On the redemption of sf&f cover art

How many times have you bought a book simply because of the cover? How many times have you not bought a book, because of the cover? Even when it’s not the primary consideration, book covers can be a powerful deal breaker (or deal maker) in my read/buy decision-making process.

Unfortunately, bad cover art also meant that I avoided entire genres of fiction as a kid. Yes, science fiction and fantasy, that means you. As a young reader (back in the early 1980s), I was terrified by the images on so-called “pulp” sf and fantasy publications, and quickly formed general assumptions that I applied wholesale to all fiction that fell under these genres.  All science fiction stories were clearly about naked women with enormous breasts getting assaulted in outer space by tentacled aliens, and all fantasy stories were unwaveringly about naked women with enormous breasts getting assaulted in medieval times by dragons.

Fortunately, sf and fantasy publishing has moved on and now the problem [for me] is that I can be suckered into buying a book almost solely on the basis of its cover.  It becomes a thing I have to own, rather than a book I have to read.  But you know what? This is not a bad thing. Book-as-artefact has legitimacy.

I bought Stephen Baxter’s Evolution almost solely because of the tactile quality of the cover, printed in black felt on a black background. I knew nothing about the story contained within this lovely fuzzy cover (though I was familiar with Stephen Baxter) and to this day, I have not read beyond the first 100 pages or so.  But every once in a while, I will pull the book off the shelf and admire it (and yeah, stroke it too).

Evolution Stephen Baxter

It’s not always the cover design that will inspire me to buy a book. It can also be elements within the book, typography and design elements, a novel with footnotes, or maps and other paraphernalia. Just look at this page from Steven Hall’s Raw Shark Texts:

Raw shark texts spread

As a reader (and scholar) of fantasy literature, I learned to love a book with appendices, especially maps. Maps are almost genre-identifiers: is a fantasy novel without maps really fantasy? (tongue is in cheek, of course).

Sometimes, though, the very elements that attract me become distractions. The footnotes in House of Leaves drove me mad. The marginalia, drawings, and maps sprinkled liberally throughout The Selected Works of T S Spivet just annoyed me after the first chapter. Alas, ignoring them revealed a lack in the actual narrative, and I never finished the book.

For good or for ill, book design is an integral part of the reading experience. I’m just glad we have moved on from depictions of large-breasted naked women in improbable situations.