Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Fish Slapping: Goodreads, Cover Art, and Upvoting

I’m guessing that most readers, myself included, think about books in terms related to the writing: story or plot, character, setting, themes and the like.  But what about the physical book, the package you see in the store or when looking online – which draws you to one book over another?  Title, author, and cover art come to mind, not necessarily in that order.

In an age of internet sales driving the book business, cover art has become all the more important and obvious.  Outside of an author’s name being attached to a book, attractive covers have the ability to draw in readers and sell them content they may not otherwise even notice.  One look at reviews on Goodreads in particular is all the proof needed.  A search also shows how Cover Love is alive and well:

That’s a lot of lists just focusing on book cover art.  Depending on how you phrase the query, you can get even more results or less depending on the specificity of your search.  Still, 200+ focusing on something that’s often easily detached or even forgotten about once a book is opened is worth taking a closer look at.

Consider these two screenshots of reviews from Goodreads for two books that could be classified as Young Adult and Fantasy or Science Fiction.  First, a sample of reviews from the last of a NYT bestselling YA series:

Now a sample of reviews for a newly released YA trilogy starter:

In terms of helpfulness, the majority of the above reviews tell you little to nothing of the contents of the book relating to story (which would be the author’s territory) but they do tell you all about how incredible the book looks (the cover artist/design team’s territory).  As nice as this is, there are a few issues that arise from such “reviews.”

1.    Upvoting – if you’re a publisher or author or anyone involved with the book, you’re hoping the numbers are good because people are more likely to buy something that other people like.  Seeing a lot of 5 star reviews can generate extra sales, but a closer look may show that the upvotes are actually related to the cover, not the writing.  While I have nothing against the practice of reviewing a book by its cover (we all do this every time we pick one book over another either online or in store when just browsing as opposed to when we are looking for a specific book), rating a book by its cover is a different story. 

Rating 5 stars and saying “Squee, best cover ever!” is obnoxious and unhelpful for someone looking for an honest review of book content.  “Totes unique and original” is only mildly more helpful, but sometimes still questionable as to whether it refers to cover or content when the date of the review is before the date of book publication or even after pub date.  I often agree that a cover is “squee” worthy when I’m looking at certain genres (Young Adult reviews are often plagued by these reviews), but I’m not reading reviews to know what people think of the cover that I know looks amazing.  I want to know why a 5 star rating was deserved for the author’s work or why someone else thought it was worthy of a 1 or anywhere in between.  I have never ever seen a 3 star review that says “This cover was okay, but lacked that certain je ne sais quoi to make it worthy of an extra star or two.”  That’s the type of review you get for the writing, not the art.  Hence, the cover “reviews” with ratings actually upvote the content and do not reflect an accurately helpful rating of the product.

2.    Increased Pre-release Fan girl/boy activity: This is something you actually want if you’re an author trying to sell a book, especially if you’re getting your first book published or your first in a specific genre or your first in a long time.  A solid cover that catches the eye can help drive sales instead of people just saying they’ll wait until they can get it from the library.  I don’t have numbers, but from experience talking to people and my own purchasing habits, people are more likely to buy attractively packaged products more than those that look shabby or not worth purchasing.  This also helps explain why certain series get re releases with new covers from time to time.  I have to admit that I seriously considered purchasing the Harry Potter hardcover set featuring Kazu Kibuishi’s cover art because it looked cool, I love the artist, and I only have a measly paperback set, but I didn’t need another set so I’ve held off.

But what the cover art does in the case of a lot of high profile series is stir up the fan boy and fan girl rather than the public.  I’m guessing that my Harry Potter example is something that some people are rolling their eyes at.  It’s not for everyone.  In actuality, the first of the screen caps shows this, a high profile series with great art to the fan of the series causes the upvoting phenomenon on an even bigger scale.  Since they are already a fan, the assumption is that the book is going to be “OMG, Amazing!” regardless of the content.  That’s not true, but you’ll have to dig to find the fans who hated the book(s) and give us wheat reviews because of all the chaff reviews that amount to “So PRETTY!  I NEEDZ, HAZ 2 HAZ.”

3.    Material Misrepresentation: I call this the cover that has details that are not in the book or the cover that has little to no real connection to the writing.  While authors may ask the publisher to include something in the cover art or have the artist represent a particular scene or sequence, the truth is that most cover art is created separately from the author’s work and intent.  Most authors will tell you that they get little if any say in what the cover of their book looks like.   Graphic novels and picture books are often the exception but that’s due to the artist being directly tied to book content.  Even so, the content of the book and the content of the cover do not always match up and can cause confusion and even anger amongst fans.

Scrutiny is a big thing when it comes to cover art.  The bigger the series or the author, the more likely the cover is going to be looked at with the finest tooth comb.  Sometimes something is included or hinted at on the cover that actually has nothing to do with the book or lead fans to believe one thing only to discover the writing tells a very different story.  A well-known example of the cover not matching the story is the U.S. cover of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.   The cover features a finger knocking over some dominoes and does not reflect the fact the book is about a young girl's life in Nazi Germany as observed and narrated by Death.   While covers not matching stories is less a problem than it used to be when the writing and packaging of a book were completely separate, it still happens from time to time with the result that someone, somewhere, is vastly disappointed to the point that a product is unfairly dissed.

4.    Incorrect Source Attribution: Let’s give the proper person credit where credit is due.  If you’re talking about the cover, please (x3) mention the artist or design team responsible.  Saying the cover is the author’s own work (unless it obviously is) is a vastly incorrect source attribution.  We all like to have our good work noted.  The cover artists deserve as much credit as they can get for a job well done, especially if it’s going to drive sales for a product.  Most jacket covers give artists and designers credit on the back flap, so saying that they’re not listed or easy to find simply isn’t true these days.  Most good ones can even be found online with a minimal amount of searching.

If you’re still with me, this has all been a long winded attempt to explain why good book cover art matters and why acknowledging the artists is important.  As reviewers, we need to give the artists their dues for the beauty they bring to books.  We need to acknowledge that their artwork can create a frenzy and generate sales.  It’s okay to recognize the art as much as the writing, but also to recognize that they are not reflective of each other.  A book with beautiful art may not be as beautifully written.  The reverse can be equally true and that's okay.

I’m all for giving a shout out for beautiful covers.  What I’m *not* for is the upvoting and reviews from the fan girl/boy that focus solely on how a book looks.  A book is more than art.  A book, the physical variety anyway, is a package deal.  It is the harmony of font, typesetting, binding, jacket cover and art with the characters, setting, and plot present in the writing.  It’s not just the author or the cover artists that sell good books.  It’s the design teams at the publishing houses that give us covers to drool over, titles to obsess about, and books we want to share with everyone.

Go ahead and drool, you know you want to.  Just attribute correctly, or I’m gonna have to resort to some fish slapping a la Monty Python.

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