Sunday, April 20, 2008

Knowing a Book by its Cover

There is no question that, in this day and age, a book's cover is first and foremost a marketing tool. Font, artwork, and layout are all designed to identify the book's genre and to induce the bookstore browser to pick the book off the shelf, examine it and, ideally, make a purchase.

When I enter a book store, the first thing I do is glance at the covers of the books displayed on the tables of new releases and pounce on any that appear to be historical novels. What are the visual cues that make me reach? Of course, for the last several years, headless women in period dress scream historical; other clues include gilded or calligraphied fonts, reproductions of paintings, bands of landscape set between borders of rich color, still-lifes composed of period objects. Covers of historical novels seldom feature photographs; the color palette is somber and dignified; the artwork establishes or at least hints at the novel's era and the setting. Historical fiction covers have a weighty look quite distinct from cartoony chick-lit covers or the artsy, photographic covers of literary fiction. Judgment aside, one should know a book by its cover.

Although I must admit I've had my fill of headless women, I understand the purpose they serve. Readers of historical fiction know the conventions of historical fiction cover art and search out books that fulfill those criteria. An author needs to reach the audience most suited for her work; why confuse the reader or miss her altogether by straying too far from the visual cues she's looking for? If headless women sell books, then I say plunk one on my cover! It's the designer's job to get potential readers to pick up the book, the author's job to distinguish her book from every other headless woman book out there through the writing between the covers. Please just make sure the costume matches the time period and setting of the story as closely as possible! There is nothing worse than finding an English dress on the cover of a book set in France, or sleeves from the 1570's on a book set in 1530.

The entire concept of using the cover to sell the book is quite a modern one. Book covers in the sixteenth century served two principal purposes: to protect the pages and to demonstrate the owner's wealth and taste. Books were bound in a bindery, an establishment distinct from the printing shop. Often times patrons would buy the printed pages unbound and take them to the bindery, where they would chose the leather and tooling that appealed to them and pay to have the book bound that specific way. The leather panels were embossed or stamped with geometric designs, scrolls or floral patterns; the covers of nobles' books were often set with precious gems. The cover revealed more about the book's owner than the content or genre of the work, especially since the title never appeared on it. Imagine having to open the cover in order to discover what a book was about. Browsing in a bookshop takes on a whole new meaning! (For some beautiful examples of sixteenth-century bindings, visit .)


Catherine Delors said...

Ah, the curse of the headless women on HF book covers...

Julianne, I want to hear back from you on this topic when your turn comes, and your publisher send you the picture of a neatly decapitated lady (and you don't even write about Henry VIII's wives!) with a lavishly embroidered gown that will "only" be one century off. I had the same issue with the initial cover of my first novel.
But my editor was a good sport about the whole process.

This is again a touchy subject for me, for the cover of my second novel is being discussed in NY these day. I sent a few suggestions, of course, but I have strictly no idea of what to expect. I am nervous...

Sheramy said...

It's ironic, isn't it. The point of much historical fiction is to give faces and voices to women of the past, and then the covers take their faces away.

Using 'real' period artwork for covers costs publishers a pretty penny in image rights, which is why you don't see it all the time. Catherine got lucky there.

I have fun daydreaming about a bright colorful van Gogh cover...

Julianne Douglas said...


I know, I'll probably be singing a different song when I actually do get a cover. Although at this point, I think I'd be so happy someone wanted to publish the book, I wouldn't care if they decided to put a picture of Jollande's big toe on the cover! Hey, a new trend...bodiless feet shod in period shoes! Think of all the chick-lit readers we could entice to try a new genre! {s}

I did read the excellent post you did on the story of your cover. You are lucky your editor was so accommodating. The result is beautiful, and I'm sure it must spur a lot of sales at the bookstore. Don't worry, odds are your second cover will be just as good, with the same team working on it. Especially if you sent along suggestions, which it sounds like your editor takes into consideration. Plus, you have a lot more clout now with the first book selling well. When will you get to see what they propose?

Julianne Douglas said...

Sheramy, what an astute observation about giving women voices, then robbing them of faces! So true! (I'm embarrassed it never occurred to me--that is exactly the sort of topic that would make a fine paper in a graduate literature seminar. Shows how long I've been away...)

Speaking of Van Gogh, I was poking around Wikipedia Commons the other day and found a Van Gogh I'd never seen before: Starry Night over the Rhone. It was pretty, though not as dramatic as the Starry Night everyone knows. Is there a story behind it?

Don't worry, I'm sure you'll get a beautiful Van Gogh cover! They'd be silly not to give you one. You'd get so many sales from the cover alone, it would make up for the licensing fee. Make sure you have the perfect painting picked out, along with a convincing argument all prepared... This time next year we'll all be raving about how beautiful your book looks!

Sheramy said...

Hi Julianne--
Starry Night over the Rhone is one of my favorites, more so than the more famous Starry Night, which has become something of a cliche. In person it is STUNNING. The texture of the paint on the real canvas is something you just can't see in a picture. Vincent painted that one in Arles in Sept 1888; today you can stand on the riverbank and see close to the same view. There's even a poster marking the spot to make it easy for the tourists! I like that one so much that I wove its creation into a scene (chapter 6...{s}). Someday I'll be posting about that painting in more detail.

