August 3rd, 2009 by Carrie Vaughn
Covers and Nuance

Novel covers have been a hot topic in the blogosphere for the last couple of weeks.  Most visibly, young adult author Justine Larbalestier talks about race, and how frustrating it is to have a white girl pictured on the cover of your novel that features a black protagonist.  This is a huge deal that authors grapple with all the time:  the cover has nothing to do with the book.  In the case of Larbalestier’s novel Liar, the cover exposes some even deeper issues about race, marketing departments and the assumptions they make.

On my own blog last week, I asked my readers to tell me how they feel about urban fantasy covers.  You know, those now-ubiquitous covers of sexy women in sexy clothing, usually with a big ol’ tattoo and a big weapon of some kind?  The proliferation of these covers is also discussed here, and in a nifty video primer by SciFiGuy.  My conclusion?  Love ’em or hate ’em, these covers definitely identify a certain kind of book, and readers ping to that.

I have first-hand experience with how these covers turn out the way they do.  My publisher made up advanced reader copies of my first book.  It had a slightly different cover than the final version.  The artist and art department made some changes based on feedback from booksellers and the sales department.  I now give you the before and after versions of the cover to Kitty and The Midnight Hour.

This was the cover on the ARC:


And this is the final cover, as it now appears on the novel:


You’re probably asking yourself, what’s the difference?  (Besides the colors on the final one being better, which has more to do with the quality of the jpg files I used.)  I call the second version the “20% more skank” version.  The changes?  They dropped the character’s waistband so that the tramp stamp tattoo shows and added laces up the back of her shirt to give it a corsety feel, instead of having it just be a tank top.

Sex sells.  I’ve run an experiment where I hold both covers up, and people always tell me they like the second one better.

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12 comments to “Covers and Nuance”

  1. B.E. Sanderson
     · August 3rd, 2009 at 8:12 am · Link

    Looking at both side by side, I actually like the first cover better, but I’m not a huge fan of tattoos. Either way, I’d probably buy it without looking too closely at the cover anyway. Covers aren’t a big thing for me. I’m more interested about what’s inside.

  2. Jess
     · August 3rd, 2009 at 10:07 am · Link

    Completely random, but can I just say that I love the fact that your books are about a werewolf named Kitty? I find that brilliant. :mrgreen:

  3. Charlene Teglia
     · August 3rd, 2009 at 2:16 pm · Link

    I like the 2nd better, too, but it’s kind of an unfair comparison because #2 is higher contrast, which is more visually striking. The red instead of pink lettering, the sharper focus, things like that.

  4. megspencer
     · August 3rd, 2009 at 3:38 pm · Link

    I can see why the second one is more popular. Not at ALL a ding on your books, but neither version really rings my bell – the first might be slightly less sexy but they’re essentially the same generic urban fantasy cover. Like “the clinch”, I suppose it does have value in alerting readers who might not otherwise pick it up, but it feels like it also runs the risk of scaring readers away.

    Personally I find the whole thing to be a good argument in favor of e-books!

  5. Jakk
     · August 3rd, 2009 at 5:01 pm · Link

    I like the second cover too, but NOT for the corset or the tats or the lower waistband. I like it for the subtle change of lighting and colorations, and the Red lettering of the title is so much better than the Pink. If the character was the same from the top with the other changes on the bottom, i would like it just as much if not more.

    And it is the words inside that matter. Covers attract, Back covers give you the premise, but the words inside are what you fall in love with and leave you wanting more.

  6. Bonnie
     · August 4th, 2009 at 12:17 am · Link

    Actually it’s not sex (seeing as that’s not a half-naked caught-’em-in-the-act pornified cover), it’s women’s bodies. And it should not be that way. (Neither should men’s headless six-packs be used to sell romances, for that matter.)

    Flesh sells. This is not an original thought with me, but I’ll be hanged if I can remember where I saw it.

  7. Nik
     · August 4th, 2009 at 6:23 am · Link

    It kinda looks like she’s pooping out your name in the first one.

    I’m glad they went with the second.

  8. Mardel S
     · August 4th, 2009 at 5:13 pm · Link

    This is weird, but I really didn’t remember the tat on the first cover. I have the book. When I looked at both pictures, the first one is the one that seemed familiar to me. I remember looking at this book on four different trips to the bookstore before I finally bought it. (ha! now you’re on my Auto-buy list). So I went to my bookshelf and checked it out. Sure enough, tramp stamp! never noticed it, before.

  9. Lynn
     · August 4th, 2009 at 10:55 pm · Link

    Pink not being (cough) my favorite color, I like the second version better. I think the detailing and by line placement makes it look more finished and attractive. Love the wolf. :)

  10. tanya
     · August 10th, 2009 at 8:09 pm · Link

    I don’t mind stamps and back views – but hate books that show the model’s face.

    Another dif on these pics is that the model is pushed further away – making her look smaller – than the top picture.

  11. Were on earth??
     · August 11th, 2009 at 10:44 pm · Link

    Cover #2 may sell, but did the artist read the book? Skank-sex aside, if your main character is going to change into a wolf, and may have to do so quickly, why would she wear something that laces up the back? A stretchy tank top, on the other, is easily removed…

    Plus, this is a woman who works radio, and who works radio in the midle of the night, when there’s no one to see her but her engineer (with whom she is not having, as my generation called it, ‘a relationship’). So to do a radio show where no one sees her she’s going to lace on her (20% more-) skank top?

    Find an artist who has actually read the books, for pity’s sake.

    PS: What would be the effect of shape-changing on tattoos, anyway? Would they be marred by ‘stretch marks’? Sounds like a topic for a show…

  12. Carrie Vaughn
     · August 12th, 2009 at 10:43 am · Link

    Here’s the thing: artists often don’t have a lot of leeway when doing the covers. I’ve been having a conversation with the artist who does the Kitty covers, and often he says that not only is he often not given the book to read, he’s given specific instructions from the publisher’s art department (i.e. we want a redhead on a motorcycle carrying a sword…) His job is to make that image as artistically pleasing and eye catching as possible.

    As far as the publisher’s art department is concerned, the job of the cover isn’t to represent what’s in the book, it’s to sell the book, and that’s it.


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