08 April, 2006

Misleading book covers

I recently read The Winter Mantle and posted a review. I was persuaded to give the book a go because its author, Elizabeth Chadwick, is regularly recommended on the Historical Novel Society (HNS) discussion list. I have always been put off her books previously by the heavy romance emphasis in the packaging. (‘Romance’ is used in this context in its modern meaning, that of a male-female love story).

For example, the back cover blurb says,

“Normandy 1067 - William may have conquered England, but it is a conquest of a different kind that one English earl has in mind..... From the moment he catches sight of Judith..... he knows he has found his future wife. But is the match between Saxon earl and Norman lady made in heaven or hell?”

Hmmm. That sort of breathless prose is pretty effective at making me put the book back on the shelf and go looking for something else.

The cover picture features a lady in a long cloak gazing across a river at a knight on horseback, with a castle rising dreamily out of mists in the background. Hmmm again.

The opening scene features Judith being dressed by her maid and selecting her best clothes and jewellery. By page 4 her attention has been caught by a big, muscular, handsome young man astride a powerful chestnut stallion. By page 11, said handsome young man (who is Waltheof, the English earl of the back cover blurb) has noticed Judith and is sufficiently attracted to her “to make him shift on the bench and adjust his braies*.”

This is a classic romance opening, and the cover blurb had already primed me to expect a romance. Hmmm again. I like some romance in a story, and tend to miss it if it’s entirely absent, but I’m not a great reader of novels where a boy-meets-girl or he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not storyline has to carry the entire plot all by itself. However, I have some faith in the HNS discussion list, and the presence of an Author’s Note was an encouraging sign. So I persevered, and am pleased that I did because the book was considerably more interesting than the beginning and the packaging had implied, as you can see in my review.

This isn’t an isolated incident. When I was hesitating over whether to give The Winter Mantle a try, I was reminded that similar romance-heavy packaging had deterred me from reading Sharon Penman’s historical novels for years. (I only discovered her when someone told me my battle scenes resembled hers). I like Sharon Penman’s novels a lot, especially the Welsh trilogy of Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning, and was very annoyed that the packaging had put me off them for so long.

The back cover blurb from Here Be Dragons says,
“Joanna, a Princess caught between two warring worlds.... and torn between two loves...... The battle-torn land could not be more ravaged than her troubled, turbulent heart, and in a moment of confused, guilty passion that she will never forget, Joanna risks her peace of mind, her freedom.....even her life.”

The cover picture is a fine art painting showing a pensive lady doing embroidery in a garden.

Well, once I’d read the book I could see where the blurb writer and cover artist got this from, but I don’t think it gives a fair picture of the novel, which deals with Llewelyn the Great, King John, Welsh and Norman-French culture and the epic military and political events of the time, as well as with Joanna and her emotional turmoil. Had the packaging given more emphasis to the history and less to the romance element, I’d have found it much more attractive.

I wonder how many more good books I’ve missed because they’ve been misleadingly packaged as ‘romance’? I’m learning to ignore cover blurbs and cover art and look for the Author’s Note instead, but I don’t suppose that’s the intended effect. (Though it could be worse; few modern covers are as sensational as this one from the 1950s, which it seems also didn't reflect the content of the book.)

I've said earlier, in the context of historical accuracy, that I like a 'does what it says on the tin' approach so that I can see what sort of book it is and judge whether it's likely to suit my tastes. It seems to me that cover art and cover copy that doesn't reflect the content of the book makes it harder to identify new books that I might like, and has the unfortunate tendency to send me back to the safe harbour of an author whose work I'm already familiar with.

Does anyone else react to covers this way? What appeals to you, and what prompts you to put the book right back on the shelf?

*Braies: medieval equivalent of underpants, not unlike boxer shorts but with a drawstring or belt at the waist instead of elastic.


Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I'm running on empty for time here, so this is pretty quick. I rummaged out my copy of Here Be Dragons which is a Fontana paperback 1986, and first UK edition as far as I know. Has the title embossed in gold in the shape of a banner and a painting of two knights on horseback gazing across about 50 yards of sea at a castle on a rock. Blurb on the back starts out rather as suggested in your copy but improves after that.

