What Do We Want? Better Titles and Covers! When Do We Want It? NOW!

Bad Covers In My OpinionThere are far too many novels with vague titles and/or misleading covers.

Yesterday, I reviewed Diana Peterfreund’s For Darkness Shows the Stars, which I read last Tuesday while serving as the judge of elections at my precinct’s polling place. This year, few seemed to know (or care) that it was Election Day in Pennsylvania, as we had just about 10% of our registered voters show up in my area.

Several of those who did show up asked me, “Hey, what are you reading?”

I’d look up from my e-reader and say, “Um, ah, For the Stars Come Darkness. No, I  mean, From the Darkness Shows the Shadows. I don’t know. It’s a dystopian young adult retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.”

It’s a good book with a forgettable title, reminding me of another well-written apocalyptic young adult novel I read somewhat recently, Susan Dennard’s Something Something Deadly Something — I mean, Something Strange and Deadly (which is its actual title; I had to look it up). That title is so vague that you could slap it onto the cover of Peterfreund’s book and no one would know the difference.

My e-reader does me no favors when it comes to remembering titles, but at least it shields me from the images on the covers. I am so tired of seeing a young, pretty, thin, Caucasian girl staring straight at me or looking off into oblivion. I would rather imagine the protagonist, giving her the features that best match the words in the book as expanded by my imagination and as filtered through my own experiences.

The young woman on the cover of Peterfreund’s For Darkness Shows the Stars did not match my own mental image of what Elliot North, the protagonist from a prestigious “Luddite” family, would look like. The cover, shown above, features a very pale young woman with light brown hair. Meanwhile the novel’s star has brown skin during the summer (the story takes place in summer) and black hair with “ruddy highlights” in the sun (see below). Plus, black hair would likely require chemical treatment to get that light (and to have highlights on the underside), and I doubt the “Luddites,” who shun technological advancements, would alter their appearances in such a way. 😉 At the very least, the protagonist should have darker skin when her hair is that light.

snippets from Peterfreunds book with portion of cover

Why would authors and/or publishers choose such awful titles and covers? Wouldn’t shorter, more concrete titles be better? Shouldn’t titles and images be connected to the stories?

I’m certainly not the first reader/blogger to complain. The ramifications of a vague title might not be such a big deal, except to the author and the publisher (no one I recommended From the Darkness Something Something to on Election Day will be able to find it), but the impact of the cover images is worse: they send harmful messages about beauty, race, and gender and reinforce stereotypes. Why doesn’t Elliot North have a darker complexion?

I wonder what readers would say if authors and publishers put these titles and covers to a vote. I suppose some in the publishing industry would argue that we’re voting with our dollars, buying these books despite these forgettable titles and misleading, stereotypical covers. But maybe that’s happening only because of a lack of options, not because readers prefer it. To the extent the problem lies with us, the consumers, then the first step is talking about it and acknowledging the biases that affect our purchasing decisions.

*As bad as these covers are, nothing is worse than the cover of Anita Shreve’s Strange Fits of Passion.

UPDATE: In the comments, Molly linked to Diana Peterfreund’s defense for having a “whitewashed” version of Elliot North on the cover: http://www.dianapeterfreund.com/whitewashing-covers-part-eleventy-and-elliots-ethnicity/

37 thoughts on “What Do We Want? Better Titles and Covers! When Do We Want It? NOW!

  1. Kristyle B

    I agree!! The covers should be much better. I designed a cover for my friends book and he was very particular about the cover telling the story, as much as the story itself did. I notice alot of authors don’t take much control or interest when it comes to the design of their book covers. They say don’t judge a book by its cover but in the case of actual books it really helps to have an outstanding cover that you can refer back to as your reading. I enjoyed your post. 🙂

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  3. This is a great post on a great subject. You’re really onto something when it comes to title and cover. These are the big marketing pieces and so, of course, subject to hype. But we authors owe our reading public not to fall prey to this. A memorable title that really captures something unique about the book and a cover that tweaks a reader’s interest. I enjoyed reading this and glad I found your blog!

