I’ve Got You Covered!


(I haven’t forgotten about being tagged in The Next Big Thing.  Stuff has been crazier than normal around here lately – and y’all know how crazy things NORMALLY get.  So, I haven’t been able to even ask people if I can tag them.  At this rate, when I do tag them they’ll all have done it.  Eh.)

A recent discussion on my blog reminded me – again – of the importance of covers, particularly for ebooks.

The background is that I have … mumble (more than I want to admit to) fragments of novels lying about.  Some of them I know why they were rejected, I think they have potential if fixed, and I’m scheduling them to get finished/fixed as soon as possible, starting from the ones that are finished/almost finished, of course.  Some of them though, I never understood WHY they got rejected.

One of these was Hell Bound, a more standard urban fantasy than my usual fare.  I have, I think, fifty pages double spaced, so I threw it up on my blog to figure out why I’d got a very odd rejection (I think only ONE rejection told me why or perhaps it only went out once, who knows) and to see if it’s worth putting on my schedule to finish.  (As soon as Noah’s Boy is delivered, I’m going to take  a week to rewrite what will now be called Shadow Gods – a YA fantasy – and then I’ll try to do that type of work in the intervals, while doing work for Baen, of course – hopefully at least two books, more like 3 if I don’t get sick all the time.  Anyway, it can be done, I think, except that I need to plan it, to have that full a schedule, or nothing will happen.)

Anyway, I’ve figured out why the weird rejection.  This is a side excursion, and I’ll return to covers in a moment.  The thing with publishers – traditional New York publishers – is that they don’t actually read the materials you send in the order you send – or at all.  This is something that’s very hard for us to understand, but I’ve found to be true.  For instance, my musketeer mysteries kept getting rejected because “it’s not one of the musketeers telling it.  That is as if Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries were told by his maid.” These rejections were occasioned by the fact that the very first chapter of the very first book was in D’Artagnan’s voice.  Forget the stunning lack of understanding of who told Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries, or the fact that The Three Musketeers is in fact narrated by following D’Artagnan – what bowled me over was the fact that they’d never even GLANCED at the proposal which explained that the mysteries were told (a chapter at a time) from the pov of all four musketeers (well, D’Artagnan is a musketeer by book ten or so – if we ever get there.)  Since this was being sent through my agent, I have no clue what she put in the cover letter – or if that got read – but CLEARLY publishers were looking at the first page and going “Oh, D’Artagnan.  He’s not one of the musketeers.  Reject.”

In Hell Bound my protagonist is mourning the death of a fiance who died in mysterious circumstances six months before the beginning of the book.  And an angel with a black leather jacket is involved in it somehow.  (I’m not weaseling.  It’s been years since I wrote that proposal.  The involvement will probably change when I go into it.)  The angel uses sex and sex appeal as a weapon to survive in the human world.  (There is some stuff about the spirit being uneasy in a physical body… I’m also not sure how it plays out in the end.)

The one thing I meant though was for the angel to be eye candy and a somewhat ambiguous and scary figure – not a love interest.  I might have fobbed that (won’t know till I go back and re-read.  Again, it’s been a LONG time and my perception/feel has, I’m sure, changed.)

I THINK the publishers read the angel as THE love interest (they’re not hampered by theological scruples, as I am.)  This explains why they kept rejecting it because the MC was “too broken up” about her fiance’s death.  Because, you know, she should be moving on to the hot new thang.  Before that I was totally puzzled because… six months.  Serious relationship.  She’s not paralyzed, but of course she misses him, and when she starts getting messages and emails from him, it will bring the grief back.

Anyway – other than that, I got a lot of confusion about which of them (or either) the MC would be interested in and what type of story it IS.

And I started understanding the importance of covers…

Not that I’ve ever not understood the importance of covers – I mean, once you got the cover I got for my first Shifter’s book, the importance of covers is forever engraved in your mind.

That book made it clear to me that covers are supposed to signal the contents of the book, in the sense that having a castle, a three headed dragon and a zombie with an udder fixation and a very fetching seashell pendant on the cover in no way prepares you for a fun adventure fantasy (uh, maybe.  Might be SF) about a dragon shifter and a panther shifter trying to survive while working for a diner in a college town.

BUT beyond that…  I realized through that blog post, that people look to the cover for clues about how the story will go.  Even if the cover is symbolic and not a scene in the novel.

