Cover Musings

On April 14, 2010, April wrote, On another topic, your aside about how a book cover can make or break a book really intrigues me. Do you have more to say on that topic that could be made into a post? I’d love to hear your opinions about it.

Warning:  This post is a departure, not about writing at all, just covers.

Many of my book covers – Ella Enchanted, The Wish, the latest Dave at Night, Two Princesses of Bamarre, Fairest, Ever – were created through photographs.  There was a photo shoot of the girl or, in the case of Two Princesses, girls.  The artist works from the photograph and paints in the background, possibly also from photographs – I don’t know.  In the last few years, my editor at HarperCollins has been emailing me photos of models, and I’ve had a say about which of a small selection of pretty girls will represent my book.  Back to Two Princesses again: my editor sent me photographs and I chose an Addie and a Meryl and then neither model was available, and the artist used two different young women.

The hard cover of Dave at Night was illustrated by Loren Long.  I love it so much that I bought the original art, which now hangs in my living room.  The cover reminds me of the work of early twentieth century painter Thomas Hart Benton.

An interesting tidbit is that initially Loren Long showed a waiter balancing a bottle of some kind of alcohol on a tray.  The people at HarperCollins felt that liquor wasn’t appropriate on a children’s book cover, so Loren Long replaced the bottle with a goblet and a glass.

A new artist was hired for the paperback.  I like that cover too, and it’s effective because Dave takes center stage.  It’s probably a more kid friendly cover, whereas the hard cover appeals to grown-ups.  The logic may have been that adults buy hard cover books, but children may buy a paperback.  Since then, HarperCollins has had a second paperback cover created.

Publishers commission new covers to breathe fresh life into a book that’s been out for a while.  That’s why many of my books have more than one cover.  A few years ago HarperCollins began putting what looks like a gold-leaf band across the top of my novels and the title in gold lettering.  This is a form of branding.  My books become identifiable at a glance.

Picture book covers are created by the illustrator, of course.  I adore the covers of my Betsy Who Cried Wolf and the soon-to-be-released Betsy Red Hoodie.  My Disney Fairies books are illustrated novels with illustrated covers, and the illustrator, David Christiana, is a master.

Lately I’ve been reading complaints by readers that the girl on the cover of this or that novel of mine doesn’t look like the girl I describe.  In Ever, for example, I say Kezi has an olive nose, meaning it’s a little droopy and a little bulbous at the end.   The artist may not have been able to find a pretty model with this kind of nose, or may not have looked.  The chosen model is lovely and vaguely Mediterranean looking.

My complaint about Ella Enchanted is that every time there’s a new cover, Ella’s hair gets lighter.  But I haven’t said so to my publisher.  I wish the cover of Two Princesses of Bamarre showed the dragon Vollys more prominently, but the covers of both books are fine.  Their purpose is to sell books.  My books are – from a marketing standpoint – targeted to girls, eight and up.  The covers show pretty young women, and potential readers presumably (on a subconscious level) want what these beauties seem to have.  Ooh, this sounds crass!

Then, however, if the cover is successful, the girl reads the book and the story takes over.  With luck, it’s a good book.

Take my novel Fairest.  Aza, the Snow White character, is homely at the very least, except for a brief part of the story when she’s beautiful.  If the cover art showed her when she was most unappealing, the book itself would likely have had little appeal.  The cover is clever; she seems beautiful, but most of her face is behind a hand mirror.

I hate when a cover hurts a good book’s chances.  It won’t be read if a child or parent doesn’t want to pick it up.  The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw, which won a Newbery honor, started its life with an unattractive cover, in my opinion, which was then replaced by another bad one, although the third and latest cover looks excellent to me.  I can’t say who’s to blame for the first two; they may have been just what the author wanted.  I love The Moorchild, but it seems not to be well known, which I blame on the first two covers.  You can see the newest one online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble and one of the early ones on Amazon and the other on Barnes & Noble.  I think it’s interesting to look, and you may not agree with me.  After you look I recommend that you read.

A strange cover fad swept through publishing a few years ago.  Somebody got the idea that a cover should feature incomplete people.  One of the covers for my novel The Wish was caught up in the craze, and this particular cover shows a quarter of the main character’s face.  But the moon is very full and very big.

