Friday, April 25, 2008

Dream Covers

A few days ago we had a great discussion on headless women covers and their function as a marketing tool for historical fiction. Sheramy from Van Gogh's Chair made the astute observation that the point of writing historical fiction is often to give faces and voices to women of the past, and then the covers take the faces away. Catherine Delors, whose has described in detail the genesis of the cover for Mistress of the Revolution, designed a cover for my novel which, I was glad to see, left the hapless woman in possession of her mouth. Jennifer described trends in YA historical fiction covers and pointed out that the girls on them don't have to surrender their heads, although they are usually shown from behind or in three-quarters view. We discussed reasons for the differences and for the headless woman trend in general. It was a great discussion, and I thank all the participants!

It was pretty evident from the comments that readers (and writers!) are becoming sick of the trend, especially as it seems to reduce the scope of the story and the main character's trials to the level of a costume drama. That got me thinking--if we were to abolish headless women on our covers, what would we put there instead? I listed a few elements often seen on HF covers: reproductions of artwork (the rights to which, as Sheramy pointed out, are often too costly for publishers to use), landscapes, cameos, calligraphic fonts. What are some other possibilities? How could designers signal to potential readers, mostly women, that the book is historical fiction without making the book look like an issue of Vogue?

I began reflecting on my dream cover for The Measure of Silence. I'd love something that captured all the threads of the book: women's voices, printing/publishing, fabric, and religious choices. I came up with a few possibilities. The first would be a detail taken from a Renaissance painting of a woman's hand holding either a book or a quill, preferably against a backdrop of her skirt or a luxurious tablecloth. This would be my first choice, as I think using artwork captures the atmosphere of the times better than contemporary compositions do. If the cost of a reproduction were too prohibitive, I would love to have a still-life composition of an open book, an ink-pot and quill, an empty birdcage (you'll understand why when you read the book!), and Jollande's cross pendant against with billowing folds of velvet or silk. A third possibility would be a design that mimicked a sixteenth-century binding, although it would have to be an elaborate, jewel-encrusted one in order to catch the 21st century bookstore browser's eye.

If you're writing an historical novel, what do you envision as the perfect cover? If you're already published, what do you think worked (or didn't) about your cover? If you're a reader of HF, what would you like to see as a new trend? What would jump off the table at you and prompt you to read the back copy?


Sheramy Bundrick said...

Hi Julianne--
thanks for the blog-link! At this rate, I may get lots of regular readers!

I find the discussion of covers here and at Catherine's blog so interesting. You asked about fantasy covers for our own work: well, a novel about van Gogh really needs an original artwork, hang the licensing costs. So my idea would be a cover based around the National Gallery London's version of "Sunflowers" (yellow-on-yellow), a close up detail of some of the stems/petals that look all tentacle-y and dynamic. The yellow would be eye-catching, to say the least, and "Sunflowers" is iconic enough that everybody knows it's VIncent's from say, a few shelves away.

Not that I've given this thought or anything. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Those headless women are often details of original paintings, so cost is not the motivating factor behind this trend.

I think the cover you describe for "The Measure of Silence" would be beautiful and evocative. Just start looking for the right painting...

I will post shortly on the search for the right cover for my second novel. Already in the works, but nothing is decided...

lucy pick said...

My sister-the-graphic-designer has won me over to the idea of original illustrations as the most remarkable and striking covers, and when I wander through bookstores browsing, I find that she is right. They're a little harder to do for historical fiction, but I am finding all those covers that use period artwork become a little indistinguishable from each other.

Anonymous said...

As a reader, I like the idea of just seeing her hand with the quill! I don't have your background in history, so when I see the cover, it helps set the time and scene in my mind. Then I can use your description and a little of my own imagination for the characters. I already have a "picture" Jollande in my head, so, it might be weird to see her on your cover and have it not be who I thought :) Anyway, when I book shop, esp. for historical fiction, I like seeing things that aquaint me with the time period (the quill and cage). As long as "Fabio" isn't on there!! Remember that discussion? Renee

Julianne Douglas said...

Sheramy--I think your cover concept is wonderful! The bright color and recognizable artwork would certainly induce people to pick up your book. And I think that in using a "happy" painting, you're signaling that your book is not a doom and gloom account of Vincent's illness. I certainly hope you can convince your publisher likewise.

Catherine--I can't wait to read about the development of the cover for For the King. All of us aspiring authors are learning so much from your informative posts.

Lucy--what kind of illustration in particular do you envision for your novel?

Renee--I'm so glad to see you here [hug]! You make a very good point as a reader. The cover needs to not only signal "historical fiction" but the era and possibly the setting, which is why, as Catherine pointed out in the other thread, it is important that the fashions and other objects featured be appropriate to the time period.

And don't worry--I said I wouldn't care if they put Jollande's big toe on the cover, but I would certainly balk at Fabio! Anyway, Gabriel's hair is dark and curly, not at all like Fabio's blondish mane. {s}