you exactly what proportion of customers did this, and it was all a few years ago now; but it does suggest to me that the number of people buying sf and fantasy books in spite of their covers is rather larger than you’re allowing.

A more recent anecdote, since you bring up the Twilight books: a colleague who read those books wanted recommendations of other things to try. She asked in part because she was actively put off by the glut of books with similar covers; she perceived them as bandwagon-jumpers, or cheap knock-offs.

Well I was being deliberately cheeky, so no need to apologise.

Perhaps it is larger than I’m allowing, but then they should stop buying the book and supporting what they dislike.

The cover isn’t necessarily about getting 99% of people to think it’s pretty; it’s about selling books and building careers. Again, back to my editorial days, when we put a books out there with a simply gorgeous cover – ones that design types fawned over – they seriously underperformed when compared to titles with familiar artwork. But take the covers that Aidan is criticising – I’ve seen other blogs that love the covers he hates. All we learn is: different people like different pictures.

Publishers meanwhile need to pay bills or they stop putting out books altogether…

Perhaps it is larger than I’m allowing, but then they should stop buying the book and supporting what they dislike.

But they may like what’s on the pages of the book very much. Not judging a book by its cover, and all that …

I fully accept covers are there to sell books. I just have difficulty believing it’s as easy as you suggest to make like-for-like comparisons and conclude that it was the cover wot won it, dominating all the other factors that go into a decision to buy a book. Your certain publisher certainly put out some books with beautiful covers (even imitated beautiful covers!), but they weren’t on books that I’d expect to sell spectacularly.

(Here’s a question: given that we now have bays of books that look like Twilight, why didn’t we have bays of books that looked like Harry Potter?)

I’ve read this conversation with interest: and I would like to steer you briefly away from speculative fiction to the arena of “chick lit”, with which I am also familiar. Anyone who has walked into a bookstore will have seen these – rows upon rows of pastel shades with cutesy figures on the front doing girly things like skipping through flowers. These books lend a great deal of weight to the argument that covers are commissioned in order to show the readership what kind of book they might be interested in – the ‘if you liked x, you’ll love y’ principle. Women who shop in Waterstone’s will realise when picking up a chick lit novel that it can be compared readily to others in the same genre simply because of the cover. It gives them comfort and familiarity, and allows booksellers to push the books more easily.

Family saga novels are the same. Lots of piccies of older men and women in the streets of places like London and Liverpool. Again, familiar and tells the reader what they need to know about what sort of book it is.

Urban fantasy: kick arse heroines in scanty clothing. Thanks Anita Blake.

I would say that, up until now, fantasy has been behind the times regarding a more homogenous look to the covers. Even sci-fi generally goes with a great big spaceship so that you never pick up a book in error! We’ve had a nice spread of different covers, none of which specifically say fantasy to the casual reader who has not spent weeks looking forward to a new release and knows exactly what the cover art portrays. So I can see exactly why fantasy books are being given similar covers right now.

While in sff I am generally up-to-date on what’s on and I know what I want to read, I read quite a lot of mainstream non-genre titles(I read no other genre than sff) and for those I partly rely on browsing the bookstore new fiction releases pretty much every week; and here is where cover art comes in since that and the title are the only thing I know about most of the tens of the titles there and I opened lots of books based on that; after I usually put the book down because the blurb is unappealing, but occasionally I even start browsing and again most of the time I put the book down since what’s inside is meh, but once in a while I like the book and get it; sure not an easy process and I spend a lot of time on it, but this way I get to read lots of books I love that otherwise I would have not found out about since my motto has always been “life is too short” to read meh books

So yes, cover art is important in physical stores, to *make you look* at a book you have no idea about

online you usually see blurbs/title first so the cover is less importantattention

So I completely agree with mark point that covers are only to expose the book to the physical bookstore audience; once online sales will be a larger share of the market, sure there will be more room for experiments since as mentioned online you usually see the blurb first

Well, I don’t know how much value this adds, but I have to say that I loved Heroes Die despite its front cover,
and the same with the LMB Miles Vorkosigan books, but what did it matter? I bought them all on the internet, so noone would see and judge:). On the flipside, because I read so much fantasy, I’m not likely to browse in a bookshop looking for something new to catch my eye without being partially informed about it anyway….But if I were a casual reader and Heroes Die were on sale in a book shop, chances are I’d probably hesitate if not walk away.

Interesting post and interesting discussion – I’ve been far too busy in the past few days to follow in detail the Twitter discussion and various other blog posts, or even read in detail the other responses here, but I believe I have something that hasn’t been raised in the discussion here.

I think Mark is taking the realistic, pragmatic position in this (which often where I fall), but I think being too pragmatic in this is very dangerous. What happens when the cover misrepresents what’s in the book? What happens when a cover is whitewashed? Whitewashing a cover is usually defended (if at all) with the economic argument. Should it matter.

And while it’s an extreme end of the spectrum it does fall on the same spectrum of this discussion. Should covers be designed only to sell? Is this really what we want? It’s a delicate balance – covers that sell or covers that appeal, covers that sell or great art that represents the book well, stock photos/illustrations or original art, covers that meet expectation or challenge them, hoods or bloody maps with script, covers with POC or whitewashed?

And one last parting shot – as the market shifts more and more digital and buying shifts more and more towards the internet, how much will the cover art of the future really matter?

A couple of times I’ve bought a book because of the cover – because it was classy, stylish, and beautiful – and was annoyed to find the book itself was crap. So that has to be Rule Number 1:


I’ve also been told – by my important publisher friend who is also, er, my, publisher, about other books which are BRILLIANT and have brilliant covers and still don’t sell that well.


I do totally understand people buy books with terrible covers; because the cover makes it clear (due to its various ‘signifiers’, to use the utterly pretentious but strangely useful technical term) what kind of book it is.


For my part, I love covers; they’re part of the joy of reading; cover porn indeed! I sometimes fondle books with beautiful covers, whilst huddled in my study, fondly recalling the days I had a social life.

And now I come to think of it, at one point I used to be pulp crime novels for their lurid covers, and then not even bother reading them.

I’m sure many people buy books DESPITE the covers; but if the covers were fab, but also accurately signified the ‘kind of book it is’, my guess is they’d still buy them. And would be less embarrassed about it too.



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