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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

03 June 2009

Judging Books By Their Covers

This past Monday, at Lady Jane’s Salon, Laurel McKee’s editor gave a presentation on the process by which her cover reached its final form. As publishing guru Ron Hogan played Vanna White with the pictures, we got to see the gradual development from concept to final version. Some of the changes were sparked by practical concerns, such as there being too many curlicues on the cover font for easy reading across a crowded bookstore.

The other major change, however, came about when the author pointed out that the initial color of the heroine’s dress—for lack of a better term, slut red—would have been entirely inappropriate for a lady of that period and especially a lady in morning. The dress went to purple.

I was very impressed. I don’t like to think of myself as a cynic, but my general take on covers is somewhat akin to my feelings about “historical” movies: fact is honored more in the breach than the observance and you just expect that and deal with it so long as the final result is pretty.

This has been a pretty good maxim for most of my covers so far, all of which have been gorgeous (I love the Dutton art department), but most of which have featured paintings from, well, let’s just call them neighboring time periods. My first cover was spot on in that it featured a painting of a dark-haired woman with a bunch of carnations (how they found that, I’ll never know). It was less spot on in terms of the clothing. The book is set in 1803. The painting and the dress are later nineteenth century, although they look, at a quick glance, very eighteenth century.

The most obviously anachronistic of the lot was my third book, The Deception of the Emerald Ring. The girl in the painting actually looks very much as I imagined my heroine. And it’s certainly very, very green, which was the idea. But the dress is very clearly Victorian rather than Empire. I got a few snarky emails over that one.

I’ve noticed the same phenomenon with other authors’ books as well. Karen Harper’s Mistress Shakespeare, about the secret first wife of the immortal late sixteenth/early seventeenth century bard, features the exact same picture I had in poster form over my desk freshman year: My Sweet Rose, by nineteenth century Preraphaelite painter, John William Waterhouse.

Readers, does it bother you when the cover art on historical fiction reflects the wrong time period? Authors, would you rather have a pretty cover or a historically correct one? (Well, clearly both, but if you had to pick one....) Have you ever objected to a cover on historical grounds?

12 Comments:

Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Fun post, Lauren -- I had a cover for a Regency, when I was with Kensington, that featured clothing straight out of the 20th century -- but it was a great cover in terms of concept and character and I am sure it sold books.

As a reader the only thing I don't like are covers that represent the "bodice ripper" aspect -- no wonder romance still gets that labels -- so many covers still fit that image.

I love your covers and Pam's and think Lavinia Kent's brand new A TALENT FOR SIN has a great cover. On the other hand Joanna Bourne's covers for SPYMASTERS LADY and MY LORD AND SPYMASTER were, imo, completely uninspired but that did not keep those books from getting all the attention they deserved including RITA nominations.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Lauren! I too am impressed by the account of Laurel McKee's cover, particularly that they changed the color of the dress to fit with the heroine being in morning. I've been pretty lucky with my covers, particularly the trade covers for Secrets of a Lady and Beneath a Silent Moon. The collage of images on both do a good job of showing the history, intrigue, and romance of the books, I think. And the paintings of the women are the right period. The painting on Beneath is the well-known Madame Recamier painting that is on a number of covers (including Amanda's By a Lady). But it actually looks as though it could be Melanie, as does the portrait of the woman on the Secrets cover. The ring on the Secrets cover looks totally unlike the Carevalo Ring in the book, thuogh (the Carevalo Ring is a man's ring, with a lion's head with ruby eyes). I pointed this out to my editor, but she said everyone liked the look of the ring on the cover and the cover images were "more symbolic."

My funniest cover story was for the U.K. edition of Daughter of the Game (the original title of Secrets of a Lady). They sent me a beautiful cover with a period painting showing the Houses of Parliament. The only problem was, those buldings weren't built until 1828 and the book is set in 1819 :-). I sent them an email gently pointing this out, and they quickly changed the cover to a new, era-appropriate painting. After that I didn't feel quite so tenative about being an American writing British set books :-).

5:01 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Personally, I'd rather have a period correct cover than a "pretty" one. I think this is why my editor at Kensington gave me naked men (cause if I'd have jeans and button downs I'd have pitched an unholy fit).

I think a period image is intriguing and sucks a reader in, in a way that a nondescript image, or a merely pretty one, doesn't (I don't think my naked men were all that evocative, nor were they all that useful in getting the right readers to pick up my books, which is kind of the whole point, right?).

7:01 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

As a buyer, I'd go for period-pretty rather than period-correct. And as a reader and an author, I'd be perfectly happy with pre-Raphaelite anything, probably because pre-Raphaelism is so decorative. And since it already has a kind of second-level derivative relationship to medieval art, imo it fits historical romance and romance-inflected fiction particularly well.

9:21 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Great discussion, Lauren! As an historical fiction writer I've had some of everything. My MEMOIRS OF HELEN OF TROY had a Pre-Raph cover painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. No one seemed to object. I had found a pre-Raphaelite painting (by a woman) that was actually titled Helen of Troy, but the publisher felt the image was "too YA." Nonetheless, it's the image that the Greek publisher chose for its Greek language edition! So in a way I feel like I got the last laugh.

