When packaging kills plot points

April 3, 2012 § 8 Comments

Possibly my greatest fear about getting a book published is that a story that I’ve worked for months or years on will get saddled with a cover like this. Now I understand that there are marketing folks at publishing companies that try their darnedest to sell your book and if they choose a cover like this it’s (hopefully) because they think that cover will convince more people to read that book than one with cover art that I might choose. But it’s not a cover that would make a book leap of the shelf into my hands, and I’d be a little self-conscious recommending it to friends and family. I understand that everyone has different tastes and maybe bare-chested heroes (with shaved armpits) on the covers of books appeal to some people, even if they don’t to me. That said, there is one kind of book cover that drives me bananas:

When the packaging or promotion materials ruin plot points of a book (or movie, or story of any kind).

I’m the kind of guy who avoids reading the backs of books and won’t watch trailers for movies that I’m excited to see. I go out of my way to avoid knowing anything about the stories I’m about to read, watch, or otherwise experience, so I find it rather frustrating when my efforts are thwarted by the people at publishing companies.

For example, I recently read (and loved) Kenneth Oppel’s Matt Cruse Trilogy, and I highly recommend for anyone and everyone as it’s a great story of adventure and airships, with a sprinkling of romance for good measure, but when I got to book two, Skybreaker, the cover showed an ornithopter (similar to an airplane but the wings move up and down) with four occupants inside. I naturally assumed the aircraft on the cover was the Skybreaker mentioned by the title and that we would be introduced to it in the first few chapters. I was wrong.

(Spoilers coming here that the packaging more or less gives away, but I find spoilers so opprobrious that I feel obligated to tell you anyway. Skip the next paragraph if you want to avoid them.)

The whole story is about trying to find a lost airship, The Hyperion, that has been circling the globe at an altitude higher than most aircraft can fly and that is supposedly brimming with treasures. Only Skybreakers, a special kind of airships can fly this high. It probably won’t surprise you very much to learn that our hero sets out to find The Hyperion and, just in case you had any doubts about their eventual success, the first pages of the book has a map of The Hyperion so you can easily track characters’ locations once they find the ship. Now that I could have forgiven, after all, it’s assumed that the main characters will be at least moderately successful, but up to this point we still haven’t seen the ornithopter from the cover. Then, about halfway through their exploration of The Hyperion they happen upon, you guessed it, a four-seater ornithopter docked aboard the airship. At this point any remaining doubt I had about the conclusion of the story is eliminated: some disaster will befall our heroes and they will be forced to escape aboard said ornithopter. So when things start falling apart and it looks like there will be no way for our heroes to escape in one piece, I’m yawning while I should be on the edge of my seat.

I might be a little bit more discerning (my wife says “nitpicky”) than the average casual reader because I’ve spent so much time plotting my own stories, but some packaging just cooks my grits. For example: The Warded Man. I loved this book, demolishing it in a single day last summer (which for a reader as slow as myself, means a lot of hours), but the title compromises a major plot point. For three quarters of the book they ward doors and posts and the ground, but no one even thinks about warding themselves. As much as I loved the book, I found myself constantly waiting for the main character to ward his own body. It’s like if the first Harry Potter book had been called (spoiler alert) “Harry Potter and the Stuttering Professor of Dark Arts Who Was Also Voldemort”.  Fortunately there were enough other things to love about the book that it didn’t ruin the experience, but it would have been such an awesome surprise… if I hadn’t been waiting for it.

My wife says thinks I’m perhaps a bit too hard on these folks and that most people don’t care as much as I do about this. Thoughts? I’d ask you for other examples of books ruined by their promotions or packaging, but honestly I’d just as soon rather not know.

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§ 8 Responses to When packaging kills plot points

  • Kelly says:

    I completely agree! Nothing like a terrible cover to keep me from choosing to read a book (especially in public!) But really, how can you not want a bare-chested hero? 🙂
    Strangely enough I just finished the Warded Man and The Desert Spear last week. Good books!

    • R. H. Culp says:

      An interesting fact about The Warded Man: Peter Brett wrote the entire thing on his cell phone! Every morning he would write during his train-ride to work. He says he could write about four hundred words during that time. It blows my mind. Also, I’m stoked that you read them! I really loved so much about them, but no one I know has read them yet (despite my urging). I’m going to have to buy them just so I can lend them to people to read.

  • I agree that more thought should go into designing book covers. People do judge books that way (not always but sometimes)

  • maegahan says:

    Working at a publisher, I can tell you a TON goes into making/designing/choosing covers. Not the least of which is author consultation. I know there are tons of horror stories about publishers overriding authors in regards to covers, and though checking with the author often comes after a few ‘drafts’ –so for some there is less willingness to scrap and start over–, if an author were to be able to verbalize concerns like this, I would think his/her publisher would take that seriously. It’s usually after a lot of work and a lot of in house approval when the response is just “No I don’t like it” with little back up that overrides happen.

    Publishers put a TON of their time and resources into coming up with covers, but boiling down an entire plot to a single image and typeface is straight up difficult and requires not just a little bit of luck.

    • R. H. Culp says:

      Meagahan, it’s great to hear your perspective on this! From this side of publishing it’s hard to know what that side looks like and so many evangelists for self-publishing love to find the horror stories and make a huge deal out of them when they’re the exception, not the norm. It’s great to hear how hard publishers work to create packaging that works for everyone. Realistically, publishers are so much better than other entertainment industries. It’s practically a given that a comedy trailer will show the best jokes and funniest scenes of the movie. The truth is, The Warded Man is an awesome book title and it really intrigued me, even if it did reveal a plot point, and who’s to say that another title would get as many people to read the book? Thanks again for your insight, and I hope I didn’t offend your publishing sensibilities with the post.

  • Really enjoyed this post.
    I’d be worried about the cover art if I ever got a book published, too. It would be a terrible disappointment if you hated it!
    I’m not sure I’ve come across the title betraying the plot, but I laughed out loud at the possible title for first Harry Potter.
    Hmm, lots of things to think about….Great post!

  • Funny fact – the author of the Steve Jobs biography said that the one thing Jobs actually ended up giving input on was the title/cover art. He didn’t want to have any input because he wanted the story to be unbiased, but couldn’t keep from commenting on the cover.

    I tend to think about cover art in the opposite sense – beautiful cover art and the general heftiness/feel/layout of a book will get me to buy it. I have multiple versions of Alice in Wonderland/Lewis Carroll Works and The Alchemist and The Three Musketeers because each of them has a different feel. Of course I’m attached to the books because of the writing, but I can’t seem to stop buying new copies with different designs…I generally hit up specific sections of used bookstores in a search for the same books.

    I always feel that the cover art for the Ender books is a little off, for me. I like the human development and intelligence of the books, and images of battleships just don’t do it justice. Not that I have anything against battleships, of course.

    • cadelfwch says:

      One of the newer covers just has Ender floating in space – it’s pretty epic. If nothing else it helps me to visualize the training room battle scenes as more cool and less goofy-pre-teen madness.

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