At the beginning of an author’s career she may have little say about cover art.  I’m still not brought in on cover-art discussions, but on the few occasions when I’ve been very unhappy with a cover, HarperCollins has changed it.  For example, the proposed cover of Writing Magic seemed wrong to me.  I thought it made the book appear to be about magic spells rather than about writing.  HarperCollins changed the cover, and now I think it’s perfect.  Of course I had a reason for my opinion.  I didn’t simply say I didn’t like it.

This is just a mini-prompt: Look at the kids’ books on your bookshelf.  How do the covers affect you?  Do they draw you in?  Do you remember your reaction when you saw them for the first time?  Look at new covers in bookstores.  Do you see trends?  What makes you want to pick up a book?  If you can, find out the reaction of someone much older or much younger than you are.  An eight-year old may respond differently than a sixteen-year old to the same book jacket.  Have fun!

  1. It's interesting that you made a post about changing book covers to appeal to new demographics, because I recently noticed that one of my favorite historical fiction series- the Bloody Jack series, by L.A. Meyer, has gotten a cover makeover.

    Whereas the original covers are beautiful illustrations of scenes from the book and retain the sort of mischievous whimsicality that defines the tone of the stories, the new covers have photographs of a dark, moody looking young teenage girl with dark plum, green, or blue overtones, with the title emblazoned in the front with a gothic looking font in a medium shade of gray.

    In other words, they look a lot like the covers of all the supernatural/vampire/what-have-you YA books that have recently flooded the market, and I'm assuming that it's to the demographic that eats covers like these up that the publishers are trying to appeal.

    But unfortunately for me, whereas I had no qualms about carrying a book with the former cover around, I would be a little embarrassed to be seen with one that has the new cover, to be honest. Because on the outside, it now looks like one of those cheap romance novels that you can find in the grocery store, even though it's so much more.

    Old covers:
    New Covers:

  2. I just had to say that I love the cover for the hardcover Dave at Night. I've never seen the softcover but I can't imagine how it could possibly compare!
    By the way,do you have any thoughts on coming up with good titles for books?

  3. I generally dislike photo covers – no offense, Ms. Levine! It seems too much like telling you what the characters look like. But, somehow, with an art cover, even if it pictures a character, more seems to be left to the imagination.
    In fact, if a book has good cover artwork, it has a great impact on my experience of the book. Personal favs of mine include Clare Dunkle's covers for her _Hollow Kingdom_ series, as well as the original paperback for Garth Nix's _Sabriel_.
    If I love a book, I want it to have good cover art. That way, it's almost like two kinds of artwork at once – words to read, and a picture to look at.
    Agreeing with Priyanka – nowadays the covers do seem to be catering more to the romancy-girly set. Which may be why I don't like photo covers.
    On a more direct note – Ms. Levine, I found the most recent cover of _Two Princesses of Bamarre_ a little interesting because Meryl there looks a good deal like a friend of mine!

  4. Hmm, interesting post. I have noticed books with different covers then they had before, personally though, I do favor illustrated covers.

    I have a question that involves writing. In my work in progress the main character meets several new characters that are in a place for cursed people (this is a fantasy book by the way), so obviously the characters are cursed or have problems. I spend the entire second chapter with the new characters telling the main character their whole life stories and about how they got to this place. This is information the reader needs to know, but the scene seemed all wrong to me. Personally, do you think its better to release information to the reader slowly or all at once? I really don't want to slow down the action or give the reader too much to process, but there are certain things the reader needs to know right away. Any advice?
    Thank you again Ms. Levine!

  5. I agree with Rose about the photo covers. It's generally nicer if there isn't a clear image of a person on the cover, since it leaves more room for the imagination.

    At the moment I visit the library a lot, and I have to say it's the spine of a book that is the first thing I usually notice, not the actual cover.

    If the spine is interesting enough, and not dull black or too full of colours, I'll pick the book up and look at the cover. Then it's the cover's job to get me interested.

    If the cover is nearly interesting enough, the selling thing is either the short summary, or the first page of the book.

    Lately I've just taken library books at random, and if I didn't like the book when I got home, I return it unread the next day.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this post. Like Rose, I dislike photo covers, and was sad to see Ella Enchanted and Two Princesses get the makeover – because I personally love their old covers. I think they're old, the light blue sparkly one for Ella, and the midnight blue with the dragon on it for Two Princesses. Even though they both show the characters' faces, they're just PERFECT.

