Friday, May 15, 2009

You Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover

© Beth Groundwater 2009 all rights reserved

Book covers are designed to make an impact, though sometimes they send the wrong message about what’s inside. Authors may love or hate their covers, but regardless, most authors have an interesting story to tell about the cover art for at least one of their books. There’s the romance clench with the extra or missing arm, the animal that doesn’t match the species in the text, the anachronistic piece of clothing that didn’t exist in the time period portrayed in the historical.

I have stories about both covers for my Claire Hanover gift basket designer mystery series books, A REAL BASKET CASE and TO HELL IN A HANDBASKET. First, I have to say that I am very lucky to have a publisher that solicits ideas for book covers from the authors and encourages cover artists to design something that takes those ideas into account. Many authors have absolutely no say whatsoever in what their covers should look like.

Five Star Publishing has some excellent cover artists, and I had seen their work in the past and been impressed. So, when I was asked to give input for the cover of A REAL BASKET CASE, I thought I'd keep it short and sweet and let the artist's imagination fill in the blanks. Since the protagonist was a gift basket designer and the murder was committed with a handgun, I suggested the cover art include a handgun and a basket on its side with a hole in it and blood dripping out.

Here’s what the author representative sent me: An arm came in from the side of the cover, with the hand clutching the handle of a wire handheld grocery shopping basket. A child's rubber-tipped dart gun and plastic rubber-tipped darts lay scattered across the bottom of the picture.


Near tears and with my mouth hanging open, I gaped at this odd interpretation of “gun” and “basket.” I debated with myself. As a brand-new author with Five Star, did I really want to make a stink about this? But how could I let it go? A grocery basket had no connection with my gift basket designer heroine. And what was with the rubber darts?

After tossing and turning through nightmares of evilly grinning kids peppering me with rubber darts, grocery carts chasing me through store aisles, and editors shouting “off with her head,” I finally woke in a calmer frame of mind. I wrote a detailed explanation to the author representative why the cover just would not do. Trying to find something positive to say, I complimented the pinkish-orange background color, not a typical shade for a mystery novel, which I said would make the book stand out on bookstore shelves.

Thankfully, the author representative, who knew what A REAL BASKET CASE was about, agreed with me. She contacted the art department, relayed my objections and asked them to try again. A couple of weeks later, she e-mailed me another file, with the caveat that this was it, the production schedule would not allow for another round of modifications. With trepidation, I opened the file, slowly released the squint closing my eyes...and was delighted!

A handgun appeared, with the barrel pointed upright. (A romance author friend of mine said, “Nice phallic symbol you've got there!”) There was no basket, but a bow was wrapped around the book as if it was a gift itself, and a subtle texture to the background simulated a basket weave. Here's where the artist's creativity was evident, because I never would have thought of this “tie-in” to the theme of the book. This is the cover that A REAL BASKET CASE sports today, and I've grown very fond of it. I've also received many compliments on the cover. I am so, so glad that I spoke up and refused to accept that first cover.

Now, on to cover art story number two, the cover for TO HELL IN A HANDBASKET.

This time I gave more information to the art department. I wrote that the opening scene is set on a downhill ski run of the Breckenridge, Colorado ski resort, so there should be an open expanse of snow lined with evergreen trees such as lodgepole pines, spruce and firs. I specified that a pair of downhill skis should be positioned in an X vertical to the snow because this is the universal “call for help” sign to alert ski patrol when there has been an accident. And, that's what my sleuth Claire Hanover does with her skis when the sister of her daughter's boyfriend hits a tree on the slope.

When I received the cover art this time, I was very pleased with it. It was a beautiful, eye-catching, wintery blue, with the theme of the bow wrapped around the book as if it is a gift carried over from the first book. However, there was one small problem.

A pair of ski boots was still affixed to the X'ed skis.

Now, what skier takes off their skis—and boots—in the middle of a cold, snowy ski run and walks around in their socks? After a good chuckle as I realized this artist had obviously never gone skiing, I e-mailed the author representative again with a change request. I knew this one would be minor, because I figured the boots could easily be removed from the picture. I was right, because within a day, I had the revised cover for TO HELL IN A HANDBASKET.