As Tracy pointed out, the Recamier portrait was used for BY A LADY; and then it was tweaked because the novel is a time-travel, about a contemporary actress (who does very much resemble that image of Recamier) who is thrust back to 1801. After the biggest cover fight of my life, the publisher was willing to consider my idea, then went one better and added the bright lights of Broadway in the background (which relate to a plot point).

Some publishers, including my current one, feel that it's good for marketing to feature a painting of the real person on the cover when actual historical figures, as opposed to mythological ones or entirely fictional ones, are the protagonists of the novels. So, TOO GREAT A LADY and ALL FOR LOVE respectively feature Emma Hamilton (Nelson's favorite portrait of her, in fact) and Mary Robinson (in what I thought was the most flattering portrait of her). Whether the women look their prettiest to any given reader is a matter of conjecture. Certainly the Romney portrait of Emma Hamilton (then Hart) as Cassandra (featured on Lauren's SEDUCTION OF THE CRIMSON ROSE) is, to my mind, the "prettiest" portrait of Emma and the one in which she most appeals to 21st c. ideas of "beauty." But so many nonfiction bios of Emma have used that Romney portrait that it was important to me for readers to see a different image of her, so that they didn't think they'd already read the book.

As to accuracy vs. pretty, NAL went for the latter with their cover for my second nonfiction book, NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES. It's a watercolor of an 18th c. man chasing a woman (and they are both in clothing commonly worn by the gentry). Nothing "royal" about the way they look. And despite the fact that the subtitle is "A Juicy Journey Through Nine Centuries of Dynasty, Destiny, and Desire," the cover is squarely set in the 1780s. But I have to admit that it's fun and grabby. And my publisher is keen on branding me as a writer who makes history fun. I hope I don't get any snarky reader comments on it. I've always wished that readers had an idea of what actually goes on behind closed doors at a publisher and how little of it (unless you're perhaps a huge name) is in the hands of the writer.

5:46 AM  
Blogger Lana said...

As a reader, I prefer period-pretty. Perhaps it's because I don't know much about the different dress styles (I couldn't tell you if it's Empire or Victorian...). The key, for me, is that it's evocative of the kind of story in the book rather than accurate as to period.

6:30 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I would love to have seen the presentation on how covers come to be. Sounds fascinating.

That is a tough one. I love beautiful covers, but I also get a bit hung up when the hair color and clothing are not commiserate with the book's contents.

As for me, at this point I would settle for a cover with my NAME on it!

6:42 AM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

I love, love, love Laurel's new cover. Thanks for this great presentation.

7:35 AM  
Blogger Lois said...

Well, me, I'd love all of the above, accurate and pretty. . . but since that doesn't happen, nor will it always. . . how about something that at least shows the inside is historical and not contemporary. Meaning, if they at least have the right idea, a Victorian gown for a Regency or whatnot, it still shows it's historical, and when I look to check it out, I know I won't be surprised and see it's happening in NYC in the year 2009. But if they can go beyond that, Victorian gowns for Victorian era, Regency for Regency, blue eyes for blue eyed heroes, that's just icing on the cake. :)

Lois

3:54 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I have a particular aversion to that eternal puffy-sleeved schmatte, done in colors too vapid for Easter eggs, and worn by several decades of trad Regency cover models. I think it was Sophia Nash who proclaimed it "polyester" (with a suitable shudder) and since then I've always seen it as such.

4:32 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I completely agree with Pam and Mary's comments. Perhaps if publishers stopped putting covers that feature a man yanking a woman's dress well off her shoulder, readers would stop snarkily calling the contents "bodice rippers." But the publishers do it because the image immediately telegraphs to the reader what she's going to get when she picks up the book. Unfortunately, that cheesiness also turns off a whole bunch of readers, including myself. So, unless I personally know the writer and admire her work, frankly, I'd never pick up a book with a bodice-ripping cover, because I'd assume the prose inside was equally cheesy. I'd be wrong in some cases, but that's the image this reader -- moi -- takes away from the marketing. Ditto for the heinous polyester "Regency" gown, which looks like a bridesmaid's dress from someone's theme wedding, circa 1986. To the publishers' marketing departments, it screams REGENCY, so devoted readers of trads know what to grab from the bookstore shelf. Yet to me those covers shriek CORNY, HACKNEYED, TRITE, A DIME A DOZEN and why would I want to read a book like that? I suppose I'm one of the readers that comes away from the store with the impression that the cover reflects the quality of the writing (which it doesn't necessarily), but that's the way my brain works. Sophisticated cover; sophisticated prose. Tacky cover ...

5:58 AM  
Blogger Amanda McCabe said...

LOL Lauren--I had that same poster in my own college dorm room. :)

I also loved getting a glimpse into the cover process at Lady Jane's--I had no idea they started with that golden color, moved the fan all around, etc. And I was shocked--shocked, I say!--that they listened to my objections to the red dress. Usually we just seem to get the "The marketing department knows what they're doing..." lecture. I love the books with period paintings as the cover, they always catch my eye and make me pick them up in the store...

7:03 AM  

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