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The curious truth about book covers

So here’s a curious thing I’ve learnt about the covers of novels since becoming a published author: They don’t have to (and often don’t) have anything to do with the book’s contents.

Seems peculiar, doesn’t it? Counter-intuitive? Downright odd, because surely the cover of a book needs to give a potential reader a decent idea about what they are about to read, right?

Well, wrong actually.

The cover of a book lures in a reader, modelling itself on other successful cover designs of novels of its genre. This has caused a fair degree of controversy over the years and in 2014 Buzzfeed‘s Luke Lewis ran a feature referred to as ‘cover cliche’s’, in other words concept images that appear again and again. So what exactly are these cover cliche’s?

Here are a few examples:

  • Faceless woman (literary, for female readership)
  • Small figure of either gender dwarfed by blurred background (mystery)
  • Urban fog (historical)
  • Acacia tree at sunset (Africa)
  • Female legs, bright pastels (contemporary romance)

And whilst publishers and designers have been criticised for their lack of creativity, according to Debbie Taylor, novelist and creator of the fantastic Mslexia Magazine, “…such criticisms miss the point entirely. Because cover cliche’s sell books. We might not like them; we might think we are too literature and discerning to be influenced by a foggy background, say, or an edgy font – but cover cliche’s work.’

So does this say less, perhaps about the publishers and designers and more about us, the readers? Either way, it’s food for thought.

I’ll let you into a little secret. When I was shown the cover for my first novel, The Poet’s Wife, I was devastated. Who was this glamorous, lipsticked woman they had conjured up and why was her dress falling off her shoulder? I was concerned it would look like a erotic, historical romp and begged for her to look a little less alluring and wealthy and for her dress to be v-necked at the back instead. I was humoured for a while as different images were played with but the truth was, the cover was far less appealing once the changes were made. I just couldn’t deny it.

Then with my second novel, The Girl and the Sunbird (coming out June 2016) I was extremely anxious as I waited for my cover image. I think I had good reason to feel nervous about it. Just take a look at these book covers below:

        

For this blog, I chose four images out of hundreds with the ubiquitous acacia tree and sinking sun. Whether it’s South Africa or Malawi, Kenya or Nigeria (where you don’t even get acacia trees), this crude image appears time and again. No doubt this is for the same aforementioned reason: that this image sells. Yet does falling back on this tried and tested visual only serve to reinforce stereotypes about the vast and varied continent of Africa? Surely it is time to rise beyond cliche and be brave enough to stop following this well-trodden path? (To read more about this from the fantastic website Africa is a Country, click here.)

Imagine my surprise, then, and my utter delight when I was given this cover:

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Alright, there may be a few acacia trees blended into the background and alright, it looks like it could be at sunset. Yet the focus of the image is clearly the girl…and the sunbird. I was over the moon; still am. The only thing I requested to change this time around was the colour of the girl’s hair to reflect that of my protagonist, and my publisher willingly acquiesced.

Cliche’s can be cliche’s for good reason, but just because something works and sells, it doesn’t mean that something else doesn’t. Come on, we’re an imaginative race – let’s stop recycling these crude visual stereotypes and try something new. Who knows, this originality might even pay off and set a new trend.

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