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Monday, October 22, 2007

Cover Designs: Yet Another Take

This very subject has already been discussed here and here. Given that, I have to say that I have always thought about covers, not necessarily because I care how a book is packaged so much as I care about what is inside that particular book, but because I am one of those types that pays attention to a cover when I walk through a book store looking for something new to read. Maybe this makes me a terrible reader, but I can't help it. The way a book is packaged influences whether or not I pick something up, especially if it is a new author or an author I am not familiar with.
But I also realize that a cover does not bear any significance in relation to what is found within the pages. We should all realize that. A book could have a cover that could win an art award and still have a terrible story, or be poorly written. But, there is no doubt that more books are judged by their cover than by anything else.
Current trends find that science fiction and even fantasy are frequently being packaged in a more mainstream sense. There are good and bad things with this. The good part is that the book is suddenly open to a new range of readers--the mainstream. And if they like it, they might be inclined to ignore their preconceived notions of what science fiction is--which more often than not is that stereotypical idea that SF is Star Wars and Star Trek remakes, only worse--and perhaps buy other books in the genre. There's nothing wrong with that. Drawing in new readers is a good thing. The downside is that people unfamiliar with the authors being packaged as more mainstream might not ever look at the book. If they are anything like me, they go straight to the SF & F section to start looking, or alternately they go to the new releases section, which is right there in the front of the store at Borders, and look at the books.
To give you an idea of my usual book experience, here is a typical book-buying day.
  • First, I go to the store. Duh! I can't buy books if I don't go to the store. I usually only go to Borders. There is a good reason for this: Santa Cruz, California, despite being the home of Heinlein for many years, has absolutely no respect for speculative fiction whatsoever. The local stores carry little SF & F, and of the stuff they do carry, it's generally unorganized and rarely books of significance, or at least books that would interest fellow genre readers. So, I go to Borders because it is the only place within thirty miles that has a decent enough section of SF & F.
  • Second, I peruse the new releases section, the bestsellers section, and the on sale section (4 for 3 deals, 40% off, and the like). This all is usually right down the middle of the store and starts in the front. If I find nothing here, I go to SF & F.
  • Third, I look at covers and titles and authors. If a cover doesn't catch my attention, then I look at a title, and if that doesn't work I look at the author. I am a speculative fiction reader at heart. When I peruse these books I look for the ones that look as if they are genre. That usually inspires me to pick up the book, read the back cover, or the inside cover if it is a hardback, and go from there. More often than not I put a book down and think about it for later. The sad thing is, I rarely pick up books that look as though they are mainstream. Why? Because I just am not attracted to those sorts of covers. I like spaceships, dragons, and other nifty stuff that is clearly genre. I can't help it. More often than not the cover of a book will get me to dig into a book to figure out what it is about. Seeker by Jack McDevitt and Old Man's War by John Scalzi were both buys that were the result of my looking more into the book after seeing the cover. The title of the book becomes meaningless to me because the cover has already captured my attention and hopefully the synopsis did too.
    But if the cover hasn't caught my attention, perhaps the title or author will. The sad thing is, I don't generally buy books by the title or the author. In fact, unless a book comes off to me as genre, I probably won't even look at it. That's just the way it is and the way it is for a lot of people. For me, the trend of making books look more mainstream isn't working. I've never read a Neil Gaimen book because of the way they are packaged, and as I'm learning, that is a very horrible thing. I saw the Stardust movie and it was one of the best films of the year--yes, it was that good despite what the stupid box office reported for sales. I should have read the book, and his other novels too, but I never have because the covers never strike me as fantasy. If Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card had not had this cover:I would have ignored it entirely.
    Hopefully at the end of my perusal I have looked at enough books to satisfy me and I can move to step four.
  • Fourth, I buy whatever it is that I was really interested in. I hate leaving a bookstore empty handed. I love books. You all should see my collection. I have almost 1,000 books and I'm only 24. I certainly have not read them all, and almost all of them are SF & F--a good chunk are Golden Age SF--but I love books so much. Books are fresh, new, and fascinating. A movie can never fully capture the brilliance of a book, though they certainly try and very rarely come close to succeeding--perhaps LOTR and a few others would be prime examples. So, when I leave a book store, I have to have something with me or I feel as if I have failed.
So, it's interesting to think about how one finds and buys books. I think there is a discussion that is connected to this I will have to address--how book stores market the books in the store. Given that books are being packaged in the hopes that the cover will make a sale, it isn't a surprise that publishers of speculative fiction would attempt to readdress how they package their authors. Speculative fiction, in a lot of ways, needs new readers. It needs to draw in readers who might actually enjoy fantasy but have never taken the time to get into it, maybe because they have had such a negative view of what constitutes fantasy. The same is for science fiction. It's sad that so many think of SF as the stuff you see made fun of on TV--geeks living in their parent's basement making Star Trek sets in the garage and pretending to be characters in the Star Trek Universe, or alternately obsessed zombies who play their MMORPG's and do little else, adjusting their lives to the cyber-world rather than interacting with real people. The truth is that SF & F are not driven by the stereotypes. There are thousands of novels that have nothing to do with these grandiose, illogical space operas (hold on, before you get mad, I love Star Wars and Star Trek very much, but I recognize that they are not, realistically speaking, worlds of logic, but worlds of media intrigue and of geekdom). Even space opera has seen a change from the typical, which Star Wars once filled and destroyed at the same time.
My hope, however, is that publishers do not take efforts to change the entire structure of marketing speculative fiction. I hope we never are in a position where those of us who primarily read speculative fiction have to dig around trying to find the books of interest for is among a myriad of mainstream fiction. That would be a sad day. I don't think it will ever happen, and I imagine that sales are not exactly sky rocketing from the new trends, but it is still a concern. With the rise of technology and the change of paper media to computer media we might find ourselves in a very different world of book marketing. Book publishers will have to go to new lengths to get paper-format books sold as the new generations focus on computer media. Will the typical science fiction fall away? Do you think the trends will persist? Do you see speculative fiction changing so utterly that it might become unrecognizable from mainstream fiction? And is that a good thing, or a bad thing?

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  1. I rarely pick up books that look as though they are mainstream. Why? Because I just am not attracted to those sorts of covers. I like spaceships, dragons, and other nifty stuff that is clearly genre. I can't help it.

    Just need to say: when I read that, I whooped for joy. Whether Solaris makes the sorts of books you like or not, that's our strategy in a nutshell.

    Marco @ Solaris

  2. Actually, the first Solaris book I ever bought was the 2007 Book of New Science Fiction. I bought it partially because I heard it was good and partially because after looking at the cover, deciding "hey that looks interesting", and then picking it up and going "hey these authors are pretty good", I had no choice. So, whatever you guys are doing at Solaris for covers is working for me and others like me.
    And if you happen to pop by here again: I also really love the style that you see on Old Man's War or Seeker (by Jack McDevitt). It's that sort of 'watercolor' look. It just comes off so Golden Age to me for some reason.