Friday, July 8, 2016

Covers, Titles and Spoilers

RHYS BOWEN: This week my lovely editor at Berkley contacted me to see what I wanted on the cover of next year’s Royal Spyness novel. I realize how lucky I am to have a publisher that takes my wishes into consideration so that we have a shared vision of the cover of my books. My new Royal Spyness book comes out in four weeks and as always I am delighted with the cover: the Irish castle, the horse racing... all perfect. And the enigmatic man with his back to us. But I thought you'd like to see how the cover evolved. First draft:

We felt that the raincoat needed to pop a little more and the man in boots looked as if he had unnaturally skinny legs. Hence the second draft:

I am all too aware that it is the cover and title that sell the book to new readers. A dreary, boring or wrong cover can doom the best novel. I’ve had friends suffer from a major spoiler on the cover (such as the murderer holding a gun???) A friend’s legal thriller came out with a spaniel on the cover once, because the art director liked spaniels. Doomed as far as male readers were concerned.
I also find that I have to fight from time to time to stop the cover copy from giving away clever plot points. I’d rather it didn’t say “she goes to work for an unpleasant and arrogant millionaire. When he is found murdered…..”  I don’t want my reader to know in advance who is going to die. I want the reader to observe the main characters interacting and to think “something bad is going to happen here” but then be shocked and surprised when it does.  So I’m often hesitant to read cover flaps.

And as for titles: it’s often the title that comes to me first. I find I can’t write with confidence and enthusiasm unless I have a title, even if I know it’s only a working one. Sometimes I have discussions with my publisher about the title. We throw suggestions around and always come up with something that satisfies all of us. But I am always conscious how important the title is. I have to confess that I have been lured by an intriguing title into buying a book. The Thirteenth Tale. Loved it.  Anything with the word Garden intrigues me. And water. The Shape of Water. 

At the moment the fad seems to be to use the word GIRL in the title. Or the word GONE. Or COLD. Or TRAIN. So my next Georgie book will be called COLD GIRL GONE ON THE TRAIN.  Or... GIRL GONE ON THE COLD TRAIN , or TRAIN GONE, GIRL COLD. Future bestseller, do you think?

Above all, the cover should tell you what kind of book you are getting. I once put together a selection of covers that really missed the mark. Here are some of them!

So do share your experiences: writers, have you ever been stuck with a title you didn’t like? Have your editors come up with a title you thought was brilliant? And readers, how often do you pick up a book because the title intrigued you?
And what about covers? Ever bought a book because you couldn’t resist the cover?
AND do you want to know what’s going to happen, who is going to die when you read the cover flap?


  1. Thanks for sharing the evolution of the book cover, Rhys . . . that’s quite interesting.
    Yes, I have picked up a book because the title intrigued me, but I can’t say that I’ve ever purchased a book because of its cover.
    As for knowing what’s going to happen, I don’t mind knowing there’s going to be a murder, but I don’t necessarily want the cover copy to tell me the identity of the murderer . . . or of the murder victim.

  2. Ha ha ha ha! Love that: COLD GIRL GONE ON THE TRAIN! Google will love it!

    I do get consulted on covers - it's in my contract (reason #37 why authors need agents) and they do listen. I've outright rejected titles. Asked for tweaks. The cover of Night Night Sleep Tight has a broken strand of pink pears on it. I loved it at first sight, perfect feel for my book -- the only the problem was there weren't any pearls in the book. Fortunately I was still editing galleys and could insert them into the story. Then, of course, I had to go out on Etsy and order a strand of them for my book events.

    I think all the Reds are very lucky to have the great covers we do. Usually you don't even need to read the author name to know which goes with which Red.

  3. It's been a long time since I paid much attention to covers since I buy e books almost exclusively. However, my partner Julie can't place enough importance on cover design, maybe because she's in marketing? She was delighted when I bought her a Kindle Fire since she can have all her library in living color.

    There is one cover I'll never forget though. It is Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd, 2001. The protagonist is a graphic artist. Therefore the cover reflects that, and I can find something new each time I look at it.

    Alas, I use a Kindle Voyage, so covers are black and white.

    I do check on the length and rarely buy anything less than 300 pages. I read voraciously so need a lot of bang for the buck. In the recent class action against Apple, my settlement was $395. See what I mean!

    Rhys I was fascinated that the cover is what brings in new readers. That had never occurred to me. I understand a lot about marketing from Julie's war stories. It is necessary to develop a brand, perhaps more so for a series, but also for stand alones. What was your process and how did you decide on your very distinctive cover style? Agent, editor, publisher? Or, like Athena from the head of Zeus, did it spring fully formed from your head?

  4. "Above all, the cover should tell you what kind of book you're getting." Absolutely, and even if you end up buying an eBook, browsing before lets you see the cover. I think the same holds true of titles. I confess that I bought Sweet Salt Air by Barbara Delinsky, who I hadn't previously read, based on both. The lovely lavender on the cover and the words in the title filled me with scents that brought me right to the beach.