  7. I love the original Ella cover, Ella in the green dress before a tapestry. I try to avoid movie tie-in covers (as the book and the movie are so often separate works). I agree with the above posters about photo covers; they tend to limit the imagination. A recent Ella cover shows a girl who looks about 9 or 10 years old, a misrepresentation of the character's actual age. They are certainly trying to reach a certain demographic, but it's also rather limiting. Many older children or YA readers would be disinclined to pick up a book that looks childish.

    I do love covers that feature silhouettes of people or things. The 50th anniversary paperback edition of To Kill a Mockingbird (just released this summer) features a silhouette of Scout next to a tree with many spindly branches–divine!

  8. This was an interesting post because covers are so important but writers often have no control over it.

    I just found THE MOORCHILD at a bookstore last year and I was surprised I had never heard of it because I *love* it. I agree that the covers progressively get better, and it was the newest cover that made me pick up the books, but I didn't buy it at the time. I kept thinking about it and so I ordered it. It arrived with the second cover.

    I think the second cover might portray the feeling of the book the best. The book is a little bit dark, but not much. But, I wonder… if the book I ordered arrived with the newest cover, would I not have considered it at all dark?

  9. I don't like judging a book by it's cover, but sometimes I seem to do that.. When I am looking through a library or a book store's shelf and looking for a new book, I seem to mostly pick up a book whose cover appeals to me. One thing that goes through my mind is "Interesting cover, must be a interesting book," after that I read the summary to see if the book really appeals to me.
    About two or three years ago, I found a children's book that really caught my eye. It was a disney's fairies book, so I looked through it and fell in love with the art. I felt that almost the art was too advanced for a children's book because it was realistic yet still on the cartoon side.
    Have you ever started a book that you imagined to be really great but as you wrote the magic starts to fade until you stop?
    I have written a few stories that I couldn't wait to start and finish, but end up stopping in the middle.

  10. Funny you should mention covers. I think I've mentioned before that I'm an artist? One of my dream jobs would be illustrating children's books and/or book covers. It was very interesting to hear your take on it!

    I think photograph book covers can be great if done the right way, but I still prefer artwork. I think artwork is more unrestricted – it can portray things about the book that photographs never could. Maybe that's why I'm drawn to books that are "technically" meant for a younger age group…usually their covers are more appealing to me than the "paranormal-photograph-dark colors" that inhabit the YA section of the bookstore. And, sure enough, I end up enjoying them more. Most of the YA I've read recently is just too dark and serious for my taste.

  11. @ c – the spine of the book is very important! It's the first part that many of us see! And the title! I wish more people would realize this. A boring or over-weird title, or an unappetizing spine, probably keeps a lot of books from being picked up.

  12. Ahh, the cover art. Thank you for this post, its something I've been curious, and completely clueless about for a while.

    Like Rose, its mainly the spine that matters to me, so long as the colour is fine and the title looks interesting, I'd explore further.

    I guess it comes down to the age group, as well as personal tastes as well.

    On another note, I was thinking about the ages of your characters, like Ella, Addie and realised they were in the 14-16 age range. I checked out the other fantasy/fairy tale books (they're all classified YA at my library) and the ages of the heroines were something similar. I was wondering why they're all so young, in fact, as young as me, at 15. Is it for a specific reason? Do you have an idea Mrs Levine?
    I'm just curious here.=D

  13. Happiness–I wrote a post about titles on April 14, 2010. If you have more questions after you read it, please ask.

    Grace–On April 28, 2010 I wrote a post that's pretty close to your question. Sounds to me like your worries about your second chapter may be right. I suggest you think of ways to dribble the information in. The reader may not really need to know everything all at once, and if you throw too much at him, he's likely to be unable to keep it all straight.

    Mya–I write for kids eight and up. Some readers stick with me into their twenties and soon, I hope, beyond. When they first find me, however, most are interested in characters a few years older than they are. I used to be too as a reader.

    To everyone–Thanks for your thoughts about covers, and I hope you'll continue to weigh in. My editor often reads my posts, but I'm going to alert her to this one.

