FIND in
<--prev V12 next-->

From: "Dan'l Danehy-Oakes" <ddanehy@siebel.com>
Subject: (whorl) Generic Thoughts on book covers
Date: Fri, 8 Dec 2000 10:24:05 

Thank you Rev Corbin.

> I thought the covers for LAKE OF THE LONG SUN and EXODUS FROM THE LONG SUN
> were both attractive and skillfully executed -- they had an air of old-
> fashioned futurity, like the kind of paintings people living in the Whorl
> might have actually made, as opposed to the stiffly-posed, airbrushed
> fetishism of, say, a David Weber cover.

Mind you, I actually _like_ Weber (though not the covers), at least the 
HH books. (True confessions, anyone?) That being the case, I agree;
these are excellent. 

> NIGHTSIDE and CALDE were ehhhh, but not embarrassing.  

I thought NIGHTSIDE was one of the best portrayals of the inside of a
big spinning cylinder world-ship I've ever seen. (They actually did it
very well on BABYLON-5, also, but only used it a couple of times.)

> The new TPBs of FREE LIVE FREE and DOCTOR DEATH are both attractive
> and classily understated.

Bought the ISLAND... edition, because my nasty little dayglo orange pb
had vanished somewhere along the line; I agree, it's nice, but if I 
were going to buy a book and didn't know about Gene Wolfe I think I 
would guess, looking at it, that it was a popular science book on 
sociobiology or maybe AI. Haven't seen the FLF, I still have my ugly
silver pb. (That's another one I don't much like, cometathinkabouddit,
mostly because of the garish silver.)

> The Short Sun jackets have good layouts and nice printing quality --
> it's the pictures themselves, or more accurately what they depict,
> that bug me.  Call me crazy, but I don't like walking around with
> naked women or badly-rendered aliens on my book covers...they drag
> the books back into the mire of generic adolescent sf/fantasy.
> Literal representation is the telltale mark of genre muck -- how
> many abstract fantasy novel covers have you seen lately, for instance?
> (The only ones I can think of belong to Terry Pratchett books.)  

... which certainly aren't genre _muck_. 

Observation: I don't think they're the telltale mark of "genre 
muck"; I think they're the telltale mark of genre, period. 

The following is partially-informed speculation, but I think it
has validity. To the extent I am wrong about what goes on in
publishers' heads, it at least represents what someone with a
bit of knowledge about marketing in general "gets" from perusing
the covers of many books over many years.

Publishers, contrary to popular belief, actually do hope to make 
money by publishing and selling books, and they seem to have 
worked out a rather elaborate collection, not of appeals in the 
traditional sales sense, but of marketing codes that tell customers 
what _kind_ of book this is. Not just "this is an SF novel," but -- 
taking Weber as an example -- "this is a military adventure SF novel 
with a great deal of attention paid to hardware and a tough female 
protagonist:" you can look at _any_ Honor Harrington novel and know 
that without reading the blurb. (Someday I shall figure out how 
publishers' marketing departments design blurbs; I imagine they have 
some kind of technique, but I can't make heads nor tails of it.)

There are basically three kinds of fiction books, from a marketing
point of view: the stand-alone blockbuster, the genre book, and the 
book whose author is the primary selling point (the Brand Name 

Now, the Brand Name Writer gets his or her name in great big letters; 
furthermore, if the author has a long-standing relationship with a 
single publisher, his or her books tend to have a unified "look." The 
Terry Pratchett paperbacks you mentioned are a beautiful example of 
this, and I'm rather sorry they seem to have broken the design rules 
with the pb cover for CARPE JUGULUM. When I first saw it, in a drug
store, I didn't realize at first that it _was_ a Discworld book -- I
don't buy them in h/c. 

Unfortunately, Gene Wolfe is not _quite_ enough of a Brand Name to 
qualify for this -- though his individual series, at least, seem to 
qualify for unified look-and-feel treatment (not all series do).

For the stand-alone blockbuster (which includes books that the
publisher thinks/hopes may be a breakthrough for an existing writer; 
first novels by a writer the publisher thinks/hopes is at the 
beginning of a groovy faboo career as the next Brand Name; books that 
Hollywood has evinced big-money interest in; and books that just seem 
likely to capture the attention of the public this month), there are 
a fairly limited variety of layouts. They generally involve great big 
letters for the title, smaller letters for the author's name, and 
limited or no illustration, but there are a couple that don't; the 
main thing is they're incredibly eyegrabbing and intended to sit in
very public spaces like B.Waldencrown windows or dumps by the front
counter of Bornes&Nodlers.

That leaves the genre book. Genre as a marketplace phenomenon exists 
for the mutual convenience of publishers (who want to sell books), 
booksellers (who want not only to sell them but to shelve them in a 
coherent manner), and readers/bookbuyers, in precisely that order: 
because publishers, by their position  in the supply chain, _define_ 
genre (as a marketplace phenomenon). 

From the publisher's point of view, the genre book must appeal to the 
genre buyer -- in fact, to the sub-genre buyer; a book may have "SF" 
on the cover, but the actual marketing approach is, as suggested in my 
comment on David Weber covers above, much more focused than that. 