    The working title for my first book was "I, Sabrina." My agent told me I had to rename it. When I asked her why, she said (very wisely), "Because it isn't that type of a book." I had nothing to do with the fabulous cover of what became No Virgin Island, but I nearly wept with joy when my editor first showed it to me. I knew it let readers know they were going on a trip to the Caribbean and the few sprinkles of blood splattered hinted, it wouldn't all be paradise.

    I agree with Hallie that the Reds all have had terrific covers, the pink pearls not being the least of them. I've always been partial to the titles in Rhys's Molly Murphy series, maybe because I'm Irish and have shared them annually with first granddaughter.

  5. Titles definitely get my attention (i.e., Alan Bradley's books); so do covers--and, yes, I will avoid or pick up a book based on the cover (Louise Penny-pick up). As for blurbs, sometimes it's not worth getting the book, because the blurb lays everything out for you. And many times, in a really good book, I'll go back to the cover after I'm done to see if it delivered any clues.

  6. I'm struggling with punny title for a proposal. Some people are brilliant at it - I'm not!

    Covers are so important. I've learned to be very, very careful when my editor asks for cover ideas, because after he asks me, I don't get any input after that, unlike Rhys. I apparently neglected to stress that my second Country Store mystery takes place at the end of November (in Indiana). When I saw the cover, you could see green leaves on the trees and green grass through the window. SIGH. Fortunately the book has been leaping off the shelves, anyway.

  7. TRAIN GONE, GIRL COLD. Yep, a winner.

    I will not buy a book solely based on cover or title, but good ones will get me to pick it up. I prefer the cover copy be intriguing, without giving away major plot points.

    I loved the pink pearls. And yes, all the Reds have great covers and those covers are associated in my mind with the individual authors.

  8. While I like the first cover better, I can see that making the coat red is more eye-catching. The skinny man? I really had to look closely to compare, until I realised that besides thinner legs, the original man appears to have a nipped-in waist (or broader shoulders?) and seems to owe something to the non-pareils featured on the classic Barbosa covers for Georgette Heyer.

    I sometimes avoid reading the blurb, just jumping in cold and letting the story take me where it will.

    In my brief career with Ellora's Cave, they were rather good about asking for cover input. My favourite cover was so beautiful and relevant I couldn't believe my good fortune.

    And yay! Champing at the bit to get my hands on Crowned and Dangerous. I just had a nice little interim fix reading the Georgie story in Murder Most Conventional.

  9. Truly, RHys, you are so fabulous that even your bad title, TRAIN GONE, GIRL COLD is intriguing!

    I;ve had one terrible cover. TERRIBLE. But it never made it to print, It was, no exaggerating, a woman with head cut off, wearing a really low-cut ballgown and being surrounded by reporters. There was NOTHING in FACE TIME in any way near that! Besides..well, I won't go in to it. After MUCH angst, it got changed.

    And OH< the pain of who gets murdered. I work so hard to make it a surprise!

  10. And Rhys, you can't go wrong with a red trench coat. xxooo

  11. TRAIN GONE, GIRL COLD is actually not a bad title - other than being so over the use of girl for women who are long past girlhood.

    Speaking of girls, one book I picked up based on title alone was THE CHURCH OF DEAD GIRLS. It has ended up being one of my favorite books.

    For covers, anyone remember that beautiful original cover for Donna Tartt's THE SECRET HISTORY. That marble statue on the book boards and the acetate slipcover with the title. Brilliant.

    And yes, jacket copy and reviews that are too revealing really bother me. I struggle to make my reviews as spoiler-free as possible and I often wonder why the publisher can't do the same for the jacket copy.

  12. The first book I chose by title alone was Fog Magic Sauer 1943. Two words encapsulated the whole plot. Another mother tongue: Gay words, gay worlds Grahn 1984, subtle double entendre complete with a rainbowed cover. A LGBT person would know the book was for them without needing to read the blurb. In the present I like how the cover are can also tell me the era of the plot. Soft fluffy cover with a cat?
    I am sold.. it tells me it is a cosy.

    A mystery title saying "Mabel Hennessy did it on page 24' would not be a best seller.
    Titles are important.

  13. Ah yes, Kristopher, reviews are another of my annoyances. Not yours which are lovely! But the Kirkus reviews often give away the whole plot. So do some of the Amazon reviews. I hate knowing what's going to happen!

  14. I am definitely drawn to books because of their titles and covers. I delight in clever titles, and like FChurch, Alan Bradley in his Flavia de Luce series immediately comes to mind. The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse and The Red Herring Without Mustard are two of his titles that are irresistible. Of course, it helps that the books are wonderful reads, too. Another aspect of titles that I enjoy is one that Hank employs, the deep attachment to the theme in the book. In your case, Hank, the title connects to the content of the book on multiple levels, and that thrills me to no end.

