Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hey, publishers, what's behind the covers?

Euro Crime notes the near-identical cover designs of The Devil's Star by Jo Nesbø and Paul Johnston's upcoming novel The Soul Collector. In this case, the copycatting seems more blatant than usual, right down to a word in the subtitle of the Johnston novel.

Euro Crime has highlighted a number of such copycat covers, as have other blogs, and the issue has sparked discussion throughout the blogosphere. Some seem to think that publishers, looking for ways to save money, find it easier to use stock photos than to pay artists or photographers. But I haven't heard publishers weigh in.

If you're a publisher, how do you explain and justify this practice? How do you answer the accusation that copycat covers make publishers look cheap, cheesy and foolish ? And when did the phenomenon begin? When did publishers start relying on stock photos for their covers?

Once again, a bouquet for Hard Case Crime, which commissions paintings for all its covers.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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28 Comments:

Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Maybe it's just lazy design. I've seen small record labels do similar things.

August 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I would guess, without having any factual basis for doing so, that small, independent record labels may always have relied on stock images, probably for financial reasons. In publishing, though, the big houses are doing it, and I think the phenomenon is relatively new. That's why I'm hoping for a comment from someone who knows more than I do about book publishing and its recent history.

August 19, 2008  
Blogger Kerrie said...

I am amazed that some of these duplicates in cover design don't result in lawsuits for breach of copyright. You wouldn't think the designs they are using are in the public domain would you?

August 19, 2008  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

With all the starving artists out there, could it be that expensive?

August 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kerrie, my business knowledge is approximately zero, but my guess is that publishers buy these images from a stock-photo agency or something similar. That would take care of copyright violations for the images themselves. To what extent a design itself is copyrightable, I don't know. I'm also approximately clueless about the extent to which a design must differ from another design in order to avoid accusations of infringement on copyrights.

Perhaps publishers never thought readers would notice this sort of duplication -- or never knew that they were selecting images that other publishers had chosen. Now that some readers, or at least some of those who contribute to blogs, are noticing, perhaps the practice may become rarer.

August 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patti, I've found myself wondering something similar. Since a lot of these pubishers seem to be putting a fair amount of money or at least effort into graphic design, why not spend a bit on art -- on the photographers or painters who produce images in the first place, the images that the designers play with?

August 19, 2008  
Blogger The Clandestine Samurai said...

That is just ridiculous. If I publish a book, I'd want the cover to suit the novel specifically. It doesn't surprise me that publishers do that. Ever since doing that internship at an agency, I've always believed some of the power in publishing needs to be shifted to the people.

August 20, 2008  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Look, no author wants a copycat cover. Nobody begins their journey to publication thinking they want their book to look like an imitation of another book.

However, there are serious logistical issues that aren't considered in these criticisms. Commissioning art - even photography - that you have sole rights to IS expensive. I used to be a photographer. Consider the average larger publisher and how many books they might put out a year, and how much artwork they'd have to purchase, and it would never be used again.

Publishers have serious challenges in the present market. The ability to return books months and even years after they're shipped out and the obligation to return money or not charge stores means they never really know what the bottom line for any given book is for some time. Book costs are rising, we have an economy teetering on the brink of recession, and independent stores have been closing while review coverage is vanishing.

Necessitated by the bottom line, publishers have had to make tough decisions. Regional reps have disappeared. One of the other things that's suffered has been cover design. Stock photos are purchased and used, but nobody has an inventory of where and when. All the publishers in the US alone - never mind the world - aren't putting up a note on a community bulletin board saying "We used Picture X in June 2007 for an erotica novel." How on earth can any publisher know what another publisher is doing with stock art? It would be impossible.

We've all heard the stories, of someone who's come up with a very similar idea. I remember this from a writers' group - two women met and discovered they'd set their books a handful of kilometers apart, given their protagonists the same name (see, this is why I try to avoid common names) and there were other coincidental similarities to the nature of the investigations. Not at all the same books, but the unusual amount of similar aspects of their works was unsettling for them.

And if that can happen to two writers, is it really so hard to imagine that two artists, working with a limited amount of space, a limited amount of graphics, would conceive of similar covers?

It's easy to point a finger and say it's bad practice - and certainly it isn't ideal - but the publishers are the ones who have to find a solution. If books increased in price by $2 what would it do to book sales?

In my own experience, I'm asked for input on each cover. Unlike many authors, I have a background with newspaper layout and design, so I mock up ideas and they're taken to the art department. What I've discovered is that, when you're working with mmpb sizing and there's an understandable desire to keep the title and author's name at a certain font size on the front, the space is very limited and it's not as easy as everyone would like to think to do an original design in that format.

My limited experience with this process tells me that if people want to see it changed, they'll have to pay more for books and do a lot of protesting. Is it time to start boycotting books with copycat covers? Or is someone going to volunteer to create a database identifying all the art used for covers of all books published to date so that publishers can refer to this resource?

