Write Byte

The Cover Issue (Summer, 1997)

In an effort to get on the synergy bandwagon, we decided to allow Stef Ann Holm’s Write Byte on covers to cut in line here at The Romance Reader because a goodly portion of this issue’s column, #29, is about the cover controversy as well.

After reading a post by Stef to one of the romance listservs about romance covers, we asked her to expand her ideas and discuss her personal experience as an established author who has had a variety of covers. Here is what she had to say:

The issue of what makes a good romance cover has probably been debated for twenty years. I was first published in 1987, and the thought of a non-clench cover just wasn’t an option. I believe LaVyrle Spencer was the first to have a step-back cover on Vows in April 1988.

Since Berkley’s early success with step-back art, other publishers followed suit and created their own. I’ve bought many books on the artwork alone, not knowing a thing about the author. This brings home a troubling point—and something that is usually entirely out of the author’s hands: Does good cover art sell a book? I think it makes a huge impression on buyers – both the bookstores and public.

My first six books had clench artwork. I liked most every one. Nearly all had a very accurate representation of the hero and heroine as I’d described to the art department. In 1995, I was to get my first step-back on a June book called Weeping Angel. I was ecstatic. Words cannot begin to tell you how thrilled I was when I viewed the artwork in the final cover flat. The painting had been done by Gregg and was of a scene in the book where the characters were on a picnic. The daisies were there, the character’s expressions were perfect. Everything was just exactly how I’d pictured. The outside cover had my name and the book title in pink, and in the center of them, a simple bouquet of daisies with a pink ribbon around them (my heroine’s bridal bouquet.)

I believe it was less than a month later when my editor called to inform me that there had been some rethinking in cover looks, and my step-back was not going to be on my book. Just the outside cover. No clench. My people were gone. This was devastating news to me. To have had the actual cover flat in my hand, and then have it snatched away. . . it was horrible.

The book came out, and very oddly, went into a second printing not soon after. Was this just a coincidence? Or did this “big” book look of no clench seem to bring me up a level in the eyes of the buyers? Or was the book gaining good word of mouth so orders increased?

My next cover would not have a clench. From now on, no more people on the front. Just representations of the book’s theme on the exterior. My publisher felt that to compete with the “big” book look, clenches demeaned the purpose. My January 1996 book was called Crossings and the background was purple. On the cover were a set of spurs, some bullets, a pair of white ladies gloves, some thimbles, a nosegay, a hair comb and a necklace. Male representations and female representations.

In September 1996, I had my ninth book, Portraits, published by Pocket Books. The cover was a brownish background with a kerosene lamp, a wanted poster, a portrait, and a vase of flowers. Some accounts didn’t find the cover as affective as prior covers.

In some cases, books are sold five months in advance of their publication.

It has been my experience that the publisher’s sales force goes out with the cover flats in folders and shows them to buyers. This process takes probably no longer than thirty seconds, and while the buyer is perusing the cover, statistics are given on past sell throughs of the author.

My editor asked for something bright and light on my next cover. Nothing representing feminine or masculine. Clean was the operative word. We figured the darker background on Portraits might have been what turned some off.

My May 1997 release, Forget Me Not, had a cover that was white. My name and the title was in pink. There were blue forget-me-not flowers climbing the sides and a little in the middle. This was my first computer generated cover. No artist was hired to produce this. I’m happy with the look.

I’ve asked around and talked with many people about clench vs. non-clench covers, or covers with what I call “icons” on them (the spurs and gloves; or swords and roses – the male/female thing). Most everyone wants a clench, but they don’t want to have it exposed. The step-back seems to be the crowd pleaser.

At a recent autographing, I had three of my books in front of me. Crossings (purple), Portraits (brown), and Weeping Angel (cream). The book that was consistently picked up more than the other two was Weeping Angel with its simple daisy bouquet. I found this interesting, as Portraits did have a vague rendition of both the hero and heroine and stated more about the book’s content then the other two. Perhaps that second printing on Weeping Angel was solely due to the cover itself.

Covers in todays market are quite diverse. Some houses will go with the clench. Some place it on the front cover, some on the back cover. Some houses give their authors foil, some do not. Foil is the gold or silver that usually accents the lettering, or in some cases, is placed heavily on the artwork as a backdrop. Some houses give their authors step-backs, others do not. Some emboss covers, some do not. The embossing is the raised imprint of figures on the cover—such as a flower. It will appear slightly three-dimensional. So with this in mind, some authors are quite lucky to have a step-back with foil and embossing. Others are not. The question is: How can those authors without the foil, embossing and the step-back artwork compete with those who do?

I used to judge a book by its cover. Being in the business, I know to look for foil, etc. That tells me the publisher has put money into this author and they are promoting her by doing this. However, I have had to stop myself and look at those books whose covers may not catch my eye. I will now read back cover copy and the first page. If the book is what I like to read, I’ll buy it – cover aside. I am hoping that those of you who read this will try and do the same.

For those authors who no longer have a clench inside a step-back, but this quote “big” book look, it has really forced us to take extreme care in describing the hero and heroine throughout the book. Think about it – there is no reference point to flip to a painting inside and see how the hero’s black hair shines. This has to be done through the written word, and done well so as it’s not constantly hitting the reader over the head.

I would like to think that when readers pick up one of my books, they are so immersed in the story, they forget that I don’t have a step-back and they see the characters through my eyes instead of an artist’s rendition. I don’t have step-backs. I can’t control the cover and I have to hope they are pleasing to buyers. But I can control the quality of the written words. Unfortunately, sometimes, it is the quality of the cover that lures those readers inside my story.

Remember that next time you are perusing the bookshelves. Just as we all write with different styles, publishing houses also produce a package with differing styles. No one is better or worse. Just different. The exterior may entice you, but it is the interior that has to hold you and transport you into that world we all hold dear to our hearts: Romance.

Stef Ann Holm

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