Friday, June 18, 2010

Covers to Make Me Vomit

I have a discussion about credibility and professionalism with my students every term, and it goes a little something like this:

"What would happen if you'd built a really strong relationship with your doctor. You'd gone to her for 10 years and never had any quibbles. One day you find yourself in horrible pain and simply MUST go to the doctor's office, but when you arrive you discover that the doctor has had a family emergency, is out of town for three weeks, and she's chosen a replacement to cover for her. Just when you're ready to crumple under the pain of your condition, in walks the replacement...

Cut-off jean shorts, a holey Hawaiian shirt, hair that looks like a muskrat is nesting in the back of it, and there's a distinctive smell of body odor surrounding him. When he opens his mouth, out comes a voice akin to Keanu Reeves. 'Duuuude, you've got problemmms.'"

Inevitably, the students say they'd bolt from the room (and one stoner in the back says his doctor is EXACTLY like this and brilliant). I always point out that the replacement physician might have great  things to say and be a brilliant graduate of Johns Hopkins Med School, but as humans we DO judge based on appearances (right or wrong), and that our credibility can be damaged by the way we present ourselves.

I hear the crack of a bat in my head as the point is hammered home to my students. Go me!

How does this all relate to books? The job of a book's cover is to build its credibility and SELL IT. What I'm finding is a trend of really empty, conceptless covers that make me want to vomit. Here's a sample:

I freely admit that I am often swayed by covers. I am often tempted by covers. A beautifully crafted cover may be the nugget of goodness which prompts me to inquire into the substance of a book. I'm not so shallow as to assume that a cover will ruin an author or their story, but if we're talking about first impressions, the books above will not tempt me in the slightest. I personally get so sick of seeing the same repetitive "type" of cover, I could absolutely cry.

Beginning with the books above, there is a plague of "beachy" books. I assume publishers are playing into that whole "beach read" phenomenon, but a few things turn my stomach lately: feet, sand, water, feet and sand and water together, and washed out blue covers featuring a Pantene haircare model.

*swing hair to the left, swing hair to the right*

While they are pretty, they don't really *say* anything--to me, at least. They all look so similar, I have a tendency to pass them over unchecked.

Another seemingly endless and annoying trend in publishing is the headless woman. I won't go into much detail about this one because Sassymonkey covered it, but there are an astonishing number of female heads being lost these days. I've seen a lot of hips, I've seen tons of torsos, but heads are endangered.

Books can be art, and there are many books which embody art. For a prime example, visit Jim Tierney's website and blog. Jim is a recent graduate with a degree in illustration, and his books are simply stunning. I'm especially fond of his Jules Verne series he designed for his thesis project.

If you visit his site, you can see the details in all of their stunning glory as well as a video of how the covers came about. Every time I look at these books I find new and wonderful details that make them all the richer for the references they provide to the books' contents. They really are representative of Verne's work.

I realize that it would be far too expensive to have covers like these on every book, but they are such a beautiful example of how a well-designed cover can enhance the contents of a book and show them off in their best light instead of simply buying into a trend.

A while back I discovered Frances's blog, Nonsuch Book, and became an instant fan. Frances is a collector and a lover of beautifully designed covers, and her sidebar is almost a work of art. Occasionally she spotlights an especially beautiful or well-designed book or series of books. One of my favorite of her posts lately is called "penguin-centric." Designer, Amy Fleisher, decided to have a little fun with the Penguin mascot and Frankenstein, Dracula, Pinocchio, and The Invisible Man. I would totally buy them. Go take a look.

Finally, my very favorite cover designer is the weird and wacky Chip Kidd. Author of The Cheese Monkeys, he is probably one of the most famous cover designers in the business. My favorite part about Kidd is the fact that his style is so flexible. Looking at his gallery of covers, they're varied, finely crafted, and they just look thoughtful.

In short, I guess I would say I'm a cover snob. I'm far less likely to judge a book by its contents, but I'm quick to gag when the cover sucks.
I would love to hear which covers you've loved and hated lately.