I am grateful that Five Star's art department has been so responsive in listening to my comments and so talented in creating striking covers that I absolutely love. Yes, I have a couple of amusing stories about my covers, but the stories have a happy ending. Unlike many of my author friends, I haven't had to live with a cover that I hate. So, the next time you see a book with cover art that you can't stand or are mislead by, please don't blame the author.
Anybody else got a juicy cover art story?
* * *
About the author:
Beth Groundwater’s first mystery novel, A REAL BASKET CASE, was published in March, 2007 and was nominated for a Best First Novel Agatha Award. The second in the Claire Hanover gift basket designer series, TO HELL IN A HANDBASKET, will be released this month. It is set in Breckenridge, CO and opens with a death on the ski slope. As Kirkus Review said, "Groundwater's second leaves the bunny slope behind, offering some genuine black-diamond thrills." Between writing spurts, Beth defends her garden from marauding mule deer and wild rabbits and tries to avoid getting black-and-blue on the black and blue ski slopes of Colorado. Please visit her website at for reviews, excerpts, discussion questions, and more information about this author's books, and upcoming signings.

A REAL BASKET CASE, Five Star, (2007), Best First Novel Agatha Nominee
TO HELL IN A HANDBASKET, Five Star, May 2009

Note about the tour:
Groundwater's tour schedule is available at: The next tour stop, on Sunday, will be a live interview with Kim Smith on Blog Talk Radio: .

Contest announcement:
If you comment this post, ask Groundwater a question during her visit today, or comment on her blog ( anytime during her May 2009, blog book tour, you will be entered into a drawing for an autographed set of both books in the Claire Hanover gift basket designer mystery series: A REAL BASKET CASE and TO HELL IN A HANDBASKET. Good luck!


Kim Smith said...

My cover artist was used to doing romance covers, and mine was a cozy mystery. I went out to some free art sites, and found what I wanted in a pic, then told her it was a light, funny, book with a funny premise, and she took it from there. I have nothing but good things to say about my publisher's artists. By the way, Beth will be on Introducing WRITERS! very soon! Readers tune in!

s.w. vaughn said...

Great cover stories, Beth - good on you for not accepting that first one with the wire grocery basket and rubber darts (eek!).

I don't have a cover story to share yet. I've been pleased with the only cover I've received so far, and I was asked for input, which was nice. :-)

bluspider said...

great story Beth. I have often put a book back on the shelf without giving it a try just because i didn't like the over. My son and I had a in depth conversation just the other ref book art. HE was most upset over descriptions of sci fi characters on the cover of some books compared with how they are actually described in the book. I think those descriptions should be read aloud to artists when they are asked to do the artwork.
ps. I think that the way the words are shaped on your first cover also give a hint of a container shape which could be a unique basket.

Beth Groundwater said...

I agree with bluspider's son that sci fi characters and creatures on the covers should match the descriptions in the book text. Virtual Tales will release a sci fi novella of mine titled "The Epsilon Eridani Alternative" hopefully before the end of the year. The text is ready and edited, and we're just waiting on cover art. The good thing is that the publisher had me fill out a detailed form for the cover artist, giving explicit descriptions of the characters, the planet, their spaceship, etc. I ended up cut-and-pasting a lot of the text from the novella itself into the form so the artist could have my exact descriptions to work from.

Mike Befeler, author of geezer-lit and paranormal mysteries said...

Getting covers right is always an interesting challenge. In my just released Paul Jacobson Geezer-lit Mystery, Living With Your Kids Is Murder, the publisher left out the gun sight that ovelayed my protagonist looking at the Flatirons (mountains) in Boulder, Colorado. It was correct on the art they sent me and that went into all the promotional material. They will have it fixed for future printings. Oh, well.

Mike Befeler
Author of Retirement Homes Are Murder and Living With Your Kids Is Murder
"It's hard to beat a team that includes a wisecracking old fart and a straight-talking young sprout, and Befeler's second geezer-lit entry delivers"-Kirkus Review
Web site:

Anonymous said...

I love this author's work. I love the covers of her books. I'm the kind of person that does judge a book by its cover (only books, not people). So when I see something like this, I'm sure to pick it up. Also, it's nice to hear that Five Star has allowed Beth to have input into her cover. I hope to be as fortunate when I'm published.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Cover art must be very hard for the artists who haven't read the book all the way through or who don't know the setting or subject matter. My first cover was beautiful, but the sky colors hardly typical of central Illinois. I decided not to mess with changes because I loved the picture as it was.


Chester Campbell said...

I've had lots of input on all my covers, but my funny story deals with input from the sales guy at Barnes & Noble. When the distributor's rep called on him with my Designed to Kill cover showing a framed picture of a Spanish Castle, he said, "This is a Florida mystery. It has to have a beach." So the artist added a little strip of sand and green water at the bottom. It isn't noticeable at first, but any knowledgeable reader may wonder how the Alcazar Castle on a hilltop in Segovia, Spain acquired a beach.

