I’m “rebranding” my Moriarty series, which mostly consists of redesigning the covers. I love my cover creator, but I wanted a fresh take on the whole situation, so I hired the amazing Jane Ryder of Ryder Author Resources to study the scene with me. We spent quality time (on my ticket) browsing images: Victorian mysteries at Amazon, Victorian sensation novels in the British Library online catalogue, and endless Google image searches for things like “nineteenth century painting man on stage,” which yielded bupkiss. (It’s hard to find images of sufficient quality for a paperback.)
In olden days
A book cover, according to Wikipedia, is “any protective covering used to bind together the pages of a book.” The article notes that books were originally handwritten on parchment, so that each page was an expensive item. The covers, often luxuriously decorated with leather or velvet, with gilding and even jewels, were meant to protect those precious pages and keep them together.
Obvious, you say; but not any more. Where are the pages being protected in the digital books I’m mostly concerned about? I sell paperbacks too, but my covers are chiefly designed to catch the eye, not entice the fingers. They’re attractive images which serve no tangible purpose. I rarely look at the cover of the books on my Kindle, once I’ve downloaded them. They don’t look like much in black and white anyway.
The dawn of the popular
Along comes the printing press, and that stack of paper isn’t so valuable, in and of itself. What’s wanted is quantity. It’s not the publisher’s job to make sure the product will survive for centuries, so now we get covers of simple printed pasteboard. They might be covered with thin leather and sewn closely, for a more expensive volume. But they might be pretty flimsy, almost like modern paperbacks.
You’d enter the shop and flip open the cover to read the frontispiece, which is where the marketing happened. Consider these favorite examples.
Onward, into the recent past
You have to have lots of readers as well as lots of paper to produce a truly popular press. So we fast-forward to the late Victorian period, after the new and improved public school program (the Elementary Education Act of 1870) has managed to push literacy out to the masses.
But are the masses clamoring for an updated copy of Francis Bacon’s Great Instauration in Latin? No, they most emphatically are not. What they want is sensation, thrills and chills. They want tales of romance obstructed and rewon; tales of battles, tales of strange occurrences. They want fun!
Scholars of literature date the novel from the early 18th century. Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, was written by Samuel Richardson in 1740. I recently tried to read another early novel – Daniel Defoe’s 1724 Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress – but I got bored and gave up. I should’ve read the blurb: I didn’t know there was a murder in it! (Wait. 1724 is before 1740. Isn’t Roxana a novel? Also, I think Thomas Nashe’s 1594 The Unfortunate Traveler is a novel. That one is a fun read, if you don’t mind early modern English. But I’m not qualified to define the term ‘novel.’ I just write the things.)
These days, ‘genre’ means ‘fiction that falls into one of several recognizable categories.’ Romance was the first, but by the late nineteenth century, the time toward which I struggle verbosely, we also have crime (mystery, thriller, suspense), fantasy, science fiction, westerns, and horror. The list at Wikipedia includes inspirational as a genre, but I think that’s more mid-20th century. Before that, all literary fiction was supposed to be uplifting.
But we don’t care about all that. We’re looking at covers. Many of the ones you find if you search for “Victorian era book covers” are practical, sturdy, leather-bound volumes that look like they were meant for the burgeoning library trade. You probably had to know which book you wanted when you went in. You’d fill out a slip at the desk and the librarian would go get it for you. So you cared as much about that cover as I do about the books on my Kindle.
But what if you’re browsing in a bookstore, for yourself or for a gift? Then the cover really matters. Also, let’s remember that the Victorians invented advertising, in the sense of big, eye-catching images with bald-faced lies around them. Perfect for fiction!
Here’s sampling of what we might have found.
Spring-Heeled Jack was only a penny! That wasn’t a lot even back then. I would have read these by the barrow-load.
The Haunted House in Berkeley Square — actually, all of these — display most of the characteristics of a modern popular book cover. We also have a very abstract contingent, but for genre fiction, it’s still most commonly a frame of some sort in which the title and author’s name are displayed clearly. These books put the publisher on the front and even the price, for the penny dreadful. I don’t see any puff quotes — I guess Stephen King wasn’t around yet to tell us what a heart-pounding read this is. But we have the compelling central image that gives us an instant sense of what kind of ride that book is going to take us on. Moody and dark, for the Haunted House. Exciting, non-stop action for Jack.
A Walk through the Covers of Time
We can easily observe the changing taste in book covers by looking at everybody’s favorite lady novelist, Jane Austen. The first one is undated, but probably much like the originals in the late 18th century. Then we have a sensational one from the Age of Sensation, 1870. Then a milder one from 1946. Then one from probably the 1980s, when we’re reading Jane because we have to. Then we get through the whole Jane Reboot with movie after movie (all of which I’ve watched and loved, except for anything with Keira Knightley in it.)
If you’ve gotten this far, you deserve a big chocolate cookie. The quandary is which direction to go in for my covers. Not all the way to early c18, definitely. But neither do I wish to get into the full abstraction of literary fiction in c21. I don’t write literary fiction and my name is not that well known. I think my covers need images that give a good sense of content.
But should I go full-on Victorian? It’s not that easy to find images that are of sufficient quality for my cover creator to work with and also relate to my story. I’m spending a lot of time grazing for images… The have to be in the public domain, absolutely. I’m even considering commissioning some original art, but that’s probably out of my reach.
If you like this sort of thing and want to watch the process, you can tune in to my Pinterest board. Note that not all of these are in the public domain! They’re there so I can contemplate having something similar made for me by an artist.