  1. Oh! I just hate the covers of Chinese/Japanese books. The most recent read I can think of is The Snakehead. Check out this great post on Caustic Cover Critic for fab (and by that I mean bleh) examples.

  2. This is a superb post and so true! I judge my historical fiction based on the cover (and also it is important to make sure there are maps, family trees, and library shoutouts).

  3. Nice post! This is something I've been thinking about lately, how I'm swayed by cover design and what makes a truly unique cover that reflects the book rather than something designed to appeal to certain subconscious buttons. (For instance, I noticed that the color teal makes me want to buy a book and a lot of covers of icky books are teal.)

    I've been collecting some of my favorite covers--it helps curb my impulse to buy way too many books if I "collect" them digitally. One of my favorites lately was Light Boxes.

  4. This is a great post and one that will have me going home to look at all my book covers. While I don't select a book based on a cover I can be put off by a cover that makes a book look too "chick lit". And the cut off women's heads is scary if that is a trend. I'm guessing we wouldn't see any covers with men's heads cut off.

  5. This is too funny! I have been thinking along these same lines because I'm opening a small book press and cover art is very important to me. I just wrote on my presses Facebook page about how "Everyone says it's wrong to judge a book by it's cover, but I think it's more than okay to pick up a book because the cover caught your eye!" For my business plan I've selected a bunch of covers I adore. Some of my favorites are The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova, The Third Angel by Alice Hoffman, and an upcoming release, Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja. All three have FABULOUS covers (none involve legs on the beach!)

  6. P.S. The Facebook page is at

  7. So tell us how you really feel :)

    Just kidding. I totally agree with you! Loved the "pantene" line. That is spot on.

    I love a good cover and really like it when the art directors go with bold colors or good typography.

  8. What a great post, Andi! I'm really drawn in to a book by good cover art, and you've made me want to go through my books and look at all the covers to see if there's a similar theme :)

  9. I wish I could have those Jules Verne books! And I don't even like Jules Verne. I am a sucker for covers with twisty lines and stylized art.

  10. Can I tell you how SICK I am of YA covers with girls heads (or torsos) on them? SICK. Please. Find something else to stick on your cover, please. PLEASE.

    (Great post. Agree completely.)

  11. Like you I'm a big fan of good covers. I'd pick up a book if I find the cover really good even if I know not a thing about the author or the story.

    I read a blog post a couple or so years back about books having similar photos used for the covers. It is cheaper to use free images for covers from stock photos available so I think most covers, particularly the ones you featured here come from those stock photos. Yes, they lack imagination and the care let's say of books out there with really good, well-thought of covers. Most of us won't probably pick them up. But for the writers who get published for the first time, they are probably as thankful for the fact that their work was published despite the eh, sucky cover, right? Considering that some writers don't exactly have creative control of their work once a publishing house accepts to print their work (unless of course you're big time and gets a say on how the cover of your book would look like, or something to that effect), it's basically touch and go, let's hope for the best thing. Which, while not exactly good also means it's not exactly bad either. Because see, some people would pick a bland, beachy, Pantene-y cover over a well-designed one if one is basically expecting/needing uh, fluff. There I go again with my judgment call (beachy cover = fluff). So, I'm also a cover snob. And I think I've rambled enough already.

  12. Great post! I'm not ashamed to say that I've bought quite a few books because of the cover such as the hardcover version of Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends, Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff, and Anything but Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin (hardcover copy).

    I don't pay much attention to the designer but after reading this post, I think I should start.

    Isn't Frances the best? :-)

  13. Ditto to everything you said.

  14. I have noticed that book covers are being repeated--same artwork, different title. I am a sucker for beautiful book covers also. But look at our homes, schools, and most buildings. We don't build beautiful cities anymore. My junior high school had kind of Romanesque archways, a courtyard with a fountain, and hibiscus growing in the front. I see new schools going up in rectangular shape made of red brick and very few windows. And let's not forget how our highways are inundated with billboards. Now it is happening to our books. Perhaps we can start a movement of some kind--demand more artistic book covers. It seems to me this is America, we can do it!

