On Covers and Cheating

The Internet is a glorious thing. Recently I was mourning the loss of a treasured paperback, an edition of Northanger Abbey dating from the heyday of the ’70’s Gothic romance. But all I really wanted was the cover — the text was, after all, exactly the same as it is in my three other editions of the book — and a quick Internet search supplied that.

The back cover blurb seems to be artfully composed of very carefully chosen passages from the scene where Catherine discovers the manuscript which will, by daylight, turn out to be an inventory of household linen:

“The wind roared down the chimney, the rain beat in torrents against the windows, and everything seemed to speak the awfulness of her situation… The very curtains of her bed seemed at one moment in motion, and at another the lock of her door was agitated, as if by the attempt of somebody to enter. Hollow murmurs seemed to creep along the gallery, and more than once her blood was chilled by the sound of distant moans.”

I’ve always been impressed by the perverse creativity that re-invented Northanger Abbey as a modern Gothic and used Catherine’s own overwrought imaginings to support the vision. And I like to imagine some young woman browsing the junk paperback shelves of a bookstore in the ’70’s, adding this edition to her stack of romance novels, and then… some time later… making the glorious discovery that there are far better books than Gothic romances available to those who look for them. Imagine if this had been your introduction to Jane Austen!

We’ve written rather a lot — well, I haven’t, but those of the group who know their subject have – about the importance of using a cover to signal your book’s genre and style to potential readers. Naturally, none of us would do something as silly as using the cover and blurb to fool readers into thinking that they’re buying something in a completely different genre. But what if we did?

I’ll start. Having just wrestled KDP to the ground in the prolonged battle to get a print cover image that would meet all of their unclearly stated, nit-picky requirements, I’ve got A Creature of Smokeless Flame on my mind this morning. Let’s see if I can make this lightweight little fantasy story look like violent action-adventure:

Lensky set Khamisi and me to creating Molotov cocktails. While Khamisi stuffed Styrofoam down bottles and I ripped a sheet into strips, he went back to our bedroom and dragged out a flat metal box that I didn’t remember seeing before. “These are fully automatic AK-74Ms with built-in aiming optics, 30-round magazines and GP-34 under-barrel grenade launchers.”

The shouting outside was punctuated with thuds and crashes. “Front room,” Lensky said. “Khamisi, cover me.” He filled his hands with wine bottles. A moment later I heard the sound of shattering glass from the front of the building, followed by yells and screams from the crowd.  He slithered back to the living room to report cheerfully, “That’s given them something to think about… Watch the back, and call me if they get on the terrace.” He oozed back towards the front room, this time carrying the second rifle.

They came when the sun dipped behind the westernmost buildings of Old Town and plunged us into the sudden tropical night: a rush of bare feet, a rustle of robes, half-smothered exclamations.

It’s not the astounding work of art that the Northanger Abbey blurb was, but I’m pretty sure it would attract readers who would otherwise would never pick up the book.  (Granted, they’d throw it against the wall after about five pages.) Replace the beautiful cover Cedar made for the book with, oh, a snarling guy holding a machine gun, and I feel my work of misrepresentation would be complete.

If you were going to do something this silly, which of your books would you choose, and how would you make it seem like something completely different?

10 thoughts on “On Covers and Cheating

  1. I wrote a book on operating system programming in assembly language. The publisher created one of the most hideous covers I’ve ever seen, covered with question marks like an cheap Doctor Who spinoff novel.

    I actually got some royalties from that one, though one look at the cover and I would have slammed it back on the shelf in horror…

  2. That artwork made me instantly think of my mother’s old Ngaio Marsh and Mary Stewart novels. Some of my old Hardy Boys covers looked like that as well.

    I actually like that style of artwork. It’s attention grabbing and nicely done. But adding the blurb to make it sound like something it isn’t will get a bunch of people upset.

  3. Ohhhh! _Time Loop_ would be perfect. A gorgeous gal in period dress, possibly damaged about the bodice . . . Hmm, a guy in a labcoat? Or space suit?

    The blurb quotes:

    “You know Eve, I have noticed that you are a very attractive woman.”

    “I can’t ever go back, can I?

    “I’m seventeen. Can I wear black leather?”
    “Seventeen?” I looked at her skeptically.
    I kept looking at her.
    “Well, I’m almost sixteen.”

  4. I have a copy of Frankenstein that I keep around because of the truly astonishing early-90s pulp cover. “It’s alive… it’s alive… OH GOD, IT’S ALIVE!” is the actual tag line on it.

  5. Hmmm. . . I shall have to think. . . my first thought was A Diabolical Bargain because that was one where I COULD NOT find a title for months on end that did not make it look either like a romance or a horror novel.

    But perhaps A Princess Seeks Her Fortune could look Gothic itself. “Horrors haunt the night, and Alissandra.”


    “Quick! Out of the way!”
    Alissandra blinked and obeyed, glad they were in the crossroads, and she could jump to the road — though she sprawled on the dirt. Heavy hoofbeats drummed. She had only time to see great black horses dragging a heavy black carriage, with no coachman, before it charged by them at such a pace that they would have been trampled, or thrust in the ditch.

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