Thursday 14 May 2009

One Good Cover, Many Bad Covers

When I was a cash-strapped uni newspaper editor, I got a lot of free books and CDs and movie tickets (ah, those happy days). At one stage I went to a promo event run by one of the cinema distributors. Before whatever film it was that we were reviewing began, one of the publicists stood up and gave a long slideshow and spiel about their other upcoming movies, and why all the boys and girls in head office were excited about them.

One of the movies they talked about was Jerry Maguire, a film I'm happy to say I've never watched. The promo poster for this was just a big picture of Tom Cruise's head, with his name and the film title in big red letters. The publicist said that, frankly, all they needed to promote the picture was that face and name--they didn't even need the film title, and nothing on the poster to indicate what the film was about. The very idea of a film with Tom Cruise in it was enough to excite her, and to get the masses buying tickets.

I found this both amusing and depressing, and not just because I regard Tom Cruise as a creepy undersized cultist with a punchable face and limited talents. It was more the shameless acknowledgement of how little thought often goes into promoting "big" products of an allegedly cultural nature (yes, I know, it was Jerry bloody Maguire, but bear with me here), and the (no doubt true) expectation of brainless reflexive consumption from the audience.

This came back to me when I was attempting to put together another of those bilious, scathing posts where I go through some country's top-10 bestselling books and sneer at their cover designs (see here and here). But Australia and the UK were no good for this, since their top-10s are still basically the Stephanie Meyer back-catalogue. So I turned to the US.

The problem with this is that there's not really much you can actually say. Here's a representative sample of current US bestseller covers.

These books haven't really been designed, in any meaningful sense. They've just been crapped out. They're the book equivalent of a poster of Tom Cruise's big head. "You know that book you read that was like all the other ones? Well, here's another one just like that." The publishers must wish, though, that these writers had one- and not three-syllable surnames, so that they could bump up the font size even more. (Conversely, could the name of the hack who actually wrote the two Patterson books be any smaller?)

The look of these books is boring and ugly, but in a sense they're criticism-proof. They're not meant to be objects to look at or like, or even think about consciously. They're just a minimal assemblage of triggers to get that mindless purchasing reflex kicking.

There was one bright spot on the US bestseller list, though: this wonderfully spare cover by Henry Sene Yee for Dave Cullen's Columbine.

See Yee's blog post, linked to above, for the background and other covers he mocked up along the way. It's a cover that requires the viewer's brain to be on and making connections, and which gains its chilly atmosphere because of what the viewer knows, and what the designer knows you know. It's an intelligent cover, and a bright spark in a night of bargain-basement crap.


Derek said...

You have some accurate points here. But I think you have to recognize that what works (commercially) is not necessarily the same as what's good (artistically).

JRSM said...

You're completely right, of course: it's just that when there's such a divide between the two it's pretty sad. I'd like to believe any of those books could be given a good cover without sales actually decreasing.

John Self said...

The Lisa Scottoline cover, while terrible, is not actually terrible. The blurring effect is nicely done and one can imagine it being used to greater effect on a more original design. Plus it does, frankly, make you Look Again.

The UK Columbine cover is different in that the title is red rather than white. Less subtle, but what I did like is the fact that the spine has no indicator of the publisher on it. (It's Old Street Publishing, a small press for such a probably wide-appeal book.)

I like some of his draft designs. The yellow corridor is good, though subconsciously links it too much to Gus Van Sant's Elephant. And I like the CCTV covers.

Oh and: Tom Cruise is a good actor. Or should I say: Tom Cruise is capable of being a good actor. See Magnolia. But I always thought the fact that all his films are just his big head was because of some watertight clause his agent had worked into his contracts. Interesting to see it could be a voluntary choice by the studios.

Nicola said...

Those covers remind me of those big blockbuster novels which were so popular in the 80's. I wonder if the writer has any say in the cover design?

JRSM said...

John: I see your point on the Scottoline cover. Some thought HAS gone into it, and I was probably too cruel. It's just that it's still so ugly. The 'Columbine' CCTV covers would have been chilling, but probably too sensational. I haven't seen 'Magnolia', so I can't comment on that. You mean I might have to reconsider my loathing for the man?

Nicola: Very few covers get approval from the author, and in my days of interviewing writers I found that almost every author seems to loathe at least some of their covers.

Ricky Lee Grove said...

Those Patterson covers are awful. Even by commercial standards they show near zero imagination. Look at what Chip Kidd does for Random House. He manages to combine commercial appeal with imagination and style, so it can be done. It's just that most big time publishers want it cheap and fast for their bestseller pap. It's the exception if the designer even actually reads the novel.

The Columbine cover is wonderful (as is the book). Thanks for the link to the designers site. I really enjoyed reading about his process of design.

JRSM said...

My pleasure, Richard. I haven't read 'Columbine' yet, but I very much want to, so it's good to know it's worthwhile. You're exactly right about Chip Kidd's covers, too. Some of the books he does are straightforward bestsellers, but they're designed with wit and imagination.

John Self said...

Oh well you must see Magnolia. It's a gloriously operatic (ie overblown) epic of full-on emoting and the most bizarre last act you ever did see. Great cast inc Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall, William H Macy, Julianne Moore, Jason Robards, John C Reilly etc etc. Wow, just thinking about it makes me want to see it again.

Anyway, here is Cruise's first scene in the film. He plays seminar guru Frank TJ Mackey.

JRSM said...

OK, I'm convinced! That cast list alone is irresistible.

Steerforth said...

I notice that the real author's name on the Patterson covers is smaller than ever.

I heard a really radio interesting programme a few years ago about the James Patterson issue and his publisher argued that it was quite acceptable to publish books by writers under the Patterson 'brand'. It was claimed that Patterson was altruistically giving unknown authors a leg-up.

I don't know why someone who has already made their fortune needs to publish additional titles that are effectively ghost-written.

I've never been able to bring myself to watch Jerry Maguire either, but unlike you, I'm not sure why.

JRSM said...

Weird--those unknown authors are not exactly getting much promotion with their names in 6-point type.

'Jerry Maguire' looked to me like a my platonic ideal of cinematic awfulness: Tom Cruise, Cuba Gooding Jr, sports promotion, greed is good, allegedly heart-warming learning of lessons, plus a Hollywood "cute" kid.

John Shelley said...

Just stumbled across this excellent blog.
In full agreement over the deterioration of cover design. It really annoys me when publishers temper the declining use of interior illustration in publishing by saying "oh, well there are still book covers...". Really? It's not often you see well illustrated covers.

JRSM said...

Thanks, John: just had a beginner's look at your lovely work over on your blog. Great stuff!