Friday, July 19, 2013

Cover Space

Publishers spend a lot of time trying to get covers right: industry wisdom has it that a great cover snags the attention of casual browsers and boosts sales. That may change, if online sales of deadtree and ebooks continue to increase (although books will still need smart covers to stand out in those 'customers also bought these titles' ID parades), but at the moment, catching and holding that casual glance is one of the key parts of book marketing.

I think I've been pretty lucky with the covers for my Quiet War novels:

By Sidonie Beresford-Browne for the Gollancz hardcover/trade paperback covers, they are amongst my all-time favourites (and the cover of the US editions of the Pyr editions of The Quiet War and The Gardens of the Sun are pretty good too). But I'm aware that while spaceships and planets may be catnip to genre fans, they can be hugely powerful deterrents that underscore innate prejudices about the other-worldly skiffy nonsense for readers who aren't much acquainted with science fiction, or think they don't like it. Spaceships are, to many people, signifiers of brash escapism rather than serious intent.

As, indeed, can be any kind of painterly illustration. As Tim Kreider pointed out in a recent article in The New Yorker, 'children’s books, Y.A. literature, and genre fiction still have license to beguile their readers with gorgeous cover illustrations, but mature readers aren’t supposed to require such enticements. For serious literature to pander to us with cosmetic allurements would be somehow tacky, uncool.'

Kreider has some very smart things to say about what makes a good cover, and why so many covers look the same, and why the new minimalism is not always a good thing. He's a cartoonist, so his insights on cover design come from a different, sharper angle than those of most authors. He also celebrates the covers of science-fiction novels he read as a teenager, and his examples are good ones. So it's unfortunate that they're labelled (perhaps not by Kreider - I certainly hope not) as 'silly book covers'.  There were, and still are, plenty of terrible genre covers thrown together in haste with little skill or attention. But while the psychedelia of, say a Richard Powers' cover from the 1970s may be quaint, it isn't silly. It's the kind of thing that was, as Kreider points out, designed to wow. The problem is that not everyone wants to be wowed:
For serious literature to pander to us with cosmetic allurements would be somehow tacky, uncool. The more important a book is, the less likely there is to be anything at all on its cover (look at most editions of “Ulysses”). Even the ancient equivalents of summer blockbusters like Homer and “Beowulf” or the sex romps and gorefests of Shakespeare tend to get stodgy public-domain paintings on their covers. There are actual marketing hazards to making your book look too enjoyable—I wrote sixty-thousand-some words of prose, but because I threw in half a dozen cartoons and put a funny drawing on the cover, my would-be literary essays often get shelved in Graphic Novels or Humor. 
In UK SFF publishing, there are ongoing attempts at cross-over appeal with some titles, deploying bold graphics, reissuing classics in plainer covers, and so on. Gollancz have just produced a terrific example for Simon Ings' new novel, for instance. But most genre novels still have some kind of painterly representational element because that's what twangs the pleasure centres of genre fans. And novels set in space often still have spaceships on their covers, even if they're mostly about other things. And while they're no longer as boldly monolithic as those examples from 1970s British paperbacks I posted recently while they may be reduced to graphics, as in The Quiet War cover above, or depicted with delicate realism, as in the paperback cover of Al Reynolds' Blue Remembered Earth, they're still spaceships, with all that entails.

That the kind of imaginative literature that builds on the great collective triumphs of science can be judged and dismissed because of its covers is a great shame. Not only because (of course) I want my books to be read as widely as possible, but also because it's kind of sad that here in the strange and unpredictable maelstrom of the twenty-first century people cling to the straight realism of modernism like ship-wrecked sailors, as if it is still the only way by which we can make sense of the world and the capabilities of the human mind.


Blogger Сергей Ленков said...

Very interesting thoughts.
I suppose that many problems of modern literature and cover art are tied with computer effects in the films and games and the stream of graphic information on the Web. People are over-loaded with the images. Even the worst covers of the 70s from here tried to attach attention by something unusual, artists were calling for the sence of wonder. How you could impress modern teenager who is paticipating in computer generated space battles and sees them in the films? So you have to found something different which could attach attention of the reader - but it's very difficult.

July 20, 2013 7:58 am  

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