There are countless cliches that speak to the idea that beauty is found within, and that the value of what is on the surface is, well, superficial. A facade. “Beauty is only skin deep.” Another old adage points a crooked, arthritic finger from well beyond the grave at those who might say otherwise: “Never judge a book by its cover,” the old crone groans. And yet another speaks from the authoritative stance of a holy book: “Judge not lest ye be judged,” booming with an omnipresent echo.
Now, we here at The Editorial Department appreciate the intent and the wisdom of such sentiments in context. We understand that there is more to everything in the universe than what might be perceived by the eyes alone. We certainly would never suggest that just because something doesn’t look so pretty on the outside, that it is likely to be similar within. It would be a logical fallacy to come to such a conclusion.
That said, we also believe that one of the most important factors in the success of a book is the presentation, and since the cover of a book is the first thing that people see whilst ruminating over what to read, the bitter truth of the matter is that it does matter. A lot. It could well be one of the main factors that determines whether or not someone decides to buy your book. (That is unless your target audience is people who only read braille.) In order for your book to get picked off the shelf (or these days, the virtual bookshelf) it needs to grab the potential reader’s attention, and this is expressly the purpose of the cover. It is only then that the reader might turn it over to read the cover synopsis on the back.
There is also the micromanagement factor to consider. Sometimes when authors do seek professional help with cover design, they simply do not trust the people they’ve hired to do a good job. Many writers have difficulty removing themselves from the creative process and allowing a professional designer to actually do the design. This is because for the entire time the author has been working on the manuscript, he or she has also been mulling over various cover ideas. After all, the author knows exactly what his characters look like, and knows the exact features that dominate the landscape of the setting. But the cover is really a lot less about those things, and a lot more about engaging a potential reader by way of artistic design.
There is a reason that the large traditional publishers do not allow the author much control over cover design and even the choice of title. They have trained and talented professionals at the company’s disposal who know what kind of title will garner the most favorable attention. They have artists on hand with an eye for design, who understand what’s trending and what’s passe. There are a good number of pages on the internet that address the concern of bad book covers. Some of our favorites are:
Taking into consideration the fragile artistic egos of some creative-minded folks (and we know they have fragile egos because some of them are us) we will stick with the second link listed above as our discussion of this topic continues. We know that if we are making fun of the covers of deceased authors who have already made it into the canon of literary genius known as the “classics,” that we will be less likely to offend. We wish to make an effective argument as to why authors should do what they do best and stick to the art of writing and allow commercial design artists to do what they do best. The job of these fine folks is to create book covers that are are appropriately representative of the painstakingly toiled over manuscripts that are finally going to print. Copyright issues prevent us from posting images in this blog, so in order to get the greatest chuckle possible out of this, you may want to open a window side by side so that you can read in tandem with a few of the covers which we will now lightheartedly mock.
If you toggle through to #2 on the classics list, you will find a copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein adorned with a cover featuring a woman that looks suspiciously like Joan of Arc. No monster. No Dr. Frankenstein. Just a woman with a broadsword, kneeling and looking slightly off to the left with just the sort of quizzical facial expression that comes across one’s face after it occurs that the stove may have been left on at home.
At #4 on the list, we have The Scarlet Pimpernel, featuring a photoshopped kitten in a briefcase. The cat is kind of cute, and we know from the viral nature of facebook posts these days that kittens are incredibly popular. Still, one has to wonder if the cover designer had any inkling as to the subject matter of the play/novel. It would have been nice to see the cat wearing a musketeer style hat, but then potential readers might have been misled into believing the book was a sequel to “Puss in Boots.”
Proceeding to #6 you will find a cover designed for Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw featuring two adjustable wrenches and a nut. Clearly no screw is present in the picture because the screw is a ghost, and ghosts as we all know are often invisible.
For #14 we have a cover for Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar that seems to scream, “this book is for women and women only!” Aside from the obvious notion that the cover sort of glosses over the dark nature of the book—a semi-autobiographical novel—we can surmise from the controversy it created early last year, that the only image critics might have found more offensive is a woman on hands and knees cleaning an oven. Surely, someone, somewhere along the way should have had the common sense to predict this cover would not be well received by the literary community, and we have to wonder if the publisher’s intent is to do everything possible to prevent men from reading the book.
Writing is often compared to giving birth, and in many ways it is just as painful—at least emotionally speaking. However, there are ways in which giving birth to literary babies has distinct advantages over live human childbirth. Try as we might, parents have only some control over how kids turn out. This is due in no small part to the reality of free will. Come on, I know some of you, even as you read this are watching a teenager shuffle by your lonely writer’s garret in rapt attention to the electronic device in front of him, thumbs madly twiddling whilst he texts and tweets away.
Unlike human children, our literary offspring are not expected to be raised in the bubble of a nuclear family. No one will look down on you for allowing others to babysit for an extended period. No one will judge you for seeking outside assistance in raising, disciplining, dressing and coddling your beloved manuscript. With your literary baby you have lots of options. You can turn to literate friends and editors to help you hone the inside of the book, and help you see things that you might not have on your own because you are too close to your baby to really judge whether or not it’s quite right. In a similar vein, you have the option of turning to professionals who have worked as painstakingly on the craft of book cover design as you have on your nearly perfect prose.
Photo by Gerry Cook