Thursday, August 28, 2008

Cover stories

I posted a comment last week about the phenomenon of different books with sometimes startlingly similar covers. This week Belinda Mountain of MIRA Books, whose cover for Paul Johnston's novel The Soul Collector sparked the discussion, weighs in. She offers a short comment on my post, then holds forth at greater length on her own blog.

Her comments will speak for themselves, but they did put me in mind of something obvious that I had nonetheless not thought of before: Books with similar themes may well lead to similar covers. Johnston's book, she writes, "features a character named The White Devil, and a killer who draws pentagrams near his unfortunate victims, so the pentagram/star icon was incredibly well suited to this book."

Pentagrams and the fear of Satanism figure prominently in Jo Nesbø's The Devil's Star, which helps explain the similarity between its cover and that of Johnston's novel. But then, Nesbø's book itself is just one of several Scandinavian novels translated in recent years in which Satanism plays a prominent part. Helene Tursten's The Glass Devil and Åsa Larsson's Sun Storm (The Savage Altar in the U.K.) also come to mind.

Belinda offers some sensible reasons for publishers' decisions, so thank her for weighing in. And the next time you think about "copycat" covers, think about "copycat" books, too.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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11 Comments:

Blogger The Clandestine Samurai said...

I've read Mira's blog post about the covers, and all it was was another reason as to why business has no good reason governing art.

Having to pay to make sure no one else uses some new image they've created for a novel, I can understand. But that business about communicating quickly to the customer, I disagree with. Considering the tone and color and symbol of the cover, original artwork can communicate the theme or subject to a book reader just fine.

Or that's my opinion anyway. I may have interned for an agency and a book publisher, but I'm not in the business.

August 28, 2008  
Blogger Barbara said...

With the amount spent on producing books, it shouldn't be hard to do a little more than slapping a stock photo on the cover photoshopping in a little extra blood. Besides, why do they all use exactly the same sources for photos? Flickr has tens of thousands of Creative Commons photos licensed for commercial use. But the same tired images are used over and over and over.

As for "we do this because readers expect to see the same covers so they know what they're getting" - that's pure baloney. You don't put a fuzzy bunny on the cover of a serial killer novel, granted. But this is condescending nonsense that makes it sound as if we're buying cereal. Uh, that's what I got last time, I'll buy it again.

Grrrrrr. If I were the author, that argument would make my head explode.

August 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I took a look at Paul Johnston's previous novel, The Death List. That book's cover looks something like the the cover of The Soul Collector, though not especially like the Devil's Star cover. Yet The Soul Collector's cover resembles that of The Devil's Star. It's interesting which elements of a cover's design are significant -- that is, which ones will make a reader say the covers resemble one another.

In this case, I think it's the pentagrams. Absent that, I'm guessing that not too many readers would complain that the covers of The Death List and The Devil's Star resemble one another even though they do share certain other design elements. Similarly, the cover of Nesbø's The Redbreast resembles that of The Devil's Star but not the covers of either of the Johnston novels except in broad, general terms.

Incidentally, neither of the covers in question -- The Soul Collector or The Devil's Star -- includes a photograph as far as I can tell. This distinguishes the current discussion from most of the other "copycat covers," which involve identical photographs manipulated in different ways for different books.

August 28, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Sure, similar themes may lead to similar covers, but no two books develop the theme in exactly the same way.

A good cover, say the American cover of Declan Burke's "The Big O" is eye-catching and identifies the book as a crime novel right away, but after reading the book the O as the barrel of the gun is inspired. Clearly the designer read and understood the book.

August 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The designer read the book and understood its title, yes. A gun is one way of identifying a book as a crime novel. I wonder if a gun is easier to use in creative and original ways that a pentragram is.

But so many goals can lie behind a cover. It should be striking, yes, but should it refer directly to an incident in the book, or just allude to it? And if so, to which incident? The Canadian and what I presume is the American cover of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere refer to different moments of one incident referred to in the book. Because of this, the covers have different effects, I think.

And there's the cover of the Canadian paperback edition of Howard Engel's Memory Book, which has the cleverest allusion to a book's subject that I have ever seen. There's another designer who understood that the book's chief interest lay in the condition of the narrator rather than in any given incident relating to the crime or the place.

August 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, I should throw a bit of credit your way, since I think I first heard of the Penguin Canada paperback editions of Engel from you.

August 28, 2008  
Blogger Barbara said...

Erk - I think you're right, there was no stock photography in use here. I misread her post. (Some of it did refer to using stock, and I sort of gummed it all together.) But the covers have way too much in common - not just the use of the same symbol and blood, but the scratches across the white surface. I don't see how that's part of the universal code for "this book involves Satanists."

The idea that a lot of covers were designed to look like the Da Vinci Code in order to capitalize on that book's brand does suggest that readers and books are product like cereal - something readers want over and over. And while to some extent that's true - people want to read the next book by a favorite author - I imagine the number of Da Vinci Clones that were published fell pretty flat in the marketplace; certainly none became the phenomenon that was Dan Brown's book.

Books can be serial, but not cereal.

August 29, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Barbara, the scratches are what make this case interesting. The scratches on the cover of The Soul Collector were also present on the cover of Paul Johnston's previous novel, The Death List. so they are not necessarily a borrowing from the Nesbø cover.

It's easy to gum things up and bring stock photography into the discussion, since stock photos are so often involved when this issue comes up.

August 29, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Found another one

September 01, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The victim is the cover of the Edgar winning (Paperback originals) mystery outing of one of my favourite fantasy/science-fiction authors,Jeffrey Ford.

I doubt the two books have much in common

Marco

September 01, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Wow, that's quite a blatant case, or at least a surprising coincidence. Thanks.

September 02, 2008  

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