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Thursday, 9 June 2011

Cover Stories: a rant by ADELE GERAS.

Adèle Geras's highly successful career as an award-winning poet, writer of fiction for both children and adults, and critic, began when she failed to win a creative writing competition. Since then she has written nearly a hundred books.
Adèle has also been an actress, a singer, and a teacher.
Adèle Geras lives with her husband in Cambridge, England.

"Isabella's raven tresses cascaded down her back in an undulating, blue-black flow. They meandered like the tributaries of some dark river between her shoulderblades and brought to mind the shimmer of a blackbird's wing....."

Never mind the quality, as they say, (which is frankly deplorable and execrable and other juicy words which could usefully be looked at on the Word Den,) feel the BRUNETTE-ness of our heroine. Imagine that this description appears on page one of a long novel. If you read such a sentence, I think you have every right to see a brunette of sorts depicted on the cover. The trouble is, very often, the figure chosen to sell the book bears no relation whatsoever to the creature the writer had in her mind when she wrote that ghastly sentence about Isabella.

The book and the cover image are miles apart.

My rant is about this phenomenon. I can't count the number of times I've read a book and found the cover completely at odds with the content. The inappropriateness of covers is something every writer knows about. Sometimes you can object but most often you can't. I'll give two examples of this, one taken from my own books and one from someone else's.
My book, A CANDLE IN THE DARK (A&C Black) is about some children who leave Berlin in 1938 for England on one of the the Kindertransports. The latest cover (earlier versions were quite different and fine) shows a line of misty mountains in the background and in the foreground, something like the cattle trucks which travelled to the Death Camps during the Second World War. At the time my book is set, the war has not yet begun. Berlin is a railway station in the middle of a European city, miles from misty mountains of any kind.

 The cover is simply WRONG as well as being not particularly attractive. I complained at the time and was simply told "Oh, we're sorry you don't like it. Everyone here thinks it's lovely." There was nothing to be done. I sighed and groaned, which is about all you can do.                                                                                                                            
My other example is an excellent, Pulitzer Prize winning novel called OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout (all of whose books, incidentally, I love). Olive, the heroine, is a tall, rather ungainly and getting-on-for-elderly retired Mathematics teacher in a small US town. Got the picture? The cover image shows acres of creamy flesh: a woman seen from behind dressed in a backless, dark-green evening frock rather reminiscent of the slinky number Keira Knightley wore in the movie Atonement and which Strout's Olive wouldn't be seen dead in.
I have no words to express the unsuitability of this image to represent the novel.

Is it just me, or does everyone get cross about covers? I'd love to know.

Word To Use Today: deplorable*. This word is from the French word deplorer, from the Latin word dēplōrāre to weep bitterly, from plōrāre, to lament.

*Yes, The Word Den is happy to do requests. It's a top word, too. 


  1. Thanks so much for the lovely introduction and PICTURES, too! I'm honoured to be on Word Den. bad....I've misremembered that dress on the cover of OLIVE KITTERIDGE! It's red and not green. So sorry, everyone. My point, however, stands.

  2. Sorry, Adele, I should have noticed that myself, but it took me a day or two after reading your smashing rant to work out how to post pictures, by which time...

    My best cover story is when I wrote a book (March of the Owlmen) full of terrifying monsters - which turned out on the cover all to be made of paper and nine inches tall.
    Luckily we were in time to change that one!

  3. Heh. Fab rant! Couldn't agree more. I always 'see' everything as I read and my brain gets antsy if what I've 'seen' on the cover doesn't fit what I 'see' when I read. It's enough to cause brain dislocation. It is, in fact, *deplorable*!

  4. As Frances Lincoln have trusted me to do the front covers to my series (Cinnamon Grove) myself, all ensuing disasters will be mine! (Oh dear, it seemed like such a good idea at the time.)

  5. I believe that publishers employ interns specifically to "think it's lovely", because such anonymous gushings are always miraculously and plentifully on hand in cases of that kind.

    The other thing about the Strout cover is that it revives the tradition of decapitated girls which was the ubiquitous blight of YA and chicklit jackets a few years ago, but which I thought had been on the wane.

  6. By way of stark contrast, with my books published by Strident (a small Scottish press) I have been extensively consulted throughout the cover design process, and have been in direct and prolonged correspondence with the cover artist himself, who was anxious to get the artwork as 'right' as could be.

