When book covers get it wrong

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Kate Ellis is a freelance editor and runs Ellis Editorial, specialising in commercial crime, thriller and women’s fiction. She is also an editorial mentor for the WoMentoring Project.

We’ve all heard (and have probably ourselves said) the famous saying: don’t judge a book by its cover. I’m holding my hands up and hanging my head in shame. I most definitely do and if you’re honest with yourself, you do too. And publishers totally know this.

Taking my first role in commercial fiction, I quickly learnt that a cover is as (if not more *sad but true*) important as the writing inside. I’d keep my beady eye on the Kindle chart, scour supermarket and bookshop shelves looking at what’s selling, what finishes covers had, where the blurb and author names were positioned, whether a pantone was used and the all important Christmas question: just how much glitter were our competitors using?

I remember my first Christmas in publishing. One of our books had three print runs before Christmas even happened: a bit of glitter, more glitter, ALL OF THE GLITTER. ‘Don’t underestimate the power of glitter’ became our Christmas mantra.

So much work is put into the cover concept, just read Phoebe Morgan’s article about the importance of covers in commercial fiction.

But what happens when you get a cover wrong?

The obvious outcomes are: low sales, you attract the wrong readership, the book is overlooked, and ultimately, the author’s and publisher’s hard work goes down the drain.

I remember how heartbroken my director was when one of her books just wasn’t selling. We tried everything we could think of to push it: competitions, intriguing tweets, quotes from the book, blogger reviews, book/TV comparison hints… nothing was working. And we knew why: the cover. But it was too late. With 20,000 books printed, we had to let it go and focus on the next publication. Heart. Broken. (But don’t worry, it has a happy ending: the next book went on to be a bestseller and the author’s entire backlist was rebranded and brought in line with the new look. Win-win.)

Case Study

Sometimes, when you’re scrolling through Twitter you’ll come across a cover that just takes your breath away and you LOVE it. This happened to me with Before You Go by Clare Swatman (I’m such a sucker for a weepy) and Holly Hepburn’s the Picture House by the Sea series (those covers are simply GORGEOUS). But then there are times when you stop scrolling and stare at the cover in front of you with the words, ‘What the…?’

This happened to me quite recently with the unveiling of E L James’ Darker. I had so many jumbled thoughts in my head, the main one being: ‘What even is this?’ I thought Grey, the first book in the ‘told by Christian Grey’ series, was pretty poor, but this one? Yikes. Even authors who’ve sold over 150 million books worldwide get it wrong.

I think having pictures face-on of real people (bar the saga/historical genre) on covers is a big no-no. I don’t like to be given a clear picture of a character, why can’t I just make up what they look like in my own head? And, if we’re really going there with what characters look like, we have a real-life Christian Grey. I remember being sat in the office when Grey was first unleashed and me and my director said in unison, ‘That is not Jamie Dornan’s eye’. We know these things. So why is there a fake Christian Grey on the covers? This is not okay.

But, the cover designer has actually done their job. If you look at the contemporary romance chart that Grey and Darker sit in (and if you’re brave enough, look at the erotica romance category), you’ll see that actually, the designer’s followed the current trend: half-naked men on a dark background. But, compared to the competition, E L James’ covers look a lot more sophisticated and well put together: no lewd titles and the images aren’t too crude either.

I guess, ultimately, the covers are representing the words inside the book: up, close and personal with Christian Grey; you even get the infamous lipstick line on Darker (at least I hope that’s what it is and that I’m not reading too much into things…).

To me they are just super off-putting. But the questions you have to ask are: Do these covers tell you what the books are? I guess so, although the close-up of Christian Grey’s eye on Grey is most disturbing (and it’s definitely not Jamie Dornan’s eye); Do they fit the genre? Yes, they’re definitely following the trend; and the main question, is it something I would generally read? No, not really – so I’m not actually the right audience for this.

And there you have it, even though I think the covers are pretty bad, they do actually tick all the cover brief boxes. But come on, it’s E L James and Fifty Shades! Can’t a risk be taken to make it bold and to take the genre in a different direction instead of copying what everyone else is doing?

Although, if there was a time for a lazy publishing card to be played, it’s definitely with E L James. It’s part of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. The publisher can pretty much stick anything on the cover and fans will buy it.  And one more question, have I pre-ordered it? One final head hang in shame, yes, yes I have (don’t judge me).

Some of my favourite covers right now are: Friend Request (I remember seeing the proof for this on Instagram and lost myself, I had to pre-order it instantly), Sweet Little Lies (the true beauty of this needs to be seen in person: a soft touch finish with a luminous pantone green JUST BEAUTIFUL) and The Woman at 72 Derry Lane (I cannot WAIT to get my hands on this, the colours are just beautiful).

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