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View Full Version : Cliches in covers of Asian and African set novels



aruna
05-15-2014, 08:35 PM
Shy woman in front of the Taj (http://qz.com/209415/a-shy-woman-by-the-taj-or-how-every-south-asian-book-cover-looks-the-same/#/)

I actually had a discussion with this guy on his FB page. Five of my books are on his collage of Indian book covers. I have always known that these covers are cliched, but I am far more tolerant than he is of the fact simply because I know that covers are only a marketing tool --but a very powerful one.

For me it is no worse that swords on fantasy covers or high heels on chick lit covers, and it's not a fight I particularly want to fight -- I am far more concerned with the book's content. Putting a highly artistic, original cover on a book that is meant to capture the attention of people who like to read about India is not going to generate sales.

A woman in a sari imo is no worse for a book set in India than a woman in jeans and T-shirt for a book set in the West ... and it alerts readers to the content. As do the lotus, paisley motifs, and (shudder) the Taj Mahal. The only one of these images I really resent is the Taj, as it is a Moghul building, ie of Muslim origin, and so usually has little to do with anything within the book. Especially if the protags are Hindu. Hennaed hands usually means that marriage and love figures within the book, etc. I honestly don't know what the alternative would be; and I'm sure that we authors won't change things. If these covers sell books, publishers will stick to them.

There is a further collection of African cover images and Arab covers in the article.
How tolerant are you? Is this something we should be poking out our publishers' eyes for? Can we change things, and if we did, would this effect sales?

I see these covers more as bait; if the book between them paints a realistic and many-faceted picture of the culture represented, I don't mind using them to draw in the readers for whom they are intended.

Your opinions?

tko
05-15-2014, 10:35 PM
I totally agree with you. Almost by definition, a book cover is a cliche designed to hook the reader in. Not a stand alone artistic statement. The stereotyped images represent a primitive vocabulary that give a reader a 2-second idea of the book's classification.

Ethic dress in ethic background. Literary novel. White woman with a bare chested white dude over ethic background, exotic romance. White dude with gun in ethic setting, exotic adventure. These are icons, not real people, and not your story. Of course if I've written a Western I'm going to have a cliche cover to clue the buyer in.

What I don't like is when an icon is used that doesn't represent your novel. A sexy woman in front of the Taj Mahal when your novel isn't about sex or the Taj Mahal. Don't put a white person on the front if that's not your story. Don't put an incredibly handsome or sexy person on the cover if that doesn't describe your MC.

Web sites like this tell you what not to do, but not what you should do. Without positive examples, the site is useless. Exactly what cover is he recommending?

Funny thing. When I go a literary agency's website, the fastest way for me to get a feel for the type of books they're looking for is to look at their author's covers. Ten seconds max, and I'm clued in.

Oh, I like your cover. Not to mention your writing . . .

mirandashell
05-15-2014, 10:47 PM
Aren't the vast majority of book covers a cliche? For good reason.

So yeah, I agree with you, Aruna.

tko
05-15-2014, 11:06 PM
It would seem the owner of that site is, to some extent, guilty of the same bias he claims to be fighting.

Did he read your novel? Look at the first few chapter? How can he claim your cover isn't appropriate without knowing your story?

Pretty easy to round up a bunch of covers and make them a scapegoat for what he see's to be wrong with world . . .

Hapax Legomenon
05-16-2014, 02:22 AM
A woman in a sari imo is no worse for a book set in India than a woman in jeans and T-shirt for a book set in the West ... and it alerts readers to the content. [...] Hennaed hands usually means that marriage and love figures within the book, etc. I honestly don't know what the alternative would be; and I'm sure that we authors won't change things. If these covers sell books, publishers will stick to them.


I mean exactly, it's the same thing if a book cover prominently displays a woman in a wedding dress or a hand with a wedding ring on it, or a book with the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty in the background. It seems kind of like these people are complaining about these images because they're blind to the imagery that cues a western book. For example, here's complaining about (western) women's fiction books all looking the same -- particularly, showing the back of a woman and not her face. (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/books/review/show-some-spine.html?_r=0) Their western dress is not noted, but don't they all have it?

