Saturday, July 24, 2010

This one's for the ladies

Below we have five recent historical novels -- literary fiction, for the most part -- whose cover design changed between the hardback and paperback editions. What do they have in common? Hardback at left, trade pb at right.

All are written by male novelists, and female figures have made an appearance in the paperback cover art. Ladies, would you be more apt to pick up the books in the right-hand column? And for the men in the audience, which of the covers do you prefer?

I should point out that women do feature strongly in these novels, so the new cover designs aren't deceptive marketing, imho.


  1. Yup, I'm definitely more attracted to the covers on the right, except for the Iain Pears' cover, which looks like a vampire book in paperback!

  2. It's interesting, because my first thought looking at those--before I scrolled down and read the rest of your post--was that the paperback versions looked as if they were designed to attract female readers. Now that is an interesting question: are men more likely to buy hardcover books than women? Who'da thunk it?

  3. It never bothers me in the slightest what gender the author has - I always assume that its a pen name and I really have no idea who the author is. I would avoid the covers with women on them.

  4. Interesting question.
    As one who has a bit of an aversion to the half-face or headless female that seems to populate much of the historical fiction genre, I have to say I prefer the hardbacks. I love to see original artwork on a cover, something done by human hand and not photoshop software. Bit old fashioned, on my part, perhaps, but there you go!

  5. I do think that the right hand column would attract me to it more, but I'm not sure it has anything to do with the inclusion of the woman. I think the ones on the left look kinda bland and plain while the right column is generally brighter and has more going on to catch my eye. Thanks for this question.

  6. I like the hardcover-covers much better -- they're more intriguing and less generic. But I've read in several places that publishers are currently aiming for the upper-middle-class suburban woman between 40-50 who buys 30 or so hardcover books a year: the "dream" buyer. Guess these lady-covers are aimed at them.

  7. I have to say I prefer the ones on the left, without the headless females on them. The faceless female strikes me as such an act of depersonalisation that I find it a bit offensive. It's as if the female figure is generic, and symbolic rather than a specific character in the story. I know we are probably supposed to project ourselves into the figure somehow because she is faceless - and also that we won't take against her and decide not to buy the book, if we don't like the cast of her features (basically because we can't see them.) But I still find it very disquieting as a woman, seeing women reduced to faceless nothings especially on objects that are being supplied for their entertainment.

    Interestingly in the case of the book where you saw both the male and female protagonists in the paperback and just the male in the hardback, I preferred the later, because it was just a more striking, unfussy image.

    All very interesting to think about. I'm trying to design a historical mystery cover at the moment and it's quite a challenge for a newbie!

  8. Harriet, I'm in total agreement with you regarding the headless women. It IS disquieting that, even as a protagonist, the woman is deprived of her head, her voice, her brain, and it's downright ghoulish when it's on a book set in a time period (like the Tudor court) where women were beheaded.

    I've had my share of headless women-covers, and though I fought hard against them -- when the art is portrait of the heroine, why not show her face? -- but I always lost. The reasoning given was that modern readers wouldn't think they were pretty enough, and not buy the book.

    The poor heroine of my new book ("The Countess & the King") suffered a double humiliation: most of her life, she was ridiculed for being plain, and the modern art director and marketing folk agreed: she didn't even get the headless portrait treatment, but some other lady's much-more-voluptuous headless body instead.

    :: Sigh:: Nice to know we've made so much progress over the last 350 years, isn't it?

  9. For what it's worth, I prefer some on the left and some on the right (of course!). The covers of the first two pbs are more agreeable to me; the hb of Brooklyn looks rather sterile, while The Disagreement has been visually transformed from a Civil War battle novel to an interpersonal drama from the same era, and I'd be much more apt to read the latter.

    That said, I agree that the headless female creature concept is disturbing and a little creepy, especially the Pears. Makes me think she'll be a victim (perhaps of a vampire, Avis!) rather than the heroine or a major character.

    Interesting re: the assumption of a pen name, Erastes. They're common enough in romance, but not as much in literary HF, I don't think. The author's gender doesn't persuade me one way or the other, although I am less likely to read "big battle" books (more typically written by men).

    Robert, that's a good point; the hardback cover art is more likely to be original rather than a Photoshop creation/reworking of stock art, and in that sense more appealing.

  10. I would be more inclined to read the ones without the women on the covers. I am really not a big fan of the fashion for a silk-brocade-and-heaving-bosom cover we see a lot of nowadays.