  14. @ Grace – My suggestion is, try to leak the information a bit more slowly. Maybe one especially talkative character might tell her whole life story right after she meets the MC, but a lot of others are more likely to drop hints in their actions or their words, and some may be completely close-mouthed about it. A dramatic revelation of someone's backstory at a good moment is very neat, too. I feel that if we knew everything there was to know about all the characters by the end of the second chapter, there wouldn't be as much fun in the book. I like thinking about the secrets in my characters' lives, both the ones I read and the ones I write.
    Hope this is helpful.
    BTW, it sounds like a neat idea for a tale. I look forward to reading it when it's published. 😉

  15. I'm glad authors sometimes get veto power. I had kind of assumed authors never got to say anything and had to accept their lot.

    Personally, I *HATE* it (hate, hate, HATE it) when the cover looks nothing like the inside of the book. The novel says the MC has brown hair, so why is she blond on the cover? The novel says he is lanky and a bit self-conscious, so why does he look like a buff Abercrombie and Fitch model? The novel takes place predominately in the woods, so why does it show a city? Etc.

    This happens a lot, and it makes me so mad. Covers often sell the book, I realize this, but I interpret such disregard as rudeness. Once someone starts reading the book, they're going to know the cover is a fake, so why do it? As a reader, I feel both betrayed and annoyed—first, for thinking they could get away with a bait-and-switch. Second, for not caring enough to pay attention to the details the author constructed. It's especially maddening when I love the story and the cover fails to support it.

    The cover should be submissive to the story (as in assisting, building up, helping, boasting the story's artistry), not the other way around!

    As others have said above, I prefer illustrated covers over photo covers, even if the illustration is photo realistic or not. The photo covers kind of cheapen it. They're the fast food of the book cover world.

    Sure, cheeseburgers and fries are great, but I don't want them all of the time. Sometimes I want some veggies sticks, or a nice steak, or yogurt with berries, or homemade stew. Variety, you know? And originality. It's easy to pass over covers when they all look the same.

    And I always make a point of avoiding movie covers. Those are like the bean burritos that sat under a heat lamp for an hour past when they should have been tossed. Bleh.

    Personally I loved the Ella Enchanted cover where she's in the green dress in front of the tapestry. She looked both young and older at the same time, which was great since she ages/grows up in the book. She also looked normal—not like a model. She was pretty in her own way, and her smile hinted at spunk. She didn't look gussied up—she looked like she was being herself—and that charmed me.

    I read The Moorchild in high school and loved it. I saw it with one of the older covers (illustrated, she was standing in the middle with a bunch of people staring at her). I agree, it was not the best cover, but I didn't particularly notice at the time. I was in my "read everything you can get your hands on" stage, zipping through 3 or 4 books a week, so I didn't focus on covers then. I just worked my way through the small YA section of my local library.

    Oh, and I'm 25 now, but you can be assured I'll be one of your fans beyond my twenties! 😉

  16. @ Lizzy – I'm late, but I totally sympathize with your problem! Sometimes a story sounds beautiful in my head, but once I write it, it doesn't seem so nice anymore.
    My trick for that is, just press on. It may turn out better than you think.
    On the other hand, I've got a number of finished stories, that, though I feel they're technically correct and good, I just don't love. I don't think this is a bad thing. I've read books like that, in fact – very nice books that just don't click with me.
    And I also see, sometimes, other people really liking the stories that don't "click" with me.
    I think that a book or a story can be perfectly good and all right, but some people may find it wonderful, and some may not. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say – not always, but to some extent.
    Sorry for the rambling. Hope it helps.

  17. I was reading F's comment, and I got sort of confused because I had never seen these covers. I googled it and i found the ones she was talking about, and they are perfect for the books! I don't like photo-covers because it makes it feel more like the real world, when it's really takes place in a fantasy land, so it should have a fantastical cover.
    (When I googled the covers, I also saw some cute/cartoony covers for some of the princess tales.)

  18. @Debz: I _thought_ those covers weren't that well-know! It's sad, because they really are perfect. My school library had those two, and I thankfully own the Ella Enchanted one. I'll by the Two Princesses only in that cover, too!

  19. covers really are important! in recent years i've stopped reading the back of books – i find that it often gives away vital information, and i'd rather begin reading with no preconceptions. and sometimes it's kind of irrelevant who is on the cover – i always form my own impressions of the character, based on the words rather than the images.
    that said, i found all the ella enchanted covers i've seen very attractive, and i thought writing magic's cover was so beautiful and evocative!

    i can't emphasise enough how much i look forward to your weekly blog posts, and i really appreciate and admire how you keep up with them! thank you! it means a lot to many of us.

