A New Trend I’ve Observed in Covers

From Mad Genius Club:

I want to talk about a new trend I’ve observed in covers, and how it applies to much of the greater world out there. I.e. how the new trend in covers is just a new way that traditional publishing has come up with to screw itself and the entire field of writing over.

They will have these brilliant ideas, and indies need to be aware of them. More importantly, they need to be aware these things are going on in other fields too, and having much the same effect.

So–

If you have been alive a long time, or even if you “just” read books for a long time, you’re probably aware that there are trends in covers, as there are in everything else. In covers, though, particularly in the era of mega-chain bookstores, that “look” not only tended/tends to be more uniform, but it changes completely.

. . . .

In Portugal, for a while, the trend for mystery books was picture of random body part. No, not dismembered, just, you know, so blown up as to be meaningless. Like it might be a picture of some chick’s foot arch blown up till you looked at it wand went “Leg? finger?” against a bold color background and surrounded in a silver frame.

Ages have trends. I’ve disapproved without being particularly affected or interested when Baen decided to try out the new trend on some of their books, the trend at the time being something picked up from literary, which was “part of the image blown up to take up the whole cover of the book. Usually a portion or a woman’s face or eyes.” Tres …. literary and refined looking.

I actually liked the old style Baen book covers, some of which were magnificent (I rather like the original cover for DST) and some of which were appalling, but all of which harked back to the pulp years and carried an implication of “fun”.

. . . .

The newest trend is more …. interesting. I first noticed it with an indie writer, Henry Vogel. His covers look like aged paper covers, down to the creases. And the fact one of his series is called Sword and Planet Adventures, clearly evoking planet stories, it can’t be a coincidence. Note that it didn’t offend me, because I thought “Well, his books are pretty close to those covers in feel and style, so…”

I mean, I know when I went through cover-design-course I was told to make sure that my covers looked like they belong to now and not “they came from Guttenberg!” BUT for a certain type of book, perhaps marketing it as belonging to another era works best?

. . . .

I kept running into more of these covers from other houses. Covers that explicitly try to look like they’re at the latest in the 50s.

Look, as a marketing strategy it’s brilliant. And stupid as heck.

Why?

Well, because now people are getting used to looking at Amazon for books that they remember reading/used to read/etc. they will be drawn to covers that are what they remember when they fell in love with a genre.

The problem is this: for most of the mainstream publishing, the contents won’t match the cover.

And yes, I can see them totally preening and going “if we get the rubes to look at our much superior product, they’ll love it.”

Because, you know, in the industry, it’s never about publishing what people want to read. It’s about “educating” the public. Which has taken them from 100K plus printruns for midlist to 10k printruns for high list.

The problem is it’s not a business plan. It’s a virtue signaling plan. By people so provincial they all graduated from the same cluster of colleges and all live in the same cluster of cities. And don’t know anyone different, even though the majority of the public IS different.

It will pay off. Brilliantly. For a very brief time. People will buy the books thinking it’s just like the stuff they loved. And be revolted. And throw it against the wall.

Link to the rest at Mad Genius Club

Following are a few of the Henry Vogel covers mentioned in the OP:

18 thoughts on “A New Trend I’ve Observed in Covers”

  1. Mr Vogel underestimates his perspicacity, because he mentioned the single biggest sin of cover design, and then moved on from it:

    “The problem is this: for most of the mainstream publishing, the contents won’t match the cover.”

    That is, that the common cover design meme(s) is/are inherently based upon deceptive advertising. Which only the entertainment industry thinks it can get away with, for Reasons (some actually legitimate… at the marginal intersection with the First Amendment, which turn out to be not even exceptions, but amoebas, that swallow the entire rule after Telemarketing Assocs. v. Madigan).

    Think about laundry detergent for a moment. Its packaging is similar disjoint from its product. It is perfectly allowed to show “pristine white” sheets and t-shirts on the outside of the box, or in other advertising, because those pristine-white sheets and t-shirts are at least theoretically related to the contents of the package (under ideal conditions perhaps never approached in the real world). Now consider a certain NYT-best-selling “space navy” series… each of which is illustrated (up until the last one, which swaps gender only) with a “guy with big gun in space armor, smiling for the camera pose” painting.* Seeing as how in four books in this double-digit series there is literally not one instance in which “space armor” comes into the text for more than a single paragraph (and two of them, not at all), and that none of the “space armor” characters are critical in any fashion, this is a misrepresentative cover… sort of like a laundry detergent depicting t-shirts when the warning label on the back says “DO NOT USE ON FABRICS CONTAINING COTTON OR POLYESTER.” Or if it was, in fact, indelible dye.