  11. In every case the covers on the left hand side are winners for me. I'd be far more likely to read them/pick them up than those on the right. Mainly because I am contrary, I know the dominant trend, and I refuse to be herded.

  12. "Mainly because I am contrary, I know the dominant trend, and I refuse to be herded."

    Exactly, Elizabeth!

  13. Whether written by man or woman, I prefer not to have seductive covers or the headless bosoms as have become, sadly, a trend. Give me the artistic covers with well written plots. Put the drama inside the novel, not out. (I realise I am a minority in this).
    As for this grouping of covers, I actually prefer the hardcover covers on the left.
    In a bookstore, knowing nothing else, I would choose the left over the right.

  14. I prefer the top three covers on the left, like the paperback of the Iain Pears (have that on my nightstand at the moment)over the cloth design, and don't like either cover for the bottom book. I'm a little tired of headless women on covers, too, or the face partially cut off. Surely publishers can come up with something new that is striking and appealing to women readers (if that is their target with these) than depicting only the bodies. I expect those types of covers must be a real turn off for men-they might be put off reading a book with that sort of illustration on public transport!

  15. Believe it or not, I much prefer the covers in the left column. Go figure? I'm not a very girly-girl, to be fair, though. ;)

  16. I've adjusted my posting name because there are a couple other Sarahs around here, methinks :)

    Curious now if anyone's finished any of these five, and whether the covers fit the storyline at all. I have Stone's Fall on the TBR (looks like you might be reading it now, Danielle?) but I don't own the others. I've been debating getting a copy of Brooklyn after reading a blog review the other day.

    I agree that the pb covers are going to be too girly for a lot of men -- except perhaps the Pears.

    FWIW, my favorite type of cover is a full figure of a person against a historical-looking landscape, or a landscape on its own.

  17. I definitely don't like the headless women on the right; that artistic device is way overused. On the other hand, I'm not crazy about any of the hardback covers except "The Disagreement," which at least gives a hint as to its time period and subject matter. I find all of the other covers useless when it comes to letting a potential reader know anything about the story inside.

  18. Anonymous5:34 AM

    That's interesting. I would pick up the editions on the right, I think. Except for the 2nd and 3rd book, I like the hardback covers for those a lot more.

  19. Very interesting post - the power of imagery so strong.

  20. Isn't it though? And the cover plays such a strong role in persuading readers whether to pick up a novel or not, so I find it fascinating to see the differences between the pairings.

    If covers are meant to tell a story (preferably the one inside the book!) then only the Taylor and Toibin covers come close to achieving that.

  21. Jane O8:08 AM

    BROOKLYN – I can’t see the hardback cover all that clearly, but the paperback cover seems to put the story more clearly in the past.

    THE DISAGREEMENT – I would never buy a book that featured a gun that prminently on the cover, so I would prefer the paperback.

    A RELIABLE WIFE – I don’t much like the hardback cover. It looks like Edward Gorey so I would expect a comic mystery. Of course, I don’t know the book, so maybe that’s the right impression to give.

    STONE”S FALL – I prefer the hardback cover, but I’ll read anything by Ian Pears, so it really wouldn’t matter.

    WANTING – I dislike the script for the title so I wouldn’t want either one.

  22. Very interesting post, Sarah. And interesting comments. I've read "Brooklyn", which I recommend, and think the paperback cover matches the story better. Although I am quite taken with the hardcover version. I tried to read "The Disagreement" and gave up about halfway through. The man on the paperback cover looks very familiar--have we seen him on a cover before?
    I would be very curious to hear people's thoughts on the cover for "My Name is Mary Sutter." This is an excellent novel, but I hate the cover. If I'm not mistaken, the woman's dress is from an entirely different time period. Other's thoughts on this?

  23. Jane - I agree, when it comes to historicals by Pears, the cover doesn't matter. I'll end up reading it anyway.

    Emily - I tried to get Brooklyn out of the library yesterday, but our copy's gone missing. In a perverse way, I guess that could be considered a recommendation. That cover is a duplicate of another from the UK, incidentally.

    I don't recognize the Disagreement guy, but if he's from a stock art gallery, chances are it's a repeat. I'll let you know if I come across him again.

    My Name Is Mary Sutter was thoroughly enjoyable. 19th-c women's dress isn't my area of expertise, but I know some of the readers here specialize in American costume. I thought the cover was plain, but OK. Maybe someone else might have some input on it?

  24. I have to admit it--I'm immediately more interested in the covers on the right. I'm not sure if this is because they feature women, or because they seem to feature a person rather than a landscape or other item.