  15. That Delilah Blue cover got a "WTF" from me.

    I'm liking the new Penguin covers that Ruben Toledo designed. I had a copy of Wuthering Heights and his artwork definitely helped me get through the book!

  16. I would have to agree with your aversion to these covers. They make me think of some trite Meg Ryan romantic comedy.

  17. I am a cover whore. I will bypass a book simply because of the cover and I am not ashamed to admit it. I really dislike those first three covers you posted too and I would never read any of those books.

  18. Olduvai, thanks for the link to Caustic Cover Critic! I've seen that site before, but somehow it is NOT in my feedreader which is a crying shame. It is now! And I'm in agreement on the Asian covers. So predictable in general.

    Thanks, Amanda-love! Historical fiction is another genre that often falls prey to stereotypical covers. Totally in agreement re: maps and family trees and stuff.

    Thanks, Shannon! I have an affinity for green: olive green, sage green, that new hip limey-ish but not really lime green. I bought Chuck a copy of The Urban Homestead this weekend and it has that green on the cover. LOVE IT. That Light Boxes cover is AWESOME. I would totally want to own it.

    Kathleen, and oddly enough, I wouldn't mind covers with men's heads cut off. lol :) I hope you'll share any trends you find on your shelves!

    Alayne, how COOL that you're starting your own small press. I'm totally enamored with the idea and jealous that you're making it happen. And hurray for giving cover design its due. I've dealt with a number of small presses, and their cover artwork can occasionally be horrific. Sure, it costs money to have great cover art, but speaking from personal experience, we run a home-based printing and graphic design business, and stock art is not THAT expensive. And neither is making it pretty with a talented graphic designer. Good luck to you!

  19. Iliana, I'm a sucker for great typography, too. Chuck's been a print designer for years, and his affinity for great type has really rubbed off on me. Plus, I took a typography class in college that got me all into print way back in the day. If I see the "papyrus" font on one more movie intro, I'll throw something at my TV.

    Becca, share any trends you find! I'd love to know more from others' shelves!

    Jenny, I'm definitely a twisty lines type of girl. Curves are in!

    Melissa, amen to that. I think it's the moody, moony eyes that the companies are going for, but please, DIVERSIFY. *high five*

    Lightheaded, I agree with you! I think most authors probably are just so darn relieved to be in print that the covers are secondary. And certainly lots of small presses and indies can't afford unique cover art. However, some of these are coming from bigger houses and my gripe is really with the publisher, not the author. Speaking from the perspective of a former graphic designer and engaged to one now, it's not THAT hard to spice up even stock images. Beyond the point that these have been spiced. I guess my overall point is that I'm sick of being sold a "type" of cover. These trends that become so overwhelmingly obvious seem like an insult to one's intelligence after awhile.

    Vasilly, Frances is the best! And I bet she doesn't have a clue I linked her. Probably should tell her. lol Of the covers you mentioned, I'm especially fond of Delicate Edible Birds. That was a beautiful design.

    Thanks, Trisha!

    Fem, I agree with everything you said. Now what can we name our movement?

  20. Jill, I hear ya. A beautiful cover can push me through those classics sometimes. I'm a total whore for red, and I bought the movie tie-in version of Vanity Fair ages ago because Reese Witherspoon is STUNNING and wearing the most beautiful red dress. I'm hoping that cover is enough to get me through the book.

    Amen, Thomas! Thanks for stopping in!

    Lola, I'm glad to be in such good company. :)

  21. Enjoyed this post :)

    That "The Truth About..." cover is truly heinous! It's just so...bland and empty.

    You're completely right about these wishy-washy covers that create an eyesore in the bookshop. I also glide right past anything pink or fluffy looking. I think I'm now also going to avoid any covers showing women wearing pastel colours! ;D

  22. Thank you for the link to Jim Tierney's website. His covers are absolutely brilliant. I am a complete cover snob (having studdied graphic design) and while I don't usually HATE a book cover, I really appreciate the ones that are done well.


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