Covers Change the Story

I’ve caught a lot of changes in book covers when they go from hardcover to paperback, as well as a number of general repackaging looks. As usual, some of these are excellent and some are not. Covers sell a book, as it’s often what draws a reader in who may otherwise not be familiar with the story, so when the cover changes, it’s always interesting to see what elements are being played up. Here’s a look at a few of the recent changes I’ve found that are worth stopping to think about, both in terms of design and in terms of marketing.

Let’s start with a change I think is really beneficial:

The Half Life of Planets by Emily Franklin and Brendan Halpin: The original cover gives a way vintage feel to the story. It dates it, and I don’t think it does so in a good way. I read this book quite a while ago, but I don’t remember it being a historical fiction, which is what the cover here seems to suggest. The LP and the style of dress of the two characters don’t feel contemporary, and I think that does a bit of a disservice, unfortunately. The font for the title and the author name also don’t work and only serve to further the vintage feel. Frankly, I don’t know many teens who would get this cover, especially the album aspect of it.

This paperback makeover is fantastic. I love the fact it doesn’t have an aged feel to it, but instead, it’s incredibly contemporary. The font is fun and has a definite teen vibe to it. The perspective of the guitar against the black and starry background is a bit reminiscent of Star Wars and that’s a good thing. More than that though, the red guitar really pops on the cover; despite there being a number of covers that feature guitars, this one jumps from the shelves. I think the cover fits the story much more, and I think that it has much more appeal to the intended audience than the original. No faded vintage feel here!

Lisa McMann’s Cryer’s Cross has such a great cover. Although it might be considered a bit of a spoiler, it’s such a knock out — the desk in the darkened room gives the horror feel that the pages inside work with, rather than against. The desk features graffiti, but beyond that, it’s worn and old and the vibe that emerges is perfectly suited to the story. I love that the title isn’t separate from the image, but instead, it is part of the image itself. It’s creative and it fits, too, with Lisa’s Wake series in the font and placement of her name. Check out the tag line, too: “The smaller the town, the bigger the secrets.” It’s perfect for the book.

But oh, I do not like the paperback make over:

Let’s start with the tag line change: “Some secrets have the power to bury you.” The story is set in a small town, and that plays a huge part in the creepy factor of the book; the change in tag line makes the story sound so generic and like every other book out there. Swap this one with any of the paranormal romances out there. It’s unfortunate because this book is not a paranormal romance in the least. It’s a horror story. Now, for the trope I am so sick of in covers: the girl on the ground being saved by a boy. Guess what doesn’t play a big role in the story? Romance. Yet, this cover plays into the idea of romance, and the tag line only enhances it. Frankly, this cover is a disservice to readers, as it makes the book like every other book on the market when in fact, it’s quite different. The trees in the background make this look paranormal, right? Take those out and put in a pink or purple background and the cover could then become one for a Lurlene McDaniels book. And don’t get me started on the fact the girl looks stiff and the male looks much too old to be a teenager. The whole set up devalues the role of the female in the book, too, which is probably part of why it bothers me so much — the main thrust of the book hinges upon one girl who uncovers an ages-old mystery in the story, yet this cover makes it look like the girl is being saved from some secret that will “bury her.” Enter suave looking male to save her.

Let me step back and talk about the problem here on a greater level. The trend I’ve been seeing more and more in young adult books and in young adult book trailers is the one to play up the romance in a book, and this is especially true in books that aren’t contemporary romances. That is to say, books that feature a paranormal, horror, fantasy, or science fiction story line seem to be falling victim to this a lot more than what you’d expect. This cover/trailer treatment, in my mind, devalues females as lead characters. It sends the message that girls can’t be strong in worlds outside our own and ones that make sense to us. Whether the story says that or not — and often, as is the case in the McMann book, the story says precisely the opposite of what the cover says — it’s playing into a trend that’s not healthy. It’s not okay to suggest that a male is always a saving force and that the female needs to be saved or loved to be strong. Moreover, it’s always a female in a submissive position. Notice above that the male is on the top and the girl is on the bottom. Notice, too, that the male has his arm above the girl’s head — he is dominating her not only physically, but intellectually, too. She doesn’t have a finger on him, and her body language suggests that she’s open to be taken and saved. This makes me so uncomfortable, especially knowing what I do about this particular book. Moreover, can we please have stronger females on the cover of non-contemporary books? Less girl lying in submissive positions and more girls being strong and powerful, please. Girls in worlds other than our own can be just as strong as those here. And get this — the more we show that on covers, the more female readers we can entice to genres like science fiction and fantasy, where often, there is a stigma about reading those sorts of books.

