I am so pleased to present this joint interview blog, Readers Voice: The Importance of Covers, which appeared early this year on Discovering Diamonds, author Helen Hollick’s brilliant blog highlighting the best of historical fiction in the form of reviews and other features. I was so pleased to join with three other bloggers as we chatted with Anna Belfrage, author of the wonderful Graham Saga series, to talk about covers and why they matter to readers. I’ve included the responses from Jo, David and Jenny, and highly encourage you to check out their blogs as well as books they’ve dipped into or treasured.
In some instances my own answers vary slightly from what appears at the original blog (linked above); owing to considerations of space, some snipping had been required for Anna’s posting. Feel free to spin through other entries too, both here and at Discovering Diamonds, as well as by Jenny, David and Jo – and as always, have fun!
Are covers important? Yes or no?
Anna: I’d say they are – but let us not get ahead of ourselves. Instead, I’d like my guests to introduce themselves. Jo, why don’t you go first?
Jo: Hello everyone, I’m Jo, a prolific reader and also an active book blogger at Jaffareadstoo – a blog I share with my ginger tom, Jaffa. I live in Lancashire in northwest England, and I am happily retired after a thirty year nursing career. To fill the void after I finished work I started blogging and chatting about books to anyone who would listen. I’ve also reviewed books for magazines and online websites. My passion is historical fiction and whilst I prefer medieval history, I do also love a good time slip novel that keeps one foot firmly in the present whilst visiting the past.
Jenny: I’m Jennifer Quinlan, but everybody calls me Jenny Q! I am a native of Virginia—a ninth-generation Virginian, actually. My family has lived in the same county since the 1680s! I studied history and English at Virginia Tech, and I am the owner of Historical Editorial. I provide copyediting and developmental editing services, and I design book covers. I also have a book review blog, my first love, Let Them Read Books.
I will read a novel from any historical period if the subject catches my fancy, though I am partial to British, French, and American history. I can’t possibly name a favorite read, but some of the timeless books on my historical fiction shelf of honor are Sharon Kay Penman’s Welsh Princes Trilogy and The Sunne in Splendour, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Gone with the Wind, Lonesome Dove, and Forever Amber. (AB: Ah, yes: Forever Amber – one of my first hist fit loves.)
Lisl: Ehem. (clears throat) Well. I’m Lisl and come from the Great Land, known to most people Outside as Alaska. (“Outside” simply means any place not Alaska.) I keep a blog called Before the Second Sleep, in which I write book reviews and other tidbits that strike my fancy. Back in September I had a series called “Month of Mary Stewart” to celebrate 100 years since the birth of this wonderful author. My mother recommended Stewart’s The Crystal Cave to me and solidified the affection I already had for Merlin. Other than this author’s Merlin Trilogy, I love to read time travel, historical fiction—mostly in Arthurian, 1066, Wars of the Roses and American history—and a few other genres.
AB: Wow, what a lovely and varied group of people you are! And, dear readers, I recommend you pop over to the various sites – these are four very different reviewers with a common passion for good books!
Now, before we get started, what can I offer you to drink? Coffee? Tea? Hot chocolate with whipped cream?
Jo: Hot chocolate with whipped cream wins every time!
David: Earl Grey for me. (A man of good taste.)
Jenny: Coffee please, and lots of it! Two creams, one sugar.
Lisl: Anna Belfrage, are you offering me chocolate? 😉 (AB: What can I say, Lisl? I live in hope ….) I would love a cup of tea, thank you!
AB: Right, with the practicalities sorted let me start by asking you how important you think the cover is. Will it sell the book to you? Or is it more a case of some covers putting you off even looking inside?
Jo: A well-designed cover suggests that time and care has gone into the story. The cover sells the book to me and I have bought books just on the basis of the cover; equally I have been turned off by poorly designed covers, or covers which bear no resemblance to the story. I have given up on a book if I have found the cover unappealing.
Lisl: Oh, in some instances a cover can indeed be the pull to the whole story. It has happened not a few times that I see a cover image or design from afar and from that alone must check to see what’s inside.
AB: Consensus seems to be covers DO matter. Do you have any favourite covers?
Lisl: First I want to toss in here that I love old editions’ book covers, both size and pictures. Some are quite alluring and bring me in, while others are dated, though often still captivating! Two in particular that stand out for me are from Stewart’s above mentioned Merlin Trilogy. The first shows Merlin in his early years, which perhaps caught my attention at the time because he was a child, like me. I had been somewhat accustomed to hearing mostly about adults in my mother’s stories. On the second book in the series was a depiction of Arthur, whose attractiveness, strength and boldness—all seen in this image—appealed to me. The two covers possessed a sort of mystical feel with the night sky, troops on the move, discovery and magical growth, all set within an ancient time, one that I felt I was being beckoned to join. They both stand in stark contrast to that of The Crystal Cave’s first UK cover, which shows a bunch of crystal clumped together. A geologist might appreciate it, but I think even students of literature would find it a staid and simplistic choice, also lacking in the human touch.
Jo: My favourite cover is Company of Liars by Karen Maitland. I bought the book purely for the cover and had no clue what the book was about and hadn’t heard of the, then, debut author. I just knew that I had to have a hardback copy of it to keep.
Jo: Good graphics, nothing too fuzzy. Easy to read font that stands out. A design that ‘grabs’ my attention. I like simple designs using negative space rather than filling the whole of the cover with too much information. For me less is more. I want to feel an emotional connection to the story and to pick up on the mood of the book from the picture on the cover.
