Sunday, June 20, 2010

ramble: the art of a good book cover

I'm a visual person. My initial attraction to something (or, romantically speaking, someone*) is based on its exterior. I love beautiful things (and I don't mean beautiful by objective or traditional standards, but personal ones). Beautiful music turns into visuals in my head. So do beautiful words--they run past me like a film. This visuality does not make me shallow** or biologically male***--it's just part of who I am as an artist and a writer, someone heavily reliant on sight not just for daily functioning, but for inspiration, for emotion, for connection.

This applies to my book purchasing, of course. I like to browse in bookstores, and what makes me pick something up? A pretty cover combined with specific keywords (demon! vampire! queen! masquerade! dandy! magic! courtesan! poison! any overly wordy phrase! etc). I want a book that appeals to me visually, and then delivers on that visual promise when read. I often buy knowing nothing of the book beyond its cover, its title, and its back cover copy. Most of the time, I don't even read the first page.

Here are four books I bought without any knowledge of the author, purely because their covers seduced me into the reading the back. Those blurbs lived up to the covers' promise, so now the books are sitting on my shelves.+ I haven't read any of them yet, but based on what I've seen so far, I have high hopes.

by Wesley Stace
cover design by Susan Koski Zucker & illustration by Kathleen Bartoletti

I love this juxtaposition of romantic painting with stark, graphic layout. I love the painting itself: according to the cover flap, it's Lady Caroline Ponsonby Lamb--one of Lord Byron's lovers--by Thomas Phillips (1770-1845). I adore the delicate little drawn-on mustache. It's so graceful and almost textual, like the little flourish you might see in ink below someone's signature. I don't even like yellow, but this deep mustard colour suits the title perfectly--ironically happy? Or jaundiced?

by Lane Robins
cover design by David Stevenson, based on photographs by Nigel Silcock & Peter Mason

I love masks. This is a photograph that looks like a painting. The white skin and red lips are an aesthetic I adore. The mass of feathers makes me think of fairy-creatures or plumage to go with some fantastical costume just out of sight. The blank, empty eyes are both frightening and serene. Is this a person or just a mannequin?

Whitechapel Gods
by S. M. Peters
no cover artist credited++

Jack the Ripper back from Hell, I presume? Love the evil steampunk vibe, the blazing fires behind his stark ribs, the gears crawling up over them. Is he being consumed or just running on his usual fuel? The tip of his hat is probably not a good sign. And the spider is just nasty. Awesome.

Gossamer Axe
by Gael Baudino
no cover artist credited+++

I like this kind of clearly-defined semi-stylized semi-realistic business. And, um, rockstar sidhe. I could stop right there. Her robes are gorgeous--her cloak even has a Celtic pin. Her long, red hair is glorious. And her electric guitar is incredible. The warped wood looks almost alive. Look at her raised brow, her milky eyes, her little smirk! I want to be her.

* This has been and continues to be problematic.
** I require substance to follow, or I will be off fawning over the next pretty thing.
*** As numerous bullshit studies would have us believe.
+ Interestingly, these titles don't contain any of my pickituprightnow keywords. But I also like non sequiturs and words that start with M.
++ This is maddening. Credit your artists!
+++ Likewise.


  1. For as much as I do believe in that old adage about not judging a book by it's cover, I also pick up books based on the cover and a quick peek on the back. It's just in my nature to respond to the visually appealing, though it makes me sad that some very excellent books (Transformation by Carol Berg) probably got passed over because the covers weren't up to par.

    Gorgeous books here though! I really like that one with the mask as well. Not a fan of the photomanip fad in cover design these days, but photos that look like paintings are so delicious!

  2. I definitely have some guilt over all the wonderful books I miss out on due to unattractive covers. Carol Berg's series is a great example--the covers are bloody hideous! I read about the series online and went out and bought it, wincing at the ugly (haven't read it yet, though).

    I also get really picky over editions, reprints, etc--I don't mind what condition the book is in as long as it has the cover art I want!

    And SPINES! I should have written about spine design. Very important. Another post!

    I agree about the weird photo mashups! They seem to be everywhere and some are so awkward, as though the designers can't decide whether they want it to seem photographic or painted (or are just half-assing it). Gah.