A Princess trapped between two cultures...torn between two loves

In 13thC England and Wales three people are caught in a web of political intrigue, betrayal and conflicting loyalties.
JOHN, King of England, a man as charming as he is treacherous
LLEWELYN, Prince of Gwynedd, inspired leader of men, the implacable enemy of English ways and English encroachment into Wales
JOANNA, Illegitimate daughter of John, despatched at 14 to a strange land, among a wild, alien people, and married to a man twice her age.'

Now that seems reasonably balanced and sensible to me as a blurb and the cover illustration doesn't pander particularly to either sex. I think the woman sitting in a garden one is a later edition, so this seems like a backward step to me, unless publishers see such packaging as increasing the overall level of sales - going for the lowest common denominator type of thing. I don't honestly know.
I do think some authors 'line-straddle' between historcal romance and straight historical. I suppose I'd call such novels 'romantic historicals'. Sharon Penman can be viewed as a line straddler I think, although veering towards the straight historical. Roberta Gellis is a line straddler, but veering slightly more towards romance. Incidentally, do NOT read Desiree as an example of her art, it's not that good. But Roselynde, the first of her novels staring the lady Alinor of Roselynde has just been re-issued and it's a terrific read - even though I dread to think what the blurb says! But it must be more difficult to decide on the blurb for a line straddler because you are going to get readers from both sides of that line, and to whom do you appeal?


Susan Higginbotham said...

Interesting. The Penman paperbacks I have, all fairly recent US editions, have rather small cover illustrations that appear to have come from medieval manuscripts, and the back-cover copy isn't of the breathless type Carla describes. In my copy of Here Be Dragons, there's a picture of a crowned lady being followed by a few retainers. Joanna is described in the back-cover copy as having to choose to give her love and loyalty to her father or to her husband, but there's nothing in the cover art or cover copy that would scare off someone who prefers straight historical fiction to historical romance. (By the same token, there's probably nothing on the cover that would appeal to someone who prefers historical romance.)

As far as cover appeal goes, I'll look through almost anything in the bookstore with a cover that suggests that a novel is historical fiction, unless the cover simply screams "historical romance" (bare-chested hunk, for instance) in which case I'll generally pass it by.

Sarah Johnson said...

I don't know if anyone's read The Illuminator by Brenda Rickman Vantrease, but the hardcover edition uses the same "medieval woman embroidering in a garden" image as the later UK pb edition of Penman's Here Be Dragons. Only in this version the image is even more embellished, with gold foil and filigree. (See the first two images in my reusable cover art gallery.) By the cover, the novel seems to be aimed at the "romantic historical" reader.

However, any romance reader who picks it up expecting a light historical story with the usual happily-ever-after ending is in for a shock. There is a love story in it, but it's far more than that, and it's also very, very grim in places. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but it was not at all what I had anticipated, based on the cover.

Carla said...

My edition of Here Be Dragons is a Penguin paperback 1991 edition. I can't remember exactly when I bought it but it was only about 5-6 years ago. The first of her novels that I read was When Christ and His Saints Slept, about the civil war between Maude (aka Matilda) and Stephen. Maude has always interested me), so it seemed a good one to try out, and it then convinced me to go and find all her others. The 1986 cover copy for Here Be Dragons would have been much more appealing to me; pity that at the time my book budget was confined to textbooks or I might have discovered Sharon Penman many years earlier!
Interestingly, I notice that Amazon.co.uk has a different cover for Here Be Dragons, which also claims to be a 1991 Penguin paperback. I can't see the cover blurb, though, so I don't know if that's also different.

Susan Higginbotham - agree regarding the hunk in an unbuttoned shirt! I quite like those covers because they tell me straight away that I'm not the target audience. What cues about a cover suggest to you that a novel might be historical fiction and prompt you to pick it up for a closer look?

Carla said...

Sarah - the UK Here Be Dragons in your link is the edition I've got. The Illuminator does look very romance-y, and would prompt me to pass by. What is it about?

Alex Bordessa said...

Carla, your blog immediately reminded of a surprise I got when I finally got my hands on my first bought copy of Conscience of the King . I was desperate to read it again and actually own a copu, and finally got hold of an affordable version from the US. All I knew was that it was an old paperpack ... Well, when I opened the package, on the over there is a grinning Cerdic (one presumes) grasping a bag of loot in one hand and a screaming doxy with 1950s conical breasts in other. Eeek! If I hand't known the author, I still would have read the book as it covers my area of interest - I'm always game, though sometimes regret it ...