Take my story that I put up: put on it a cover with a sexy girl from behind, and an angel in a leather jacket looking at her with smoldering eyes, and you’re signaling it’s paranormal romance, and that the love interest in the angel (more so if she’s clasped in his arms.)  Put her in leather/denim with a sword, and the angel by her side, and you’re still signaling the angel is the love interest, but it’s probably not a romance, and the action still matters.  Have her alone, facing the horrors sent by Isthar,  with sword up-lifted, and you know this is about her, and the action, and any romance is a secondary distraction, so you won’t read the book as signaling a HEA with the angel.  Reverse all of those to have the ghost of her fiancé, and you’re signaling the same things, but with her fiancé as the love interest.

Covers affect how we read things and in the new world of publishing, where we’re not looking in a specific shelf for the book which also influences how you read it.  (Trust me.  My Shakespeare fantasies OFTEN got shelved as biography and I got indignant letters from people chiding me for my “dangerous” idea of bringing in elves into Shakespeare’s bio.)

Dean W. Smith says we don’t have the slightest idea what the genre of our book is, and he might be right, but if we’re also the publisher, we still have to manage the reader’s expectations – and finding of things – with tags.  So we have to make a stab at figuring it out.  And then we have to make sure the cover signals right, too.

So – how does that mesh with the iconic, minimalist covers?

I don’t know.  I know they get away with them for books with big publicity campaigns, and maybe in the future that’s how you’ll know which books have big publicity campaigns – because you can afford the stripped down, not-clearly-signaling iconography, like the hands with the apple.

For us, the only thing I could say is if you’re going to get away with a stripped down cover – say for this one, probably a bull of Ishtar (though if Uri were the focus it could be disembodied wings) – you have to signal it in some other way.  Perhaps with a tag line on the cover that says something about love, or something about fighting or…  You see what I mean?  Something more than JUST the tags on Amazon, which don’t make as much of an impression as going to a physical shelf.

To begin with, I encourage familiarizing yourself with not just your genre covers, but the covers of genres yours could get confused with – space opera/futuristic thriller; urban fantasy/paranormal romance; Woman in Peril/cozy; Police procedural/thriller. – and learn the signaling, because your readers have.  Not consciously, of course, but having seen the covers of both, they’ll interpret yours as one or the other.  And then I encourage some thought beyond “Oh, that’s pretty.”  The same applies for the more… complex works, when you’re actually commissioning a cover.  This will allow you to give more detailed instructions to the artist.

Because the cover is not just a sales tool.  It’s  a framing device for how the reader interprets the clues in the book.

This of course is an advantage if you’re the one doing it.  You can make sure that the house doesn’t do it wrong.

But then you have to make sure YOU do it right.



  1. I think that makes covers very, very hard – until you know exactly what you’re writing. Which just happened today (it’s about time – it’s been twelve years).

    I now know exactly which covers I’m going to go look at on Amazon, and which kinds of tags to look for books with.

    I didn’t realize – stupid of me, now that you point it out – that there is a language of cover elements. Sort of like the language of fans – those who are in the know can read it.

    I knew you were trying to convey what’s inside, but it’s smart to realize that you’re signaling to people who explicitly or implicitly ‘get’ what the cover means – from having seen many others of the similar persuasion.

    Thanks for the very useful post.

  2. How do you signal genre with stripped down covers? Typography. No, seriously. I’ve been working on decoding cover elements. (I figure that the writer in this pair should concentrate on writing, so I’m doing the grunt work on researching covers, titles, blurbs, artists, pricing, marketing, etc.)

    Next time you look at an assortment of covers, look at the fonts and shading used for the titles, author names, and taglines / blurbs. It isn’t as simple as saying “if urban fantasy, then use Font X, Y, and Z” – but it’s not that far off from “if thriller / present day, use this family of fonts. If Thriller/futuristic, use this family. If urban fantasy, these are the three main styles of fonts, depending on the level of smut to kickass heroine.”

    If the name is in curly cursive-like font, the automatic assumption is romance, yes? If shot through and outlined / ornamented with vivid green or blue lines and wingdings, it’s a cyber-something (usually thriller, sometimes mystery, sometimes only signals that it’s taking place inside a virtual game.)

    …and then there’s this. Drink warning in effect when you follow the link, not responsible for any ruined keyboards: http://www.jest.com/video/186274/if-movies-had-crappy-fonts

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