Judging a Book By Its Cover in the Era of Amazon.com

I love that moment when you hear something which makes total, perfect sense but which wouldn’t ever have occurred to you in a million years.

I also hate those moments because they make me wish I was smarter, more observant, or just plain cleverer.

One such moment occurred today when I was reading an interview with Tim Powers on the JohnnyDeppReads website.

Tim was being interviewed about his book On Stranger Tides being adapted into the latest Pirates of the Caribbean juggernaut. There was a question about the various covers the book has had in its several print versions:

Tim : The first edition, from Ace Books, back in 1987, and then the paperback from Ace in 1988 and a limited edition from Subterranean Press, two or three years ago all used this one painting by Jim Gurney which is a gorgeous painting, I’ve got a print of it on my wall, of a skeleton in pirate garb with a parrot on his shoulder, holding a sword, and he’s on the deck of ship and you can see that one of his forearm bones is broken and tied up with a rag and there’s coins and a skull around his feet and a broken sword hilt and behind him you can see the rigging and forecastle of the ship, kind of receding in mist. It’s just a beautiful painting! And I think whatever success the original printing had was probably because of the picture. I mean you walk past that book in a book store and think “Damn, I have to read THAT! I never heard of this writer…but look at that picture!” Now a days, I think publishers don’t want that kind of painting, [emphasis added – ed.] the kind that needs to be eight or ten inches tall, and five inches wide to be comprehensible because I think publishers are calculating that the majority of customers DON’T see books in bookstores. [emphasis added – ed.]

The majority of customers see books as thumbnails on an Amazon page on their monitor and a giant cool picture like that will simply be a blur if it’s a one inch high thumbnail. And so I think the style is changing, the style in the cover art to be most effective seen one inch tall. [emphasis added – ed.] Sort of postage stamp standards, I think this is kind of a shame because there have been some book covers that every now and then you can put your finger in to hold your place in the book and you turn back to look at the cover again and think Yeah WOW …COOL. It’s sort of like record albums when they used to be the 33 1/3 real records. The album was a good foot square. On “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” or “Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills” or Jimi Hendrix’ “Axis”, all of which were just gorgeous pictures. But now “albums” are little four inch square CDs and those big old pictures are not really the style anymore.

Of course! This makes TOTAL sense! And yet this is the first time I’ve heard it mentioned anywhere, despite my having been following several on-going discussions over the last several months about the rise of the self-published ebook and the desperate need for a good looking cover to accompany even an ebook (as in, don’t let the author slap something together with crappy type in Photoshop, but rather still pay the cost upfront to have a good looking cover designed so that readers–who, let’s face it, ALWAYS judge a book by its cover–will feel that this is a work of quality, rather than something somebody just cranked off and threw up on Amazon or Smashwords.)

Now, I feel like this is an absolute and total victory for science fiction and fantasy author. Why? Because, let’s face it, a great many sci-fi and fantasy books have had, and continue to have, some pretty garish covers. You can wander through any sci-fi/fantasy section in any bookstore and see dozens of high fantasy books with cookie-cutter covers (often by the same very famous artist) trying to look like (and I suppose fool readers into buying as a result) some other bestselling, on-going Epic High Fantasy Series. These days you don’t often find the barbarian-saving-the-chainmail-bikini-clad-damsel-from-the-necromancer-type covers that were for so long the mainstay of the genre, but you can pick up dozens of deep space hard sf books written and printed in the last 5-10 years that have hand-painted space ship covers that might easily have been from the 60s or 70s.

Now, I know that there’s a segment of the market that likes (and perhaps even insists upon) these kinds of covers. When they’re done well they can work–I, for one–am a HUGE fan of Stephan Martiniere’s work (and not just because he provided the amazing cover for Writers of the Future XXIII…), though I confess that’s an exception. But let’s face it: the demographics have changed. More women buy books than do men (so chainmail bikinis out right there) and fantasy outsells science fiction by a healthy margin (bye bye acrylic space ships). And we live in an age of slick minimalism in graphic design: just look at any of the most popular websites for proof. Book covers need to keep pace.

The Harry Potter series notwithstanding, what have the cover designs of the most popular fantasy titles looked like over the last 5-10 years? The strong, central conceptual images of the Twilight series (which appeal heavily to who–oh, yes, the female book buying public!) If you look at a number of Kelly Armstrong’s reissued books, the new covers are shameless Twilight ripoffs. And the Game of Thrones series has slick new–what?–strong, central conceptual images for the reprints of back list and the newest volume in the series. Gone are the sweeping mountain vistas and hand-drawn depictions of Smaug on the latest editions of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings that came out around the movie: everyone I saw on the subway had the tone-on-tone black covers (well, those who didn’t have the editions with Elijah Wood on the cover, I mean.)

All of these covers will look good in that little thumbnail on Amazon, and will appeal to the large group of people who might like to read a fantasy or sci-fi book but who can’t get over the stigma of reading a book with a cover that looks like some installment of the Dungeons & Dragons rules guides. Think of books that have had crossover success–The Time Traveller’s Wife; Oryx & Crake, etc.–and you’ll see that “mainstream” books that deal with sci-fi ideals get a grown-up, sophisticated cover, and are instantly taken more seriously.

Yes, of course, a great book can overcome a bad cover, but if we’re talking about ebooks and anybody-can-do-it e-publishing through Amazon you need some way, ANY WAY, of rising above the chaff and get your book noticed. I think that giving your ebook a strong, central conceptual image that will scan well visually at Amazon thumbnail-size is a step in the right direction.

You can read the full interview with Tim Powers–chalked full of good stuff–here.

– S.

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