Irony is, that less than a year, later the book was finally reprinted in this country, and with a somewhat more modest cover :-)

Sarah Johnson said...

Carla - in brief, The Illuminator is about a widow in late 14th-century England, a woman from the minor nobility, who agrees to let a master illuminator and his daughter lodge with her and her sons at the request of the local abbot. She and the illuminator become romantically involved, but complications ensue when she discovers that in addition to doing work for the Church, he's also helping John Wycliffe illustrate an English translation of the Scriptures. Things go downhill from there. Here's the author's website with the publisher's blurb, which doesn't give away the dark turns that the book takes.

Rick said...

This is scary, because I could easily imagine my own book getting this treatment. Though since it is "fantasy," albeit nearly without standard fantasy elements, dishonesties on the cover might go in a different direction.

From a cynical perspective I can understand why they do this - the market for historical romance is probably many times larger than for true hist-fic, so the publisher stands to gain more readers than they lose. Sadly, though, they may lose the ones who would most appreciate the book.

Rick said...

Oh, my! I just followed the link to the old pback cover of Royal Scandal. Who knew that poor Kathee Howard looked like a 30-ish redhead with a 1950s Bad Girl 'do?

Susan Higginbotham said...

I wonder what the jacket designer would have made of Anne Boleyn!

Carla said...

Considering the current vogue for a headless lady in period costume..... :-)

Rick - They might gain more short-term buyers, but I wonder how many readers they gain? If you've bought a book expecting a romance and it isn't, wouldn't you be disappointed and doubly wary of that author in future? And there's behavioural research on other products showing that if people are happy with a purchase they tell an average of one person, but if they've been disappointed they tell an average of 10. Anecdotal evidence from a bloke I chatted to in our local bookshop bears this out - the one book whose title and author he could remember was the one he'd bought because of the cover and been disappointed in. More about him next time I post.

Rick said...

Your logic is impeccable, but a little more cynicism: The romance market is (I suspect) so much bigger than the general hist-fic market that the marketers may figure they'll still come out ahead in satisfied customers. A lot of romance readers may go away disappointed from a book that isn't really a romance, but the ones who like it anyway - and will buy the next by that author - still may outnumber those lost to the misleading cover.

Similar to the reason that much SF has spaceships on the cover even if the story has nothing to do with space.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Carla asked earlier what on a cover suggested "historical fiction." Fresh from a field trip to Barnes & Noble, I can report that all the historical fiction I saw on the "New Fiction" shelf had on its cover either a person in period costume, a reproduction from a painting or a manuscript, a historical or an old building, or a street scene that was obviously from the past. Other things that always tip me off are coats of arms, heraldic symbols, old ships, and the like. I can't think of a historical novel I've seen recently that doesn't contain at least one of these clues, though I'm sure others can think of some.

I saw a Beatrice Small book on a discount table. Its cover had a lady on it showing a great deal of cleavage. I gingerly picked it up and had my suspicions that it was a romance confirmed.

On the other hand, the cover of The Illuminator didn't strike me as being one of a historical romance, so I wasn't surprised by its contents when I got it out of the library back when it first came out.

Sarah Johnson said...

Re: The Illuminator - it didn't suggest "historical romance" to me either, at least not as it's defined in the USA. Plus, it's a fairly thick hardcover, which romances almost never are. But I think the cover and blurb ("...a time when a woman's virtue can hang on the whim of a lord, the pleasure of a bishop") are of the type that might entice romance readers, should they wish to make an excursion into historical fiction - a transition book, if you will. And I think they would be surprised at the contents. Bertrice Small's books are another ballgame completely. :)

Carla said...

Rick - indeed, the relative numbers count for everything. I also guess that a cover in keeping with a current vogue is likely to be signed off with minumum hassle, whereas something out of the ordinary is likely to generate questions, debate, multiple rounds of review, and other things that make life awkward for a busy design department.

Susan Higginbotham - many thanks for the field trip research results! Out of interest, are books often shelved face out, or is it common to have graphics on the spine in the US? I'm wondering what clues (if any) operate when all that's visible is the spine.

Sarah - your 'transition book' idea seems similar to Elizabeth/Susan's comment about books that 'line-straddle' between romance and historical fiction. (I notice that Amazon.co.uk categorises Sharon Penman as 'Fiction; Romance', which would tend to support this). Would you say there's a trend towards books of this sort? I've certainly been told that the Jean Plaidy-type historical novel is hopelessly unsaleable nowadays.