    And, I have purchased books because of their covers. Kristopher, do you remember The Dead House by Dawn Kurtagich that we both purchased last year because of the cover ( I especially love classics with beautiful covers. Penguin put out a series of classics in the Penguin Threads series, only six, and I purchased Emma in that series and love it. Here's a description of the Penguin Threads books, "Sketched out in a traditional illustrative manner, then hand stitched using needle and thread, the final covers are sculpt embossed for a tactile, textured, and beautiful book design." Penguin has some awesome editions for classics.

    Concerning blurbs and reviews. I'm sometimes astonished at how revealing blurbs can be and have been known to stop reading one halfway through because of its TMI. I feel the same way about reviews. One of my major endeavors in a review is to not reveal too much about what happens. I want the new reader to have the joy of discovery experience that I had reading a book. I have a friend, no one here and not a blogger, who consistently puts spoilers in her reviews and, in my opinion, ruins the reading experience for someone who hasn't yet read the book. That bothers me a lot. I usually don't read a review before I read a book, as word of mouth recommending a book usually suffices, but I have been known to read one of Krisopher's. I hope that people can read mine with confidence of spoiler free, too.

    Rhys, I'm a big fan of your titles and covers for Georgie and Molly. What a great fix to Crowned and Dangerous! That red coat is perfect. And, I love that you don't want the reader to know ahead who is going to die. Glad you have input on those matters. It's much appreciated. I'm appalled at the art director's choice of a spaniel for the guy's thriller, just because the art director liked spaniels. How unprofessional.

    And, I want to add that I think all of the Reds' covers and titles are outstanding. When I recommend your books, it's nice that, in addition to my review, there are great titles and covers to encourage my friends and others to read your books.

  15. Oh yes, Kathy, THE DEAD HOUSE. Another of those books with such a striking cover. Of course, the insides of that book are equally beautifully designed - which is most unusual and rare.

    Your reviews are spoiler-free too Kathy. I prefer it that way. Like you, I rarely read a review before I read a book - especially if it is something I think I'll likely be reviewing myself. But afterwards, I check out all types of reviews and am amazed by what folks think it is ok to reveal in a review. As Rhys pointed out, Kirkus is particularly guilty of this. Such a shame really, as then the reader is bound to be disappointed, even by a great book.

  16. Some time ago I read an interview with the author Stuart Wood. He told how he was looking through some kind of hunting magazine and saw a classified ad of a hunting dog for sale with the call-out "Excellent working bitch." He thought that would be a great book title, and wrote Orchid Beach based on that title. (It has a strong female protagonist who, early on, inherits a well-trained female Doberman who becomes another major character in the book.) Not surprisingly, when the book sold his publishers nixed the title as way too misogynistic sounding. And I quite agree. But I thought it was an excellent back story, and it came to mind immediately when Rhys said she can't write without a working title.

  17. Book titles are more important influence on me picking up a book. Maybe because as a child the library was my main source of books and in those days of yesteryear (1950s), the books had no jackets. Maybe they wore out too quickly or maybe paper shortages during WWII curtailed their use.
    As to cover blurbs and jacket flaps, unless I am wondering "have I read this book before?" Never read them for fear of spoilers. I do read author biographical flaps. And if I read a review, it is after I read the book. Not only to avoid the spoilers, but to avoid another's gushing goodness or hatchet taking.
    Happy weekend, all.

  18. Rhys,

    I started reading your Evan Evans after you were on a panel with Penny Warner and several other mystery novelists. I also saw your blurb on one of my favorite books around the same time.

    For me, I expect the story to fit the title. When Iletter look at a new book, I notice the colors of the cover first. Sometimes if the background color and the color of the letters make it difficult to read, I do not pick up the book unless I already know the book is written by an author I like and I pre-ordered the book. If I tried to find it in the bookstore, I may miss it because of the difficulties in reading the lettering.

    Regarding reviews, I really try very hard not to give away the ending. I mention briefly what the story is about and sometimes I quote a favorite line from the book.


  19. I love those stylized covers for the 1920s and 30s. Seeing one will absolutely guarantee I will at least pick it up and look at it. I hate the trend of cutting heads off. I do not understand that one at all. It reminds me of bad photographs, cutting off heads or feet, or sticking your thumb in the picture.

  20. It's interesting that in the early Molly books she has her back to us and now we see her face. And have you noticed how many similar covers there are? Laurie King's? Tasha Alexander's? I like to thing they were my cover designs first!

  21. Ms. Bowen: The title and cover of a new mystery do catch my attention, but you might be interested to know how I found yours. I read an article in the "New York Times Book Review" about audiobooks and the writer mentioned that Katherine Kellgren was one of his favorite narrators. Since I was about to take a long car trip, I looked her up on Amazon Audible to see what books she had narrated. She sold me on "Her Royal Spyness". So now, one week later, I have listened to the first three books in your series. I'm hooked on Lady Georgie AND on Katherine Kellgren. Since I feel compelled to listen to the rest of the series rather than reading the books, I'll be in 1930's England a lot longer than if I were reading. How delicious! Susan Schaefer

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