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    1. Hi Donna! Yes, I’m sure there are many who find these covers alluring (there must be a reason all the covers in this genre look alike!), but they come at the price of reinforcing stereotypes about race, gender, and beauty.

  6. Hey there!

    I have a completely different reaction to the titles — I love both of them! I know that Diana Petefreund was very pleased with the title, too. It’s a trend in YA to have one word titles that (also) fail to communicate what the novel is actually about. In the case of For Darkness Shows the Stars, the title is taken from a line from the book, which is my favorite kind of title. Though I think the dress on the cover is a bit silly, the stars reminds me of the scenes in the caves, so I think it is fitting.

    As for the white-washing on the cover, boy is this an issue in YA. We had a post on The Hub (where I am a contributor) examining the issue, and Diana had a response to her cover’s inclusion: you can read it here.

      1. Wow, thanks for the link. I’m rather appalled by her response. She has a very rude attitude toward her readers (assuming someone criticizing her novel hasn’t read it and her statement that sometimes readers just want something to “bitch” about).

        Well, I’ve read her book and I’ve recommended it to others, and I think her cover is indefensible. I understand that Elliot isn’t “brown” all year long, but she has dark skin throughout the book and should have had dark skin on the cover. What offends me is that Diana Peterfreund chose (or at least approved) the whitest possible version of Elliot and then continues to defend it–oh, it’s the starlight–rather than admitting that perhaps her choice suggests a certain implicit bias on her part. I think we all struggle with biases of various sorts, and when someone points it out, the response shouldn’t be to deny it.

        PS. I’m not sure how much “choice” she has when it comes to covers, but she approves of the cover enough to defend it.

        1. Actually, I retract my statement that she chose/approved the “whitest possible” version of Elliot. Rather, she is defending an *impossible* version of Elliot because, as I said in the post, Elliot’s skin should be dark when her hair is as light as it is on the cover.

      2. thegherkinkerfluffle

        Peterfreund says that it’s okay that a quarter-Maori day laborer looks like a hibernating Scandinavian because she’s not black. She seems to recognize this excuse is ridiculous, so also throws in some nonsense about how the character is “dissolving” on the cover, an argument no better than “who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?” Everybody who looks at that cover sees a painfully skinny girl with egg white skin and light brown hair, and that simply isn’t the character. No amount of “same race” or “it’s the stars in the background” changes that, and the excuses just show why the cover deserves criticism, because she and her publisher obviously don’t recognize the problem.

        1. Exactly. Her argument that the pale woman on the cover reflects her book because the main character is of the same race as individuals with lighter skin is ridiculous. It’s obvious to me that “whitening” a character’s skin color for the cover is an example of “whitewashing.”

  7. I’d not thought about titles before (though I have lamented about covers, especially YA ones, a lot), but, now you mention it, so many nowadays have abstract statements. Granted, it’s dfficult to create a title that will sum up an entire book, but sometimes I wonder if authors/publishers have put in the effort to.

    1. According to Molly (in the comments above), Peterfreund likes her title (and her awful cover), and there are those who like the title (including Molly). If the author is happy with a forgettable title, then that’s fine. The book is probably selling well enough that she won’t miss the handful of word-of-mouth sales she missed.

      1. That’s all right and fair. I like the title, though, reading your summary, I’d say myself that it doesn’t well fit the book. However, if I were Peterfreund, I know I’d be annoyed by the white-skinned representation of the MC. Surely the cover IS supposed to be reflecting the book? I wouldn’t want readers to be deceived so much.

        1. Oddly enough, Peterfreund doesn’t seem annoyed by the cover. Rather, she thinks the pale young woman on the cover reflects her book because Elliot is of the same race as someone with paler skin. Apparently, she doesn’t think that “whitening” a character’s skin color for the cover is an example of “whitewashing” in YA literature. She defends that decision, musing that sometimes “readers just want something to bitch about.” Molly brought Peterfruend’s defense to my attention, and I added the link to the bottom of my post.

