Don’t Change The Cover: An Examination of the Power of Readers

Where were you when the cover of Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Kiss was revealed? If you were like me, you were angrily venting at Fierce Reads, the social media arm of Macmillan.

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Old Cover
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Proposed New Cover

Why do publishers do this? Why do they change book covers of a series when the cover is something all the fans love? I’ve gone over this before from a professional stance so I won’t go over here.

What I will talk about is the backlash that happened. Yes, I angrily vented. I did not however, threaten to not buy the book or slam the author. The author has NO control over the cover unless it is in their contract, and it rarely is. And if (hypothetically) a seller tells the house to change the cover or they won’t take, the publishing house changes the cover.

I have had so many series that changed the look of a series mid way through. And it SUCKS when you were a fan from day one and the publisher does this. It can feel like the publisher is devaluing you, the first readers who helped spread the word, in order to make money on those that haven’t picked up the series.

But the fans had a win with their outrage. Fierce Reads announced that the hardcover would be the old covers, in order to match the rest of the trilogy and the paperbacks would be repackaged with the new cover.

So YAY for the YA community for the win, but BOO on those that made Marie feel so bad about this whole thing.

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Worth noting: if publishers had tons of money, I would have suggested printing the original cover on the back of the new redesign and then the reader could pick which cover you wanted to showcase. But publishers don’t have that kind of money.

When Judging a Book By Its Cover Becomes a Problem

My blog manager (who works for guacamole), and is extremely clever, cut straight to the heart of the matter with this title.

I stumbled on this news story the other day (I have been sitting on the post, so sue me). To sum it up for those who don’t want to click it, Russian booksellers have removed Maus by Art Spiegelman as a response to the Anti-Nazi push. Basically, the Russian government is pushing to remove all swastikas from the country, and bookstores have removed Maus because they feared someone seeing the cover and reporting it.

I am not sure how many people have read Maus. It was required reading for me in college so my introduction to it was in a very educational setting. For those who don’t know about it, below is the flap copy from the 25th anniversary edition:

“The Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story. Maus approaches the unspeakable through the diminutive. Its form, the cartoon (the Nazis are cats, the Jews mice), shocks us out of any lingering sense of familiarity and succeeds in “drawing us closer to the bleak heart of the Holocaust” (The New York Times).

Maus is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. ”

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Girl Books versus Boy books

I can’t stop my mind from churning. If you read my recent post, then you might know why my brain has been so active. At the time, I also read a post by the AH-Mazing Shannon Hale.

I have been following her on Twitter so I had some exposure to this post, but one afternoon, I sat down and really thought about it.

The Scholastic Reading Reports do report that girls read more than boys as they age. But as Hale points out, we give books to boys with the qualifier of “it’s a girl book.”  Her story of the third-grade boy afraid to ask aloud for a copy of The Princess in Black broke my heart.

Take a look at your bookshelves. If they are like mine, you will notice that a lot of the YA books are making a shift. I went to a lecture three years ago where a cover designer said that every YA book had to have a girl in a big poofy dress (she was discussing the current state of design elements, not saying it was actually necessary). But as I look at the books I have on my nightstand right now, I am seeing a shift. Yes, some of the books still have girls on them, but a lot of them are starting to have more artistic renderings.

Think about all the big bestsellers, for example: Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, Hunger Games, and Twilight.

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Something most people won’t notice about all of these books is that they all lack a character on the cover. In fact, all the books rally around a symbol or typography (type face like in Twilight). These books for all their content don’t make a “girl” book or “boy” book cover.

Hale’s book, by the nature of the age group she writes for, does have a character on the cover. But I agree the nature of conversation about books needs to change. We tell boys that this is a “girl” book.  The school administration assumes boys won’t be interested in what a female writer has to say.  With the “gate-keepers” making those types of decisions and statements, is it any wonder that boys believe it?

I believe there are things that both sides can do to help eliminate “girl” and “boy” books. With YA, we are seeing a shift in design. I need more research to make a point on middle grade covers. But if cover designs are shifting, why then do we still feel the need to qualify a book?

Good writing is good writing. Say, “This book is something you might like. Let me know how you find it.” Start a dialog instead of shutting it down.

What is YA?

Recently, a co-worker tried to convince me that the book she is reading is a young adult book. I took one look at it and was like, nope. “But it has the teenage protagonists, and a coming of age story.” Still not YA. And then she asked me, “So what makes something YA?”

And like that, I was stumped. I could instantly tell her book wasn’t a YA book, but my feeble attempts to explain it to her were met with resistance. I googled, and discovered this (though I do not agree with all the points).

So without further ado, I give what YA is and how to tell if a book is YA.

  1. YA is not a genre.

YA is not a genre. It is a category, and a recommended reading level within the realm of children’s books. In this category, there are genres, but let’s be straight: if I hear you say the “Young Adult Genre”, I might need to send you a glitter bomb

This could be you. SOURCE: dailydot.tumblr.com
  1. Just because a protagonist is a teen/young adult does not make the book a young adult book.