PSGifford said...

It is always best to speak up!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Five Star does let authors have input into the covers and I appreciate that. I worked with the artist who did THE INFERNO COLLECTION cover. Only problem there was that my name was in red letters surrounded by a black band. So the lettering and band bled together making it practically unreadable. In THE DROWNING POOL, it was fine except for the figure of the dead man in the pool which my daughter-in-law who is quite artistic described as cartoonish. But I was told it couldn't be changed. Maybe we'll get it right the next time!

Jacqueline Seewald

Sheila Deeth said...

This was fascinating. Thanks. I'm so glad you did get some say in the covers, because they both look great.

Adele said...

Those are lovely covers I am very glad you got to give your views.

Deni Dietz said...

My cover art suggestion for Chain a Lamb Chop to the Bed -- which is considered a "culinary mystery" and takes place at a dude ranch -- was a typical dude ranch dinner, spread across a red-and-white checkered tablecloth. I then added the following: "Of course you can always chain a lamb to a bed" with a big smiley face.

My bad. I should know better than to joke around. And there was a "glitch" in the art department so ARCs were late and there was no time to ask for changes.

I must admit the lamb was cute and the four-poster looked comfy.

The PS to this story is that Wildside Press is printing my back list in Trade paperback. And guess what's on my Lamb Chop cover?

Yep, a lamb. Actually, a sheep. Only this time the artist, er, borrowed Mike Befeler's gun sight :)

Anonymous said...

I'm one stuck with a disappointing cover on my newest book, One Foot on the Edge. It has the right breed of dog on the cover, but you'd never guess the story is a historical suspense. Worse, the font is almost unreadable. I protested, but it didn't do any good. Kudoes to Beth and Five Star for listening to each other--and probably using a good bit of tact.

Anonymous said...

Wow...I can't believe we were thinking along the same lines at the same time and didn't know it!
Dee in MT

Connie Arnold said...

Interesting story about the book covers. It's good that the changes were made and the books now have such great covers!

A. F. Stewart said...

I can see the confusion over the baskets, but a dart gun? For a murder mystery? I've glad you got the cover changed; it reminds me of a classic mystery cover.

Beth Groundwater said...

This is really fun for me to read cover art stories from other authors. It seems like whenever you get a group of authors in a room together, one topic that inevitably comes up is cover art snafus. And, as the readers here have validated, covers are so VERY important in making that "buy" decision. That's why we care so much about them!

Readers, do you remember any horrid covers that kept you from buying books? Or wonderful covers that caused the books to not live up to the expectation they caused?

chloedog1 said...

As a fellow Five Star author all I can say is "I've been there." Loved your stories. Thanks for a good read.

Charlotte Phillips said...

Hi Beth,

Thanks for sharing those cover art stories.

My book, Hacksaw, sports a very dark cover with a weapon that does not even remotely resemble a hacksaw. That particular weapon is, however, in the book - near the end. It told me the proud young artist had read the book. Mark and I discussed in detail whether or not to let it stand and eventually did.

We have since regretted our decision as most people see the cover and think the book is horror instead of mystery. That makes it a tough sell. Horror readers who pick it up, put it down in a hurry. Mystery readers have to be encouraged to pick it up. Once they do, things go well from there!

On another note, when I saw those crossed skis, I thought they looked like a pair of scissors, like a gift basket person would use to cut ribbon. Guess who else doesn't ski.

Charlotte Phillips

Charlotte Phillips said...

PS - Happy Release Day!

Susan F said...

Educational for new authors - thank you, Beth! It's wise for publishers to respond to authors and expect specific and persistent suggestions.

I have been fortunate to have beautiful covers - every one amazes me. They are dark, moody, haunting and always relate to the theme of the book. And this is truly good luck and not my doing!

My husband surprised me by taking two covers and framing them. They really are works of art.

Bob Sanchez said...

Hi Beth,
First of all, congratulations on the release of your second book! I'll recommend that our local library purchase both books.

Your experience with Five Star was amusing and instructive. Both covers are great.

With my books, iUniverse required me to be pretty explicit in what I wanted, and some tweaking was still necessary.

Bob Sanchez

Marta Stephens said...

Like you, I wasn't sure if I should speak up when I received the cover to my first novel, "Silenced Cry." I was cried but decided not to be very silent about it. Fortunately, I'm blessed with a wonderful publisher who is totally open to new ideas. When I presented her with the cover that a friend of mine and I desiged, she loved. it.

Thanks so much for this entertaining post, Beth. Best of luck on the tour!

