Judging the Covers 1: by Cate Kennedy

Book covers are such an important part of the process of matching readers to books. The old adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ is balanced by another, equally telling one: ‘First impressions count’. And for most readers, a book’s cover is what makes that all-important first impression.

In the first of a two-part series, Wheeler Centre regular Cate Kennedy shares her thoughts on three different covers (Australian, UK and US) for her novel The World Beneath.

Covers for Cate Kennedy's 'The World Beneath' (from left to right): original Australian edition, UK edition, US edition.

Covers for Cate Kennedy's 'The World Beneath' (from left to right): original Australian edition, UK edition, US edition.

It seems to me a cover is like a promise – I actually do think people ‘judge’ a book by its cover, because they are hoping on some level that the cover accurately hints at what’s inside in terms of style, tone, atmosphere and genre.

Occasionally I’ve been reading a book and feel an odd sense of jarring dislocation that it wasn’t what I thought it would be. And what’s given me that expectation? I ask myself. Why did I think it was going to be set in the fifties, say, or be a rural love story? Because that old photo of the girl in the 1950s dress walking down a country road on the cover gave me that impression, that’s why. This is true of abstract covers as well as ‘figurative’ ones – I unconsciously look to the font of the cover text, or the design, or whatever it is, to convey a freight of meaning about the book itself.

I like a cover in which the title and the image, whatever it is, seem to work together, in tone and implication, to let me know what’s in store. So I should say I loved the first edition Australian cover of The World Beneath, because it came from an image I found myself, uploaded on Flickr by the photographer himself, of a tarn in The Labyrinth, the real place where my characters become lost. (The photographer’s name is Lee Berlin, and the designer who transformed it into the final cover is Miriam Rosenbloom).

I loved the image because it operates as a promise on a number of levels. First, it’s not a landscape we traditionally associate with ‘Australian wilderness’, which tends towards the ‘rugged desert majesty’ kind of photo – this image just oozes dampness and chill and mystery. It’s not a place you want to be lost in, but this is just what happens to the characters in the book, who become totally disoriented there. I love how lonely and forbidding it seems – in fact, there’s lots of imagery in the book about the Underworld, and this is just how I imagine it to look: distances disappearing into cold mist, an implacable and empty world. Last of all, I love the ‘matching’ of the tree’s reflection and the real tree above with the title of The World Beneath – the world that exists below, underneath everything else, the mirror image of the reality on the surface. It promised just the reading experience I was hoping to create.

I wasn’t involved in the decision-making for the second cover (the turquoise UK-based cover which was also used for the Australian second edition), but I quite like it. That mirror-image idea is still there, the idea of disorientation – you look at the people walking in the emptiness then you suddenly realise you’re looking at an upside-down world, with small vulnerable-looking human figures traversing a big lonely space.

The US cover is clearly looking for a different kind of audience, with its goth girl making dreamy eye contact and the rainforest-y image placed below her, under the grass she’s lying on, suggesting something elemental happening under the surface. The actual Labyrinth is still my favourite.

It might be true, as some designers and marketers say, that a potential reader is drawn to a human glance which compels your own attention in return, to eyes looking back directly at you from a cover, or to human figures we can immediately project ourselves into as we take a risk with a new book. But for me, the most evocative covers are the ones that demand something of us to do with metaphor – a combination of image, colour, design, font and style which acts as a set of symbolic signifiers.

Occasionally I’m stopped in my tracks in a bookshop just by the beauty of a cover image – David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars springs to mind, as does Dirt Music by Tim Winton (I see a tree preference emerging here …) and it seems so deliberate and careful; I hope the whole thing has been as crafted and thoughtful as the image which draws me in.

Related posts