From the bookseller's point of view, the same is true, and furthermore 
the genre book must be clearly labelled as such so the bookseller knows 
where to put it. Books like "J.D. Robb" (Nora Roberts)'s Eve Dallas 
series can be a nightmare for booksellers. Since most of you probably 
wouldn't touch them with a ten-foot pole, a bit of description: they're
police-procedural murder mysteries, set in a near-to-middle future 
(actually the dates given, about the middle of the 21st century, don't
seem very plausible given the level of space mobility involved), whose
heroine is involved in an ongoing, hot, romance with a mysterious
billionaire known only as "Roarke." Shelve as mystery? SF? Romance,
with Roberts's other books? The publisher is semi-helpful: the spines
label the books as "Romantic Suspense." I've seen them shelved in the
romance section and the mystery section -- often in the same store --
but never in the SF section. (That I first encountered them in an SF
bookshop is particularly indicative; they were off the main shelves,
in the shop's smallish mystery section.)

For the book buyer or reader... Well, that's another question. There
are a _lot_ of readers who buy books based on their covers. Put 
guns, machines, and a big-breasted woman in uniform (preferably
leather or at least black) on the cover and you have a target audience
who will probably buy at least one book by the author. Put dragons
on the cover -- wait a minute, there's (at least) two conventions
with dragons: the one where somebody's fighting them (or, in close
up, the dragon is breathing fire), and the convention where the dragon
is someone's friend, often with the friend on the dragon's back,
flying - the McCaffrey-and-her-imitators (including, these days,
McCaffrey) convention. Plus the cute/semi-abstract dragon convention, 
as on the (original, at least) covers of TEA WITH THE BLACK DRAGON 

Those of us who buy all sorts of books are actually a very small part
of the bookbuying audience. I like to shop at local stores, but I'm
inclined to spend time in the larger Barnes/Borders-type stores, 
because there I can wander around, picking up things from all sorts 
of different shelves and utterly confusing the occasional semi-helpful
employee who wants to help me find something else I'd enjoy.  

(This is especially fun in the CD section, where they're not quite sure 
_what_ to make of someone who comes up to the counter with the new King 
Crimson and a Copland collection, and asks for advice on pre-Castro Cuban 
big band/flute jazz. "Buying presents?" "No, it's all for me...")

Getting back to my point (All together now: "and I *do* have one"), 
given that Wolfe isn't a blockbuster or a Big enough Name to warrant a 
Look And Feel, he's going to get genre covers. Or, in fact, sub-genre
covers. The Short Sun books are apparently being treated as planetary 
adventure; which is about the right subgenre, when you come right down 
to it. We can just bloody well like it or lump it. 

I like it; I think it does maximize his sales -- youall and I are going
to buy them anyway, and maybe J. Random Subgenre Buyer will too. But I
also like genre covers; I grew up with them, I consider them a legitimate
style of commercial-art-with-occasional-fine-art-tendencies. And if you 
hate the cover, buy the hardcover (you would anyway, wouldn't you?) and 
leave the dj at home -- which I do also, but to protect the dj.

> There are plenty of approaches that would have worked equally well or
> better.  

Not, I think, for marketing-and-sales purposes.

> For instance, since both OBW and IGJ could be considered planetary
> romances, a well-done landscape painting or a Photoshopped photograph
> would have been classy while still communicating some of the exotic appeal
> of the novels.

Well, okay. Maybe. But I think the planetary adventure novel codes require
one (1) Alien Creature on the cover...even if there's none in the book.

> Another alternative would have been to depict the events of the books in
> metaphorical fashion, like on the British paperbacks of Iain M. Banks (USE
> OF WEAPONS, for instance, has a great cover illo of an empty chair lit by
> a solitary floodlight with a gun sitting on the floor and a battleship
> silhouette in the background...you'll not find those props in the novel,
> but they perfectly convey the tone of the book).  

I'm not sure *how* they market Banks. I went and looked at that cover
-- it could have come from a '60s Bantam murder mystery. But I think 
British publishers' marketing departments work differently anyway.

> Or the publishers could have forgone an illustration entirely and
> grabbed the reader's attention by sheer dint of design work, like on
> William Gibson and Neal Stephenson's recent novels, or the gorgeous
> Alfred Bester and PK Dick paperbacks they've been rereleasing.

The first two are Brand Name writers; the latter two have moved into 
the space of "dead prestige writers," which have another whole set of

> Forgive the rant, but I remain convinced that half of sf's problem
> in connecting with the public at large can be laid at the feet of just
> plain bad book design -- printing processes and paper stock may have
> improved since the pulp era, but the underlying aesthetic is the same:
> "naked women and/or monsters sell books", and incidentally keep away
> people who might otherwise be tempted to try them.

Can you provide anecdotal evidence of anyone who might have tried GW
but hasn't because of his covers?


*This is WHORL, for discussion of Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun.
*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.moonmilk.com/whorl/
*To leave the list, send "unsubscribe" to whorl-request@lists.best.com
*If it's Wolfe but not Long Sun, please use the URTH list: urth@lists.best.com

<--prev V12 next-->