Saturday, June 5, 2010
Judging a Book By its Cover
Sheila Lowe brings a level of authenticity to her series surrounding handwriting expert, Claudia Rose. Lowe has more than 35 years of experience in the field of handwriting analysis, and is recognized as an expert in the California Court system.
I recently submitted a sample of my own handwriting to Sheila to use (or not use) in an upcoming book. It was rather like allowing someone to peek in my underwear drawer—a personal place where I hide my secrets from the world. I have to admit I was a little relieved that because she'd received so many samples, she didn't do any in-depth sleuthing. Phew!
Her fourth book, Last Writes, and the subject of this post (sort of) is available for pre-order through Amazon or your local independent book store.
When NAL picked up my first mystery novel, Poison Pen, my editor and I took a walk around the dealer’s room at Malice Domestic. I pointed out covers that I liked and, more important, those that I didn’t, so that she could guide the art department when they were preparing my cover. I write novels of psychological suspense about a forensic handwriting expert whose entry into criminal investigations comes through her clients; I guess you could call them “medium boiled.” Claudia Rose’s cases sometimes end up in court with her presenting testimony as an expert witness, so it seemed logical that my covers should look more like The Firm than The Cat Who....
Eventually, the cover art came for Poison Pen with what I learned was the standard note: “Here’s your new cover, we hope you love it as much as we do.” The artwork suggested a desert locale done in crimson and tan, and featured a magnifying glass and a fountain pen inscribed with the text: “Forensic Handwriting Mysteries.” I’d been thinking a courthouse, or maybe a forensic lab, but was thankful they hadn’t put a quill pen on the cover. After studying it for a couple of hours, I really liked it (hey, I was being published by one of the biggest houses in the world, what’s not to like?!).
Written in Blood, book two, had a blue-hued cover that also offered a clue to one of the locations in the book. It, too, sported a pen and had a similar artistic style to Poison Pen—together, they looked like part of a series. Book three’s cover came in shades of orange and depicted a running woman (no pen this time). To me, she appeared to be fleeing a forest fire in the mountains—a bit of cognitive dissonance—Dead Write is set near Manhattan’s theater district. If you look closely at the cover, you will see a lone taxi on an otherwise empty street. Maybe the artist had never been to Manhattan. Still, the overall style made it part of the series.
And that brings us to book four, set for release on July 6. Some friends who’ve seen the cover think it’s terrific, and it is. But it doesn’t look like part of my series. The cover depicts a stylized modern kitchen with an overturned chair and a cup on the floor, coffee puddling around it. The artwork looks cozy; everyone who’s seen it agrees. Since I write psychological suspense, which is a different sub-genre than cozy and attracts a different set of readers, this cover just didn’t feel like my book.
I’m trying to come up with a way to describe the difference between cozy covers and mystery/suspense covers, but as a non-artist, all I can say is, you just know. Cozies are sometimes described as “fun.” The person who solves the mystery is often an amateur sleuth and the stories usually take place in a small town where everyone knows each other. The bad language is kept to a minimum and the sex and violence take place mostly off the page. Cozy covers seem to reflect traditional values and they tend to either be realistic, depicting people, or done in soft pastels and have drawings of cakes, shops, or flowers, usually portraying the sleuth’s job or the book’s theme.
Like the tales around which they are wrapped, suspense novel covers tend to be darker in hue and in tone. They seem to promise the reader, not lighthearted “fun,” but chills and thrills. There’s less likely to be a human figure on the cover than a location. Or, if there is a figure, it’s most often hazy or ambiguous or menacing.
Cozies are hugely popular, and luckily, there are many crossover readers. But my concern (read that: abject fear) is that readers looking for psychological suspense might overlook the book because they’ll assume from the cover that it’s not their kind of story, and that cozy readers who are attracted by the cover of Last Writes will end up hating it because it’s not what they expect (it’s about a religious cult and the search for a missing three-year-old—not cozy), and they’ll feel ripped off and write rotten reviews. I know, I must have too much time on my hands...
But the fact is, a book is not always what its cover suggests. So even if a cover doesn’t immediately draw you, look inside anyway. Read the first paragraph or the first page and see if the writing grabs you. Give it a chance. My first published book was The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis. I got emails from people who said they would never buy a book whose title called them an idiot. I asked them then not to judge the book by its cover, and I do the same here, not just for my books, but as a general reading rule.
So the question I leave you with is this; how does cover art affect your reading choices? Let me know what you think. Sheila@sheilalowe.com
Like her character, Claudia Rose, Sheila Lowe is a forensic handwriting expert. She’s also an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction. www.claudiaroseseries.com and www.sheilalowe.com
CR: The Neighbor by Lisa Gardner
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