Cassandra Rose Clarke: 130,000 Words To One Picture

How does a book cover come about? What’s right — and what’s wrong — about a book cover? What makes it good, what makes it bad, what connects it to the story or makes it insufferably distant from the material underneath? Here, author Cassandra Rose Clarke would like to talk a little bit about book covers — and then do a cover reveal of her own.

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Let’s talk book covers.

In a prose-driven medium they are a quick flash of visual representation, something to appeal to what is for most of us the dominant sense. A good cover will distill a story down to its key elements, providing the picture to the book’s 100,000 words—a bad cover will come in like a wrecking ball and annihilate that shit. As a writer who dreamed of becoming a visual artist in high school, book covers have always been an interesting topic to me. They blend a wide variety of graphic design elements—not just the images themselves, but font, composition, color choice, text layout, and so on, and they do it all in service of a completely unvisual medium. It’s actually completely fascinating.

One cool thing about books covers is how they represent current aesthetic trends—and I don’t just mean in terms of just book covers. Each decade tends to be associated with certain aesthetics: in the 20thth century alone we went from art nouveau to mid-century modern to whatever the fuck was going on in the 90s. And that’s an extremely cursory overview. These aesthetics grow out of fashion and design and advertising and, oh yeah, book covers.

One of the coolest ways to track changing aesthetics is too look at the different editions of a book over the years, and one of my favorites books to do this with is the Lord of the Rings. There’s a website that looks at all the different LOTR covers from its fifty-year history, and you can really see how the covers and marketing for epic fantasy evolved over that time. The original covers, designed by Tolkien himself, are among my favorite. I especially like the cover for the Two Towers:

Look, I’m the first to admit I don’t know much about Tolkien. I’m sure there are massive Tolkien fans out there who can tell me the design was inspired by some Norse artwork from 1000 CE or some such, but to me the most striking thing about the cover is how modern—as in mid-century modern—the design looks. The art style does have a whiff of medieval Elvish about it, but I love the simple, symbolic design of the two hours and the ring itself. It’s not at terribly detailed cover, but it still manages to convey loads about the tone and story in the book.

In contrast, check out this cover from an (I believe) mid-80s edition:

Forgive me if you’re a fan, but my first reaction to this cover when I saw it in a Half Priced Books awhile back was a Channing Tatum-style AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Actually, all of this edition’s covers are pretty amazing:

LOOK AT ARAGORN. LOOK AT HIM.

But the thing is—these covers actually fit in pretty nicely with other epic fantasy covers at the time. The original Tolkien editions are gorgeous, but these covers fit in better along the Fantasy shelf of Totally Awesome SFF Books, circa 1986. I imagine if the movies hadn’t come out, we’d be stuck with editions featuring a scowly unshaven hobbit in a hooded cloak. Because that’s what Fantasy shelves look like these days.

Book cover trends can be a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing, too. Those Totally Rad LOTR covers were created because it was the trend at the time, but somebody was the first person to say, “Hey, what about vaguely photorealistic paintings of dudes looking awesome? Can that be a cover?” And then they did it, and then everybody else ripped it off for a decade. For example, we are still seeing the effects of the Twilight covers ten years on:

Whatever your feelings on Twilight might be, there’ s no denying that cover is iconic as fuck. Literally. It’s a black background with a single iconic image. As an image, it raises questions and associations: a proffered red apple is emblematic of no less than the fucking fall of humankind in the Garden of Eden, so yeah, definitely iconic. But beyond that, the cover suggests certain themes in the books, in particular the notion of temptation and desire that runs rampant through that story. Does Bella “fall” at the end of the quadrilogy by becoming a vampire? Or is her new-found immortality, combined with her new-found knowledge about the true nature of the world, a reverse fall—a way for her to enter back into the Garden of Eden?

Look at all that English major shit I pulled, all from looking at a single cover!

The Twilight covers went on to inspire tons of YA book covers, including that of The Hunger Games, which replaced the apple with an emotionally significant pin. I even remember spotting some new editions of classic novels like Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice with Twilight-style covers, hard evidence that publishers are colluding with high school teachers to trick students into finishing their required reading.
Then there’s the Twilight/Fifty Shades of Grey connection. Obviously, Fifty Shades started off as Twilight fanfic, but do you really think it was a coincidence that the Fifty Shades covers share a lot in common with the Twilight books?

There’s the same empty background and the same iconic image—this time of a sexually suggestive tie rather than an apple, as befits a romp through rich guy BDSM land. Oh, and everything’s done up in.. wait for it… wait…

SHADES

OF

GREY.

Perhaps even fifty of them. Again, whatever your thoughts on the book itself may be—I’ve never actually read it, so I’m not going to comment on it—the cover itself does a pretty phenomenal job of capturing the two biggest selling points about the Fifty Shades books: sexy times and a Twilightified origin story. And I find that fascinating.

I spend a lot of time thinking about book covers, as you can probably tell. I did this long before I became a writer. As a kid I had an elaborate system for determining which books would be well-written based on their covers alone—don’t judge a book by its cover? Nonsense! Now that I am an adult and a writer, book covers have become even more important to me, because they’re an integral part of my livelihood. Chuck let me come onto his blog and blather on about the covers of books, as opposed to the actual stories, because I have a new book cover of my own. I said at the beginning of this post that a good book cover will turn a story’s words into an image, and I’m delighted that the cover for my next book, Our Lady of the Ice, does exactly that:

I could give you the blurb for the book, which distills my 130,000 word story into 250 words—or I could show you this cover, this gorgeous fucking image, that does the same thing with five words (or as I like to call them, “the title”). There’s a reason “Ice” is the biggest word on that cover. There’s a reason that city is trapped under a dome. And there’s a reason that face belongs to a woman.

A hundred and thirty thousand words to one picture. Not a bad exchange rate, after all.

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Cassandra Rose Clarke grew up in south Texas and currently lives in a suburb of Houston, where she writes and teaches composition at a pair of local college. She holds an M.A. in creative writing from The University of Texas at Austin, and in 2010 she attended the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop in Seattle. Her work has been nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award and YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults. Her latest novel is Our Lady of the Ice, forthcoming from Saga Press in 2015. Her website is: cassandraroseclarke.com.