    Am I being naive, or shouldn't all publishers operate a bit more like this?

  7. "everybody here loves it" is right up there with "just needs a few tweaks" as one of my unfavourite publisher remarks (though way after "no thanks" of course!)

    My new book (another plug for David - has the woman no shame?) has a semi de-capitated MAN, Charlie. What does this tell us? (But he isn't wearing a slinky dress a la Keira. Damn - why didn't they think of that?

    I like the red/green confusion Adèle! It made me think you had the monstrous cover incarnadined, amking the green one red.

  8. Great rant, Adele. I agree entirely, although it has to be said that I've been very lucky with covers (so far) and have always been consulted. I do know several authors, though, who have wanted to rip their own eyes out when they saw the way their covers had misinterpreted the material inside. And I remember very well that as a pony book-mad child, I was always FURIOUS when they got the colour of the horse wrong. The cover is the 'shop window' for the book, and for that reason alone it should be something which has an immense amount of time and care taken with it.

  9. This comment is actually from Gilli Allan. Many apologies to anyone who's having trouble getting the comments function to work!

    I was lucky enough to be able to produce the covers for both my mainstream published novels, Just Before Dawn and Desires & Dreams. And, more recently, I did the same for my ebook, TORN. But, on any level, the Polish cover for Just Before Dawn was bewildering. It was an extreme close-up of part of a girl’s face. The nose was partially obscured by what looked like a cocktail umbrella. I had no one to ask – “WHY?!” *
    Covers are so important and can make or break the chances of a book. I’m not sure that my own cover art was a help or a hindrance to the sales of my books. I never sold many but it was a small indie publisher who struggled to get the books into the shops.

  10. I have always hated this! When I was a kid, I used to feel affronted and frustrated when the book described a heroine, say, as having red curly hair, and the cover showed someone with straight blonde hair. I used to think: What's going on?' It messed with my mind. I still don't get it, it's so completely crazy, as if the author's words don't matter. I totally agree about the jacket of Olive Kitteridge. Has someone thought that it will sell better with the slinky creature? But what about when they open the book and discover they've been sold a pup? Or a middle-aged lady. Maybe they don't care about that, they think the purchaser will only find out when it's too late.

  11. A publisher once took the time to explain it on an Internet forum:

    The purpose of the cover is to sell the book, not to illustrate it.

    The second cover, above, is an illustrative example. A picture of a "getting-on-for-elderly Mathematics teacher" would be a much better illustration, but if the volume next to it on the bookstore shelf has "acres of creamy flesh" on the cover, it is much more likely to go home with the book-browser.

    The second cover shown is excellent. It's completely wrong, in that the scene depicted has almost nothing to do with the contents -- but, for a modern reader, whose acquaintance with refugee issues surrounding WWII is almost certain to consist of hazy mental images of concentration camps and Jews being herded into railcars (with snow falling to make the scene more dreary) it offers a perfectly correct, if misleading, impression of what the book is about.

    As a reader, the cover should be designed to get me to pick the book up and look at it in a little more detail, thus initiating the process that leads to ka-ching! at the register and an increment in your bank balance. If it's done that, the artist (and art director) responsible for it deserve kudos. Showing something that's in the book is a nice optional extra that sometimes happens, but is by no means necessary and occasionally damaging.

    Ric Locke
    (who has a self-published SF novel, Temporary Duty, up on Amazon, with a cover image that's completely wrong. I'm delighted with it.)

  12. So true, Adele. It's maddening when the cover clearly doesn't match the book - was either a bit of stock artwork someone thought was close enough, or they didn't brief the illustrator/designer. I wouldn't design a website for a book without reading the book and can't see why anyone would do a jacket design without reading it either!

  13. @Ric Locke: 'The purpose of the cover is to sell the book, not to illustrate it.' - absolutely true, and your points are valid to an extent. But is it too much to ask for artwork that does both? Or at least, doesn't flatly contradict the contents of the book?

    A little creativity and time is all it takes. The trouble, I suspect, is that both are in short supply in the places were these decisions are often made.

  14. Yes, excellent rant Adele. What really gets me as a reviewer is the trend for covers of YA historical novels to feature girls that look as if they come straight off a shampoo ad, complete with Maybelline make-up. Similarily black covers with moody close-up and red lips? Straight in to the charity pile...