We need to find a positive way to influence change. In other words, we need more recognition of the truly excellent covers that are produced. My best guess is that most publishers treat this the way parents deal with whiny children - eventually you just tune it out. But if there's a positive to strive for, it may inspire the best publishers to improve.

August 20, 2008  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

I think Sandra makes some very good and fair points. After all, it's in the publisher's interest to present the book as effectively as possible within whatever economic and other constraints apply.

I also wonder what role retailers play in this. I can't comment on the US, but I read recently that the supermarket chain Tesco has ambitions to become the UK's largest books retailer, ahead of specialist chains such as Waterstone's, Borders and W H Smith's. Tesco is increasingly broadening its range beyond the obvious best-sellers - but is also unapologetic in actively seeking more 'generic' cover styles from publishers. Its view is that purchasers prefer some guidance in the type of book they're buying - so the chain encourages covers that imply 'if you liked Author X, you'll probably like this'. In that context, it's perhaps not surprising that publishers are increasingly using cover-art which 'echoes' (to put it generously) that of existing best-sellers. As a writer or reader, the idea doesn't particularly appeal to me, but I can't really gainsay Tesco's retailing success.

August 20, 2008  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Michael,

I do know that in the US, cover feedback is received from Barnes & Noble, and if they don't like a book cover publishers will change it, if possible. I know in one author's situation they ended up with a generic cover that they didn't really like because there wasn't enough time to rework the original art that B&N panned.

Cheers,
Sandra

August 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

CS, I, too, would want my book to stand out if I were an author. I'd pay attention to what the two commenters who followed you had to say, though, since both are authors and both are therefore aware of the realities of the publishing industry in ways that outsiders such as me may not be.

Note Sandra Ruttan's comment that book review coverage is vanishing. Since "news"papers have decided that books are not important, we bloggers may have a role to play. That may be one example of power shifting to the people, though money is slow to follow power in most cases.

August 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sandra, I may respond to your comments and Michael's over several days, since they give me lots of information to digest.

I have heard, too, from the author in question that Walmart dictated changes in the cover of Little Girl Lost because "We don't like dirty feet or butt cleavage."

August 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, I wonder if there is common ground between originality of design and ease of genre, author or brand identification. We can all recognize a Penguin Classic, which is not a bad thing.

Penguin Classics might be a good case study. They used to be boring and stodgy, back when no one paid much attention to paperback cover design. (Perhaps this is because they took their cue from hardback covers rather than from dust jackets.) Now, they are more colorful, with color-coded bands on the spine and cover illustrations, which their predecessors lacked.

My favorite example of generic cover styles is Harvard University's Loeb Classical Library. I'd been looking at the books for a while before I realized that the Roman classics had red covers and the Greek classics green.

August 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sandra, I should add that I recognize there's an element of gotcha! to this. I suspect that the Internet has made browsing easier than ever before and that this has facilitated comparisons of covers. I read a lot, and I don't think I would ever have noticed any of these cover similarities had others not pointed them out via the Internet first.

August 20, 2008  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Peter, the awareness of cover similarities has undoubtedly been aided by the internet.

That's one of the disadvantages, but you've already mentioned an advantage: power to the people. As reviews shift to online sources and blog reviewers gain credibility with publicists, they have a voice. In time, it may be an influential voice.

One can hope, anyway. And the story about Walmart is pretty telling.

August 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if the emphasis on covers begins to overwhelm what's between those covers. I have in mind those attractive old Modern Library dust jackets that were colorful, simple and, today, have become collector's items. Did Modern Library spend as much (proportionately) or, more to the point, worry as much about covers as publishers and bloggers and other critics do today?

August 20, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter- A little late in the debate, but I noticed you were wondering about copyright infringement. If you are interested, I can shed some light on the legal position in the UK. If not I won't bore you with it!

C

August 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's never too late to join debates and discussions here, and I don't think I've ever been bored by anything on this blog. I must admit, though, that British law lost something of its glamour for me when I learned that the distinction between barrister and solicitor was breaking down. Next thing you know, they'll stop wearing wigs and referring to one another as "My learned friend."

I would be happy to learn what general principles govern the use of cover images in the U.K., m'lud.

August 21, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh the barristers are still alive and kicking round these parts. It'll be a while yet before they hang up their wigs.

Re: copyright :

Artistic copyright will exist in images used on book covers, unless the artwork is very old. However, copyright isn't a monopoly right. This means two people could come up with the same, or very similar, cover designs independently and not infringe each other's artistic copyright.

The real question is whether "all or a substantial part" of an original artistic work has been copied. The test for what constitutes a "substantial part" is qualitative as opposed to quantitative. Conceivably therefore, copyright may be infringed if only a tiny but very important part of the original work is copied. You also, obviously need to prove that there has been actual copying. Incidentally, the same test also applies to literary copyright.

