We Agree: COVERS DO MATTER. But Why?

Recently, as recently as Thursday, we all discussed whether a book cover is fair game as part of the review of a book in its entirety. The collective answer seems to be yes, not just on an artistic level, but as a representation of the product being purveyed.

But why is that the case? Why does a cover’s quality or its correct association with the content of the story matter?

If it is a series with a main character being represented verbally and visually, over and over again, that visual representation becomes part of the character in my mind.  If it is a stand=alone book, or the only book I have read in the series, then a “wrong” cover  just leaves me perplexed.

What’s a “wrong” cover?  Here’s an example:

Scarlet Devices Cover In the upper left hand corner this book features a STEAM TRAIN. There are no steam trains mentioned in the entire book.  They see to be left out entirely as a variety of other conveyances, including automobiles and hot air balloons with steam generators are used throughout.  This grated on me.  First I thought the illustrator had not read the book and the synopsis mentioned steam-powered transporation in the Victorian age. But then I thought that even I could have removed that train from the picture in less than an hour.   So, if the publisher doesn’t care enough about the book to  have the information technically correct, why should I??

There are other times cover content is wrong: the character’s race is blatantly different than is shown (often makes me check to see if I am reading the right book), or, and this is a big one, there’s a girl in a gown standing on the shore or a cliff when there is no gown, ocean or cliff in the book.  While the landscape may be symbolic, I don’t know what the gown is about.

Character Representation

If the book features a character I feel I know, and the representation changes, it really throws me. Humans are visual with visual inputs usually superseding verbal information. There’s a reason a “picture paints a thousand words,” and “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.”  When I [badly] illustrated the cover of my sister’s book we specifically did NOT use a human figure to avoid placing an image in the reader’s mind.

Over time and with consistent features and artistic style, the  cover illustration “becomes” the character.  In the case of the cover for the recently released NIGHT BROKEN, by Pat Briggs, the cover deviated at least two cup sizes, from the prior representations of the character by Don dos Santos.

In an interview on BAD ASS BOOK REVIEWS, Pat responds to a question about Mercy’s depiction: http://badassbookreviews.com/interview-with-patricia-briggs-author-of-night-broken-mercy-thompson-8-and-giveaway-too/

“Dan dos Santos’s covers are amazing— I’ve always found his image of Mercy to be an everywoman kind of beauty.  We did have a little discussion with Dan in view of the . . . generous nature of Mercy’s assets (ahem) on the Night Broken cover.  Turns out that the model Dan has always used for Mercy has just had a baby…  That being said, Dan and the art director have had an ongoing discussion about whether Mercy should be sexy or more athletic.  I am deeply grateful that I have an artist and an art director who are both talented and smart.  I respect them both and am happy to entrust my books into their care.”

What I read here is that Pat had some input into the cover art, but not enough to nix it, so she is giving it a positive spin and deftly deflecting responsibility for the decision. In other words: she questioned it but in the end it was not her decision.

The excuse rationalization rationale offered is that the model had had a baby and so her breasts were larger. I am SO not buying that.

Given that the cover illustration is the depiction of Mercy I think this would be valid if the character had had a baby. But Mercy has not; I don’t know what the model’s fecundity has to do with the cover. If she were still pregnant and Mercy were not would he have included a baby bump? What if the model had died her hair or gained or lost a significant amount of weight, shown up in a ball gown, or, was missing a limb? Would she have been depicted with representational realism then?

Let’s look at the difference between portraiture as “fine art” or  depictions of people as part of a book cover illustration or commercial art.

In a portrait or when a figure is in a landscape or setting, the artist’s vision rules the design, model and depiction. If the portrait is a commission the artist will often put some “airbrushing” on the features of the client. There are schools of  painting and philosophies about realism and abstraction but, in general when not on a commission,  an artist is painting purely for expression and only maybe with the intent of show and sale they can make people ugly or beautiful., or absolutely realistic.

However, if they are painting commercial art, or doing illustration work, including covers, with the intent of portraying a character then they will be using some other person’s idea of a character as well as their own interpretation of that character. Commercial art and illustration is “to order” within the parameters of the artist’s style and medium and it serves a purpose.




In the recently released NIGHT BROKEN by Pat Briggs, the main character, Mercy Thompson, is portrayed with a noticeably larger bust than in prior books. Apparently the character’s tattoos also change. I’ve noticed the increased bust size occurring after parts of  the series had been offered as a graphic novel. So, while it is most noticeable in NIGHT BROKEN it has been changing for the past few books.   I do not pretend to understand the projection of the big busted female character to Briggs’ primarily female fan base and I am not the only fan noticing or not understanding.  It seems at cross purposes with the purposes of  maintaining a fan base.

What effect is a cover illustration of a character working towards?

While for a painter of my modest skills, reducing or increasing breast size would be challenging, but,  for an artist of Mr. Dos Santos skill, to do so would probably not be a hard thing. Men have been changing female attributes in paintings for years. There are examples available of the differences between a pin-up model pose and the finished illustration (http://www.ufunk.net/en/insolite/les-pin-up-classiques-et-les-filles-modeles/  — I don’t have permission to use these so I am only linking to them).   As these were commercial illustrations representing a popular ideal of the time, it was someone’s decision to change the models attributes to achieve an effect and/or communicate a message.

I contend that in this instance in particular, the primary effect being targeted is the depiction of a character to help create that character in the reader’s mind.  That creates more of a connection to the character and more reader loyalty.  The more connections and associations your mind makes with something, especially across senses, the more likely you are to buy the next book. The positive outcome for a book cover is brand loyalty which translates into the bottom line.

Here, Mercy’s physique kind of overwhelms the author’s verbal description of the character.  If you don’t think character image matters take a look at  the hullabaloo the casting of  Charles Hunnam for Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey series.  While speculation continues over why he left, I was one of the people for whom the actor did not work, and I read many articles and opinions on line of people who were very unhappy because that actor did not fit the mental picture the author’s words described.  If the book had come out with that actor’s picture, or used a model with similar looks,  on the cover from day one, that might have been different.

And, in the NIGHT BROKEN situation, the cover is a illustration of a character and because it has been pretty stable for sometime now, she is the picture in my head of Mercedes.  Does this mean I won’t read the next book?  Probably not.  But, it may mean I wait for a sale, or that I don’t feel a subconscious pull to Pat’s next series. It certainly does not enhance brand loyalty.

Why did they do it in this case?   There’s a good chance they don’t think like me, or they just didn’t notice it. Or, maybe they are trying to get young men to read Mercy’s story.  I think that’s crazy marketing and  decision making.  But, I have, through discussing this issue, given this book three days of discussion versus the one a review would normally garner; maybe they are crazy — crazy like a fox, or in this case, a coyote.

If you are writing a book and the publisher tries to pass off a wrong cover on it, please let them know that the readers do notice and it ticks us off!