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  10. That’s why when I design my covers I try to use a scene from the book. The thing is, someone isn’t going to like your cover no matter what you do. Everyone is doing the same thing now–thin, pale, emo looking little girls with a dark backdrop. That’s what publishers are pushing. It’s one of the reasons I chose indie. I wanted full control over my cover–unless a girl in a poofy dress is a valid point, don’t do it. One of my covers–will have a girl in a dress on it, but it IS a scene from the book. It’s pretty emo, too, but it’s valid to the novel…

    1. If a girl in a dress makes sense for the novel, then that might be a good choice. The dress actually makes sense for both of these books, but a different image would have made these covers more memorable.

      By the way, you might be interested to see Diana Peterfreund’s defense for having the whitest possible version of Elliot on her cover. Molly linked to it above.

  11. Sometimes I think writers are trying to be too clever with their titles. My favorite example: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. I had to ask the friend who recommended it a few times to repeat it. Fortunately I had the Kindle handy to figure out the rest, cuz there’s no way I would have remembered it. (I still haven’t read it, but I’ve heard it’s pretty awesome). Another example, “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” It’s like you have to almost vomit up the title to get it out. Most people I’ve heard just call it the Lemony Snickett books.

    I think Harry Potter works, because we can all just say, Harry Potter 4. It gives you something to latch onto. I like to keep it simple, because then people remember. That may not always be the case in the future, and it doesn’t have to be the case for everyone, but seems like “The Girl Who Sailed a Ship or Something” gets to be too tedious. They’re trying to be memorable but are reduced to something something in the end.

    And don’t get me started on covers! As a graphic designer, many self-pub covers drive me absolutely batty. But some best seller covers drive me nuts too. I always thought JK’s “Casual Vacancy” cover was too casually vacant, if you catch my drift. If not for her name, it’s a book I never would have given a first look at. (And from what I’m told, it’s hardly worth a bother anyway). Yeah, I’m with you. Please, please, please, people, make it easy for readers to want to read your stuff!

    1. Yeah, I also think some authors are trying to be too clever. No title will please everyone, but it’s a problem if it’s too difficult to remember. I also agree with your point about Harry Potter. Another book that did this is: “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared”–a mouthful–but you can find it easily by searching Amazon for “The 100-Year-Old Man.” The words “Darkness,” “Stars,” “Strange,” and “Deadly” aren’t going to narrow the field enough. A memorable title is probably a bigger deal with indie authors or mid-list traditionally-published authors who really need to make sure that they don’t lose the people who hear about their books by word-of-mouth.

      By the way, you might be interested to see Diana Peterfruend’s defense of her cover. Molly linked to it in the comments above.

      1. Interesting, and weird. I’m honestly baffled by this whole “whitewashing” trend. Must be the older gen in publishing still worrying about how books will be perceived. I think most of us born post ’70s don’t care as much about race as they do.

        I really didn’t like Diana’s attitude in her response. She must be from the old school of thought, “Please readers, admire me from afar.” Disdain for fans is so off-putting to me. Fans are the people who get the word out.

        It’s almost like Diana was afraid to have her character seen as not white. But if she spends a whole book talking about her MC being brown, shouldn’t at least some of that be represented in the cover? I mean that girl is really pale, I don’t know if I’d believe she got brown in the summer. Whatevs, Diana. 😦

        1. I agree! It seems like Peterfreund has a very narrow concept of what complexions are “white” and a very broad concept of what complexions are “brown.” I don’t see how the young woman on the cover has anything but a white complexion. It’s disconcerting that someone made the decision to whiten the main character’s skin color, and it’s disturbing that Peterfreund refuses to acknowledge the obvious point that whitening a character’s skin color is an example of “whitewashing” in YA literature. Her argument is based on the faulty logic that it’s a reasonable cover because the main character is of the same race as individuals with pale skin. Who cares if people of the main character’s race could have lighter skin (that’s true of any race!)? The point is that the main character doesn’t have pale skin. She is described as racially ambiguous, has dark skin throughout the novel, and should have had dark skin on the cover. Choosing otherwise suggests that lighter skin is more valuable, a racially-based marketing judgment, and it doesn’t bother the author nearly as much as it should.

