Rant About Book Covers


I know, don’t judge a book by its cover, but sometimes you can’t help it. Sometimes publishers choose a cover that makes you wonder what they were thinking. Such is the case with Charles Stross’ new book, Saturn’s Children. I was not at all happy about the U.S. release cover after I saw a picture of it online somewhere, but I’m even more upset having now seen the U.K. version. Our friends across the pond get this:And we get this:Excuse me? What the hell? Why can’t we have the cool scifi cover with the spaceship and flashy colors? The biggest problem for me is that the U.K. cover looks like they actually put serious effort into it, considering it for what it is: a science fiction novel by one of the field’s most popular writers. The U.S. cover looks like some crappy, second-rate book I’d expect to see published on Lulu: that stale, computer drawn, fake looking female figure with the big breasts that defy gravity and otherwise look completely fake. I don’t know what Saturn’s Children is about, but either way, if I didn’t know who Charles Stross was, I wouldn’t touch the U.S. version of the book with a two hundred foot pole. The cover is ugly and I think Mr. Stross is undeserving of this sort of treatment.
The way I see it, the cover of a book says a lot about the book itself. We’re not supposed to judge, I know, but at the same time we have to realize that people are going to judge a book by its cover. That’s why it’s such a problem to sell a book in the stores (like Borders). Most books end up spine out rather than cover out, and as such are less likely to get snatched up and examined by the ravenous book consumer.
One of the things that I do when I’m in the store and walk around the new fiction area and look at the covers. I pay attention to the image, the author, the title, and anything else on the cover that might be of importance. If I don’t recognize the name, the cover is what has to sell me enough to pick up the book. There are too many books in the store for me to pick up every single one and give the same amount of attention to (by reading the back, for example). The job of the publisher is to attract my attention.
Likewise, the publishers need to be aware of their intended audience. Luckily Stross’ new book will likely sell just fine with either cover, since his name is well known anyway, but if Stross were a new author with a cover like that, I can see it having issues. Stross’ audience are hard SF readers (and near future readers). As such, the publisher has to market to that audience, unless this new book is a significant change from his usual, in which case they have to figure out what works for that audience. If you have an epic fantasy book, you need a cover that fits it. Don’t put flying bunnies on it unless it’s a book about flying bunnies (and probably humorous). A science fiction book needs something that not only tells us about what’s inside the book, but also targets us, the scifi reader, with imagery that screams “scifi”. Computer animated figures don’t scream “scifi”. That screams “cheap”. Many people don’t realize this (or maybe they do), but there are entire website devoted to selling pre-drawn figures like the one on the cover above. All of them are obvious and while I respect the talent it takes to be able to get to that level of artistic talent, the art itself is not “great stuff”. It’s amateur. Video games produce better looking characters these days.
The quickest way to get me to not touch your book is have a horrible cover. And the quickest way to get me to think your cover is horrible is to have something that looks like it was drawn on a computer. The trick about computer art is that it has to mask the fact that it is from a computer (unless, for some reason, you need a cover that looks like it came from a computer). Yes, you can do great things with a computer, but it takes practice and talent. It looks amateur to put obviously computer-based art on a book cover when you could just as easily find a piece of hand-drawn art for the same price. Even crappy hand-drawn art looks better than the computer drawn figure. Yes, I’m saying it. I’ve seen my fair share of poorly drawn book covers, done with real art, by hand. Ten times out of ten, it’s better than any of those annoying computer figurines you see on some covers. A good bit of advice for publishers, particularly the small presses (and I’m not pointing out anyone in particular here, but this is mostly aimed at those of you who do a lot of e-books), is this: it’s better to take a piece of handdrawn (painted, etc.) art that doesn’t look all that great than to take a silky and shiny computer-based drawing of a figure that looks just like every other computer-based figure that has been drawn. Seriously.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

7 thoughts on “Rant About Book Covers

  1. Funnily enough I picked up a book with a gorgeous cover today. It was plain white, with a tracery of wing veins on it in a shiny holographic silver. The back had an excellent blurb. It was called ‘Fairyland’ and was a SF story. Looked amazing. I flipped open to page 69 as I often do to see what the writing was like … it sucked.

    So glad I didn’t judge that book by its cover. :p

    And when I said about the boobs, you denied it and said they could be real. Just admit when you’re wrong. I hate finding out you think I was right two weeks later in a blog post. 🙁

  2. I totally agree. It’s not just that the US version has teh sexay woman on the front, it’s that it looks cheap and amateurish. I don’t think the UK version is particularly exciting, but at least I wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen reading it.

    So I wonder which cover more accurately reflects the story. Is it a cheesy romp with virtual vixens and/or sexy robots? Or is it a hard SF epic of space?

  3. What. The. Hell. Is. That? That is probably the worst abomination of a cover I’ve ever seen — from any genre. Good grief, and that’s professional? Are they serious?

    I’m so jealous of the British. Everytime I see one of their book covers compared to ours I get jealous.

  4. Peggy: I agree, the UK version isn’t the best cover, but at least it looks good in comparison. I like the UK cover myself because it embodies what interests me about SF (space ships, flashy cool space things, etc.).
    According to Amazon the book is about the following:
    “Sometime in the twenty-third century, humanity went extinct—leaving only androids behind. Freya Nakamichi 47 is a femmebot, one of the last of her kind still functioning. With no humans left to pay for the pleasures she provides, she agrees to transport a mysterious package from Mercury to Mars. Unfortunately for Freya, she has just made herself a moving target for some very powerful, very determined humanoids who will stop at nothing to possess the contents of the package.”
    Neither cover really reflects the story completely. It sounds like there is certainly the element of “cheese” in it (an adventure aspect I suppose), but also a clear element of serious SF (probably lots of explosions and evil bad people doing bad things). But they could have come up with something better than the big breasted computerized character. I love Stross, but I think I’ll have my girlfriend in England get me the UK version over this one. He got screwed on the cover I think.

    Jason: The Brits do get a lot of good covers, but we do too. My girlfriend won’t admit it, but it’s true.

  5. Umm.. yah. I’d at least pick up the UK version to check the story; of course that story sounds too ridiculous for words and I’d probably skip it, but I wouldn’t even bother to pick up the US one ’cause I’d know right away it was too ridiculous for words.

    Except for one word of course…. CHEESY!

  6. Well, I’m on an email list with Charlie, and he’s not exactly wild about it himself. Writers rarely get much influence on the cover since that’s considered marketing, and therefore outside a writer’s expertise.

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