Genre uncovered: books and their jackets

Paul Raven @ 19-01-2011

Looks like one of genre fiction’s more perennial debates is about to resurface, so why not stir the pot a little bit? Damien Walter takes the podium at The Guardian to ponder the question of  cover art:

… there is no denying that genre fiction also has its share of fashion victims. The tedious parade of tattooed, faceless young women gracing thousands of paranormal romance novels is a fashion that can only be improved by ending. And the original US cover for the 12th volume of The Wheel of Time saga actually seems to be issuing a challenge to the reader, via its stumpy-armed hero, daring us to test if the quality of the prose matches the illustration. But American independent publisher Baen Books have raised bad genre covers to an art in itself, producing covers so shamelessly packed with SF clichés and militaristic jingoism that it is hard to believe they are not some ironic spoof.

To some extent, I think there’s a subcultural effect at work here: with Baen’s covers, for instance, I expect the very cliches that ensure I avoid Baen titles as if they were megaphone-toting high-street evangelists are the visual aspects that make them appeal to their (undeniably large and consistent) audience: the packaging matches the product, in other words. But fashions and trends sweep with increasing rapidity across the covers of genre in general, and experience dictates that sometimes the best books have the worst covers of all – a feeling sometimes shared by their writers, as was the case with Peter Watts’ Blindsight. (Watts actually went so far as to make an alternative jacket available.)

My suspicion, based on personal experience, is that cover art is there to hook neophyte genre readers rather than us old veterans. I ate my way through countless Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms RPG tie-ins in my early teens, and the covers spoke bluntly and efficiently of what I’d find withing their pages. By the time I was old enough to be slightly embarrassed by the cheese factor of the covers, I was already an addict… and already valued the product far more than the packaging.

So as to avoid tarring everything with the same brush, there are some genuinely wonderful and seductive examples of cover art out there, though they seem to come predominantly from the better small presses (ChiZine Publications’ covers totally blew me away at a room party at last year’s EasterCon, for instance) and the titles that are deliberately being aimed further afield (China Mieville’s literary urban fantasy romp Kraken, for example, or Charlie Stross’ the-future-is-now nerd-lit novel Halting State). But I find that personal recommendations and author/publisher reputation is far more likely to sell me a book than its cover… indeed, sometimes they manage it in spite of the cover!

Perhaps the rise of ebooks (and the associated need to have a cover that looks good as a thumbnail on a virtual shelf) will change the landscape; indeed, as book-buying becomes more “social” (in the web2.0 sense of the term), perhaps the book cover’s role in enticing purchasers will fade. In the meantime, there’s plenty of yucks to be had at Good Show Sir!, a blog that unearths and photographs some of the more egregious examples of genre cover-art cliche for the amusement (or bemusement) of all. (At the risk of seeming to pick on an easy target, the posts tagged “Baen Books” are a great place to start…)

Got a favourite book jacket that sold the book to you fair and square? Got a shining example of cheddary cliche that sums up every stereotype of genre fiction held by non-readers, or of a brilliant book in a dreadful disguise? Link ’em up in the comments!

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7 Responses to “Genre uncovered: books and their jackets”

  1. Dave says:

    I just really love those impressionistic spaceships that never have anything to do with the contents of the book. Seriously.

  2. Hakan says:

    I’m with Dave, I love the old-style spaceship and a planet scenes on the cover. Btw, the cover of Halting State makes me grin like a kid, every single time.

  3. Butcher says:

    I am in complete agreement with you about the Baen book covers. I take the bus into work, and spend that time reading. Baen books are the ones that I would cast my eyes about to make sure that nobody was looking when I pulled the book out of my bag. (And as much as I love Charles Stross, the same goes for the American cover of “Saturn’s Children”). Thankfully my wife got me an ebook reader for XMas.

    But, if you want to see absolutely beautiful, and tasteful book covers, look no further than Stephan Martiniere. He has done all of the covers for the US editions of Ian McDonald’s books. “River of Gods” is one my favorites(I just looked at the UK edition, and it is horrid). He also did the covers for the US editions of David Louis Edelman’s “Jump 225” series.

    Also check out Kekai Kotaki’s work. He did the ebook cover for Robert Jordan’s “The Great Hunt”. He is also the lead concept artist for Guild Wars 2. His work is gorgeous as well.

  4. AnthonyA says:

    This is a topic of recent interest to me, when I was drawn into a series of debates about the appearance of the cover of the light novels “Spice and Wolf”, by Isuna Hasekura, a series of novels from Japan, being translated and published in the USA by Yen Press.

    http://www.yenpress.com/spice-and-wolf-novel/

    The novels are currently being sold in US bookstores with a jacket that covers the original Japanese cover art. There was some dispute, and a good deal of discussion in the publisher’s forums, as to whether the book should retail the original art, or have the jacketed US art.

    Adding even more fuel to the fire is that the original Japanese cover art is pretty standard anime fare – the main character in a series of cell-like drawings, and the US art is photo-real, pictures of a model which are then manipulated to look a bit ‘dreamy’ and out-of-focus, as well as to include the features of the heroine.

    Unfortunately, the site is no longer showing all three US dust jacket artwork, but the first is still visible via the above link.

    Yen Press decided, apparently after considerable debate, to supply the books with the US art on the jacket, but the Japanese art on the cover, thus satisfying both groups of fans that sprung up, and also hopefully making their novels friendlier to the bookstore, when the novel is shelved with a (hopefully) eye-catching cover.

  5. Athena Andreadis says:

    Have you seen the Baen covers for the Poul Anderson reissues? They’re ugly, pedestrian, insulting and have nothing to do with the contents.

  6. manglar says:

    I’ve always liked Richard M. Powers surreal covers. There’s also an Argentine artist, Luis Chichoni, who’s created great art for the sf works published by Editorial Minotauro in Latin America and Spain.

  7. Sandra Kasturi says:

    Hi, I’m co-owner of ChiZine Publications, so thanks very much for the shout-out! And the reason our books look so nice is that we have the awesome Erik Mohr (http://www.erikmohr.com/) to thank. And Corey Lewis (ttp://corey-beep.grandportfolio.com/) who does the wrap-arounds and the interiors. Seriously, we have no artistic talent whatsoever, so we bow down in gratitude to the two of them!