This cover does nothing at all for the book, and it’s especially disheartening given the fantastic hardcover version of this novel and how well it fits the story. This one feels a bit like a meme.

It’s so rare that a young adult novel gets an illustrated cover treatment, but Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch Three Times got it, and it works so well. This is one of my favorite covers, despite having a lot of elements I don’t like to it. It’s the illustration that makes it work, and the colors play perfectly into the content, as well. The novel features Jim Di Bartolo’s illustrations, and they use the same color schemes. What works, I think, is the contrasting use of colors — the red flames against the light blue font and eerily icy eyes. The red lips pop against the pale skin of the girl, and I love how the curls in the hair flow with the curl of the flames. There’s a lot of flow and a nice echo effect throughout.

As much as I like the cover, I don’t necessarily know if it’s got the right appeal to it. It’s less that it’s not appealing, but more that it is an illustrated cover and that makes it read like it’s geared toward a younger readership (despite the flames).

And I’m sure it’ll be pretty clear how I stand on the change for this cover. It feels like an adult romance — the kind that come in a smaller package that you can pick up at the grocery store. By that I don’t mean trashy; I mean it’s something I’ve seen so many times that it’s not distinguishable from anything else on the market. It does also feel very adult, versus the original cover. Maybe it’s the way the colors really contrast and the way the red lip is shiny in less of a symbolic manner but in more of a come hither manner. This cover doesn’t give a fantasy vibe, but instead, it gives a romance vibe, and I think that’s a disservice to the incredible fantasy worlds inside the story (that yes, do involve kisses, but not in the romance sense). Moreover, I think it’s sad that Jim Di Bartolo’s illustration isn’t the cover image anymore; instead, we get a headless model, which is my favorite kind. I’m not sure this cover hit the mark with audience appeal either. It’s misleading.

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi is a cover that doesn’t speak to me one way or the other. It kind of blends into everything else, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way or a good way. There’s not a striking image on the cover that’s memorable, aside from the cover font, which takes up the bulk of the cover. I like the font and placement, and I think that it sort of speaks to the story inside. However, the rusty-colored background doesn’t add much; it doesn’t tell a story itself. I understand it to be the side of a ship, given the title, but otherwise, it sort of exists and doesn’t do much more. Again, it’s not bad or good. It just is. It’s a bit of a sleeper in terms of covers.

The paperback makeover, though? Fantastic. Although it has the creepy half face in the background, I quite love how evocative this recovered book looks. We finally get an image to the story, and though the cover font changed, I like this one as much as I like the original. This cover reminds me greatly of the Kenneth Oppel Airborn series covers, and I think that is a huge benefit to this particular novel. Although I admit to not having read either the Oppel series nor this book, I do think there is readership crossover, so this sort of cover pairing makes perfect sense, whether it was intentional or not. This cover has a rusty look to it, but it’s used in a much more effective manner than it is in the hardback cover; this time it’s used to develop a sense of place and time, rather than simply as the backdrop. Rather than being a pass over cover now, this one really pops and I think it has mega boy appeal. It’s nice to have something that doesn’t look embarrassing to read, too.

I’m a huge believer in the idea that covers can be an easy means of reader’s advisory (that for non-librarians is the term for helping people find a book to read based on what else they’ve read and enjoyed). Whenever a cover can play into that, it makes for happier readers, I think. Teens and adults do often pick up their books on the covers, and the more reminiscent a new read is to one that has been enjoyed before, the more trust a reader builds into new reading experiences, whether that’s fair or not.

What do you think? Do any of these covers better serve the reader than others? And please: I want your feedback on the romance on the cover issue. It’s one that strikes me as something people aren’t talking about, yet it’s something that is incredibly important to think about and talk about.

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Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).

