Monday, January 7, 2019

Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

Q: What makes a great book cover? Is it the title or the graphics? Do you have favorites that you think work? 

-from Susan

I think both title and graphics are important. With titles, they say shorter is better, but I wonder. It’s hard to keep them separate or make them distinguishable as a brand when they are words like INTERLOPER, THUNDER, STRIKE, SECRETS, etc. Maybe I’m prejudiced but one exception to that general complaint is the series by Reece Hirsch about cyber crime, in which the cover art supports the title so specifically that the result sticks in my memory: SURVEILLANCE is about surveillance in the 21stcentury. (The series is really good and so timely – check it out.) 

But in general, the single words have specific meanings but they don’t often tell me anything specific about the book. 

Compare that to THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE, which launched Alan Bradley’s bestselling mystery series, or THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, which remains a bestseller years after its debut. 

And the all time winner: A IS FOR ALIBI and the almost complete alphabet series by the late Sue Grafton. We have all observed the rush to “Girl” titles after the huge success of GONE GIRL, by Gillian Flynn. To boost sales, I’m thinking of re-titling all of my books so GIRL is in the title! No, maybe not.

Graphics, to me, are such an important clue about the book, or should be. “Cute” illustrations signal a cozy. Black ands silver embossed covers on mass paperbacks signal an appeal to readers who enjoy violence. On both of those extremes, gender preference is assumed by the publishers, who control the final cover art. 

The presence of guns, bodies, tipped over flowerpots, knives dripping with blood…all those are supposed to be like movie teasers to get you to read the blurb with its fuller promise of a story you’ll enjoy. But the covers can be clich├ęd, the art just shy of clip art, the visual clues false, and the implied promise misleading. One example: DRESSED FOR DEATH IN BURGUNDY, my own latest mystery, has no gunshot in it and yet the wine barrel drawn on the cover has a bullet hole. The intended signal is “murder mystery,” I get it. But given what the novel is about, and the reason for that title, there were more interesting options.

 (Aside: the color draft of the cover was sent to me the very day that deadly wildfires were tearing through Santa Rosa, about 25 miles north of me. I had to sit on my response for almost a week because all I could see in the illustration was fire.)

A few covers I particularly like, that capture the spirit, the mood, the tone of the books:


Dietrich Kalteis said...

Well said, Susan.

Cathy Ace said...

Great way to kick off the year, Susan

Susan C Shea said...

Dietrich and Cathy, Thanks for checking out the first 2019 post!

Reece said...

Susan -- Thanks so much for the shout-out! Nice post! Hope your 2019 is off to a great start.