  15. Actually, of course, the fourth paragraph of my comment should begin, "The first cover shown is excellent". And I even used preview ::sigh::


  16. Olives are green. That could be it.

    I can tell that my long overdue post on covers should soon become slightly less overdue. But I do like the Candle in the Dark cover, even if it's not right. The Olive one I wouldn't give a second thought, however.

  17. @Nick Green: Of course it isn't too much to ask, so long as you resign yourself to the unfortunate fact that in many cases you won't get it anyway.

    There are just as many bad artists as there are bad writers, but bad writers are decently hidden between bits of pasteboard, while bad artists are not only visible, they're sometimes eye-catching.


  18. Hey, does anyone know if book covers are subject to the Trades Description Act? "I was expecting acres of creamy flesh, your honour. To be titillated by low-cut evening gowns. And what do I get? A retired Maths teacher?"

  19. Hi Adele,

    I hope you were always happy with your Scholastic covers. We did try(-:

    I find this phenomenon really frustrating too. And when I edited children's books was quite fastidious about trying to depict the book accurately as I felt it was completely wrong to let kids expect one thing and then show them something else. They tend to be quite vociferous about pointing out your mistakes(-: Same went for inside pictures. The number of arguments I had with designers/artists about colour of characters hair/way they looked not being right.

    In the main we had very sympatico designers tho, who were always encouraged to read the book, or at least the synopsis and we brainstormed before they briefed the artist. We ALWAYS tried to include the author at some point in the process, but not every author necessarily gets the market you're aiming at. Once had author who hated a romance cover but came round after a school visit when all the kids said they loved it. We often used to go into schools and try ideas out on kids too.

    Oh and designer trick - if you want to get your idea through a meeting, take several roughs but make the one you want more finished then the rest(-:

    Sometimes despite all that, sales & marketing people can rock the boat. Worst thing that ever happens is when the covers get designed by committee. At Scholastic we were very lucky as the designers had reasonable autonomy, and it was reflective of a lot of the success we had during the period.

    As an author, I haven't always been 100% happy - my last cover, I LOVED but no one consulted me on colour of characters hair which is consequently wrong, but possibly I am the only one to be irritated/notice as I recognise it is a very commercial cover. However this time around I did make some suggestions that were taken on board. I always try to be sensitive to the constraints they are under, but would object if I felt very strongly about something.

  20. Even before I've seen my new cover I'm always told,'everyone here thinks it's lovely.' I've only had one that I hated but it sold very well. So what does the author know?

  21. My Scholastic covers were BRILLIANT Julia as indeed most of my covers have been. And Ric and Ann like the Candle in the Dark. I can't say I do! But it shows something...not sure what :)

  22. There are two commentors above, who I would not want on the jury if I was in the dock on false charges! 'read the book before designing' and 'read the post before commenting'.
    Of course the rant is valid, but the poor designer could write a valid rant too, given how they are treated by publishers.
    Possibly, it is not possible to anticipate what goes on in the mind of a browser as they become a purchaser, and now we have to factor-in kindle and ebooks. May God help us to just keep reading. Wishing you all many sales and continued publication

  23. How to sell 20,000 ebooks in 4 months is a post at Sling Words, the blog of Joan Reeves that I read.
    The covers will affect you as intensely as opening up your bank statement to see a $20,000 balance.
    Richer people than we are, know that s*x sells.
    If I needed to tell a valuable story of children I would give them a teacher in love with the school gardener, or a Nanny in love with the butler, purely to give the Marketing Department something to work with.
    However, I am not arguing with anything above, just submitting a point.

  24. Yes, I'm quite sure that designers sometimes get briefed insufficiently by the publisher, and also that the publisher's aim is to SELL THE BOOKS and not design covers that will please the writer. However, with more than 90 books published, the VAST majority of which were fine and better than fine, the ones where really silly decisions were taken kind of stand out. And yes, creamy flesh will beat an elderly Maths teacher in one sense but you could always have a cover such as the US edition had....a beautiful and most appropriate landscape! And even with the sexy cover, I don't think the book sold NEARLY enough copies. Do seek it's marvellous. Hardly anyone I speak to has heard of Elizabeth Strout and they should have!

  25. Ah, so that's where I've been going wrong, then. My idea of a valuable children's book has always been one about self-discovery and self-determination with lashings of excitement, evocative language and fun.