Lisl: Well, it needn’t have people, as my last comment may have implied—but the design should inspire some sort of sensation, even if it is simple admiration for the colors, bends, direction, etc. Ideally it would give me some sort of hint regarding the where and what for, but apart from that should at least have some element that reaches out to make a connection, even if it is a time period, for example, I don’t often read, or design that implants some curiosity into the moment.
Jenny: Too many elements crammed in. Text that’s hard to read. Black-and-white or sepia photos with a simple title slapped on them.
Lisl: Generally speaking, solid colors and no drawing or design. There is a very popular series whose covers are a variety of different solids. If I ever saw these books in the shops before I heard of them, I never noticed and likely wouldn’t have investigated what they are about. It was only word of mouth that brought me to them. It isn’t that I loathe this sort of cover, just that there’s a nothingness to them that produces usually the very same in terms of response … nothing.
AB: Now, one perennial cover is the “headless woman in a period gown” cover. What are your thoughts about it?
Jenny: Works for me! So often when a woman’s face is on the cover, it doesn’t match my vision of the character in my head. Her manner of dress and her body language is much more alluring for me.
Lisl: To be honest, I really enjoy taking in the different gowns—colors, styles, era designs and so on. Bodies without heads, though, well, it’s a bit weird, to be honest. That said, they do create a bit of curiosity re: what the rest of the woman might have looked like: does she seem confident in her carriage? (This you can see in the eyes.) Does she give off a strong vibe or one that shows she can be bent to another’s will?—and all kinds of questions, really. The lack of answers to these in terms of an illustration or image to give some clues matches the historical reality that, with some exception, women’s lives simply were not recorded to the extent men’s were. The humanity we often want to see is missing in the records, but it also extends the mystery of distance in time, lending it to the story.
Audiences tend to want to see into characters’ souls, and you can’t do that with a headless body, but there are other ways to captures reader attention, and one great cover image I thought was Anne Easter Smith’s Queen by Right, which depicts Cecily Neville with gloved left hand holding a goshawk and in the other, a basket of white roses. While I don’t know all that much about falconry, the image piqued my attention and bestowed upon Cecily greater individuality, strength in particular. The roses go along with the theme, of course, all adding significantly more meaning to the cover than many others, whose great dresses, unfortunately, don’t take us beyond beautiful fashion.
David: Not for me really… I’m not a fan of bare chested men 😊 I’m aware that books appeal to different readers so these covers do have their place but just not on my book shelf.
Jenny: I do love a man in a kilt, but I am not such a fan of the bare-chested cover. It really doesn’t do anything for me. I’m not reading the book for the man’s abs. But I’ll take a man in breeches, vest, and coat any day!
Jo: If the book is about a “bare-chested, wild-haired man in a kilt” … then yes, why not. I’m sure this type of cover sells this particular genre and if it’s what readers enjoy then that’s ok with me.
Lisl: I tend not to take them seriously, really.
AB: Which historical fiction covers do you think work particularly well? Why?
Jo: All three covers are different and yet they all appeal to me both for their simplicity and attention to detail: The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick, The First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson, The Edge of Dark by Pamela Hartshorne.
Jenny: For me, historical fiction covers absolutely need to impart the essence of a time gone by, and the good news is there are many ways to do this using a combination of character representation, settings or objects, or even a historical-looking font. (AB: As Jenny designs covers, she preferred not to name specific covers.)
Lisl: Apart from the Stewart covers already mentioned, there are a few that come to mind straight away. I loved Annie Whitehead’s cover for To Be A Queen so much I wrote a cover crush entry about it. A mood of longing and loss is woven into the image, and even the title speaks of the distance—in time or space—between ourselves (or the characters) and what has been lost, or can never be.
I always thought the first edition for Paula Lofting’s Sons of the Wolf was as beautiful as its successor turned out to be. A ghostly rider moves amongst swirling colors that race past him, obscuring a completely clear view, as if we are given glimpses through an indistinct tapestry, the hues of which bend and blur events. The wolf referenced in the title, and who represents the warrior’s forebears, is seen above. I especially loved a particular effect of the image: one may have to take it in more than once to fully realize what it depicts, as it is not portrayed starkly, but rather as if one is seeing it—and events—through time.
I’m also a total sucker for medieval art, and I love it on book covers. Martha Kennedy uses one to grace her novel Savior, and the effect is one of growing with the cover from the first phase, before reading the book, but still admiring the image. Taken from a medieval illuminated manuscript, this one depicts knights on their coursers in the heat of war. Brought to bear on the passages set at the Battle of La Forbie, a new understanding of how these men lived and died alters what one sees in the image, a lovely cooperation between storytelling and cover art.
AB: As a final question, is there any particular period you would want to see more books about?
David: I’d like some more books set in the Wild West. It’s not a period I’m particularly familiar with but ever since I was a kid I’ve loved cowboys.
Jenny: No more Tudors please! I’d like to see more fiction set during the American and French revolutions and the War of 1812, maybe some more Irish medieval.
Jo: 11th, 12th or 13th centuries.
Lisl: I’d love to read more about the Barbary Wars.
(AB: And for those who, like me, don’t go “aha!” when hearing Barbary Wars, here’s a link.)
I am rather encouraged by Jo’s periods given my own writing preferences 🙂 And I agree: no more Tudors! How about some Stuarts instead? Thank you so much for joining me here today – and I must say that the covers you’ve mentioned are very varied – which just goes to show that what appeals to one reader may not appeal to another. Duh!
Many thanks to Anna Belfrage and my wonderful co-bloggers for such a great time!
Previous entries in the Reading 2017 series:
Readers’ Chat with Stephanie Hopkins
New Genre Library (Graphic Novel): Title TBA
New Genre Library (Science fiction): Title TBA
New Genre Library is a three-part spinoff series of Reading 2017
And a couple of other fun entries to round out the year!