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks to everyone for your good wishes, and for sharing your stories, too! I'll still check tomorrow am for any late comments/questions, so keep them coming!
- Beth

Lynette Hall Hampton said...

Neat stories, Beth. On my first cover, they did ask for my idea and used a stock photo close to what I suggested. On the others, I had a lot of say. My best story is on, Duo of Opposites which shows a couple holding hands. Because the woman's hands didn't work, they ended up using a man and his young son holding hands. Looks great and unless I tell them, nobody knows it's two males. (The son was thrilled that his hands ended up on a book cover.)

Bill Kirton said...

Good stories, Beth - and excellent outcomes. My own ongoing one proves that covers do make a difference. My latest crime novel, The Darkness, was published by I'd designed and sent them a cover for it but, for some unaccountable reason, when it first appeared it had a horrible generic cover that made it look like a crochet manual or something. I pestered them and, at last, the correct cover appeared on the online sites. I have copies of each version and it's hard to believe that they contain an identical text.
Of course, Amazon still haven't got round to using the new cover. They removed the old one when I wrote to tell them it was wrong but, when I tried sending them the new one, they said only the publisher could do that.

(Heaves deep sigh and wanders away muttering to self.)

Holly Y said...

Hi Beth,
Since the cover is so connected to the reader, one would think the publishers would pay more attention. I've bought romances which featured boats on the cover but not in the story, science fiction with shooting jet flyers that didn't exist, and suspense stories with quirky lettering that made them look funny. Once or twice of this and I don't trust the publisher and don't buy the books. I hope more authors speak up like you did, Beth, and more publishers pay attention!

Jen Forbus said...

Wow! I guess I never realized about the process for the cover art. I would have assumed that the artist would read the book or at least a healthy summary of the book.

I can honestly say that a book cover has never turned me away from a book. I have disregarded books because a titled seemed to silly to me...or bought one because a title intrigued me. But never due to the art.


Rosa's Journal said...

I admire you for turning down that first cover, Beth. I also admire 5 Star for working together with the writer, in this case, you, and allowing a mutual decision for the cover. Too often, we hear about disgruntled authors complaining about their not being allowed to participate in the book package, or the movie being totally different from the book they wrote, etc. It's comforting seeing you stand up for your rights and 5 Star for asking you to.

Unknown said...

I will definitely keep this in mind! For some reason, we readers tend to frget that the cover art might not be the idea of the author or even be something the author really hates.

And I believe it is the same with back cover blurbs?

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Hi, Beth! Love your two covers - they're very classy. ;o)

My publisher (Twilight Times Books) has been wonderful, and for the first four books I was allowed design freedom. Just got my print ARC from Mazurka and I'm thrilled that they let me keep my original concept and design. I used photos I'd taken in the 80s from Paris, and photoshopped like hell. It was grand!

Julie Lomoe said...

My cover art horror story is a bit different, because I did the cover illustrations for both my mysteries. I published with a POD press, and I had total control over the look of the covers. (BTW, I was a professional artist long before I became a mystery writer.)

I'm very pleased with the cover for my first novel, Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders. The cover for the second one, Eldercide, was another story. The book centers on a home health care agency, and the clients who begin dying unexpectedly. My initial illustration featured an elderly woman lying peacefully in bed, her dog sleeping at her feet, while a shadowy figure lurks in the background. My husband thought it wasn't dramatic enough, so he posed for the final version, in which the woman is throwing her arms up in horror, the dog is howling, and the man is hovering over her with what looks like a dagger.(Actually, it's a syringe.)

Once I began getting feedback from potential readers at signings, I realized the illustration and title might be turning them off - too lurid and noir. More people were buying Mood Swing. One bookseller refused to carry Eldercide because she found the drawing "ghastly" and hated the word "elder."

This summer I'll be reissuing the book with a new title, Evening Falls Early, and a new cover. One of the advantages of POD publishing - you can tinker to your heart's content. Of course I hope both books will ultimately be picked up by a "traditional" publisher, but that's another story.

Beth, thanks for giving me this opportunity to share. And I'd love to hear from other readers - you can check both covers out on my blog.

Anonymous said...

I realize I'm way late with this answer, but I heard a good 'cover' story at the Pennwriters Conference I just returned from.

One author told of selling 2 romance novels, the ARCs went out to the stores, they ordered, then after they saw the cover, they cancelled their orders. The art department refused to budge, the publisher cancelled the books, and the author bought her rights back.

Fortunately, she's now about to put out the third of a mystery series that she likes writing better.

Norma Huss