For the Arab books, there seem to be two distinct categories here. Several of these books seem to be about veils or factor them in prominently enough that they're mentioned in the titles. Whether this was forced by the publisher is another matter, I guess. Some of these, though, if these girls were not wearing headscarves there really wouldn't really be any difference between a western book and an Arab book -- so if the girl characters wear headscarves then damn it on the cover the girls should wear headscarves. It's not that difficult.

I guess what pisses me off about the Arab books more is that several of them obviously use the same photos. So maybe there's a dearth of stock photos of Arab women out there and that's why the covers are the way they are.

I guess the real one I question is the African set. Do all of these books take place in the same setting at the same time of day?

aruna
05-16-2014, 06:34 AM
Web sites like this tell you what not to do, but not what you should do. Without positive examples, the site is useless. Exactly what cover is he recommending?


.

Exactly. And this is what I asked him several times on the FB page, without getting an answer. Without these cliches, which are really no more than cues that alert someone browsing as to where the book will you, there is nothing to go on. If you leave out all the Indian (African, Middle Eastern) symbols, what can you do? This is someone who understand nothing about the publishing business, trying to turn the issue into a political gripe.

Funny thing. When I go a literary agency's website, the fastest way for me to get a feel for the type of books they're looking for is to look at their author's covers. Ten seconds max, and I'm clued in.

And that is exactly what the cover is there for: it's a shortcut to alert someone in only one second what kind of book she's getting. In my case, it's women's fiction set in India. When my publisher was thinking about the cover he first of all tried to position it; he showed me the type of cover he was going for; his exact words were:


Overall the key things that I want the cover to communicate are:
Sweeping epic feel – this is a story set across three families, two generations, several continents and against the background of historical change with the breakup of British colonial rule.
Poignant and emotional – the characters of the novel deal with love, loss, despair and hope. As the title suggests, arranged marriage is a key theme – and the pain it can cause across the generations.
Indian setting – the rich culture and broad sweeping landscapes of the Indian countryside…

To do all these things at once there really is no option than to resort to the shortcuts: sunsets, silhouettes, an Indian woman...

I really don't know how else it can be done. It's not supposed to be a Work of Art. When I suggested he doesn't understand about publishing he got snippy.

kuwisdelu
05-16-2014, 06:40 AM
I totally agree with you. Almost by definition, a book cover is a cliche designed to hook the reader in. Not a stand alone artistic statement. The stereotyped images represent a primitive vocabulary that give a reader a 2-second idea of the book's classification.

This is what I hate about book cover art.

I want cover art that is a work of art, no less than the book itself, like album art used to be and sometimes still is. I don't care if the artwork tells me nothing about what the book is about — that's what blurbs and reviews are for.

I know I must be an outlier, but ugh, I hate hate hate this about book cover art.

...I'm going to be a pain-in-the-ass if I ever get published.......

aruna
05-16-2014, 06:53 AM
For the Arab books, there seem to be two distinct categories here. Several of these books seem to be about veils or factor them in prominently enough that they're mentioned in the titles. Whether this was forced by the publisher is another matter, I guess. Some of these, though, if these girls were not wearing headscarves there really wouldn't really be any difference between a western book and an Arab book -- so if the girl characters wear headscarves then damn it on the cover the girls should wear headscarves. It's not that difficult.

I guess what pisses me off about the Arab books more is that several of them obviously use the same photos. So maybe there's a dearth of stock photos of Arab women out there and that's why the covers are the way they are.


Well, a veil is an obvious symbol for mysterious woman or secret so a very obvious symbol to put on the cover of a book. But like the sari for India, there's nothing particularly offensive about it. If you go to Iran or Afghanistan yes, you will see women in burkhas or niqabs -- everywhere. So what's the big deal about having such a woman on the cover? Might as well object to having anyone's face on the cover.