  12. Titles – You’d think the author/publisher would want snappy, memorable and meaningful wouldn’t you? The English language is rich enough to allow endless permutations.

    Covers – I guess all commercial works will carry a cover designed to sell books, not necessarily to reflect what is inside. Not so many readers will critically compare the two. I raged for years over the cover of the monthly publication ‘Runner’s World’. The British version at least will alternatively feature a front cover of (1) a slim, young, Caucasian woman, perfect make-up, not a hair out of place, apparently floating over the ground and (2) a ripped, Caucasian hunk in designer running gear, smiling seductively as he eats up the ground, again by floating across it. Neither has the slightest resemblance to any of the runners (many) that I know. Marketing, start to finish.

    1. Yeah, it’s all marketing. What’s sad is that someone decided that it was the whitest possible version of Elliot North that would sell this book. She should have had the same skin color on the outside of the novel as she had on the inside. The author wrote a defense of her cover a while ago, which I didn’t see until Molly linked to it above. It bothers me when someone fails to recognize that their novel is part of the problem.

  13. I ended up going with a very simple graphic-style image of one of the creatures I invented as the cover of my self-published novella. If it was something I was going to put out in print, I probably would’ve used the same layout and subject matter but more realistic and with more texture. I’ve worried that the cover design might turn people off because it is SO different from what is out there, but really, I think that’s a good thing in a way. Until we indies start pushing the envelope more, we’re going to see more of the “languishing white girls” on covers. We have the power to force change, but we need to take the risk.

    1. The benefit of a unique cover is that it stands out, and I hope that’s been the case for your novella. It makes sense that you’d take a different approach to the cover if it were available in print. Because I read ebooks mostly, I just don’t notice the cover while I’m reading and I don’t pay as much attention to them when browsing online. Thanks for stopping by!

  14. Interesting! I like both of those titles because they sound nice, but you’re right, I won’t remember them in five minutes except for “Something about darkness, and that deadly strange thing.” They probably make sense once you’ve read the book, but that’s not much help to someone who hasn’t.

    The cover thing bothers me enough that it’s one of the reasons I’m looking at self-publishing. I know my novel would end up with a pretty girl in a flowing dress on the cover, even though my protagonist is specifically described as “not stunning” be another character, and she wears very practical clothes most of the time. And it would look like every other YA book out there. Yawn. I don’t know what I’d want instead, but I know it’s not that.

    And that “Strange Fits of Passion” cover is just ridiculous, and more than a little troubling. Sounds like a good read, but that’s really off-putting!

    1. I wish I could say the titles became more memorable after having read the books, but that hasn’t been the case for me. Dennard’s title is so generic it could be on any book in its genre. As for Peterfreund’s book, I never remember titles that start with prepositions, which is a bit of concern considering that the title of my newest WIP begins with “On” (but is only three words long). I thought both books were very good, though, and I’m glad that I didn’t overlook them because of the titles and covers.

      I agree with you that one of the benefits of self-publishing is retaining control over the cover (and title; I often hear stories of editors imposing new titles). You may have noticed that Eliot North is described as “no beauty,” but the actual words in the book seemed to have little impact on the cover designers.

      “Strange Fits of Passion” is a very good read, but that version of the cover is just so offensive. Can you believe that they actually replaced the word “troubling” with “romantic”! Just unbelievable.

  15. I can’t tell you how often the discussion about bad covers comes up in my private groups on Facebook. The covers I most often object to are just plain bad: two half-naked guys collaged together against some kind of landscape. Often, they’re wearing cowboy hats. Always, the cover is entirely forgettable.

    “Bad titles” is a subject that hasn’t come up yet, which surprises me because there are plenty out there! Think I’ll bring it up sometime… 🙂

    1. Those covers do sound awful. Do the stories take place in Wild West? If not, why on earth would two half-naked guys be wearing cowboy hats? Ugh. I’m curious to know what kinds of bad titles there are in the genres you read.

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