Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Picture is Worth a 100,000 Words

By: Mary Margaret Daughtridge

The art department at Sourcebooks is ready to start work on the cover of my next book, so they emailed me the other day to get my input.

Fact is, until the last couple of years, I never paid much attention to covers.

Now that I do, I’m noticing there’s a language in what is pictured.

Like the metallic half-tones in which photographic images of a man and a woman seem to swim under the surface. That’s romantic suspense.

Two Adirondack chairs in pale watercolor washes? Mainstream with romantic elements—likely to be sad.

White on white or beige on white with tasteful gold accents—best selling writer. Could be lots of sex but if there are flowers in addition—well, it depends on the size of the flowers, and if they are embossed. Regardless, the story is about the crème de la crème. Dukes and suchlike.

Then there are the clinch covers. The woman’s bountiful bosoms, the man’s rippling torso, clutched together in a position that looks as unlikely as it looks uncomfortable. We saw them so many times they became a cliché, but there wasn’t any doubt exactly what the reader would get.
For historicals, they’re passé, but they’re still with us in slightly fuzzy photographs on the hotter lines, leaving us in no doubt that hero and heroine will be doing IT, and in explicit detail.

A woman with long swirling hair and swirling fur-lined robes? The heroine is the last of her line and the only one who can save (a) her clan (b) her country (c) the entire universe from the (a) ancient curse (b) vampires (c) aliens, and the hero is the only one who can (a) help her (b) stop her; but one thing is certain: she will only succeed if she recovers her magic powers.

Then you have the cartoon covers. The book is probably contemporary, definitely comedy.

I think I’m learning to speak “cover.” What I haven’t worked out yet is: contemporary or historical, paranormal, time travel, or comedy, why do some covers feature a picture of a woman alone, some a man, always bare-chested, and some, a man and woman? It’s a code, I know it is, but I haven’t cracked it yet.


  1. Hi, Mary Margret! You are absolutely right about the covers and have brought up a few details that I had not noticed, especially about the gold and white covers and the amount of flowers. Ooooh, it's almost spooky. You just know there is a team of marketing specialists who consult on book covers, and they know the code even if they're not telling anyone else. To them, a picture is probably worth 100,000 dollars instead of 100,000 words.
    Thanks for a thoughtful entry!

  2. My guess to the bare chested male code?

    "This could be yours ladies" LOL

    They certainly seem to evoke some lip smacking and second looks.

    Michele who just got one and is happy.

  3. "This could be yours ladies" LOL

    GOOD ONE, Michele! I think you're right. ;-)

    Interesting post, Mary Margret. I never thought about translating covers before, except I always heard that the more bare skin on the cover, the sexier the book. HA!

    One thing I HAVE discovered recently... it there's a little yellow light bulb on the spine, it's gonna be a GREAT READ!


  4. Interesting demystification of cover art, Mary Margaret, and I agree about the yellow light bulb on the spine, Cindy!

  5. Covers are always such an interesting topic--and they always come up no matter what! I don't have much say on covers in Publicity, but it's always interesting to see what they come up with--especially the changes that can sometimes take place from and ARC cover to the final production. :)

  6. Covers have always been a mystery to me, but they ARE what catches your eye in the bookstore, and you're right, SOMEONE knows the code! I did appreciate being asked for input on the cover for Rogue (3rd book) and it will be interesting to see what they come up with. Thanks for some help in clearing up the murky waters, though I think Michele's interpretation of the bare-chested-male code is right on the money!

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