As for the African covers: it seems that two images represent Africa in the Western mind: sweeping "safari" landscapes with animals, and sweeping landscapes with acacia trees. I guess most Westerners wouldn't be able to distinguish a Nigerian landscape from a Ruandan one, and so the scene is pretty generic for the whole continent. But so what? I read one of the books complained about, Half of a Yellow Sun, and it was magnificent. It told me more about the real Nigeria and the Biafran conflict and the internal problems between the Yoruba and Igbo people than I had learned in my whole life. So what if the cover could be for any African country, and not particularly Nigerian? I don't really care.
It's the content that matters. The cover is just a key to make me open the book to the first page.

aruna
05-16-2014, 06:55 AM
This is what I hate about book cover art.

I want cover art that is a work of art, no less than the book itself, like album art used to be and sometimes still is. I don't care if the artwork tells me nothing about what the book is about that's what blurbs and reviews are for.

I know I must be an outlier, but ugh, I hate hate hate this about book cover art.

...I'm going to be a pain-in-the-ass if I ever get published.......

It would be great if every cover could be a work of art.

But it would not sell books.

You do want to sell books, don't you? I certainly do! So I'm not going to object to the things that do the job, as long as they are not insulting -- such as a white woman on a book about a black woman.

kuwisdelu
05-16-2014, 07:59 AM
It would be great if every cover could be a work of art.

But it would not sell books.

I don't think that's really true. It's become expected by today's readers, but I think marketers were the ones who created that expectation in the first place. Books did not always have such cover art after all.

So yes, it's become an necessity now, but I don't think there's any reason it has to be this way.

Albums with artwork that are works of art in their own right sell just fine all the time. So much so that part of the resurgence of vinyl is surely the massive artwork; the artwork alone is often enough to justify it to a collector.

Hapax Legomenon
05-16-2014, 06:50 PM
I don't think that's really true. It's become expected by today's readers, but I think marketers were the ones who created that expectation in the first place. Books did not always have such cover art after all.

So yes, it's become an necessity now, but I don't think there's any reason it has to be this way.

Albums with artwork that are works of art in their own right sell just fine all the time. So much so that part of the resurgence of vinyl is surely the massive artwork; the artwork alone is often enough to justify it to a collector.

It's cheaper to get covers that aren't "art" because a good book will still sell without an "art" cover, and an "art" cover will not necessarily sell so it's less of a risk to go without and make subsequent editions more "artistic" if it does sell.

aruna
05-16-2014, 07:37 PM
Well, below are the artistic, original, non-cliched covers my Danish publisher gave me. I love them. However, I'm not sure if they would have enticed me to pick up the book in a bookshop, and I'm not sure if they would have attracted the readership I need.

http://i66.photobucket.com/albums/h266/arunadasi/danishone_zpsf68e482a.jpg (http://s66.photobucket.com/user/arunadasi/media/danishone_zpsf68e482a.jpg.html)
http://i66.photobucket.com/albums/h266/arunadasi/dansendepafugle_zps6cbcbcf8.jpg (http://s66.photobucket.com/user/arunadasi/media/dansendepafugle_zps6cbcbcf8.jpg.html)http://i66.photobucket.com/albums/h266/arunadasi/dansende-pafugle_zps5411d5fc.jpg (http://s66.photobucket.com/user/arunadasi/media/dansende-pafugle_zps5411d5fc.jpg.html)

Paramite Pie
05-17-2014, 01:33 AM
As already mentioned, virtually all book covers use cliches but we're so used to the Western cliches that we don't see them!

I'm from Ireland and any traditional mythology book (or music cd) will have the usual Celtic patterns, woods & trees with a woman in a cloak. With red hair no less - even though it is actually a rare trait among us Irish too! And don't forget the green!

http://www.pinterest.com/rowanbrooks/celtic-mythology/

People have long had romanticised notions of other cultures, not just 'exotic' ones. Think of France and you see the Eiffel Tower, think of London and you have Big Ben or Tower Bridge. I'd be surprised if a book about Venice didn't have Gondolas, especially if it's a Romance book.

Now if Life of Pi had a picture of a girl in a sari in front of the Taj Mahal, then we have a problem. Thankfully it didn't.:D

I'm quite surprised at the African one, as African geometric art is quite distinct. In the age of abstract Art I would've thought that would be an obvious choice. I'm no expert but I'll recognise an African art style when I see it, even though I can't pinpoint the culture/region.