    The laundry detergent would be smacked down for false advertising. And remember, that’s all a cover is. But Big Publishing Is Special (just ask them!).

    * I’ve discussed this extensively with the author. He’s not happy with the publisher, but it’s a Big N publisher with a particularly arrogant marketing department (and, as you can imagine, that’s up against some pretty stiff competition).

    • When this shark has gone up against Big Publishing legal departments, he has discovered a bunch of ignorant pansies, C.

      But in such cases, he is often focused on breaking the publishing contracts.

      As a very-former large-advertising-agency account executive, PG doesn’t hesitate to say that no member of any publisher’s marketing department is entitled to the slightest bit of arrogance. Buncha maximum losers, every one.

      • Arrogance — especially the closer one gets to the C-suite (or, worse, self-belief in entitlement to the C-suite) — seldom needs any objective justification. Almost every member of any publisher’s marketing department has plenty of “entitlement”… so long as they’re never, ever asked to market to nerds (which is to say “the people who per capita buy the most books”).

        And yes, it was my error, I was typing hastily and said “Mr Vogel” when I meant “Ms Hoyt.”

    • I think you’re missing the point about “contents matching the cover”: No one in the industry, no cover artist, etc. ever claims the book’s cover is supposed to match a scene from the book. Cover designers, people in the book trades, consistently say the cover is not supposed to do that.

      So, cover art not matching a scene from the book does not equal deceptive in this case. Hoyt’s written enough novels, plus enough blog posts on cover art that she can’t be fairly said to think that scenario is an issue. She herself has said it wasn’t, hence her moving on from that point.

      What the cover is supposed to convey: genre and tone. Genre as in, the type of story. You know if there are space ships on the cover that you’re thankfully not getting Mundane Sci-Fi, which is ideologically Earthbound. Spaceships = adventure and/or action in space.

      Your friend’s cover with the space armor is conveying that this the type of story where someone could be wearing such a getup. You see a raygun-wielding damsel on the cover, and monsters about, you know the story will have action and adventure in a wondrous setting. And possibly the type of romance where the couple falls in love while fighting monsters. That’s the idea.

      Audiences across the storytelling formats (books, comics, movies) consistently say they prefer the old school stuff. They prove it with their dollars. They’re not buying the new school crap. Fun, heroism, adventure, not dull lectures from whiny main characters who don’t do jack to move the plot (which is why they’re not protagonists). Complaints about the latter type are so legion, so commonplace I don’t even register them anymore. Old school covers are supposed to be promising the former type of story.

      As a reader, I actually do search out classic SF/F with the old school covers. A newer author, e.g., Vogel, could easily catch my attention with an old-school type of cover, because I expect the cover to signal I’m getting an old school story. I’m looking for the older genres tradpub ignores, e.g., planetary romance, science fantasy, etc. Again, heroism, not whiny passivity. Adventure, not ponderous slogs. Luke and Ahsoka, not Rey and Crylo. Dragon Awards, not Hugo — unless the Hugo is from the good old days.

      So the OP’s warning: that the covers are going to actively deceive me and other readers into thinking we are getting the type of story we will pay for, but instead are going to get the type of story we actively reject, is a good deed as far as I’m concerned. Vogel is likely going to deliver what he appears to be promising. Baen is his publisher, after all. I would have considered buying a tradpub book from another company if they used Vogel’s style of cover. But now I know to be wary.

      The problem I understood the OP to be getting at is that the average reader will see the trappings of the good stories on the bad crap, and will now be primed to reject the good stories once they learn to associate their trappings with crap. She’s saying tradpublishers are corrupting a useful signal. And it will be a shame if that happens.

      • I think this misses my point. There’s a big difference between “doesn’t depict an actual scene” and “active misrepresentation” — especially when the misrepresentation is on-point as to the content for the expected purchaser. The particular example I used (a series about great big command decisions, quasinaval tactics, logistics, and the relationship between “why we fight” and “how we fight”, illustrated by yet another WGWBFG) is an instance in which the premise cited (“Cover designers, people in the book trades, consistently say the cover is not supposed to do that.”) is wrong precisely because it is deceptive.

        My larger point — that the entertainment industry (thinks it) can get away with this, whereas almost nobody else can without at least active criticism from within the industry — seems to have gotten lost, too. The more-sarcastic way to put it is that marketing memes that can’t be successful elsewhere wind up in the entertainment industry because even the semblance of honesty that has to underly “regular” marketing is too much… with footnotes to about six hundred enforcement actions.

        That my point is not Ms Hoyt’s point is not and should not be all that surprising: We have different purposes and different perspectives on the entertainment industry, for starters…

        • Without knowing the story, I don’t see how the space armor cover can be said to be deceptive. At least, not in a way that matters to the reader.

