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Cover Art, How Important Is It?

Is that a good cover on the left? Or will it merely do until we’ve got our act together? The latter, we think. We’ve been thinking a lot about cover art lately. Book covers are often the first things that catch the eye in a bookstore, on a magazine rack, or in a spray of titles on a web page. In more ways than one, a book’s cover is like a person’s face.

At a party—and we don’t know a soul—we may well be drawn to people by something about the face—be it consciously or spontaneously. Once we get to know a person, his or her appearance becomes less important. You might say that the appearance itself changes—favorably if we like, negatively if we dislike the person. Now, with a person, physical appearance continues to be a part of the relationship whereas with a book, once we’ve started reading, the cover art has, shall we say, done its job. Unless it echoes back what our imagination tells us—and sometimes covers do that—the image diminishes in value.

Does this mean that “anything goes” in cover art—provided that it draws the potential reader’s attention to the book? Is it OK to have an exotic and flashy cover when the contents are, say, deep and murky? Does that clash even matter? Should a cover match the content—or merely serve as the target of attention? Do ends justify the means?

There is a fine line between the successful promotion of a product with great artwork and manipulation of the product in order to reach the largest possible audience. Do flashy covers that somewhat overstate one aspect of the book—do they cross that line? And are they doing a disservice if they end up misleading readers? Well, means and ends must match—as should cover art match the work in some meaningful way so that it attracts the reader who will then also like the book itself.  But this general rule still leaves a lot of room for maneuver….

We’ll say more about this subject tomorrow. Tomorrow’s subject? “White-washing the Cover.”

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2 Responses

  1. It’s very cultural too. Take any serious French reader to an American bookstore and they will be repulsed by the colorful covers, thinking “These books are not literature! They are merely entertainment!” (It’s happened to me time and again.) In France, in ‘serious reader’ circles, entertainment is somewhere on a par with professional wrestling… True Literature, with a capital L, must come in tastefully bland colors and the size and bindings of the masterpieces must allow them to be tastefully arranged on one’s “bibliothéque.” The essence of this is captured in furniture ads for Ikea. (I remember Tim Gannon once saying with his inimitable grin “I don’t want to make films, I want to make movies!” That’s about the same distinction in the filmmaking world.)

    Now, I’ve never been to either of these places but I would bet that book covers in India or in Russia – not to mention Hungary! – are probably a tad less tasteful. They are probably more colorful, with beautiful women swooning. I can just imagine a colorful Bollywood cover for “Madame Bovary” which the French would shun as “attrape-nigaud” – I might translate that as “fool’s bait.”

    Even at Border’s one sees these distinctions, of course, but basically, the Anglosaxon reader is not put off by color. I have noticed lately that book covers at WH Smith’s – my English book store at place de la Concorde — although still as colorful as ever are becoming more and more graphically artistic and therefore more and more palatable to my refined taste… I have been molded for years now by French snobbishness!

    I LOVE the future cover for “Anna’s Song,” by the way. And, these days, on the bus, reading “In Search of Anna Magna” with its tasteful blue cover, no blush of shame colors my cheeks!

    • We’re mighty glad that the cover of In Search of Anna Magna can be proudly read on a Parisian bus without fear of… shaming the reader! Delightful image.

      Hey, your letter makes a wonderful addition to our posts this week on cover art! The more one thinks about this topic the bigger it gets. Funny how attention can make things grow and grow… Cheers.

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