Sunday, August 9, 2009

Judging a Book...

By Lisabet Sarai

Here at the Grip, we're all storytellers. As Ashley pointed out last week, we weave pictures with our words. We lead our readers into new worlds. We make them feel joyous or sorrowful, frightened or aroused. Using the meticulously chosen adjective, the vigorous verb, the shocking metaphor, we construct the edifice of our art. The cover that the publisher slaps on our books has nothing to do with our authorial mission.


If you don't care whether anyone buys your books, you can afford to ignore your covers. However, readers have told me again and again that the cover of a book has a huge influence on whether they'll consider reading it. This is particularly true in the ebook world where readers are faced with an impossibly large number of choices and where they can't physically pick up a book and browse through it.

Unfortunately as an author you have little control over your covers. It's a crap shoot. Some publishers give you more opportunities to make suggestions than others but ultimately you have to take what they give you. Sometimes the results are magnificent. Other times, you just want to cry.

I considered posting the few covers of mine that I really disliked, but then I realized that would be shooting myself in the foot. So I'll concentrate on my best experiences.

My two favorite covers, for the current editions of Raw Silk and Incognito, were both designed by Anne Cain. I find them extremely sensual. They exactly capture the mood of the books. In addition, the women on the covers match the descriptions of the characters. Kate in Raw Silk is a red-head. Miranda, the heroine of Incognito, has long dark hair. After seeing what Anne did with these covers, I practically begged her to take on my recent website redesign. (I was thrilled with the results!)

I do appreciate a publisher who listens to my suggestions. The original cover for Exposure, which was supposed to be published by Orion Books as part of the Neon series, featured a buxom blonde, even though Stella, the heroine, is repeatedly described as an olive-skinned Mediterranean brunette. Grr!

In contrast, the released cover for the Phaze Books edition is perfect. Not only does it capture Stella's physical attributes, it also has a gritty urban feel and projects a sense of danger and chaos. It's just what I wanted for my Pittsburgh-set erotic thriller. Stella Price is responsible for this cover. She and I spent several days sharing stock photos and discussing possibilities, even though Phaze has a policy that authors are not supposed to bother their cover artists. Hey, Stella contacted me! And I'm delighted that she did--the result of our collaboration is, in Stella's words, "awesome".

I will admit to having a pet peeve in cover art, namely headless male torsos. Especially headless hairless male torsos. (Try saying that three times fast.) I'm really not sure why this motif is so popular in romance circles. Personally, I'd much rather see a man's face than his chest. And I like a bit of body hair. If titillation is the objective, why not show me a nice rear view of the guy's butt and thighs? Much sexier, in my opinion. Nevertheless, the fashion persists. I do like the cover for Truce of Trust quite a bit, even though it features naked chests--I just focus on the woman's figure and try to ignore the men!

One of my favorite cover artists is Alessia Brio. The images that she has concocted for her Coming Together series are uniformly wonderful. I particularly like the covers of Coming Together: Al Fresco (on the theme of outdoor sex) and Coming Together: At Last (interracial erotica). I just got a glimpse of her cover for Coming Together: For Her, a single-author collection of erotica by Lawrence Doyen which I co-edited. A cover like that stands out. I'm sure that it helps sales.

So what do I look for in a cover, when I'm browsing for reading matter? Images that are different, surprising, unexpected. The cover for Cream: The Best of the Erotica Readers & Writers Association has that quality. Images that are sensual, suggestive without being crude, if the genre is erotica or erotic romance. Covers that utilize historical images tend to get my attention, like the cover of Kevin Baker's fascinating epic Dreamland which I read recently.

I think that I'm probably less influenced by a book's cover than many readers. However, I admit that a horrible cover (and there are oh, so many of those) will put me off. I won't embarrass anyone by posting examples, but you know the ones I mean: where the perspective is all wrong, the arms don't fit quite right on the body, there's some weird shadow in the corner that distracts you from the cover's main focus. Ah, the evils that have perpetrated with Photoshop! Fortunately, I haven't had many of those monstrosities attached to my books. And even if I had--well, I wouldn't want to show you, would I?


  1. Thanks for the shout! (I am, by the way, not responsible for the Al Fresco cover. The wonderful people at ARe provided the cover for that exclusive release. However, they did use our standard fonts, which is a means of branding.)

  2. Hi Lisabet!

    I didn't know Alessia did her own book covers, that's amazing. And they're really good covers too, because they're fairly specific to the material which I think is the key to a good book cover.

    I was thinking a lot about this topic when I was writing my post about Pulp Fiction because the covers of the old pulps are so lurid and in your face, especially the "spicy" pulps which had almost nude women at a time when sex was never discussed in public and people like us would have been burned at the stake. I like your book covers particularly Raw Silk (nice ass) and I notice how many of the best ones are photograph based. That's a fairly new thing I think.


  3. This is a great topic and I really enjoyed your take on it, Lisabet. I've had a couple of covers that made me cringe. I had one that actually made me cry and I begged the publisher to change it. She did, but it still wasn't what I'd hoped for. I may share them, I might wimp out. LOL

    When the author has no input for the covers, it's not surprising when the covers don't have a thing to do with the content. Sad, but it's happening all the time. Oh, and those chests, I'm with you. WTF! They seem to have no trouble showing the woman off. Sheesh!

    Great post.


  4. How do you feel about headless (or faceless) females on covers, Lisabet? I nots most of your favourites don't show the face. In my experience (mostly of children's and YA books) the books that feature characters LOOKING at the reader sell a tonne better than those that feature characters looking away... unless the character is actively involved in something. For example my 1984 picture book, Dreadful David, (which is STILL in print!) features a child who is not looking at the reader, but who is busily being bad.

  5. Thanks to you all for your comments!

    Alessia, don't be so modest!

    Jude- I second your thoughts. I've been close to tears, too. However, you've just got to grin and bear it. In fact all the three publishers I work with do ask for cover suggestions, but that doesn't always help!

    Garce - these days almost all the covers I see are photo-based. There's actually a problem here; most of the artists Photoshop their covers using stock photos from one of the big sites. You can end up seeing essentially the same images on multiple books. Not good at all!

    Sally- I'd much rather have faces on my covers, male or female. But most cover artists won't try to do this, because as I said, they tend to use stock photos and claim that it's difficult to find the right face. In fact, for Exposure I found a woman's face that I thought was perfect, but Stella said it would be too difficult to cut her out of the background.


  6. The faceless thing doesn't bother me. I think the women on Lisabet's covers are gorgeous, and I don't mind not seeing a whole face.

    I guess I'm just used to it. YA books would be a whole different matter. I could see where you'd want to view whole faces there. (I could always see Nancy Drew's face!)

    Great post and examples, Lisabet!

  7. Great post Lisabet. And some great looking covers.

    I think you summed it up when you said you look for "Images that are sensual, suggestive without being crude..."

    If only there were more of those!




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