Thursday, November 18, 2010

Covers (probably part I)

image Covers have an uneasy relationship with social media, or so it is beginning to seem to me. So much about the book making and marketing processes have updated themselves for a socially networked world. In this world covers are, in best cases, avatars for books and their authors and lightning rods for their publishers in the worst (think Liar and Magic Under Glass).

I can’t quite articulate what bugs me about the state of covers and the web, but I think it boils down to a suspicion that we as publishers and passionate readers aren’t thinking about them correctly—or at least we’re failing to understand their role in the new marketplace fully.

For example, the indispensible Bookshelves of Doom blog is holding a rather intriguing contest. Leila describes it thusly:

Create a book cover -- something that would attract you (or an audience that you think is missing out on the series) WHILE ALSO reflecting the contents and tone of the story -- for one of D.M. Cornish's books2, for either Jenny Davidson's ThMy Photoe Explosionist or Invisible Things, or for one of Ysabeau Wilce's Flora Segunda books. (Just one! You don't have to do one of each! I mean, unless you want to, obvs.)

All right, this seems like a great use of the web and social media in the cover process, right? Well, I’m not so sure. I think Leila’s brief on the cover design encapsulates the problem I’m sensing: the tension between “you” (her audience of people who know these books) and “an audience that you think is missing out on the series.” Satisfying these two constituencies is not an easy thing to do, and I think the web has made it even harder.

Communities of fans can easily gather around a book or series on the web, and when they do, conversation naturally turns to covers. And unlike in days of yore (when such conversations took place in private smoke filled rooms), these conversation get amplified and move beyond the fan community very, very easily. Really, it is unspeakably easy to tear apart a cover on the web. As a publisher, it’s really tempting to listen to the true fans insights on jacket design. I mean, why wouldn’t you listen to the readers who’ve already committed to the series or the author or even the genre?

Actually, I can think of several reasons. In some cases, I think it’s unwise to listen to them too carefully precisely because they’ve committed to the series (especially if they’re asking for big changes). In my experience, fans care a great deal about covers but I’ve never heard of a fan abandoning a series because she didn’t like the cover. So, however much feedback a community might give on the look of a book, a series, or a genre, there’s very little ultimately at stake for the book or its publisher with that community. Covers don’t exist to retain readership (that’s the text’s job); covers exist to increase readership.

Make no mistake, Bookshelves of Doom understands this; read the whole post to see. But the description of the contest is such a deceptively difficult task, that I remain troubled.

Maybe I’m wrong (I kinda hope I’m wrong), and this contest will lead to designs from within the fan community that appeal strongly to those outside the fan community (while at the same time satisfying the fan community). In any case, I’m glad to see the conversation.