Sarah Johnson said...

Carla - I agree that "romantic historicals" are more of a trend lately, and agree with Rick's comments above. But I don't know if I'd say that Jean Plaidy-type books aren't selling anymore. Mainstream historical novels about royals (mainly women, but men too) are the latest thing. Plaidy herself is seeing a resurgence of popularity in the US, with many of her novels being re-released in large-format paperback.

Amazon US doesn't categorize Penman as Fiction-Romance and I'd be surprised if they did. This may be because the "romance" category is perceived differently in the US and UK - what do you think?

Susan Higginbotham said...

Re Carla's question on shelving: Everything on the "New Fiction" shelf of the Barnes & Noble I visited was displayed face out, but back on the regular fiction shelves, most books are displayed spine out, so it's much more difficult to discern what might be of interest to a historical fiction reader. An ornate or old-fashioned typeface on the spine, like that on my recently issued paperback copy of Anya Seton's Katherine, tends to catch my eye. Both Sharon Penman's US paperbacks and Jean Plaidy's reissued paperbacks have thumbnail images of the cover art on the spine.

Rick said...

Susan mentions a subtlety I hadn't even thought about, the judging-from-the-spine problem. SF/F have their own section; it may be a ghetto, but at least you have some idea what you're getting.

Gabriele Campbell said...

German bookstores have a Historical Fiction section - in most cases as large as the Mystery/Thriller one and larger than SciFi/Fantasy (which is usually lumped together) and Romance. Historicals with a clear indication of romance only end up on the Romance shelves, but those with strong romance subplots are shelved as Hist fic.

Our covers range from headless women and 19th century paintings to Mediaeval miniatures and some very nice iconographic ones (she escaped a 19th century painting with some half naked barbarians dragging a chained Roman along by insistence of her agent).

Since I buy a lot via Amazon.de, I never look at the categorization and seldom at the covers, either. What I read is the info given by the publisher, and that's often more detailed and less marketing-oriented than a backcover blurb. And I use the 'Readers who liked this also bought' feature to find new authors.

Not to mention blogs. :-)

Carla said...

Sarah - I don't really see enough US books or read enough books that bill themselves as romances to judge whether 'romance' means something different on opposite sides of the Pond. It may do, because I don't see many covers like these in the UK - though that may just reflect where I look :-) Can anyone else say whether 'romance' differs in definition?

Rick/Susan - Spine out is how I first see most books in shops and libraries. I do like the little thumbnail graphics on the spine but not many books seem to have them. I tend to be guided by the font too; it's nice that I'm not alone in that. Libraries here have a historical section but bookshops don't. I think on balance I prefer the library approach (or the science fiction/fantasy approach) because as Rick says, at least you know where to start. I find I get daunted/confused by the racks of thrillers and chick lit in Waterstones and always end up either looking for authors I already know (which defeats the point of intending to try something new) or scuttling off to the non-fiction history section where at least I can find things.

Gabriele - I use blogs too, in fact I think I first discovered the existence of blogs when Googling for book reviews. I find on Amazon.co.uk that the synopses vary in usefulness. Sometimes the Amazon reader reviews are useful to me too, if they've said what they liked/disliked as opposed to 'wow, fab, 5 stars!!!' or 'awful, boring, don't buy it' which don't really tell me anything. But at the moment the surest indicator seems to be to look for the Author's Note.

KC said...

I wish I didn't judge books by their covers, but I do. It was interesting to read your blog entry and the comments. I wrote about my personal book judgements at my blog last summer.

Carla said...

Hi KC, and thanks for dropping by. Yes, I have the same reaction as you to chick-lit books featuring stiletto heels, pastel colours and shopping bags :-) Interesting that you said back in August you wished someone would redesign the cover art of Elizabth Chadwick - what would you like to see instead?

Bernita said...

I'm sorry, but I can't help a totally irrelevant and silly comment brought on by the mention of braies (or braes as it is sometimes spelled) regarding that bastard child of historical fiction - time travel novels and their covers.
They so often feature "the banks and braes of bonnie Doon."

Carla said...

The mind boggles, Bernita :-)

Rick said...

Completely OT, but this blog just change from plain carlanayland ... to www.carlanayland ...?

My link suddenly stopped working, and I was only able to get here via your website, and it looks like the URL has mysteriously changed.