As you say it's likely that, in the interests of costs, most publishing house use images under licence from an image agency. This will probably be on a non-exclusive basis and the agency will ultimately retain ownership of copyright in any licensed artwork. This means the agency is free to licence the same image to any number of people for any purpose. If this is the case, there will only be copyright infringement where the image is used without the agency's consent, or outside the scope of a granted licence.

C

August 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. That seems in line with my commonsense guesses. Since the publishers are presumably using images from a stock agency and are doing so legally, the issue would be the design rather than the images themselves.

What constitues significant elements of a design? Ask Plato or Aristotle. I do notice that publishers will often reverse an image's orientation or crop or tint it differently, for instance.

In any case, amid the discussion of this issue on book blogs, I have read of no infringement suits arising from similar or copycat covers. The issue may be an aesthetic rather than a legal matter.

Your witness.

August 21, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

In my book contracts I had a cover "consultation clause" which when I published a book called The Dead Yard with a generic copycat cover meant exactly nothing.

We dont want expect every book cover to be a Chip Kidd masterpiece but a little effort would be nice.


Adrian...

August 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, "consultation clause." That sounds as if it confers upon the author the right to have his opinion ignored.

As before, I wonder if publishers and even discussions such as this one overstate the importance of book covers. A good one may catch my eye very occasionally. More rarely, a bad one will make me roll my eyes. When I do notice cover design, it's a consistent look for a series that will draw my attention, rather than whether the designs themselves are good, bad or indifferent: Hard Case Crime. The old Modern Library. Vintage Contemporaries. Penguin Classics. Various reprint lines whose names escape me at the moment.

August 21, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter,

Yeah cover consultation, at least in my case, means nothing.

The other day I came across a long blog entry devoted to the various covers of JG Ballard's crash. Its quite fascinating.

http://www.ballardian.com/collapsing-bulkheads-the-covers-of-crash

(Yes, I know you and Linkmeister patiently explained to me how to make this an active hyperlink but its pretty early in the morning here and I'm a bit thick ok?)

A...

August 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Your fellow author Sandra Ruttan seems to have a tough but practical attitude. I would sum this up as: Things suck, but stop complaining and do something.

I was interested to note that she prepared mockups and delivered them to her publisher's art department. This struck me as a constructive approach, if one is equipped to follow it.

August 21, 2008  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

I wish I had the skill and vision to conceive my own covers, but I'm happy to concede that I don't. I'm aware that my fellow Quercus author Phil Rickman works with a photographer to produce his own images as the basis for his cover art, which is an another approach to the issue.

I think there's also an element of William Goldman's 'nobody knows anything' in this - publishers and retailers make a best guess as to what's going to entice purchasers, but in practice the result often seems to be a lottery. I've no idea whether readers are more likely to be attracted by a 'looks a bit like X' cover or by something which is genuinely distinctive and striking. I've got mixed feelings (which I know my publishers share) about the UK covers of my first two books, which I think are aesthetically pleasing even though based on stock images, but which don't necessarily convey fully the feel of the books. They've gone for a slightly more generic 'thriller' feel for the third (with my full support), but I've no idea what impact that's likely to have on sales. Conversely, I love the US covers, which are based on, yes, original artwork by the splendid Richard Tuschman and which brilliantly capture the feel of the books - but I also concede that the US covers would probably look slightly out-of-place (and, oddly, given that we Brits tend to think of ourselves as more reserved than our transatlantic cousins, possibly a little underplayed) in a UK retail context. So who knows? Personally, I'm struggling to think of the last time I bought, or even picked up, a book purely on the basis of the cover design.

August 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, I had considered national tastes and preferences as a possible factor in publishers' choosing -- and changing -- titles, but not covers. As for U.K. vs U.S. tastes, I liked the Norton trade paperback covers of Bill James' Harpur & Iles novels in the U.S., with all their heavily saturated colors, but also the stark, photograph-on-white dust jackets of the U.K. hardcovers from Constable & Robinson.

This reminds me why covers play little role in my reading decisions: I buy most of my books and virtually all my crime fiction based on factors other than impulse. I'll have read the author's previous work or heard about a book via a blog, which means I am predisposed one way or the other without having seen the book's cover. So this issue is a leisurely, after-the-fact aesthetic question for me.

August 22, 2008  
Anonymous Belinda said...

Hi everyone

I work for MIRA Books and have been reading your comments on our cover design with interest.

Take a look at our blog to read my response (link embedded in my name) - hopefully this will answer some questions!

August 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks very much for joining the discussion, and thanks for taking the time to answer on your blog some of the questions that have come up.

Everyone who has followed this thread should read your comments, and I may have some further comments in this space. I have thought of at least one wrinkle to the problem that had not occurred to me when I made this post.

August 27, 2008  

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