What an interesting discussion! I recently bought my 9-year-old daughter and her friend the paperback version of Jennifer Holm’s wonderful “Penny from Heaven,” which shows, basically, just the back of the head of a girl with a yellow-beribboned dark ponytail. My daughter and her friend actually preferred the cover of my hardback copy of the book. They told me the hardback cover “showed” you what the book was about, including age of main character, time period, type of car, and that main character had a friend who was a boy. Their comments about the paperback photo cover: “Maybe the cover shows that she has long hair and likes the color yellow.” Their biggest complaint: “You can’t even see her face!”
As a YA cover designer, I can tell you, frustratingly, that sometimes one is pigeon-holed into doing just such a cover as you all are expressing frustration in. It is a sentiment that we share. Hopefully, like the overly Photoshopped look before (bevel/embossed overuse) that dominated shelves a few years ago, this phase will be over soon! (Then we can all latch onto the next gimmick!) Also, interestingly, a photo shoot and model is not so much more than a rights-managed stock image. Sure it requires more time and coordination, but it offers for a better cover every time, and helps a good model and photographer pay the bills!
I don’t think Alison is saying that all silhouettes are bad, or all stock photos, or that designers aren’t creatively engaged with these books. It’s more that they need to pay better attention to the other covers on the shelves — then they’d realize when their concepts are too similar and generic. It’s not enough for the cover to “work” graphically, it also has to distinguish the book from others in its genre.
I am in total agreement on this post! I think grass has supplanted bodices as girl cover images! Maybe the graphic artist designer should be required to actually read the book before designing a “concept” cover. I liked Alabama Moon but the new cover does not at all reflect the qualities of the story. I never did picture one of my favorite teen characters (Dairy Queen) lying around on the grass! Football, cows in a pasture, the hunky male player forking hay would have intrigued future readers and given an inkling about the plot. sue
Alison- great post! I wonder how much of this phenomenon is due to publishing companies using graphic designers that aren’t book-specific graphic designers (perhaps advertising people?. Then again, I’m just guessing. I don’t know how that stuff works. I’ve just been noticing an increase in the use of stock photos on book covers.
Loved the post! But I have to admit, I initially picked up “Penderwicks” because of the silhouettes…
PS: I’d say you can blame Steve Jobs for the silhouettes.
Good post and comments. I’d argue it’s not a question of what a book “deserves”; it’s a question of what a book’s sales can support. The bottom line is that it costs a fortune to shoot a cover, especially compared to the cost of stock photos and, assuming you can do a good cover from stock, the benefits can be marginal. YA books have fixed price points significantly lower than adult books of the same length and trim size, so the margins are tighter (and obviously, a photo shoot doesn’t cost less because it’s for a “cheap” teen book). I think the move to stock-based covers as opposed to the old style commissioned-illustration covers has been a good thing for the category (which has been, not coincidentally, growing like crazy in sales). Moving away from covers that literally illustrate a scene or a character from the book toward covers that, ideally (but not always), capture the voice, tone, and attitude of the book has helped YA separate itself from books for younger readers. And it’s made the photo-shoot covers better, too. (I really want to know if the Jonathan Barkat photo on the cover of Madapple was commissioned for the book–I’d guess yes. That’s a great cover.) And there are some very memorable stock-based covers. Book Thief anyone? Maureen Johnson’s Devilish? I could go on. There are definitely bad covers out there, but I think if you look at YA covers over time and compared to other categories, this is a great era for YA covers.
i totally agree! and such a shame as 5 of 10 of these books are truly brilliant and deserve to have a wider readership.
This was an exceptional post and one that should be read and reread by cover designers. I can imagine the budget and marketing constraints that produce these covers, but that said, most of what you are showing here shows a total lack of engagement by the designer and/or art director on the project. One caveat: nice figure to title integration on Code Orange cover. Too bad it’s part of the silhouette trend.
What is with the lying-in-the-grass thing? Jenny Han’s Shug is like that, too: the hardcover sported only a cheerful popsicle (which my kids and I liked, though I agree with you about the hardcover designs of Outcasts and Dairy Queen), but the paperback is a boy and a girl lying in the grass (with popsicles). I guess “grass” signifies “dreaming about the future.” And “summer.” Should all winter book covers feature kids tromping through snow?
Yeah, agreed. But both are better than the headless bodies trend. I find Penguin’s covers pretty consistent winners: sharp, bold, simple, intriguing.
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