          The type of story in which a character wears space armor, IS the type of story in which you have: great big command decisions, quasinaval tactics, logistics, and the relationship between “why we fight” and “how we fight”, illustrated by yet another WGWBFG. Those story elements are actually what the reader is expecting with such a cover, with the important caveat that the story takes place in space. Example: I saw a “space-armor” cover on an Elizabeth Moon novel, and I got the type of story you describe, though I don’t recall the heroine wearing that armor.

          You could say that the armor cover is misrepresenting whether or not a character will wear the armor. Agreed. But it’s not a deception that tricks the reader into thinking they’re getting a type of story they want, as opposed to a type of story they aren’t looking for, or worse, despise.

          Space armor is deceptive if your friend’s story is “Master and Commander” on Earth. Or is the setting sci-fi, but your friend’s story has none of the elements you describe? Their stories are offering political intrigues (Retief), life on a colony (Legacy of Heorot), comedy (EarthCent series), and so forth? Then yes, the armor cover is deceptive in a way the readers care about. And in that case, you appear to be on the same page as the OP. I wish your friend the best of luck in wresting their books from their publisher.

          marketing memes that can’t be successful elsewhere wind up in the entertainment industry because even the semblance of honesty that has to underly “regular” marketing is too much

          Not really shocking though, if you consider that Tide (let’s say), is a brand for a product consumers must buy regularly, and therefore the consumer has a stake in whether the advertising is true. Consumers are brand loyal with those types of products. They will always buy laundry cleaners, therefore Tide living up to its “getting your stains out” advertising will matter. Tide can lose customers forever in a way that Michael Bay or Stephen Spielberg don’t have to worry about, because the average moviegoer isn’t looking for their “brands” on an optional product.

          At the same time, I don’t think anyone walked into “Bridget Jones’s Diary” expecting her to get into gunfights with terrorists; and that’s exactly what the movie didn’t deliver. The ads promised a romantic comedy; the moviegoers got one.

          Some moviegoers thought “Pan’s Labyrinth” was offering up a Harry Potteresque story, but it … wasn’t. Reviews reflected the disappointment. At the same time, no one was upset that a moment in the first Men In Black trailer never appeared in the movie (at the 55 and 1.17 mark). Because that moment in the teaser at least conveyed that the movie was about two men who use cool weapons to take on aliens, which is what the audience got.

      • Jamie, just a minor correction. I’m primarily published by Rampant Loon Press, Bruce Bethke’s company, not Baen. (For those who don’t know, Bruce coined the word “cyberpunk” and is also a Philip K. Dick Award winner.) I self-published Fortune’s Fool and it’s sequel, The Scales of Sin & Sorrow, the covers of which are pictured above.

        Also, I believe I deliver what my covers promise, and suggest downloading the sample before buying. If you like the sample, I think you’ll also enjoy the entire book. (PG, if this comes off as too commercial, please delete this comment.)

        • Oh, cool! Sorry for misreading the OP re: Baen. I’m scratching my head over that one. But now I’ve learned of Rampant Loon’s existence 🙂

          I also like that you give your chapters cool titles as well in your table of contents. Chapter titles in a TOC is another way to hook a reader, especially in a sample, which I shall read. Sword and planet: I’m here for that!

          • Perhaps you’re remembering that blog author Sarah Hoyt was a Baen author until recently? And, if you check out the Scout series, I hope you enjoy it!

            • Oh that explains it, I’m not totally crazy 🙂 I’m noticing a John Carter vibe in the sample for Sword and Planet, and that’s the kind of story I’ve wanted more of. Thanks for stopping by!

      • Agreed, Jamie.

        The cover is designed to send a message to a prospective purchaser on Amazon (or, less commonly, in a physical bookstore) that says, “This is a book you might like about romance” or “This is a book you might like about Regency romance” or “This is a book you might like about space battles” and, if it does that, the cover has performed its task.

        A cover needs to communicate genre without looking like every other cover in that genre. If it blends in too much, it’s less likely to catch a prospective reader’s eye. That’s not always an easy balance to accomplish.

        • Yep. But in addition—and to add to Jamie’s Genre and Tone—I also add Subject/Location as a key cover element for books. This is especially important for Historicals, whether “pure” or fantasy. I want to see Mexico or Hawaii when I pick up Michener. And cathedral parts with Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. My first novel was about the birth of NYC in the early 17th century. The cover shows a virgin Manhattan island with no buildings; only trees and meadows. It’s a little unusual with no people, but in combination with the title and typography, readers know what they were getting. (my SciFi Neanderthal time travel books are slightly different, but the same cover elements are there)

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