"Off With Her Head: Imag(in)ing Historical Women for Historical Fiction Bookcovers." Sounds like a journal article waiting to happen! Hahaha.

Julianne Douglas said...


I can't wait to read about the painting in your novel. Even on the computer screen, the blue of the sky and the yellow of the stars were so vivid. And I'd wondered where along the Rhone the picture was painted--now I know!

As for the article title--let's just say good thing I wasn't drinking anything when I read it!

cyn said...

i just read the secret adventures of charlotte bronte and i loved the cover and tale. someone did mention the headless woman thing. i had always assumed it was to let the reader's imagination depict the facial features. also, in the case of many elizabethen historicals and the bronte one, it features real people.

Julianne Douglas said...


Thanks for stopping by!

I'm sure you're correct about the reason for not showing the women's faces. It's just that the headless woman has become such a cliche for adult historical fiction that we're making fun of it.

You write YA historical fiction, don't you? Do you know if there's a similar trend in YA covers?

Jennifer said...

Hi Julianne --

The trend in YA historical covers is to show a young woman from the back or in profile -- lots of hair either blowing free or elegantly coiffed, and a dress that more or less matches the time period of the story. The two authors with covers in this style that stand out to me at the moment are Libba Bray and Jennifer Donnelly.

I can't think of any headless girls on YA covers just now. I suspect seeing at least part of the face is more important to YA readers because it's important to them to experience a direct sense of empathy with the main female character. This is a gross generalization, of course, but in general, accurate.

Cover art really is important in the marketing of any book, but even more so in YA books, I think. Every day I watch my students pick books up and scrutinize the cover, sometimes putting it directly back on the shelf without even reading jacket copy if the cover doesn't hook them in some way.

Personally, I like the idea of anonymous, leather-bound books. I have a cousin who had her copy of Gone With The Wind, which is her favorite book of all time, rebound in leather to her specifications.

Julianne Douglas said...


What a scary thought, to have your book put down simply on the basis of the cover art alone! But it's not a far stretch to think of how many books I never picked up in the first place because the cover didn't catch my eye. It's amazing how much influence the cover has on sales.

Cover designers are often books' unsung heroes, I suppose. All their work and they only receive a tiny one-line mention on the back inside flap of the book, usually. I wonder if there are certain artists who are in high demand in a given publishing house, and whether the better your book sells, the better the cover artist who gets assigned to your next one. One of the many mysterious things about publishing that authors know little about.

I love leather bindings, too, although it would drive me to distraction to have no titles on the spines! But I suppose back when most people only owned a handful of books, it wasn't hard to keep them straight on the basis of their size, the color of the leather and their decorative markings.

Thanks for the insights on YA historicals! Quite interesting. I think one reason adult covers cut off the women's heads is that many of the reproductions are of real people, so you'd have a mismatch between the fictional character and the historical person on the cover. YA's seem to use more original artwork than reproductions, allowing for a better match between faces and characters.

Sorry for the rambling response--I was trying to touch on the many interesting issues you brought up in your comment!

Catherine Delors said...

What a great discussion! I hope you don't mind, Julianne, if I link to it from my blog (and if I take the liberty of designing my own amateurish cover for "The Measure of Silence".)

For YA book covers, I stumbled upon this post:

I think these YA covers are very attractive, far more so than the headless adult HF book covers. I feel like Sheramy: those irritate me because they reduce a woman to a fancy dress.

Catherine Delors said...

Here it the proposed cover:

How do you like it, Julianne?

Julianne Douglas said...


That was fun! I posted my response on your blog. I forgot to ask, what portrait did you use? I'd like to take a look at the entire woman, face and all.

This discussion has been so interesting! I have an idea for a further post about covers, but I'm going to wait a day or two so all the good stuff doesn't get lost in the comment trail.

Catherine Delors said...

Glad you like it, Julianne! I used a portrait of Elisabeth de Valois in Le Louvre. I found the image on good old Wikicommons:

I liked the deep red of the dress, and then, just for fun, lopped (most of) the head off.

Please post again about book covers. It's so much fun!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

The women (and the man in one case!) on my covers aren't exactly headless, and may even have faces next time around but they belong to that school of design - and especially the nice but not historically correct frocks thing. However, since having been given those covers my sales have more than quadrupled and I have gone bestseller. I have heard from a major chainstore bookbuyer in the UK that the general public is still very keen on the headless nice-frock school of jacket and they are still selling big-time. In fact he's going to be saying so in an article for a writing magazine soon.
Other than that I had a reader write to me to say she so much preferred headless or turned away because then she could imagine the character in her own head and didn't have to put a post it note over their faces for the duration of reading the novel!
Bottom line: Headless may be a cliche, but at the moment it is still selling books like hot cakes!

Julianne Douglas said...

Hello, Elizabeth! Thank you so much for your input. It's very interesting to hear how your sales increased once they put semi-headless women on your covers. What did your previous covers have? I seem to remember a hardbound edition of one of your books with a castle/landscape on it.

Thank you for sharing the letter from your reader. I never realized the correspondence between the model on the cover and the description of the character in words mattered so much to people. I'm so glad to be learning these things now!

Please be sure to alert us to the article from the bookstore buyer once it's published. I can't wait to hear what he has to say.

(If you don't mind, I'm going to post a copy of your comments further upstream so that people who have been reading since the beginning of the thread don't miss them.)