7 thoughts on “Covers Change the Story”

  1. The interesting thing about covers on the production end is that most of the time marketing and sales rather than editorial teams have the bigger input in the design. It seems like there's a sound bite going around YA marketing groups that avid readers will choose books based on word of mouth and reviews, and so the cover should be designed to catch the eye of less-avid readers. That means sex, romance, headless bodies, photographs rather than illustrations, layered gowns, un-empowered females, etc., even when that doesn't reflect the nature of the story. The trouble is, I don't think the strategy is based on any kind of solid research, it's based on this "gut" feeling the teams have, or anecdotal evidence of success with individual books. I always wonder if in misrepresenting the product to the readers who would love the content, you lose as many or more customers as you snag with the sexy cover. I want statistical analysis; I want to see numbers proving this strategy really increases sales! Is the research out there?

  2. "I always wonder if in misrepresenting the product to the readers who would love the content, you lose as many or more customers as you snag with the sexy cover. I want statistical analysis; I want to see numbers proving this strategy really increases sales! Is the research out there?"

    My biggest question is related to this, and it's whether or not teens start to feel mislead and what reaction that causes when they pick up a cover with romance amped up and they find out there isn't romance in the story. I speak from the librarian side — I can't read every book in the library and sometimes, I DO have to go by the cover. Had I not read Cryer's Cross, and I had someone asking for a new paranormal romance, this would look right. But it's not. Then what happens when the teen comes back? They don't trust ME as an authority. I've lost their trust. Does it make me a poor librarian that I followed a cover? Maybe. But the reality is I don't have time to know everything in my library and that's how it works out sometimes.

    I want those stats too. I would be incredibly curious what goes on and what impact changes like these have.

    I heard once that hardcovers appeal to librarians/schools/gatekeepers, whereas the paperback covers are geared more toward a general audience. I don't know if I buy it, but there's that, too.

  3. I agree with you on the new Ship Breaker cover. Love it! Even though I couldn't get through that book, I still appreciate what the new cover does for the appeal of the story.

  4. I agree with you about the new Cryer's Cross cover–I really dislike it. The original is absolutely perfect for the book and it appeals to both guys and girls. I've actually noticed more of my boys in class that are interested in Cryer's Cross than girls, but with the new cover I know that would change. I won't buy the paperback copy b/c of the cover.

    I also agree about the way romance is portrayed. It seems like the people who are working on covers are losing their touch and getting lazy. How hard is it to grab a couple models and pose them? It's not. It takes time, effort and creativity to come up with something like the original Cryer's Cross cover or the original Laini Taylor cover.

  5. A comment about what you wrote about the original Lips Touch cover: "It's less that it's not appealing, but more that it is an illustrated cover and that makes it read like it's geared toward a younger readership (despite the flames)."

    That's possible, I suppose, but, although I haven't read this book, I can tell you one YA group it'd probably attract: graphic novel readers. The graphic novel lover in me saw that cover and went "ooh, pretty." There's something about it that makes me think of the art in some volumes of Neil Gaiman's Sandman.

  6. I think unless a cover works really poorly for a book I don't see the need to change it between a hardcover and paperback release. I can understand if the book didn't sell and publishers feel the change will help with that. BUT, if the change happens it should at least happen in a way that will help whatever the percieved problem was honestly. In the case of Cryer's Cross it seems they changed that cover to sell the book period it's deceptive. I would think ultimately it won't helpin the end as people who purchase it expecting a romance and get a horror would be less inclined to pick up McMann's books again. Of course this hurts the author who has absolutely nothing to do with the cover decision at all. UGH, what a hot mess all the way around.

  7. I agree, Elizabeth, I'd like to see those stats, too, and read what those focus groups have to say about cover art. I demand to know why the increase of Sad Girls in Pretty Dresses are all over the friggin place, too.

    Egad, that Cryer's Cross makeover. I think what bothers me the most about it is the fact that it looks like a sci-fi book, because surely that girl lying on the ground is a Cylon. She looks just like a robot.

    I disagree about the Ship Breaker cover. I've always loved the original hardcover version — the scrawl, the color scheme, the simplicity. I loved how all of those elements worked together and made me curious to know what the title meant. As for the pb version, I have never been a fan of floaty eyes. Just say no to floaty eyes!

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