One of my favorite writers, Maria V. Snyder, wrote her debut book, Poison Study, with a younger protagonist. I imagined an 18-20 year old (years later, I discovered it was more like 25). Reading that book, it reminded me of several YA books. Was it YA? No. Does YA often feature a teen protagonist? Every dang time. Do Adult books feature teen protagonists? Yes. Catcher in the Rye does. But in no way does having a teen protagonist equal being YA.

  1. Coming of age does not equal young adult.

Say it with me: coming of Age does NOT equal young adult. Sometimes I feel like telling the people who tell me coming of age equals young adult that they need to read more. In undergrad I took a class called “Coming of Age”, we did not read a single young adult book. I read Adventures of a Simpleton by Hans Jacob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen and Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Shockers, both are adult titles. Coming of age is a thing you do when you are a teen, but it is by no means exclusive to being a teen. Hell, I am still “coming of age” and I am well passed legal drinking age.

  1. There is something to the cover.

Remember my post on book covers? Well, I will remind you again that book covers are invaluable. Young Adult books advertise they are young adult books on the cover. The next time you go to a bookstore (please do for this exercise; it does not work as well on Amazon), take a minute and look at the covers of different genres. Romances almost always have a man and a woman in an intimate embrace; biographies always feature their subject; thrillers and mysteries are usually dark. So when I say the cover can tell you different genres, I mean it.

  1. When in doubt, look at the imprint.

There are people in the world who don’t know which publishing house, and imprint at that house, a book comes from. You’re not expected to. As a publishing professional, I always look because I need to know. If Atria (Simon & Schuster) published a book, it is not young adult. If I see Simon Pulse (also, Simon & Schuster), then I know it’s YA. There are some gray areas here, but this is a 99% guarantee of a book’s status.

But the problem was still nagging at me. And because I am a bit obsessive about YA, I decided to dig further. Luckily, I take detailed notes in class and hoard information sheets from my past internships for these very reasons.

When I got home, I closed my door and saw the most beautiful sight: this chart that breaks down YA. I saw this chart at one of my internships, and I wanted it. The chart breaks down the differences between younger YA and older YAs in regards to age ranges, binding styles (hardcover or paperback) and what to expect from the covers, and some notes on the general rules of content.20150213_204921

But I am still left wondering, what makes a book YA and others not?

So I dived into these bad boys:

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My grad school notes, y’all.

As I am refreshing my memory see that the marketing and sales channels are different. Then I read the line that is the truth of the matter.

The Number One Way to Tell YA: the situations and how the characters react.

There are some situations we all go through as teens. Sure, I might have never have volunteered to be in the Hunger Games, but everyone has had to figure out the complexities of love. Even in adult books, these situations happen, but teens react differently.

You can say it is because their brains aren’t done developing; you can say they lack the hard won experience as the rest of us. But teens feel things more strongly: what made me cry for an hour after a middle school dance would not faze me now, but for a blimp of annoyance.

This is what makes YA. You can look at all the stats of the book, the cover, but the STORY and how the characters REACT is how you can tell a YA.

And if those fail you, then …

The Importance of Being a Book Cover

Recently, while surfing LinkedIn (it’s Facebook for working professionals), I stumbled upon this article about 7 Book Marketing Predictions in 2015.

What caught my eye and inspired today’s industry thought of the day was this little gem: “The best way to sell a self-published book is to not make it look like it was self-published.” The quote above mentions self-published books, but this is applicable to every book. I know I briefly touched on my love of a beautiful book in a previous post, but today, let’s focus on the cover.

Did your mom ever tell you not to judge a book by its cover? Yeah? Well, that was bad advice. Hear me out. The book cover is HOW TO GET YOUR BOOK NOTICED. A good book cover should tell the reader something about the book but also intrigue them to pick it up in the first place. A bad cover can send the wrong message about your book.

Secret: publishers put more money into book covers than you think. Book not selling well? They will redesign the cover. On top of that fact, the books the publishers have designated will be the bestsellers (yes, the system is slightly rigged) get more money for better covers.

So, you ask, can we see some examples?

Below are two books: one cover I hate and one I like.

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I can see you scratching you head wondering which one I liked. The first one, The Beautiful Cursed, is the one I don’t like. It is a historical/fantasy book with gargoyles. When I first got the book, I was like, “Is this self published?” For a major publisher, I was thought it looked cheap. SHE IS FAINTING ON THE COVER. The second, Mothership, is a truly hilarious book. Think Juno meets Alien.

But here’s the deal: Motherhsip didn’t sell well. Librarians said the colors  and illustrated cover attracted younger readers. So it got a redesign. The Beautiful Cursed must have done moderately well, because the second book has a cover in a similar design. Both of these covers are, in my opinion, bad covers. One I just don’t like, and one that underserved the book.

But what about GOOD covers?

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There are many examples of good covers (most covers are fine, it is just the great and terrible ones you remember). Red Queen is a great cover. It recently published, but when you look at the cover (and I am talking look at it, i.e. feel it as well) you can tell the publisher wants this to do well. The cover tells you a bit about the story: princess, blood, meant to do well in the marketplace. The Mara Dyer books are the same.  The cover compels you to pick it up.

This has been an especially long post, so I am going to wrap this up.

A book cover is a selling tool. You are meant to judge the book by it. Sometimes the book is better than you expect. But sometimes the cover shows it’s not. Go forth and judge away!