Monday, October 24, 2011

Crappy romance novels and Lilith's Brood, or Why Book Covers Matter

The first thing I heard about Lilith's Brood was a disclaimer: don't judge this book by its crappy romance novel cover. A naked woman covering her breasts with her hands, under white sheets.

But this is a classic science-fiction trilogy, I thought to myself. I must perservere!

Despite my most valiant efforts, I can't get past this book cover. Covers make a huge first impression on prospective readers, and I've never understood why they go overlooked so often. Why does the moody painting on The Great Gatsby's cover have to have an unnecessary white box around it? Why can't authors stop their great novels with film adaptations from getting the obligatory movie poster cover?

Imagine if the Beatles hadn't had control over the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or Abbey Road. What about Jimi Hendrix's Axis: Bold as Love or Nirvana's Nevermind or A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders?

Even in today's music market where album sales are bottoming out and everyone buys 99-cent singles on iTunes, album covers make a difference. When Kanye West released his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy last year, its cover made perhaps more waves than the music itself. A huge controversy ensued, and regardless of what you think of Kanye's music, it's clear he cares about cover art.

Why can't literature be afforded the same artistic integrity? The most successful novels go through dozens of different book covers, hardly any of them with input from the authors themselves. Sometimes a writer like Shel Silverstein will fight tooth and nail to get exactly the artwork he wants, but then again, Silverstein was also the artist. It's tough for writers who just write.

So what about Lilith's Brood? The woman on the cover barely looks like how protagonist Lilith is described in the novel. The top of the photographed woman's head is blurred out--her only distinguishable traits are her curly hair and that ethnically, she's probably black.

The woman appears to be in a very sensual situation, but this is a disservice to the protagonist--Lilith is an empowered female character. The cover insinuates her sexuality should be front and center in the reader's mind.

Does this matter? Octavia E. Butler, the author, is a bit of an anomaly. In an industry full of nerdy white men, she was one of the only prominent African-American female sci-fi authors. Did Grand Central Publishing give Lilith's Brood a romance novel cover because they think men won't read a book written by a woman? Is the woman on the cover black simply because Butler was black?

At the end of the day, despite whatever cliché your teachers and parents may espouse, book covers matter. They're our portal into the world of the story, and it's a shame the publishing industry wants to make these portals as inconsequential as possible.


  1. Jake--I totally agree with you. Book covers matter and they reveal a ton of information. Lilith looks like the cover artist/editor didn't even read a synopsis of the book. What amazes me as I plow through the world of children's literature, is how truly awful many covers are--and how quickly they date themselves. On the other hand, find Steven Tyler's autobiography at the book store. Opening the front cover reveals an amazing array of Stevens. And I bet Tyler had final decision making to get something so distinctive.

  2. How much control over the book cover does an author have? Mom

  3. In defense of the cover:
    Lilith is described of dark(er) skinned, and her hair is described as pictured on the cover. The white "cloth" is or seems representational of Oankali cloth made on the ship and in Lo that is impervious to fire, and presumably earthly dirt and grime.

    I found Lilith anything but empowered (particularly at the end of the book).

  4. Sep:
    Yes, the model on the cover looks slightly similar to Lilith, but it's not exactly the depiction I'd have in mind if I were Butler and wanted Lilith on the cover. Do you really think it's a good design?
    It's the literary equivalent of a Mariah Carey album cover.

    And I haven't finished the book yet, so I guess I can't tell you whether I think she's empowered at the end!

  5. It would be interesting to know what the economics of book publishing are. If this cover increased sales by 5%, it may may mean that more books (remember books?) by this and other authors get published.