  20. I love the old covers, too! I'm lucky to have both of them. They really fit the story, and they leave room for the imagination. That's probably why I like illustrated covers, because they are one artist's impression of the story, and they have a feeling of being that. Whereas photographs give you the idea that that is exactly how it is. It leaves no room for you to think about it for yourself.

    I didn't mind the Fairest book cover, even though it was a photo, probably because the model's face was hidden by the mirror. It made me want to imagine what was hidden, and it didn't contradict what the book said.

    I also like covers that are a bit mysterious, with some things only partly shown, and hints of things beyond the actual illustration.

    Usually, though, it's the title that grabs my attention, because, as c mentioned, it's the spine, and therefor the title that you notice first. I like a title and a cover that work together. A book that has a dragon mentioned in the title should have a dragon on the cover, if it's about a dragon-girl, it should have a dragon in the background and a girl in the front. If the title and the cover work together, along with whatever is on the back of the book, and if they excite my imagination, then usually I'm sold on it.

    @Megan – Yes, I agree! I really appreciate these posts! Thank you Ms. Levine!

  21. Hi, Gail, this is Alexa from the workshop. 🙂 I acquired my copy of Ella Enchanted, one of my all-time favorite books, at age six or seven from my school book fair. I liked the cover because it had Anne Hathaway on it, and I loved the Princess Diaries movies which she stars in. It's shallow, but I was little, and that's how I thought.

    I was recently in the young adult section of a bookstore and there were tons of classics, such as Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, in paperback form with new covers. All of them had black covers, with white font, and mostly featured one red object in the center; they all looked like the cover of Twilight! The ones that had women on their cover had women who looked wan and gothic. I thought it was an interesting way to market classics to teen girls, but it made my friend, who love those books, really mad to have the books represented that way.

  22. Yes, I heard they started marketing Emily Bronte in Twilight-esque covers (with stickers that say 'Edward and Bella's favourite book') so that it'll attract more girls. It certainly is interesting, and a great market ploy, but it annoyed me as well!

  23. I remember picking up Two Princesses when I was 11 because I thought the girls looked beautiful on the cover – shallow, maybe, but it's how I felt. Personally I hate the new photographed cover. Both of the girls look far too young and nothing like the original picture. I prefer illustrated covers to photographed ones in fantasy novels.

  24. That is my other objection – no offense, Ms. Levine – to the new photo-cover for Ella Enchanted. Ella looks way too young, and I saw that and thought "At WHAT point in the book does she look like that? The story starts when she's fourteen!"
    On the other hand, I hugely love the covers for Ever and Fairest. I don't know why – maybe it's just what I'm used to.

  25. How do I post a new comment like the people who you answer questions to up there? Is this it? Sorry its a stupid question and has nothing to do with this.

  26. My favorite Ella Enchanted cover is the one that I think is the first one. (with a pretty, smiley girl who just looks happy, and mischievous!) I hate all the other covers except maybe the newest one. I especially hate the one with Anne Hathaway! Don't get me wrong, Anne Hathaway is awesome, but not as Ella! Though maybe I should see the movie to judge her performance 🙂

  27. Goldenqueenclarion says:

    I have to say I never really liked the photo covers of ella enchanted, two princesses of bammare, or ever, but I love the photo cover of Fairest. For me, it’s not necessarily that I think one cover version is better than the other, but more that I first read your books when I was eleven or twelve, when I stumbled upon them at my local library. (actually I found them because I am a disney fairies FANATIC, and I read and loved the three quest books, so I wanted to see what else you had written.) now when I look for a copy of one of your books at the bookstore, I find myself wanting the cover of the one I read way back then at my library. so I’m very partial to the covers I’m familiar with, even though the others are quite lovely.

  28. I have to ask, I was given The Two Princesses of Bamarre when I was in year 5 and I’ve always loved it and just picked it up again (I’m 23). I have the photo cover as I’ve just figured out reading this post, why oh why does Addie look drawn? She’s in the background and just doesn’t look like a real human, but Meryl is obviously a picture of a real girl. It’s driven me crazy since I was little. Also why is she behind Meryl? That was just too much for my 10 year old brain to handle.
    I agree with the above also, drawn illistrations are better because it’s like there is no one out there that looks like this wonderful person in my book and also maintains a sense of fantasy, when I see a real person it takes away from the make believe world I want to get lost in. Each to their own though. I’ve always had this cover so I’d feel weird having any other x

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